Pritam calls for more checks in law on foreign interference to guard against abuse

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh called on MPs to seriously consider the Workers' Party's amendments to the proposed Fica law. PHOTO: MCI

SINGAPORE - A law to counter foreign meddling in Singapore's affairs confers such exceptional power to the executive branch that there must be the strongest of oversight from the judiciary to ensure accountability, said Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh.

Some parts are drafted in such a way as to "completely displace natural justice from the oversight process", such as a clause providing for hearings where a person filing an appeal may not have complete information on the issue.

"It shocks the sensibilities of many, and it goes some way to explain how this Bill has been framed and understood by the public since its first reading three weeks ago," said Mr Singh, who is chief of the Workers' Party (WP).

He called on MPs to seriously consider his party's amendments to the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, saying the amount of power given to the Government is the most critical issue being debated. "Ask yourself whether you would want these amendments in place if the PAP (People's Action Party) was not in power," he said.

"The amendments are in the best interests of Singapore and Singaporeans, regardless of who is in charge now or in the future."

Since it was tabled, the draft law has sparked concern among some lawyers, academics and civil society activists, who fear it will be wielded to clamp down on dissent.

Mr Singh affirmed that the WP's starting position is that the threat of foreign interference and the ease of launching such campaigns online is neither a figment of the imagination nor can it be wished away. It follows that the Government must have potentially intrusive, broad-ranging powers to counter this, but Parliament must then ensure there are equally robust oversight mechanisms to prevent abuse of power, he added.

He took issue in particular with a tribunal that will hear Fica appeals, which will be set up within the executive branch and have quasi-judicial powers. He said the WP rejects such a mechanism, proposing instead that appeals first go to the Minister for Home Affairs, and then the High Court for full judicial scrutiny.

Acknowledging that national security may be at risk, he added that there should be a provision for a private hearing.

There has also been disquiet among some quarters "at the speed at which this Bill has been presented to Parliament", noted Mr Singh, saying the Government should have sought feedback.

He quoted Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo, who told the House in March that "the public has a big part in this, to shape proposals and to give the eventual safeguards their strongest support".

He said: "In the six months between Minister Josephine Teo's statement and the first reading of this Bill, the Government did not hold any public consultation on this Bill, and nor can it be said that the public played a big part in shaping this Bill.

"Most Singaporeans would have readily supported the use of executive power to curb foreign influence. However, I am also sure that if asked, most Singaporeans would be in favour of our courts acting as a check to ensure that executive power is exercised lawfully, appropriately and fairly," he added.

Fica had arisen out of the work of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, which held hearings in 2018 amid concerns that disinformation had been used to influence events in other countries, including election results. Citing the committee, which he was a member of, Mr Singh said it had also looked at non-legislative measures.

"It was to be expected from the committee's report that legislation would be used to address the problems identified. What is more difficult to grasp is the comparative lack of public knowledge on the non-legislative levers to address foreign interference."

He said it was important to educate the public so that it can be vigilant against interference that commonly comes through via business plans and cultural conduits where the prospects of plausible deniability are high.

"Surely, non-legislative responses that promote a more participatory and educated citizenry would inoculate the population in a whole-of-society way far better against foreign interference," he added.

He lamented that the Government had not postponed the debate on the Bill in response to calls for more consultation and scrutiny, and said it was perplexing that public feedback was not sought in the past six months.

"There is an opportunity to commit the Bill to a select committee for public input and to review oversight mechanisms, amongst others. The Government should not close the door to this," he said.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.