'Perplexing' that foreign interference bill was mulled for months without public consultation: Pritam Singh

The Workers' Party proposed a number of amendments to the controversial bill.

Jason Fan | October 05, 2021, 01:45 AM

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Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh had some choice words to say during the debate on the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill (FICA) on Monday (Oct. 4).

During his speech in Parliament, the Workers' Party (WP) member said that it was "wholly incongruous" for the government not to seek public feedback on the controversial bill, while acknowledging that the Singaporean public today desires greater checks and balances.

He also said that it was "perplexing" how the government chose not to undertake any public consultation before the first reading of the bill, given how it had many months to mull over it.

He also put forth a list of proposed amendments filed by the WP members to the bill, aimed at improving the accountability, fairness, transparency and effectiveness to the bill.

No public consultation on the bill

According to Singh, the government should have sought public feedback on the bill, noting that there has been "considerable disquiet" at the speed at which the bill has been presented to Parliament.

He said that in March 2021, Deputy Speaker Christopher De Souza enquired what the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) would do to deter foreign interference in Singapore's domestic affairs.

In response to this, then-Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo said that legislative levers may be needed, and highlighted the need for further measures to be considered, in order to guard against foreign subversion of politically significant individuals and entities.

According to Singh, Teo also said that the public had a big part to play in shaping the proposals, and Singh pointed out that this did not materialise, as the government did not hold any public consultation on the bill in the six months between Teo's statement and the first reading in Parliament on Sep. 13.

"This omission contradicts the position on record of the Second Minister for Home Affairs, which was to lean on the public to shape the bill, which must surely include its safeguards," said Singh.

He went on further to say that while most Singaporeans may have readily supported the bill to combat foreign influence if consulted, most would also be in favour of Singapore's courts acting as a check to ensure that executive power is exercised lawfully, appropriately and fairly.

WP wants a different appeal mechanism for FICA

Singh said that the starting position of the WP is that the threat of foreign interference is "neither a figment of the imagination, nor can it be wished away", and that the government may require "potentially intrusive" powers to intervene in the appropriate case.

However, he also said that with exceptional executive power comes the need for strong oversight, and that such broad-ranging, broadly-defined powers need the legislation of equally robust oversight mechanisms to prevent a potential abuse of power.

In particular, Singh took issue with the appeal options for the proposed FICA bill, which allows for appeals against FICA directives to be made to a reviewing tribunal, whose decisions are final and cannot be challenged in court.

Singh said that the WP rejects such an appeals mechanism, and proposes an amendment which will allow for an appeal to the Home Affairs Minister, and thereafter to the High Court with full judicial scrutiny, which Singh said would introduce more transparency.

He also suggested that in cases where national security is at risk, there could be a provision made for a private hearing.

Lack of non-legislative measures to counter foreign interference

According to Singh, there is also a lack of non-legislative measures to deal with foreign interference, such as educating the public to resist malignant information efforts.

He brought up a policy report published by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in April 2021, which said that raising awareness about information manipulation in both the government and the public is crucial in combating foreign interference.

For example, foreign campaigns to sway public opinion during the 2017 presidential campaign in France were unsuccessful, because the French government had created awareness about information manipulation, and blunted the efforts of disinformation, by focusing public attention on perpetrators.

Singh said that the government has been "arguably unclear" on how Singaporeans should deal with foreign interference without the use of legislation. He added that the government should work with the public in a far more participative way, in order to strengthen the resolve of the Singapore population against foreign interference.

"The apparent lack of integration of legislative and non-legislative measures to address foreign interference in my view is a critical omission in our public discourse on this subject," said Singh.

If the PAP was not in power, will MPs want the amendments in place?

Singh concluded his speech by emphasising the importance of public feedback on the bill, and warned the government not to "close the door" to a select committee, which can collate public input and review oversight mechanisms, among others.

He said that it was "perplexing" that the government had been mulling the introduction of the bill for many months, yet it did not undertake any public consultation before it was tabled for its first reading in Parliament.

Singh called upon his fellow MPs to consider the WP's proposed amendments, and posed an interesting final question to everyone in Parliament.

"I call on the members of this House to seriously consider the proposed amendments, and ask yourselves whether you would want these amendments in place if the PAP (People's Action Party) was not in power. The amendments are in the best interests of Singapore and Singaporeans, regardless of who is in charge, now or in the future."

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Top image via MCI/YouTube.