Academic activities not under threat from anti-foreign interference law: MHA

Fica targets foreign interference in domestic politics conducted through hostile information campaigns and local proxies.
Fica targets foreign interference in domestic politics conducted through hostile information campaigns and local proxies.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Academics presenting research overseas, writing for international journals and receiving international funding will not fall afoul of the proposed law to counter foreign interference, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said in a Facebook post on Sunday (Oct 3).

The ministry was responding to academics Cherian George, Chong Ja Ian, Linda Lim and Teo You Yenn who expressed concerns, in an editorial published on Academia.sg on Friday, that the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill (Fica), in its current form, would "suddenly transform activities that are currently encouraged into a legal minefield".

The editorial listed various activities that could potentially be threatened by the passage of Fica, including "presenting research at overseas conferences; writing for international journals and multi-author book projects; publishing in and reviewing for prestigious academic presses; participating in international collaborative research projects; partaking of fellowships, visiting appointments and training programmes; and participation in international funding opportunities".

MHA said: "Please allow us to state without qualification: None of these activities will be affected by Fica.

"If the professors are able to get their articles accepted in international journals, their books published by prestigious academic presses overseas, or if they receive splendid fellowships and awards from any foreign university, they will face no hindrance whatsoever from Fica - or for that matter, any other law in Singapore."

Fica targets foreign interference in domestic politics conducted through hostile information campaigns and local proxies.

It grants MHA powers to issue directions compelling Internet platforms to block accounts, and to require politically significant people to declare foreign affiliations, among others.

MHA added that Fica will also not hinder other examples of Singaporean academics involved in foreign collaborations and online dissemination cited by the editorial:

- A PhD student who challenges "the criminalisation of gay sex" in an online cultural studies journal published by a research centre based at Osaka University;

- A journal article in Asia Bioethic Review spotlighting the "multiple barriers to access" to healthcare faced by migrant workers in Singapore, where one of the co-authors is employed by a university overseas;

- A political scientist on a webinar sponsored by the University of Sydney speaking about "current political issues in Singapore".

The ministry said: "What possible reason can there be for Fica to apply in any of these instances?"

MHA added that Fica would apply only if the Singaporean academic in question was acting on behalf of a foreign agency to conduct a hostile information campaign online directed against Singapore's public interest, such as to create discord and unrest among Singaporeans.

"Discussion on any number of controversial issues - in foreign journals, in foreign symposia, in foreign universities - will not be touched by Fica," it said.

The professors who penned the editorial said internationalisation is one of the criteria considered in university rankings and acknowledged that Singaporean universities occupy "stratospheric positions in international league tables".

But this "enviable" reputation could not have been acquired if the Singapore Government were as oppressive and authoritarian as the editorial suggests, MHA argued.

The ministry also noted that the same group of professors had raised similar concerns for academics in relation to the passage of the fake news law, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), but no academic paper has been stopped by Pofma to date.

It added: "Our academics have remained free to pursue whatever research they wish on any subject, neither have the international rankings of our universities been affected in the wake of Pofma. We are certain that Fica will similarly allow for the same in the future."

Responding on Sunday, the academics said: “MHA’s assurance, while a welcome start, is incomplete and inconclusive.”

They asked why key terms in the Bill have to be defined so broadly that Fica could likely cover the legitimate work of academics and other active citizens. 

They also warned that Fica “will feed into a culture that already strongly discourages critical, public-facing academic work, encouraging further self-censorship by university administrators”.

Fica will be debated when Parliament sits on Monday. A petition seeking greater scrutiny of the draft law has been submitted on behalf of civil society groups by Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai.