Legal powers in foreign interference law a necessity because of seriousness of threats: Shanmugam

The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (Fica) has been criticised for the limits it places on judicial review.
The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (Fica) has been criticised for the limits it places on judicial review.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - As a young lawyer, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam believed the solution for every problem lay in the courts.

But his experience in the real world changed that, he said on Monday (Oct 4) in the debate on the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (Fica), which has been criticised for the limits it places on judicial review.

"I'm not embarrassed to say those were my views, and those views have changed because of the realities of life," Mr Shanmugam said. "Not because I became a minister, but because over time - long before I became a minister - I saw how laws are meant to operate and where the exceptions have to be made."

Fica was mooted as a bulwark against foreign interference in Singapore. Under the law, an independent tribunal chaired by a High Court judge will review appeals against directions issued to counter hostile information campaigns of foreign origin.

Decisions made by the Minister for Home Affairs and the reviewing tribunal are final and not to be challenged in court, so as to protect sensitive information.

But Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh brought up several issues the Workers' Party had with the Act, including the limits on judicial review.

He observed that Mr Shanmugam himself had expressed similar concerns more than 30 years ago, as a backbencher speaking on topics such as the Internal Security Act. Measures can be taken to minimise the likelihood of leaks, Mr Singh said.

"If I can find a better model, I will be the first one to do it," Mr Shanmugam replied, adding that the legal powers provided for under Fica are necessary given the threats Singapore faces.

Mr Singh also asked why the Bill was not put forth for public consultation, citing comments made by Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo earlier this year on how the public has a role to play in shaping measures to guard against foreign interference.

In response, Mr Shanmugam said the Government has been engaged in extensive consultations on this topic in the past three years. But as Singapore will face an attack at some point, more needs to be done to bring society together, he added.

"This is not the end. It's the beginning... There is a long haul ahead of us, and the public has to be involved in that."

Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan also addressed concerns that Mr Singh raised over how Fica might affect civil activism in Singapore.

Non-governmental organisations designated as politically significant entities will not automatically have foreign funding stripped from them, he said, but they will have to declare where the funding is coming from.

Mr Shanmugam's speech also drew comments from other members of the opposition, including Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai.

Mr Leong called again for the Bill's passage to be postponed and asked if Fica is really needed, given Singapore's existing laws.

He also asked why the Bill cannot make allowances for judicial review, given that this is provided for in other countries even on issues of national security, and asked for examples of "Asian countries" where foreign interference has been a problem.

"As an ordinary citizen, watching the TV and all that, all the foreign interference in Taiwan and Australia for example, seems to be a joke," he added.

Mr Shanmugam took issue with Mr Leong's understanding of Fica, adding that there have been reports of foreign-inspired attacks on Asian countries.

On the topic of why Singapore has chosen to do differently from other countries in limiting judicial review, the minister said there are trade-offs to all such choices, as other countries have learnt to their detriment.