Government already has laws to deal with foreign interference, says Leong Mun Wai

PSP NCMP Leong Mun Wai said his party is strongly against foreign meddling in Singapore's affairs, but could not support the Bill in its current form. PHOTO: MCI

SINGAPORE - The Government has existing legislative levers such as the Internal Security Act and Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act to deal with external threats, said Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai on Monday (Oct 4) as he questioned the need for a new law against foreign interference.

Speaking during the debate on the second reading of the proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act or Fica, he said his party, the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), while strongly against such meddling in Singapore's affairs, could not support the Bill in its current form.

The PSP is thus calling for the passage of the Bill into law to be delayed, pending public consultations and further scrutiny by a select committee.

These reflect the demands in a parliamentary petition presented by Mr Leong on behalf of civil society activists at the start of Monday's sitting. Parliament, however, voted to discuss the petition together with the law, during the debate later.

During his speech, Mr Leong said the Government was already well-equipped to deal with foreign interference, by virtue of "substantial" resources deployed towards national security every year. He calculated a $22 billion budget across the defence, home affairs and foreign affairs ministries for fiscal year 2021, accounting for more than a quarter of the Government's operating budget.

Mr Leong then pointed to the Internal Security Act, the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA), the Broadcasting Act and the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) as already granting "extensive" powers to the Government.

"The NPPA and Broadcasting Act allowed the Government to have almost monopoly control over the narrative of major policies and issues through the mainstream media, until the rise of social media as a strong alternative platform from around 2010," he said.

"So is there a need to give this Government further powers to deal with foreign interference… Can't we just tighten some of the existing laws slightly?"

Mr Leong also said a complex Bill like Fica should not be "rushed" through Parliament amid a worsening Covid-19 situation in Singapore.

With the Bill tabled three weeks ago on Sept 13, "many members of this House are probably not adequately prepared for a thorough debate today", he added.

He called for the second reading of the Bill to be pushed back by three to six months, noting that a two-month public consultation was established for the Copyright Bill earlier this year, and that Pofma also underwent a process lasting more than a year, which included a select committee.

Resources and attention should be focused on handling the pandemic at the moment, with the increasing number of infections, said Mr Leong.

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The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, or Fica, was passed by Singapore's Parliament after a 10-hour airing in the House.

He also criticised the broad and vague definitions and lack of judicial oversight in the draft law, saying that the possibility of abuse could not be ruled out and concluding that the Bill "sounded like a joke for someone living in a modern democratic society based on the rule of law".

"The best defence against foreign interference is not more laws to control our own people but to raise the awareness of our people towards national security threats," said Mr Leong.

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