Proposed law on foreign interference is aimed at hostile actors: Singapore envoy tells UN review

UN Ambassador Umej Bhatia (above) told a UN meeting that Singapore's intent is not to prevent all forms of foreign influence, only those which are aimed at manipulation.
UN Ambassador Umej Bhatia (above) told a UN meeting that Singapore's intent is not to prevent all forms of foreign influence, only those which are aimed at manipulation.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - It is not the Government's intent to prevent all forms of foreign influence, only those which attempt at manipulation. Neither does Singapore intend to use the powers under a proposed law on foreign interference against those who engage in legitimate commentary, news reporting, civil activities or academic research, the Republic has told a United Nations (UN) meeting.

These individuals and groups may do so even if their views are critical of Singapore or the Government, said the permanent representative of Singapore to the UN Office in Geneva, Ambassador Umej Bhatia, as he delivered Singapore's national statement at the adoption of its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) outcome last Friday (Oct 1).

"Our concern lies with the use of coordinated, deceptive methods by hostile foreign actors to manipulate our political discourse and disrupt our society," Mr Bhatia added.

The adoption of the report on Singapore's UPR took place at the 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council. The UPR looks at the human rights records of all 193 UN member states every five years. Singapore submitted its report to the UN in January and participated in its UPR on May 12.

The Inter-Ministry Committee on Human Rights reviewed the 324 recommendations that Singapore received from UN members, and Singapore was able to support 210 of them.

"Singapore has supported the majority of recommendations consistent with our ongoing efforts to ensure that Singapore continues to be an inclusive, cohesive and resilient society, taking into account the appropriateness of these recommendations to our national context," said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement.

"We are fully committed to our human rights obligations under international law," Mr Bhatia said. "We remain fully cognisant that the improvement of human rights is an ongoing process and our approach must continue to evolve."

During the review, several civil society groups had raised concerns about the proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, or Fica - which will be debated in Parliament on Monday.

Mr Bhatia said the Singapore government does not intend to use the powers under the proposed law against foreign individuals, publications, non-governmental organisations and academics engaged in legitimate commentary, news reporting, civil activities or academic research that are open, transparent and with attributed comments about Singapore that are not part of a hostile information campaign.

"There are appeal mechanisms to ensure that there are no overreaching powers. Persons issued with hostile information campaign direction(s) under (the Bill) may apply to the Minister for Home Affairs for reconsideration, before appealing to an independent reviewing tribunal," he added.

As in the previous two reviews, some civil society groups also raised concerns about the continued application of the death penalty in Singapore.

Mr Bhatia noted in his statement that international law does not prohibit the death penalty. There is no international consensus against the use of the death penalty when applied according to the due process of law and judicial safeguards.

In Singapore, the death penalty is reserved only for the most serious crimes such as murder, drug trafficking and the use of firearms, and has been an effective deterrent against such offences, he added.

As for concerns raised during the review over freedom of assembly and the treatment of human rights defenders, Mr Bhatia said that the right to freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed under the Singapore Constitution.

"Consistent with international human rights law, this right is not absolute," he said.

He added that the provisions of the Public Order Act "ensure adequate space for an individual's rights of peaceful assembly and expression while preserving public order", and a police permit is required for cause-based public assemblies or processions, so that the authorities can assess the public order risks.

Regarding the ratification of human rights treaties, Singapore's approach is to ensure that the necessary legal, policy and institutional frameworks are in place to fully implement a treaty before it ratifies it, said Mr Bhatia.

"We actively review Singapore's ability to ratify additional human rights treaties and to ensure the full and effective implementation of our treaty obligations."

On lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues, Mr Bhatia noted that just like other Singaporeans, LGBT persons have access to opportunities and social support such as education, employment and healthcare.

Violence against, and abuse, discrimination and harassment of any person for any reason is not condoned, and the law protects LGBT individuals the same as everyone else, he added.

While Section 377A of the Penal Code - which criminalises sexual acts between men - remains in the lawbooks, the Government has stated clearly that it is not enforced, he said.

He added that as attitudes towards homosexuality are still evolving in Singapore and various communities hold different views, any move on this issue must be made carefully and sensitively, taking into consideration the sentiments of all communities.

Mr Bhatia stressed that Singapore has not supported recommendations predicated on unfounded assertions, inaccurate assumptions, or erroneous information.

"We cannot implement recommendations which are not appropriate in our national context," he said.

"Singapore will continue to review our policies to ensure that they are fit for purpose. The context may change, and our challenges may evolve, but our objective of achieving better outcomes for our people will remain constant."