Parliament: Fica

WP MPs say foreign interference law lacks oversight, gives govt too much power

The law against foreign interference fails on three counts: insufficient independent oversight, executive overreach and overlooking some potential sources of foreign interference, Workers' Party (WP) MP Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) said yesterday.

Speaking during the debate on the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill, which was passed yesterday, he floated the possibility of a future minister for home affairs coming under the influence of a foreign entity one day.

The first impulse when facing a danger like foreign interference should not be to "simply give more and more and more discretionary power to the government of the day", he said.

"That could well backfire and create ammunition for those who want to disrupt our society, turn people against the state and one another," he added.

"No, the first impulse should be to build independent institutions and education among our citizens so that we respond as a society to meet that threat."

Mr Perera and several other MPs, including Ms He Ting Ru (Seng-kang GRC), proposed a slew of amendments to address what they saw as the law's shortcomings.

A number of the WP's proposed amendments were accepted by Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and incorporated into the Act.

Mr Shanmugam agreed to Mr Gerald Giam's (Aljunied GRC) suggestion to include members of central executive councils (CECs), or the equivalent top decision-making bodies, of any registered political party in Singapore as politically significant persons (PSPs) under the Act.

He said 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."

However, the minister rejected Mr Giam's other suggestions to add senior public servants holding the office of deputy secretary or above to the list, 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.

It is not appropriate to classify civil servants as under the law as they are non-political, Mr Shanmugam said. Senior civil servants are already subject to various rules and declaration requirements that are tighter than those imposed on PSPs under the law, he added.

This includes holding a valid security clearance throughout their appointment and making annual declarations on various areas such as investments and gifts.

"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," he said.

By contrast, the rules for PSPs are not as tight, the minister said, noting they can accept anonymous donations below $5,000, or donations from identified persons above $5,000. 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 also 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 as 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.

Mr Giam had also suggested removing two aspects of what it means for an action to be directed towards a political end in Singapore, under the Act.

These included actions to influence public opinion on matters of public controversy in Singapore, or to influence, promote or oppose political views and public conduct related to issues being debated here. Mr Giam said these parts of the Act cover "an extremely wide variety of policy matters and issues" and that public discussions of such issues invariably involve the views of foreigners.

But Mr Shanmugam said this change 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 suggestions from WP MP Jamus Lim (Sengkang 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.

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 is 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 rejected other proposals by Prof Lim to raise the threshold for issuing directions under Fica such that 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.

On Mr Perera's suggestion to include people with declared involvement in foreign policy organisations in the publicly available registry, Mr Shanmugam said that 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.

Rei Kurohi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2021, with the headline 'WP MPs say foreign interference law lacks oversight, gives govt too much power'. Subscribe