The debate over jobs and foreign talent on Sep. 13 may have dominated the headlines, but it wasn't the only major bit of governmental business that took place during that Parliamentary sitting.
The government introduced the Foreign Interference Countermeasures Bill, which if passed, will endow the Home Affairs Minister with new and expanded powers to target communications believed to be from hostile information campaigns (HICs) waged by foreign actors.
HICs are deliberate attempts by foreign actors, often secretive and coordinated, to create and spread information to manipulate public opinion and harm a country's interests.
The bill, if passed, also allows the government to designate certain people as Politically Significant Persons (PSPs), and placing various restrictions on them.
And given the ruling PAP's overwhelming majority in Parliament, it's probably a safe bet it will sail through with a "Yes" vote on the second and third readings, most likely without the Workers' Party's proposed amendments.
But does the proposed Act affect you, a likely non-politician?
It may be long and full of legal jargon, but it is likely going to play a big role in Singapore's political discourse in the future.
Here's a walkthrough guide that will hopefully make things easier to understand.
The Bill is available to read online. Here's the link.
It is divided into 11 parts, some lengthier than others. The first part, in particular, contains various definitions that sets out the scope of the Bill, and therefore, the entities and people it can target.
FICA is lengthy because it includes an update of the current legislation (update of political donations act) and new laws to counter foreign interference via online HICs.
Section 2 says:
"The purposes of this Act are to protect the public interest by counteracting acts of foreign interference through countermeasures aimed at such acts by electronic communications activity; and countermeasures aimed at pre-empting or preventing the occurrence of such acts involving persons identified as at‑risk, because they are politically significant."
Section 4 defines "foreign principal", including foreign governments, political organisations, businesses and public enterprises.
Section 5 defines what it means for someone to work on behalf of a foreign principal, such as collaborating, receiving payment, or obeying an order from the principal.
Money doesn't have to be involved, and both parties should know or expect that such activity would be carried out.
Example: Jim Tan, a fictional Singaporean, happens to be friends with President Bob of Madeuplandia, a foreign nation.
President Bob offers Jim 10 pineapples in exchange for instigating a riot in Singapore by spreading a rumour on WhatsApp. Jim agrees.
Jim is now eligible to be targeted by the Act.
Sections 6 and 7 then go on to define what exactly is foreign interference (in the eyes of the Act) and the meaning of public interest.
The latter includes things like national security, public health, public finances, Singapore's relations with other countries, or a loss of confidence in the public authorities' exercise of power.
Example: The Society of Friends, a fictional public enterprise in Madeuplandia, asks Jim Tan to spread a false rumour that Singapore's public servants are corrupt and take bribes. Jim agrees and posts that rumour on his Facebook page.
The society doesn't offer any payment, it just makes a request. But Jim is eligible to be targeted by the act.
Actions directed towards a political end
Sections 8 and 9 lay out what is defined as actions that are "directed towards a political end" in Singapore, and "influencing government decisions."
The former includes things like influencing an election, to influencing a matter of "public controversy" in Singapore.
Example: It seems that in recent weeks, Singaporeans have been strongly arguing about the merits of a hit TV show. The hit show focuses on a corrupt political system, with subtle hints that resemble Singapore politicians. It has become controversial, and tensions are running high.
Some random person named Frank from Madeuplandia turns to Jim Tan to influence the Singaporean public's views about the show.
Jim accepts, and writes a lengthy blogpost about the hackneyed plot, supervised by Frank, and makes his post available for Singaporeans to read.
You guessed it, Jim is eligible to be targeted by the Act.
In the words of the Bill itself, "It does not matter whether or not there are other purposes for that conduct or activity."
Section 10 defines what "electronic communication" means, which is communicating information via social media, phone messages, a "relevant electronic service" or an internet access service.
It also includes a person who helps the general public to access the information, such as setting out the name of a website or a URL or giving a password.
However, the Act doesn't target providers of social media or hosting or telecommunication or any relevant electronic service, if their business is used to transmit that information.
Example: Spreading a harmful rumour on Twitter will bring down the hammer, as well as sharing the Tweet of that harmful rumour with people in Singapore. But Twitter itself is providing that service for business purposes, so it wouldn't be targeted.
Publishing in Singapore
Section 11 defines what it means to "provide" information on a service.
If the "end-users" are delivered the information, or can access it, then it can be targeted by the proposed Act.
Section 12 defines what it means by "publishing in Singapore", in general, making the information accessible, whether online or offline, by people in Singapore.
Part 2 - Foreign interference by electronic communications activity
This part makes it an offence for committing an act that fulfils the criteria set out in Part 1, whether direct or indirect.
Section 17 states that upon conviction of the offence, a person can be slapped with a fine not exceeding S$50,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years, or both.
If it's an entity, a maximum fine of S$500,000 can be imposed.
Section 18 sets out another offence, whereby Person A influences Person B to carry out an act that affects the public interest. Person A is working on behalf of a foreign principal, but conceals this fact from Person B.
Upon conviction, Person A is liable to a fine not exceeding S$100,000, or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years, or both.
If it's any other entity, a maximum fine of S$1 million can be imposed.
Part 3 - Ministerial authorisation and Directions
In the opinion of the Minister
This part sets out the circumstances where the Minister for Home Affairs can use the powers given to him by the proposed Act.
Section 20 states that in the "opinion of the Minister", if there is relevant online communications activity being done (or already done) whether in Singapore, outside of Singapore, or on a Singapore aircraft or a plane, he can activate the powers.
That activity needs to fulfil the criteria set out in Part 1, in other words, done on behalf of a foreign principal, accessible in Singapore and affecting the public interest.
Section 21 allows the Minister to take anticipatory action, which means that the powers can be used if the Minister "suspects or has reason to believe" that the activity is going to be carried out.
Section 22 allows the Minister to cancel his own authorisation for the powers to be used.
Section 23 allows the person targeted by the Minister's directions to apply for reconsideration.
Proscribed online location
Section 24 allows the Minister to declare websites with Singapore links as a Proscribed Online Location (POL), and take certain actions against them, once they've been the target of a Direction (except Technical Assistance).
These actions are laid out in Sections 39 to 41 (jumping ahead). According to MHA:
"These POLs must then declare themselves as such, and no one will be allowed to purchase advertisement space on these POLs or on other websites that promote the POLs. The aim is to discredit and de-monetise these POLs in order to stem their ability to mount further HICs against Singapore."
Returning to Section 25 and 26, they allow for the revoking of a POL decision, and applying for a reconsideration.
Section 27 instructs the competent authority to announce a revocation with the same publicity as the initial decision.
Sections 29 to 38 describe the various powers that the Minister can use to block or otherwise counter these communications.
These Directions are described in the article here.
Part 4 - Politically Significant Persons
Here we come to the second main chunk of the proposed Act.
Designation of people and entities as politically significant
Sections 47 and 48 sets out the process of designating both entities and people as "politically significant".
Section 49 requires the authority to give notice to the designated party, and allow them to make representations, "unless the competent authority considers it not practicable or desirable to do so in any particular case."
Part 5 - Countermeasures for donor activities
This part sets out various restrictions and measures aimed at increasing transparency around donations to politicians or political organisations.
Sections 50 to 55 define "political donations", whether to people or organisations, and the exemptions.
Sections 56 to 75 lay out the precise restrictions involved.
You can read about them in the story below:
Part 6 - Countermeasures for other activities
This part lays out similar restrictions, but for things like affiliation with foreign entities.
Among others, in Sections 76 to 79, designated people must disclose their foreign affiliations within a reporting period, and report their membership of a foreign political organisation.
Sections 80 to 82 require publishers to disclose the author of foreign-linked political matters.
Sections 83 to 85 lay out "stepped-up" countermeasures, including prohibiting membership in foreign organisations, ending their affiliation with foreign principals, and refusing labour provided by foreign volunteers.
Sections 86 to 87 detail punishments for late reports required by the authorities, such as a fine up to S$5,000 upon conviction, and another fine of up to S$200 every day after conviction in which the offence continues.
Part 7 - Conditions for countermeasures
Sections 88 to 91 explain under what conditions the countermeasures in Parts 5 and 6 can be issued.
Part 8 - Oversight
Here at last we come to the oversight measures built into the proposed Act.
Sections 92 and 93 define who gets to appeal the Minister's decisions, which gets assessed by a Reviewing Tribunal.
Sections 94 to 99 describe the composition of the three-person Reviewing Tribunal. The chairperson must be a Supreme Court Judge, while the other two are appointed by the President of Singapore, on the advice of the Cabinet.
Section 93 lays out what the Minister should do upon receiving an appeal. However, the Minister is "not under any duty to hear, consider or determine any appeal if it appears that the bringing of the appeal is or the proceedings of the appeal are frivolous or vexatious," according to Section 101.
Section 104 (1) also lays out the principle of limited judicial review:
"Every determination, order and other decision of a Reviewing Tribunal, the Minister, or the alternate authority mentioned in section 106, made or purportedly made under this Act —
(a) is final; and (b) is not to be challenged, appealed against, reviewed, quashed or called in question in any court, except in regard to any question relating to compliance with any procedural requirement of this Act or the Regulations or Rules governing that determination, order and other decision."
This appears to be the part where the main opposition Workers' Party (WP) has the biggest differences with the government on.
WP MP He Ting Ru proposed amendments that include appeals to the High Court against such a decision.
Part 9 - Administration and enforcement
This part (Sections 105 to 116) mainly concerns itself with various administrative details.
Of particular interest is Section 106, as the powers of the Minister cease during special times, such as an election.
The Minister can appoint an alternate authority to wield the powers of the proposed Act as they see fit.
Section 112 also states that certain offences are "arrestable and non-bailable".
Parts 10 & 11 - Miscellaneous
And here are other miscellaneous legal details, such as how the proposed Act interacts with existing laws.
Section 123 repeals the Political Donations Act (2000), as its functions have been subsumed under the proposed Act.
Top image from CNA video.