Parliament: Fica

Risk of rogue foreign interference 'far greater' than that of govt abuse

The risk of rogue foreign interference is far greater than the risk of a rogue government abusing its power, Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

Speaking during the debate on the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (Fica) in Parliament, he addressed concerns raised on whether the broad range of powers given to the authorities under the Bill, if passed, was justified.

Introduced on Sept 13, Fica aims to prevent, detect and disrupt foreign interference in domestic politics conducted through hostile information campaigns and the use of local proxies.

It has since attracted criticisms for its potential implications in areas such as academic collaboration with foreign entities and a possible lack of judicial oversight.

In his speech, Mr Shanmugam, who is also Law Minister, noted that there have been other pieces of legislation that conferred the Government with generally worded discretion.

"Philosophically, the Government has seen that as part of good governance, to ensure that our laws are effective so that the Government can act when it needs to.

"You need checks and balances, but the checks must be suited to the task and balanced against the risks," he said.

There are risks when giving any government any power, whether or not it is appealable to a court, he said. But there are also risks in not giving power.

What if the Government interferes with a "perfectly normal" collaboration with a foreigner and abuses its power, he said. "You have to weigh the risks of a rogue government doing that, versus a rogue foreign interference. The latter is a far greater risk."

The exercise of powers given under Fica can be looked at by a tribunal headed by a Supreme Court judge, he said. Its decisions will be published, and people can see and assess for themselves.

"Ultimately, people have the final say in a highly educated, literate population like Singapore. A final say of both public opinion, and public opinion expressed through elections. People in Singapore won't stand for a rogue government," he said.

"The risk of not giving the power or requiring a court process will, in the context of the risks I have outlined, severely compromise the Government's ability to deal with the real risk of foreign interference, which has actually happened."

He told the House: "I, and I am sure everyone else here, wish that there is a world where the Government has the power to act, and at the same time, there is a complete check against abuse.

"If we can find that formula, we will gladly take that, because that is ideal. But there is no such formula. Then we have to, first of all, admit that there are trade-offs whichever route you take."

The minister gave examples of various legislation where, he said, the usual judicial process may not be best suited for.

Under the Land Acquisition Act, which allows the Government to buy land for public redevelopment, appeals against any Collector's Award are heard by an appeals board. The Collector's Award is a document that indicates the compensation amount awarded for the acquisition of the land or property.

There is good reason for this, said Mr Shanmugam.

"As a small country, we decided that if you want to reshape and develop Singapore, the Government must have the power to acquire land quickly and not be tied up with the normal litigation process," he said.

This "unorthodox" approach to land acquisition has underpinned Singapore's public housing and industrial land policy, he said.

Singaporeans also understand and accept the need for the Internal Security Act, which allows would-be terrorists to be picked up pre-emptively, he said.

Another example is the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which provides for the detention of gangsters and drug dealers without trial.

This is a practical approach, he said. Evidence will often not be available with people frightened to give evidence. In the longer term, more harm will be done to society by not dealing with gangsters, he said.

"So, better to give the executive these powers to deal with some types of pernicious criminals. It has helped to keep our society safe," he said.

"If we had stuck to the approach of looking at everything on the basis only of the rights of the person accused, in the way that, say, the United States or the United Kingdom looks at it, without balancing the rights of the society, we will not have the safe and crime-free society we have today."

Mr Shanmugam asked if it would be possible to deal with such issues of foreign interference through a normal court process, where the countries involved are often not named.

"Can you imagine naming one of our neighbours involved, or a much larger country? When we asked (academic and former permanent resident) Huang Jing to leave, we did not say who he was acting for.

"Why? The foreign policy and national security implications are too serious. The US can name any country it wishes, but we are a price-taker in this business of international relations."

Over time, he said, people have seen how Singapore's approach has proved to be good for the majority of people.

He added: "So, I say to this House, this law gives the Government a set of tools that can help.

"It is not a complete defence against foreign interference, but it can help. The Bill represents the best balance that we can find between dealing with the risks, and providing checks against abuse."

Lim Min Zhang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2021, with the headline 'Risk of rogue foreign interference 'far greater' than that of govt abuse'. Subscribe