More checks and balances needed in proposed foreign interference law, say NMPs

The proposed Fica law should incorporate checks and balances such as judicial oversight, said NMPs Tan Yia Swam and Shahira Abdullah.
The proposed Fica law should incorporate checks and balances such as judicial oversight, said NMPs Tan Yia Swam and Shahira Abdullah.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - A proposed law to counter foreign interference grants extensive discretion to the authorities and should therefore incorporate checks and balances such as judicial oversight, said Nominated MPs Tan Yia Swam and Shahira Abdullah on Monday (Oct 4).

Speaking during the debate on the second reading of the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act or Fica, Dr Tan said the Bill asks for "a lot of trust and faith" in the Minister for Home Affairs to "do the right thing".

In aiming to tackle foreign interference in domestic politics, Fica grants the Minister powers to issue directions compelling Internet platforms to block accounts, and to require politically significant people to declare foreign affiliations, among other things.

"It is a lot of power in one man's hands. How can we protect it from future abuse? Could it be spread out? Not just to the different branches in the judiciary but also across the people," asked Dr Tan, who is president of the Singapore Medical Association.

"Let them call for accountability and transparency in organisations they work with. Let organisations regulate among themselves who are the right people to seek sponsorships or volunteer work from."

Dr Shahira, a dental surgeon, noted that the substance of the Minister's decisions under the Bill are not subject to judicial review.

"I understand that in cases of foreign interference, speed may be of the essence and information received must be acted upon quickly. Moreover, this information may be sensitive and require confidentiality to be preserved," she said.

"However, provisions can be enacted in the Bill to require that sensitive information be sealed or otherwise not disclosed in the court hearing such as to allow a judicial review to still be carried out.

"We have seen some precedent for this in the treatment of whistle-blowing information and whistle-blowers' identity in court proceedings," Dr Shahira added, noting that provisions to expedite judicial reviews could be added to the Bill as well.

Under Fica, a reviewing tribunal's decision on appeals against directions is final and not to be challenged in court. But this, even if presided over by a High Court judge, cannot replace the role of judicial oversight, said Dr Shahira.

"We must strive to maintain Singapore's reputation of holding and protecting the rule of law while recognising the ills of foreign interference."

Dr Tan and Dr Shahira also expressed concern that the Bill would curtail collaboration with foreign entities, and affect Singapore's reputation as an open country.

Fica empowers the Minister to direct individuals to account for all donations, and stop taking volunteers who are not Singaporean citizens. It also defines "foreign principal" broadly, said Dr Shahira.

Stressing the importance of guarding against legislation that would be potentially discriminatory in nature, she said: "This may have unintended effects on Singapore's reputation as a hub for global trade and investments, that upholds its constitutional values of equality and fairness."