'Choices & trade-offs' in balancing foreign interference bill's powers & checks: Shanmugam to opposition MPs

Shanmugam was responding to concerns raised by WP MPs Jamus Lim and Leon Perera.

Matthias Ang | October 05, 2021, 04:35 PM

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It is a very small group of Singaporeans who are concerned with the proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill, Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam said in Parliament on Oct. 4.

In his response to clarifications sought by Workers' Party MPs Jamus Lim and Leon Perera about concerns regarding the law, Shanmugam said that it was the government's understanding that "a vast majority of Singapore understand the need for FICA."

He added that a significant number of the people who were concerned were "honest people" who may have had some misunderstandings of the bill for impressionistic reasons.

On the concern of vague language

One point of concern which Lim raised was vague language within the bill, with "scores" of academics, activists and lawyers highlighting the matter after scrutinising the bill.

Lim then asked, "It seems like either the language is indeed vague as claimed and hence subject to misunderstanding, or it's not vague, in which case, these individuals should be accused of misunderstanding."

In response, Shanmugam replied that throughout his years of experience with debates in Parliament, the positions of an issue could be broadly broken down into the following groups:

  • Some who are honest and understand,
  • A large group that does not follow the issue very carefully and may have views which are not accurate, and
  • A small group which will go out to "deliberately misinform and confuse the population."

Shanmugan then reiterated his point from his speech at the bill's second reading: that it was necessary to have definitions broad enough to account for situations that had an appearance of normalcy.

The minister described a scenario in which out of 10,000 interactions, there might be one where there is an actual attempt at foreign interference.

"Even in that case, the foreign agency will try and make it look like it's a normal case," he said.

In such situations, the proportionality test is also key, which "quite a few commentators" do not seem to understand, Shanmugam elaborated. The minister explained:

"That's why I made it a point to say the AGC (Attorney-General's Chambers) advised me that the test is there. And when you don't understand the proportionality, you say...any collaboration with a foreigner, on a matter that is of importance to Singaporeans could potentially run foul. Because you misunderstand the proportionality test."

In light of Facebook's own assessment, how can one be sure that MHA's suspicions are correct?

Lim also asked about whether the suspicion of the authorities could be incorrect, and whether MHA would keep its own counsel on what it believes to true, in light of the "sophisticated" tools that Facebook itself possessed.

Here, Shanmugam replied that Lim's question was essentially one about whether the credibility of the government's assessment of a threat is thrown into question by Facebook reaching a different assessment.

Shanmugam pointed out, "At many stages in its career Facebook has denied something, only to come back and reverse itself."

The minister then cited the following examples of how Facebook had ignored threats on the grounds that it did not breach its community standards.

  • Telling Sri Lanka's Minister for Communications that the organisation of an anti-Muslim riot in the country in 2018 did not affect its community standards.
  • Allowing the New Zealand mosque attacker in 2019 to livestream his shooting online.

Shanmugam added, "Does Mr Lim think that a responsible state authority should outsource the way it handles law and order to Facebook, whose primary concern is how much money it can make?"

Who checks the checkers, asked Leon Perera. CPIB, replied Shanmugam.

WP's Leon Perera asked what recourse will a Singaporean have if a very senior government official is suborned by a foreign power.

Shanmugam said that the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) could investigate anyone, including the Home Affairs Minister and the Prime Minister.

"When the CPIB wants to investigate the Prime Minister, there is a higher authority they report to, independently," he added. "The CPIB can investigate me, and any minister."

Shanmugam then cited the case of Teh Cheang Wan, who had been personally praised by the late Lee Kuan Yew for solving the housing crisis, but was investigated by the CPIB.

When there were allegations of corruption, Shanmugam pointed out that Lee did not speak to Teh but let the CPIB carry on with their investigations.

Shanmugam added, "That is Singapore. That is why our trust levels are high," he said, to applause from MPs.

PSP's Leong Mun Wai: Why can't Singapore allow judicial review for FICA like other countries?

Separately, Leong Mun Wai of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) asked why Singapore could not allow judicial review under FICA and asked for examples of foreign interference in Asian countries specifically.

He said, "As an ordinary citizen, watching the TV and all that, all the foreign interference in Taiwan and Australia for example, seems to be a joke", as in the end, "all the foreign interference seems to have unravelled."

Leong also questioned the independence of the tribunal under FICA given that it was appointed by the Minister for Home Affairs.

To this, Shanmugam said that it was "absolutely shocking" to hear Leong suggest that foreign interference in Taiwan and Australia were jokes, and added that there had been reports of foreign interference in Asian countries.

On the matter of the Tribunal, he disputed Leong's statement of "the judge is appointed by the minister and basically the approach is 'trust me'".

The minister clarified that the tribunal was appointed by the President and headed by a Supreme Court judge who does not owe any obligation to the government.

As for making allowances for judicial review, Shanmugam replied that it was a matter of trade-offs when it came to security laws.

He cited the example of New Zealand where they had to allow a man who was identified as a threat to go free, due to the absence of an Internal Security Act. This man, he noted, eventually went to a supermarket to attack people with a knife.

"Do you want to wait for that?" Shanmugam asked, and said that it was a matter of choices and trade-offs.

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