[Editor's note: The initial version of this story was published before Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin responded to Leong Mun Wai's request to refer the Bill to a select committee under Standing Order 68. The Speaker clarified at the end of the debate that he did not have that power.]
In parliament today (Oct. 5), Progress Singapore Party (PSP) member Leong Mun Wai urged Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin to refer the Foreign Interference Countermeasures Bill to a select committee and to delay the passing of the bill.
Leong said that his party urged the government to hold public consultations to scrutinise the bill more closely.
Not "realistic or fair" to expect parliamentarians to fully understand Bill in one sitting
Leong said that the bill, with its "127 sections over 249 pages", is complex, and has content that is "difficult to make sense of, even for senior lawyers."
He pointed out that the bill was introduced for its first reading in Parliament just three weeks ago (Sep. 13), and suggested that "many members of this House are probably not adequately prepared for a thorough debate today."
Leong questioned, "Is it realistic or fair to expect parliamentarians to understand the pros and cons of the amendments in just a few hours of debate?"
He asked why the foreign interference bill was not given a longer time to be debated over, like POFMA and the copyright bill.
He pointed out that Shanmugam spent a large part of his speech responding to the Workers' Party's proposed amendments to the bill, and said that this was the kind of thing that should have been done in a select committee.
Leong also said that Members of Parliament should be focused on helping their constituents during this period of a surge in Covid-19 cases, "instead of being distracted to mull through and digest this draconian bill".
Government already has "extensive powers" to deal with foreign interference
Leong expressed his opposition to the bill, and said that the government already has various resources and laws in place to deal with the threat of foreign interference.
He cited how the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and the Broadcasting Act give the government control over foreign funding and interference in mainstream media.
POFMA also allows the government to clamp down on online falsehoods on social media, he added.
Leong said that these laws, together with the Internal Security Act, already give the government "extensive powers" to deal with foreign interference.
Leong: People targeted by FICA can be detained without bail
Leong said that the proposed bill ignores "basic principles of democracy" such as a separation of powers and checks and balances.
He highlighted how, for example, if the bill were to become law, a person charged under it can be detained without bail, and would be able to be charged in absence.
Leong also pointed out there is no judicial review for actions taken under the proposed Act.
He added, "Thus, FICA appears even worse than the Internal Security Act. There are many more provisions [in FICA], and to me, [they sound] like a joke for someone living in a modern democratic society."
Urges Speaker, MPs to delay passing of bill
Leong ended his speech by appealing to Speaker Tan Chuan Jin to refer the bill to a select committee, and to allow for public consultations to more closely scrutinise the bill.
He said, "You have the power to do so, Mr Speaker, under Standing Order Number 68. It can be done."
He also addressed his fellow Members of Parliament (MP):
"How each member vote[s] on this bill will represent his or 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 a foundation of all democratic nations."
He concluded by referring to a message he received from a Singaporean, which said, "I want freedom of information, I don't want FICA."
Tan Chuan-Jin: I don't have the power
Later on in the debate, Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin responded and clarified that contrary to what Leong claimed, he was not able to refer the Bill to a Select Committee under Standing Order 68.
"Mr Leong has asked me to refer the Bill to a Select Committee under Standing Order 68. Standing Order 68 requires me to refer a Bill to a Select Committee if I am of the opinion that it is a hybrid Bill. A hybrid Bill is one that prejudicially affects individual rights and interests.
Some of you will recall an example is the Kwong Wai Shiu Free Hospital Transfer of Undertaking and Dissolution Bill in 2016, which specifically affected the Kwong Wai Shiu hospital.
The Foreign Interference and Countermeasures Bill now before the House applies to the public at large and does not specifically apply to an individual. It is therefore not a hybrid Bill, and Standing Order 68 does not apply. I do not have such power, as you would like to bestow upon me."
Follow and listen to our podcast here
Top photo via MCI/YouTube