S'pore's military superiority ironically makes it a bigger target for hostile online campaigns: Shanmugam defends need for FICA

Shanmugam stated the government's commitment to an open society and said that legitimate collaborations with foreigners will not be targeted by FICA.

Sulaiman Daud | October 05, 2021, 09:14 PM

Parliament appears to be making a habit of marathon debates.

The proposed Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act was passed after 10 hours of speeches, clarifications and exchanges by the ministers and Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House on Oct. 4.

75 Members of Parliament (MP) voted for the bill, with a number of PAP members absent. 11 members, all from the Opposition save for the absent Hazel Poa, voted no. Two Nominated MPs (Tan Yia Swam and Shahira Abdullah) voted to abstain.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam was the point man for shepherding the Bill introduced by his Ministry through Parliament.

Shanmugam's public defence of the Act

Although the PAP's overwhelming majority in Parliament made the passage of the Bill something of a fait accompli, Shanmugam arguably had a complementary task in mind.

In front of the livestream cameras, he also had the opportunity to explain before the public the government's view of why the Bill was so important, as well as defending it from the public criticisms it received from academics, the legal community, and activists.

Perhaps that's why before his opening speech even began, a procedure was carried out to remove the time limit, and Shanmugam eventually ended up speaking for over two hours.

Not only did he give an impassioned elaboration of the threats Singapore faces from hostile information campaigns (HICs) from overseas, he also addressed his critics and went through the list of the Workers' Party's proposed Amendments to the Bill.

Politics is for us to decide

Shanmugam began by explaining that subversion of local politics is a serious issue, and it has gotten worse with technological advances and ease of communications, citing examples in other countries.

On the home front, he cited the case of Huang Jing, a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew of Public Policy, who was identified as collaborating with foreign agents and deported from Singapore.

This, Shanmugam said, necessitated the designation of certain individuals as Politically Significant Persons (PSPs), and to place restrictions on them, like declaring foreign affiliations and donations from foreign sources.

Shanmugam then moved on to the Direction powers afforded to the Home Affairs Minister to block or otherwise affect electronic communications he suspects are used to serve HICs.

"Spying and subversion in another country is age-old. Using spies, agents, locals, useful idiots, is all part of “Subversion”," Shanmugam said.

He explained that the Internet is a powerful tool for such malicious tactics, and mentioned the Gerasimov Doctrine, the Russian strategy of warfare that makes use of online communications to sow discord and create enmity in a target country.

"The objective is to achieve an environment of permanent unrest and conflict with an enemy state," Shanmugam explained, specifically deepening the divisions already within a country and harnessing "protest potential."

Shanmugam listed several examples of alleged hostile information campaigns in other countries, and said:

"A 2020 study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that there has been a significant increase worldwide in foreign interference. Between 2015 and 2020, at least 38 Elections and six Referendums were impacted," Shanmugam cited.

He said there are "no angels in this game" and any country, whether Russia, China, Iran, the U.S. or the UK are capable of being involved in such espionage efforts.

Shanmugam further gave Singapore examples, referencing concerted online campaigns by suspicious social media accounts during periods of "tension" and "disputes" with other countries in recent years which he did not name, but you could probably guess for yourself.

Talking seriously about foreign interference threat for 3 years

Shanmugam hit out at criticism suggesting that the bill was rushed and hustled through Parliament without discussions.

He said that "we have been talking about this very serious for three years. Extensively," referring to evidence given to the Parliamentary Select Committee in 2018. Shanmugam was possibly referring to the one set up to discuss Deliberate Online Falsehoods, which ultimately resulted in POFMA.

Shanmugam said that Singapore's conventional military superiority in fact made it a bigger target for online campaigns.

"I once heard our then-Defence Minister Dr Tony Tan describe our defence strategy in the following terms – that Singapore’s defence strategy is predicated on the superiority of our military in the region. Our conventional military strength has got to be clearly superior. And it is clearly superior. The Singapore Armed Forces is very well regarded, both in the region and globally, for its professionalism, its technological edge, and the interoperability of our systems," he said.

Existing powers before FICA already extensive, Act is more calibrated for an Internet age

Shanmugam moved on to explain the state of play as it was before FICA was passed, and Singapore's capabilities in handling threats.

He explained the vast powers afforded to Singapore's authorities and security services by existing laws, such as the Internal Security Act, Telecommunications Act and Public Order Act that among others allows detention without trial and compelling individuals and companies to reveal any document or piece of information for investigation.

Shanmugam made the point that FICA is more calibrated as compared to those laws, and where it goes further is in the extra-territorial reach, which he said is a necessity for dealing with threats in an Internet age which can be spread through global platforms.

He gave the example of a Singaporean company secretly hired by a foreign intelligence agency to put out memes and videos falsely saying that a particular ethnic group is being persecuted. The authorities can detain the company employees under the ISA, or charged with other offences under the Criminal Procedure Code.

However with FICA, the government can issue directions to tech companies to disable access to the malicious content, or restrict the view from Singaporean accounts, so as to stem the hostile campaign without having to block the entire platform.

FICA also will compel social media platforms to release data stored abroad to support an investigation into the HIC, which the existing laws did not allow for.

Addressing misconceptions: Shanmugam

Shanmugam then turned to addressing "misconceptions" about the Act.

FICA does not curtail "normal" interactions with foreigners

He said that as an open society and economy, the government does not intend to curb Singaporeans' "normal" interactions with foreigners.

He compared FICA to other broad-based laws, like the Foreign Agents Registration Act in the U.S. and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme in Australia, and gave scenarios where one could be charged under these laws, but not under FICA.

Shanmugam said that interactions with foreigners are important to Singapore's activities, so the key distinction for FICA is the phrase "public interest."

The definition of public interest has a requirement of "proportionality" and whether it is "necessary or expedient." Shanumgam said:

"So, take an example – two academics, one of them foreign, collaborate on a paper on LGBT issues. It will be difficult to say it is necessary or expedient to issue Directions under FICA.

And really, try explaining that to a Supreme Court Judge who will chair the Tribunal that it is necessary or expedient.

So, the vast majority, of collaborations, linkages, will not meet the required conditions, and they will also not meet the requirement of proportionality."

Foreigners who openly declare their status will not be targeted, unless they are working for a hostile foreign campaign

Shanmugam also confirmed that a foreigner who writes openly under their own name, even if they comment on controversial issues, will generally not be affected by FICA as their views can be properly assessed. However, if they really are working for a foreign hostile interest, they can be investigated.

The same applies to foreign publications who may write critical articles about Singapore. Shanmugam added, emphasising the need to assess proportionality:

"If some deception is involved in the campaign, if the foreigner hides his identity or masquerades as a local, we could, under FICA, give orders for them to be transparent. Just disclose who you are, so that people can judge for themselves.

And collaboration and partnership with a foreign person by itself is not the trigger. You have to go further and look at the facts.

As I’ve said, is there a hostile campaign, is there damage to Singapore, is there a foreign agency involved, what is the extent of possible damage? These are non-exclusive factors, nor must they all be present, or any one of them present."

Defending the use of broad-based language

Shanmugam gave further examples, such as academia and NGOs, where interactions and collaborations with foreigners are common.

However, he highlighted that there may be a 10,000 legitimate activities, but one of them might be a hostile campaign.

Because that one will attempt to appear legitimate like the others, the language used in FICA has got to cover that situation where something appears normal but is actually hostile.

Shanmugam said that the vast majority of academic research, conferences and studies that may be funded by foreign sources will not be targeted by FICA, as long as they are not being used to further hostile campaigns in Singapore. He added:

"So, some of these doomsday scenarios that FICA is going to close off foreign collaborations, if that is correct, we as a Government must have suddenly gone mad.

Because in a country like Singapore, which depends so much on the flow of ideas and international collaboration, is that even thinkable?"

Read the rest of Shanmugam's speech here:

Top image from Mindef's Facebook page.