After two years of foreshadowing with no payoff, the Singapore government finally introduced its proposed anti-foreign interference law in September.
The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill, or FICA, was presented for its first reading in Parliament on September 13. At 249 pages, it’s a massive bill, but it’s likely to be pushed forward for its second and third readings on October 4, where a Parliament dominated by the ruling People’s Action Party will inevitably vote it into law.
Citing examples of foreign interference faced by countries like the United States or Australia, Singapore’s government claims that FICA is necessary to protect our national security and political sovereignty. The law would grant the government the power to order the removal or blocking of online content, criminalize the financing of online media platforms, ban specific apps from being downloaded, and classify individuals and entities as “politically significant persons,”who will then be subject to funding restrictions and requirements to report foreign affiliations, along with other “countermeasures” that the authorities deem fit.
The burden of proof is low; the Minister for Home Affairs needs only to suspect that online communications are taking place on behalf of a foreign actor, and be of the opinion that it’s in the public interest for him to issue orders under the law. Meanwhile, designating individuals or groups as “politically significant” is allowed as long as they are engaged in activities “directed in part towards a political end in Singapore” — a term that encompasses advocating for changes in the law or trying to influence public opinion on controversial matters. The only avenue to challenge these orders is either to appeal to a Reviewing Tribunal that the Cabinet will tell the president to appoint, or to the minister himself.
The government has so far been careful not to give any recent examples of interference by specific countries in its comments. But it has shown no such consideration or hesitation when it comes to pointing the finger at local activists or critics. I should know — I’m one of them.
In 2018, the regulatory authorities refused to allow New Naratif, a Southeast Asian media platform that I co-founded with two other Singaporeans, to register as a company. They pointed to funding that we received from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, a favorite bogeyman of authoritarian governments and the far right the world over, and warned against Singaporeans “being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore.”
Later that year, members of the ruling party also accused me, along with the other co-founders of New Naratif and the Singaporean activist Jolovan Wham, of soliciting Malaysian intervention into Singapore’s domestic affairs, simply because we’d met with Malaysia’s then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, in Kuala Lumpur.
A year later, an op-ed written by a former ruling party politician tied my colleague and I to “people initiating ‘colour revolutions’”— a term for non-violent anti-government movements. That same month, while arguing the need for new anti-foreign interference laws, Singapore’s Minister for Home Affairs and Law, K. Shanmugam, misrepresented comments that I made about civil resistance and organizing to paint a picture of me taking foreign funding to incite Singaporeans to protest in the streets.
Every time such baseless accusations are made, I face a wave of online harassment and vitriol. And every time this happens, I make statements correcting misrepresentations and clarifying my position — all the while knowing that I am out-gunned by the reach of the government and an obedient mainstream media that uncritically amplifies their allegations and repeats their dog whistles. I know I’m not anyone’s foreign proxy, but I also know that the smear campaign will stick and I’ll never be able to wash myself clean of their mud-slinging.
Now, with FICA looming over us, the Minister for Home Affairs and Law won’t just be able to make accusations in the press and on social media. As the minister granted the most powers under the bill, he’ll actually have a legal basis to take action based on their suspicions and opinions. Instead of just being talked about, I could end up designated as a “politically significant person” and required to report all my affiliations with foreigners and foreign entities to the government — even if they aren’t related to political activity in Singapore — thus subjecting myself to ever greater monitoring and the risk of being ordered to end any of these associations.
As a freelance journalist and an activist who frequently writes and reports on Singapore for international media outlets, think-tanks, and human rights organisations, I’m still grappling with what this might mean for my work and livelihood. And I still won’t be able to clear my name from accusations of being a foreign agent: Under FICA, there are very limited avenues for appeal.
I left New Naratif last year to return to full-time freelancing, but the organization continues to remain in the crosshairs, alongside other independent media outlets. A day after FICA was introduced in Parliament, media regulators suspended the class license for alternative news site The Online Citizen, pushing it offline after 15 years of dogged survival. The day after that, the police announced that they were issuing stern warnings — in lieu of prosecutions — to New Naratif and its Singaporean managing director Thum Ping Tjin. The publication had been under investigation for allegedly publishing unauthorized election advertising during last year’s general election.
In both cases, the authorities made a point of mentioning, in their opinion, unsatisfactory declarations about funding sources, or the presence of foreign grants and members. To those of us in the Singaporean civil society and independent media scene, these events fit right in with the modus operandi of weaponizing buzzwords and vague definitions of otherwise real issues — foreign influence, misinformation, “fake news,” and national security — to justify the expansion of state power and clamping down on political rights and civil liberties.
Singapore isn’t alone in this. Authorities in Hong Kong have used allegations of foreign collusion to justify the arrest and detention of activists and journalists. The Thai government has also been criticized for trying to introduce laws that would restrict NGO access to foreign funds. It’s always convenient to point the finger at outsiders, and drum up nationalist and nativist fervor to use against one’s critics.
Malicious and malign foreign meddling is a problem that needs to be addressed. But a vibrant civil society and independent press are part of the solution — activists and journalists who are willing and able to keep an eye on, and dig into, networks of power are crucial to staying vigilant against any behavior that might undermine a country’s political processes. When governments exploit these opportunities to intimidate, harass, or shut down criticism and activism, they leave us with more brittle, less robust societies instead.