- Mr Speaker Sir, the Progress Singapore Party, PSP, is strongly against foreign interference in our country’s affairs. But the PSP cannot support the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA), which I shall refer to as FICA, in its current form, because of the insufficient evaluation by both Parliamentarians and members of the public of its far-reaching implications.
So PSP calls on the Government to delay the passing of the Bill, hold public consultations and appoint a Select Committee to scrutinize the Bill closely. The Minister of Home Affairs had spent more than two hours today to go through the possible amendments. This is exactly what should have been done in a Select Committee. Is it fair to expect Parliamentarians to understand the pros and cons of all the amendments in just a few hours of debate?
- Our recommendation for a postponement of the passage is based on 3 considerations:
- For such an important bill, it should not be rushed through Parliament disregarding proper legislative processes and the feelings of Singaporeans suffering under a worsening Covid crisis.
- Countering foreign interference is an ongoing task and substantial resources have already been deployed to it. Do we need to restrict our citizens’ freedom further to achieve better outcomes?
- Is it wise to pass a legislation giving extensive power to a minister without any judicial oversight? The possibility of abuse cannot be ruled out.
- FICA is a complex bill with 127 sections over 249 pages, and the content difficult to make sense of, even for senior lawyers. In spite of that, the Bill was only tabled at the last parliamentary sitting on 13 September, barely 3 weeks ago and we are already rushing through its passage today. Many members of this House are probably not adequately prepared for a thorough debate today.
It is difficult to understand why the Government is trying to rush the passage of this Bill or why the debate on the Bill cannot be postponed by three to six months to allow for proper scrutiny and consultation involving a wider range of stakeholders.
Just earlier this year, the Government established a two-month-long public consultation process for the Copyright Bill. The POFMA Bill also went through a long consultation lasting more than a year and in addition, through a Select Committee before it was passed into law.
So where is the Select Committee for FICA, which arguably should be held to even greater scrutiny in light of the removal of judicial supervision of the government’s usage of FICA powers and our citizens’ constitutional rights?
We should also delay the reading of this Bill because we should be focusing our resources and attention on the worsening Covid situation in our country. The number of infections has shot up exponentially and there are more and more distressed situations among many of us in Singapore.
This is the time when MPs should be busy helping constituents get through the many challenges in their lives due to the current Covid crisis instead of being distracted to mull through and digest this draconian bill.
On the other hand, the Government is not new to dealing with foreign interference, for which it has been well-equipped to deal with after many years of experience.
- PSP recognizes that foreign interference had existed in the past and will continue to exist. But countering foreign interference is an ongoing task and this Government already has substantial resources to deal with it. As I said, do we need to restrict our citizens’ freedom further to achieve better outcomes?
We deploy substantial resources to national security every year. For fiscal year 2021, we are spending $15 billion on defense, $6.5 billion on home affairs and $0.5 billion on foreign affairs for the purpose of upholding and protecting our sovereignty. This makes a total of $22 billion accounting for more than a quarter of our operating budget.
There are also tough laws in place to deal with internal security and public order issues. To start with, we have the Internal Security Act (ISA) which was passed in 1960 when we were still part of Malaysia. The Court of Appeal’s ruling that the ISA was subject to judicial review was already overruled in a legislative amendment in 1988, giving the Government wide powers in administering the ISA. Incidentally, Malaysia repealed its ISA in 2012 while our ISA is still in force.
Then we have the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) since 1975, which is designed to ensure there is no foreign control of Singaporean newspapers and limits the circulation of foreign printed media. There is also the Broadcasting Act 1994 which requires online sites discussing Singapore political issues to register for a licence with conditions covering foreign funding and interference.
The NPPA and Broadcasting Act allowed the Government to have almost monopoly control over the narrative of major policies and issues through the mainstream media, that was, until the rise of social media as a strong alternative platform from around 2010.
As a result, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) came into being in 2019 to allow the Government to tackle the spread of fake news or false information online.
Between the ISA, NPPA, Broadcasting Act and POFMA, this Government already has extensive powers to deal with any internal security threat, manage public opinion and prevent the spread of false information online. So is there a need to give this Government further powers to deal with foreign interference at the expense of our citizens’ constitutional rights. Can’t we just tighten some of the existing laws slightly?
- As there is no urgency but ample reasons why we should delay the Bill, we should then make best use of the opportunity to evaluate the implications of FICA carefully.
We understand all that is said about combating foreign interference but we cannot ignore the basic universal principles of democracy which is based on separation of powers and checks and balances. A law like FICA which ignores those principles cannot ought to be considered carefully over a long period of consultation and deliberation.
Just look at some of the frightening implications on paper on an accused person. It is possible that you may inadvertently commit an offence because the definition of an offence is broad and vague. There is no need to give you a reason to arrest you and if evidence is offered later, the government does not need to reveal the source. The detention is non-bailable. You cannot choose your own legal counsel and can be trialed in absence. And to cap it all, there is no judicial review for all the actions that are taken against you! Thus, FICA appears even worse than the Internal Security Act.
There are many more provisions and all sounded like a joke for someone living in a modern democratic society based on the rule of law. FICA can be described in Singlish as “This also call law” or in more accurate English, “Tyranny in the name of law”.
Mr Speaker, Chinese please.
- 新加坡同胞，FICA，这个名义上是为了防止外来干预的法律，像一只披上羊皮的老虎，其实是一个有可能严重侵害民主和民权的法律。国家安全当然是我们国民密切关注的问题，我们也支持给予政府足够的资源去应付这个问题。譬如在2021财政年度里，拨给国家，维持国内外安全方面的预算就高达220亿新元，等于总预算的四分之一。 政府也通过内安法， 新闻法，广播法 和POFMA基本上控制了国内安全的威胁，舆论和网上假消息的转播。因此，FICA可以说是一个“莫须有”的法案，它给予政府“欲加之罪，何患无辞”的权力来对付持有不同意见的每一个国民。我们应该吸取历史的教训，譬如日本和德国的军国主义的教训，每当一个政府走向极权主义，都可能给国家带来灾难性的结果。国家需要政府和民意互相制衡才有望长治久安。
- Mr Speaker, the excessive controls of FICA over civil rights will not stop a determined foreign state from conducting foreign interference. While our capable security agencies and diplomatic channels are dealing with it, the best defense against foreign interference is not more laws to control our own people but to raise the awareness of our people towards national security threats. Hence the anti-terrorist awareness campaign, SGSecure, which is aimed at all Singaporeans, is a wise move.
Like what the Leader of Opposition has commented, this Government should be more proactive in educating Singaporeans on what is online foreign interference so that every citizen can be its eyes and ears. Accordingly, we should not have laws to restrict and control Singaporeans’ interaction with foreigners, but we should encourage more interactions so that we know first-hand if there are developments of concern to the interest of Singapore.
- Mr Speaker, all things said and to reiterate, is it wise to hastily pass a legislation giving extensive power to a minister without any judicial oversight?
I, as do many Singaporeans, urge you and all members of this House to delay the passing of this Bill and allow for public consultations and the appointment of a Select Committee to scrutinize the Bill. You have the power to do so, Mr Speaker, under Standing Order 68. It can be done.
And how each Member vote on this Bill will represent his/her legacy to the present and future generations of Singaporeans. All Singaporeans are watching you. A “yes” vote means the Member is willing to sacrifice the rule of law which is the foundation of all democratic nations.
For the sake of Singapore and Singaporeans, Mr Speaker, I urge you again to exercise your power under Standing Order 68 to refer the Bill to a Select Committee.
Sir, I oppose the Bill. Singaporeans deserve better. And a Singaporean has just messaged me on my handphone “I want Freedom of Information, I don’t want FICA.”