WP proposes changes to S'pore's draft anti-foreign interference law

The WP said it believes in the legitimate need to counter malign acts of foreign interference, but disagrees with the current form of the Bill in achieving this objective.
The WP said it believes in the legitimate need to counter malign acts of foreign interference, but disagrees with the current form of the Bill in achieving this objective.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The opposition Workers' Party (WP) on Wednesday (Sept 29) proposed a raft of amendments to a proposed law to counter foreign interference in Singapore, such as allowing for appeals to the High Court and for statutory board chief executives to be defined as "politically significant persons".

The party's MPs also suggested a public registry listing such individuals, and that assurances made by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) - that the proposed law does not stifle Singaporeans' own critical comments or political views - be placed in the text of the law itself.

These reflect recommendations put forth by various tech, security and legal experts in the wake of the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, or Fica, being tabled in Parliament on Sept 13.

The Act targets foreign interference in domestic politics conducted through hostile information campaigns and the use of local proxies. It will allow the Minister for Home Affairs to compel Internet platforms to block accounts, and to require politically significant persons (PSPs) to declare any foreign affiliation, among other measures.

In a statement sent to the media, the WP said it believes in the legitimate need to counter malign acts of foreign interference, but disagrees with the current form of the Bill in achieving this objective.

MHA later issued a response of its own, stating that the WP “appears not to be objecting to the principles and various aspects” of the Bill.

“These specific proposals will be discussed in Parliament next week, when the Bill is debated,” the ministry added.

On Monday, WP's MPs gave notice to the Clerk of Parliament to table amendments to the Bill at its next reading, believed to be on next Monday or Tuesday.

The WP said its proposed amendments would result in oversight of executive action by the judiciary, a more precise scoping of executive powers to significantly lower the likelihood of abuse of power, and greater clarity and transparency around the entities and individuals affected by the Bill.

MP Gerald Giam, for instance, proposed that the list of defined PSPs, which currently covers political parties, political office-holders, MPs, election candidates and their agents, among others, also include:

- A member of the central executive council, or its equivalent, of any registered political party in Singapore;

- A senior public servant holding the office of deputy secretary or above, or its equivalent;

- A board member or chief executive of a statutory board or government company listed on the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore.

Examples of Fifth Schedule entities are Temasek and GIC.

Mr Giam's fellow Aljunied GRC MP Leon Perera proposed that the Bill include provisions for entities or persons designated as politically significant to be listed on a free and publicly accessible electronic registry - unless "not practicable or desirable to do so on national security grounds".

He also called for reportable arrangements and transparency directives pertaining to politically significant entities to be made available to the public.

Last week, MHA told The Straits Times that the list of designated PSPs and measures applied to them will be made public.

Associate Professor Jamus Lim, an MP for Sengkang GRC, proposed to include, as part of exempt activities covered by the Bill, instances of Singaporeans exercising "their right to discuss politics by expressing their own views on political matters, unless they are agents of a foreign principal".

He also proposed exempting activities by "foreign individuals or foreign publications reporting or commenting on Singapore politics, in an open, transparent and attributable way, even if their comments may be critical of Singapore or the Government".

These directly echo lines in a statement issued by MHA after the Bill was introduced earlier this month.

Ms He Ting Ru, an MP for Sengkang GRC and a lawyer, proposed an amendment to leave out an entire clause titled "limited judicial review", which provides that the Minister for Home Affairs and a reviewing tribunal's decision on appeals is final and not to be challenged in court.

The tribunal will be appointed by the President and chaired by a High Court judge, with two other members with expertise in security analysis and technology issues. The tribunal is not part of the Singapore judicial system.

Ms He suggested replacing the clause with one allowing appeals to the High Court, but not before first appealing to the minister. Other parts of the proposed clause include a provision of in-camera - or private - hearings ordered by the court, if "expedient in the interests of justice or of public safety or security to do so".

ST had previously asked MHA for further reasons behind the need for a tribunal instead of going through existing court processes. The ministry had said that hostile information campaigns involving foreign actors and detection and prevention of them "cut close to issues of defence, national security and foreign relations".

"Sensitive information and intelligence may be involved in making a decision on directions. It is crucial to safeguard such information that the Government relies upon to make its decision to issue a Part 3 direction," the spokesman said then.

Such "Part 3" directions include account restriction, app removal and service restriction directions.

The WP on Wednesday said its MPs would put forth fuller arguments at the parliamentary debate on the Bill.