Not appropriate to classify civil servants as politically significant persons: Shanmugam

Civil servants are non-political and senior civil servants are already subject to rules and declaration requirements tighter than those for PSPs under Fica, said Mr Shanmugam. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - It is not appropriate to classify civil servants as politically significant persons (PSPs) under the law to counter foreign interference as they are non-political, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on Monday (Oct 4).

Senior civil servants are also already subject to various rules and declaration requirements that are tighter than those imposed on PSPs under the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, the minister told Parliament.

"They have to hold a valid security clearance throughout their appointment. They have to make annual declarations, including on investments, ownership and financial embarrassment, declarations on a variety of matters going well beyond what PSPs have to do," he said.

"They have to declare all gifts and entertainment, and they cannot work for other employers or engage in trade or business without explicit permission. They can be directed to cease outside activities or divest investments if there is any perceived conflict."

By contrast, the rules for PSPs are not as tight, the minister said, adding that they can accept anonymous donations below $5,000, or donations from identified persons above $5,000, but any senior civil servant who accepts the same "will not be in service" for much longer after doing so - and may be subject to disciplinary action.

Mr Shanmugam was responding to Workers' Party (WP) MP Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC), who had suggested adding senior public servants holding the office of deputy secretary or above to the definition of PSPs.

Mr Giam had also asked for the definition of PSPs to include members of central executive councils (CECs), or the equivalent top decision-making bodies, of any registered political party in Singapore, as well as board members or chief executive officers of statutory boards or government companies listed on the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.

Fifth Schedule entities include the Central Provident Fund Board, the Housing Board, Temasek and GIC, among others.

Mr Shanmugam agreed to the addition of party CEC members, noting that the inclusion of CEC members and branch secretaries had been considered previously.

"We left it out because, on the side of the PAP, to comply with this is not going to be difficult; all but two of the CEC members are PSPs anyway, so the obligations are more onerous for the other registered political parties because not many - in some cases, none - of the CEC members are PSPs."

But the minister noted that chief executives of statutory boards are already subject to the same rules as senior civil servants. As for board members, it would not be feasible to designate them as PSPs because boards often have foreign members, and asking them to declare all donations received in their home countries, their migration benefits and all their foreign affiliations would not make sense, he added.

Mr Giam had also suggested removing two aspects of the meaning of "directed towards a political end in Singapore" in the Bill, namely actions "to influence, or seek to influence, public opinion on a matter which, in Singapore, is a matter of public controversy" and "to influence, or seek to influence, any aspect or to promote or oppose political views, or public conduct relating to activities that have become the subject of a political debate, in Singapore".

He said these two parts of the Bill cover "an extremely wide variety of policy matters and issues which may be discussed by Singaporeans". Public discussions of such issues invariably involve the views of foreigners, Mr Giam added.

But Mr Shanmugam said this would essentially mean allowing foreigners to interfere by shaping public opinions on matters of public controversy, or influence public views on a political issue, whether or not deception is involved.

He rejected the suggestion, calling it "against common sense", and said it would mean unacceptable actions - like setting up a sham company to manipulate Singaporeans' views on certain matters through fake commentaries - could fall outside the law.

Mr Shanmugam also responded to several other suggestions from the WP's Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC) and Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC).

Associate Professor Lim had asked for a clause on clandestine publishing to be amended to remove the phrase "is likely to".

The Bill currently states that an offence is committed if a person publishes something in Singapore on behalf of a foreign entity to influence a target to do something that is or is likely to be prejudicial to Singapore's interests, incite feelings of hatred or diminish public confidence in the authorities.

Mr Shanmugam said the amendment means the prosecution would have to prove that the offender knew the action would be prejudicial to Singapore's interests, and it would not be enough to show that the offender would likely have known this.

This would not work as foreign entities could cover their tracks and the offender could then claim not to have known that the action would be prejudicial to Singapore's interests, he said.

"It's really like taking knives to a gunfight. Common sense is, if you had reason to believe that your actions are likely to prejudice Singapore's interests, and you are acting for a foreign agency, you are acting covertly, secretly, it should be an offence."

The minister similarly rejected other proposals by Prof Lim to raise the threshold for issuing directions under Fica such that a reasonable suspicion would not be sufficient for action to be taken, and conclusive proof or "actionable intelligence" would be required instead. He said intelligence can come in many forms and there is rarely a "smoking gun" in such cases.

Mr Perera had asked for the Bill to include a provision that the Government must maintain a publicly available registry of all PSPs and the reason for designating them as such. He also called for an obligation to make public the details of certain directives issued under Fica, and the reasons for issuing them.

Mr Shanmugam said the Government can agree to make public all designations of PSPs, stepped-up countermeasures and directives, with the exception of technical assistance directions, as it had already intended to do so.

These directions may require a social media platform or website operator to disclose information about a foreign entity, for example. Making this public risks tipping foreign entities off about the investigation, Mr Shanmugam said.

On Mr Perera's suggestion to include people with declared involvement in foreign policy organisations in the publicly-available registry, Mr Shanmugam said the authorities have to be mindful of making disclosures about citizens involved in these organisations as a substantial number of them may not be PSPs.

Mr Perera also asked for a publicly available list of reportable arrangements, or agreements, between a PSP and a foreign entity.

Mr Shanmugam said there was no need to publish such a list as the Bill already sets out the conditions under which arrangements are reportable, such as when a PSP is obliged to act in accordance with a foreign entity's instructions.

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