SINGAPORE - The Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra) issued a statement Thursday night (April 12) saying that the website New Naratif's political activities in Singapore "would appear to be funded by a number of foreigners".
It noted that a statement by New Naratif - run by historian Thum Ping Tjin and freelance journalist Kirsten Han - earlier in the day highlighted that it has received funding from "over 420 members in 17 different countries".
Said Acra: "In other words, its political activities in Singapore would appear to be funded by a number of foreigners - not only foreign entities like Open Society Foundation (OSF) but also citizens of foreign countries."
On Wednesday, Acra had said it had refused to register a company OSEA Pte Ltd set up to provide editorial services to New Naratif, which publishes articles on South-east Asia. OSEA, said the authority, received a grant from a foundation linked to OSF, which is founded by American billionaire investor George Soros.
But New Naratif on Thursday dismissed claims that it is being used by foreigners to meddle in Singapore.
"Any notion that we are, as Acra alleges, 'being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore' is unfounded," the website said.
In its rejoinder, Acra said: "The statement (by New Naratif) claims that the concerns about New Naratif and the proposed company "being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore" are unfounded.
"But we note the statement confirmed New Naratif received a grant from OSF or Foundation Open Society Institute (FOSI)."
It added that in addition to its online activities, New Naratif is known to have organised discussion fora, workshops, and other events in Singapore, such as "Democracy Classroom" sessions.
"New Naratif clearly has a political agenda, and is not simply "a platform for journalism, research, art or community building", it said, quoting New Naratif's earlier statement. "Indeed, the application to register OSEA Pte Ltd specifically mentioned the organisation of fora, workshops and other events as its aim, aside from providing editorial services to New Naratif."
Acra also took issue with New Naratif's assertion that FOSI and OSF "do not have any involvement or input in New Naratif's editorial decisions or the day-to-day running of our start-up". The website had added: "FOSI awarded the financing to New Naratif on the basis of our project concept and the grant does not impose any conditions beyond goals that we defined ourselves."
To this, Acra said: "The fact that FOSI or OSF - and possibly all 420 of its foreign donors - may not be involved in the day-to-day running of the website, or New Naritif's other activities in Singapore, even if true, does not detract from the fact that the registration of OSEA Pte Ltd would amount to allowing a foreign entity or foreigners to fund and influence political activities in Singapore.
"This is contrary to Singapore national interests. The applicants have 30 days to appeal against ACRA's rejection."
Ms Han told The Straits Times on Thursday that she and Dr Thum are seeking legal advice and considering the best course of action to take. She said they wanted to register OSEA in Singapore "so that we can operate in accordance with Singapore's regulations".
Registering a company limits an owner's financial liability to the capital that he has paid up if it loses money, said corporate finance lawyer Perry Yuen, a partner at law firm Pinsent Masons MPillay.
This means that the individuals behind it cannot be made bankrupt, unless factors like fraud are involved.
Corporate lawyer Robson Lee, a partner at global law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, said that registering as a company will also insulate discussions and meetings conducted by the organisation from being considered as unlawful assemblies.
Some of the options now available to OSEA include making an appeal to the Finance Minister within 30 days of Acra's decision or seeking a judicial review, said the law experts.
For an appeal to be successful, or to successfully register as a company on a new application, OSEA has to do more than simply return the FOSI grant, said Mr Lee. It will have to convince the minister or the registrar that it will not affect the national security and interests of Singapore, for instance.
Ms Stefanie Yuen Thio, a joint managing partner at TSMP Law Corporation, said:. "You may not receive (a foreign grant) today, but what is going to stop you from taking foreign money tomorrow, for example?"
There could also be the option of filing a judicial review, said Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan. To do this, OSEA has to show that the decision-making process behind Acra's rejection of its registration is flawed.
For instance, OSEA may have to prove that it is not a proxy for foreign influence. The Acra registrar would then have to reconsider the application based on the court's ruling, he said.