PSP NCMP submits petition to Parliament to delay anti-foreign interference law

Since it was tabled in Parliament on Sept 13, the draft law has sparked some public debate. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Progress Singapore Party (PSP) Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai on Thursday (Sept 30) submitted on behalf of civil society organisations a petition to Parliament, seeking to delay passage of a proposed anti-foreign interference law and calling for a select committee to be set up to further study the Bill.

"Making the effort to widely consult on, carefully consider, and rigorously deliberate the full range of implications and consequences of the current Bill can pave the way for a more robust legislation that better serves the intention of the Bill and Singapore's national interests," said the petition. "Given this Bill's importance, getting it right from the outset is critical for Singapore and Singaporeans."

The proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, or Fica, targets external meddling in domestic politics conducted through hostile information campaigns and local proxies. It grants the Minister for Home Affairs powers to compel Internet platforms to block accounts, and to require politically significant persons to declare foreign affiliations, among other measures.

Since it was tabled in Parliament on Sept 13, the draft law has sparked some public debate - including over fears it will be wielded as a political tool to clamp down on dissent, as well as concerns over a short three-week time frame before the draft 249-page legislation is next read and debated in Parliament on Monday or Tuesday.

The second and third readings of Bills typically take place on the same day. A vote is then put to the House before it passes into legislation, which is almost certain given the People's Action Party's supermajority.

On Wednesday, the Workers' Party said it had tabled a raft of proposed amendments to the Bill, with the objectives of lowering the likelihood of abuse of power and achieving greater transparency, among others. The WP said it believed in the legitimate need to counter malign acts of foreign interference, but disagreed with the current form of the Bill in achieving this objective.

A petition calling for a rethink of Fica, endorsed by over 30 civil society organisations in Singapore, has attracted over 5,000 signatures as at Thursday evening.

This is supported by the parliamentary petition submitted by Mr Leong, which has been published on a website called run by activists, including Kirsten Han, Rocky Howe, Lynn Lee and Terry Xu.

The Straits Times understands that the group approached all the MPs with their concerns over Fica, but only the PSP met them.

The opposition party's chief, Mr Francis Yuen, told ST: "This is not PSP's petition but we are submitting on behalf of these civil society organisations. However, the call for public consultations and the need for review by a select committee is consistent with our position, given that this is an extensive Bill with wide-ranging implications to many Singaporeans."

The petition calls for Fica's passage into law to be put off "pending greater and more extensive public consultation on the implementation, effects, and implications of the Bill for the general public".

It also proposes referring the Bill to a select committee for further "deliberation on the appropriateness and the necessity of the measures contained with the Bill, with adequate representation from a variety of stakeholders".

In 2018, a select committee was set up to study the issue of fake news. It received several public submissions and convened hearings before the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) Bill was introduced and passed the next year.

The parliamentary petition on Fica described it as containing "extremely broad definitions", and warned that "if enacted, the law will have serious ramifications for multiple stakeholders and large sections of society, including academia, business, civil society, and the media".

It said the Bill could engender censorship of content and unilaterally curb the right to freedom of association for entities designated as politically significant.

"Legislation may be complicated, time-consuming, and costly in financial and social terms to amend later, especially after they are in place for some time. This can affect legislative and administrative efficiency adversely," said the petition.

"Singaporeans have an interest in a law that is more resistant to the potential for misinterpretation, misapplication, or even abuse in future."

Petitions submitted by MPs to Parliament are referred to the Public Petitions Committee, which then submits a report back to the House.

There have been three petitions submitted in the past five years, and none led to legislative change.

Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun had filed a petition in 2016 to delay the passage of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, and another in 2017 to seek an alternative location for the Sungei Road market.

The latest petition was by Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng in 2017, who called for more inclusive housing policies to stamp out discrimination based on marital status.

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