'Wholly incongruous' that govt did not seek public feedback on FICA: Pritam

·Assistant News Editor
·4 min read
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh addresses Parliament on Tuesday, 2 February 2021. (PHOTO: Ministry of Communications and Information YouTube channel
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh addresses Parliament. (SCREENSHOT: Ministry of Communications and Information/YouTube channel )

SINGAPORE — It is "wholly incongruous" that the government did not seek public feedback on the controversial Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill before introducing it in Parliament, said Leader of the Opposition (LO) Pritam Singh on Monday (4 October).

Addressing Parliament during the second reading of the Bill, Singh alluded to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's remarks at the 36th People's Action Party (PAP) Conference last November, when he acknowledged that Singaporeans had expressed a desire for greater checks and balances, and that the PAP government must change and respond to these desires and expectations.

In this regard, said the Workers' Party chief, "it is wholly incongruous for the government to accept that the public of today desires greater checks and balances but then omits to seek public feedback on a Bill that does away with substantive judicial review."

He added, "What is more perplexing is that we know the government had been mulling the introduction of this Bill for many months – why was it so difficult to undertake a period of public consultation before it was tabled for first reading?"

The proposed law, or FICA, will empower the Minister for Home Affairs to order takedowns of content deemed to be part of hostile information campaigns. It will also enable him to compel, among others, social media companies to disclose information to help investigate and counter hostile communications activity that is of foreign origin.

FICA has been criticised by some opposition politicians and academics for its broad provisions and lack of judicial review, which leaves it vulnerable to abuse by a rogue government. Singh added, "There has been considerable disquiet in some quarters at the speed at which this Bill has been presented to Parliament.

Strong executive oversight needed

The Workers' Party has tabled amendments to the Bill seeking oversight of executive action by the judiciary, and a more precise scoping of executive powers to significantly lower the likelihood of abuse of power.

For example, the law in its current form allows for appeals against FICA directives to be made to a tribunal appointed by the President and chaired by a High Court judge. Its decisions are final and cannot be challenged in court. The WP proposed that appeals to the minister, and then the High Court, be allowed.

Alluding to the fact that the reviewing tribunal is not required to give full particulars of the reasons for any conduct which is the subject of the proceedings or appeal, Singh said, "I would (put) forward that 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."

In this regard, Singh said, there must be robust oversight of executive action by the Supreme Court. "If we accept that such broad-ranging, broadly defined powers should be legislated to deal with foreign interference, then this House must ensure the legislation of equally robust oversight mechanisms to prevent abuse of power."

The danger of elite capture

The new Bill will also define individuals and organisations such as political office holders, political parties and MPs as Politically Significant Persons (PSP). Among other rules, PSPs will be required to report single donations of $10,000 or more.

But Singh, who is also a Member of Parliament for Aljunied, questioned if the list of PSPs is far-reaching enough. "It would be unwise to assume that only politicians, civil society activists and journalists are vectors for foreign interference."

As key nodes in decision-making, civil servants from Deputy Secretary upwards should also be designated as PSPs, said Singh. "The danger of elite capture is an insidious threat," he said, alluding to the clandestine foreign lobbying of Singaporeans holding positions of influence.

He asked the government to explain why it did not think it necessary to designate such individuals as PSPs in the original Bill.

Lack of non-legislative measures

Singh also questioned the lack of non-legislative measures to deal with foreign interference, such as educating the public to resist malignant information efforts, calling it a "critical omission". He noted that such interference is also commonly vectored through business, clan and cultural conduits.

Calling the government's approach to non-legislative responses "arguably unclear", the LO noted, "Surely non-legislative responses that promote a more participatory and educated citizenry would inoculate the population in a whole-of-society way against foreign interference.

"What must Singaporeans do to heighten our sensitivity to such interference?" asked Singh. 

He concluded, "This is an area the government needs to look into in a deliberate fashion across all levels of society. It is my argument that the government needs to work with the public in a far more participative way."

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