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Singapore Parliament takes 10 hours to pass Bill to deal with foreign interference


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A screenshot of Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam speaking during a debate on the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill in Parliament on Monday (Oct 4).

 

SINGAPORE: Legislation designed to counter foreign interference was passed in Parliament on Monday (Oct 4), with a majority of 75 to 11.

 

The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill (FICA), tabled in Parliament three weeks ago, seeks to prevent, detect, and disrupt the use of hostile information campaigns and local proxies by foreign entities intending to interfere in domestic politics.

 

All People’s Action Party (PAP) MPs present voted for the Bill, as did four Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs), while 10 Workers’ Party (WP) MPs and Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Leong Mun Wai from Progress Singapore Party (PSP) voted against it. Two NMPs abstained.

 

The Bill was passed following a 10-hour debate, which started at around 12.50pm and ended just before 11.15pm according to channelnewsasia.com.

 

Following calls from PSP's Mr Leong to refer the Bill to a select committee under Standing Order 68, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin clarified after the second reading of the debate that the standing order did not apply in this case.

 

Under Standing Order 68, the Speaker of Parliament can refer a Bill to a select committee, if they are of the opinion that it is a hybrid Bill, or one that prejudicially affects individual rights and interests. 

 

"The Foreign Interference (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,” said Mr Tan.

 

Twenty-one MPs spoke during the debate. WP MPs also proposed several amendments to the Bill, and suggestions and points of clarification by PAP MPs.

 

WP's suggestion to include central executive committee members or the equivalent of any registered political party as part of politically significant persons as defined in the Bill was accepted, as was its proposal to make public some information, such as who is designated as a politically significant person and stepped-up countermeasures taken under the Bill. 

 

"We will make public all designations, stepped up countermeasures on politically significant persons, transparency directives and hostile information directives," Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said.

 

However, technical assistance requirements will not be made public so as not to "tip off" hostile actors about ongoing investigations, he added.

 

The names of citizens involved in foreign political and legislative organisations will also, for now, not be revealed as they are not politically significant persons, Mr Shanmugam said. An amendment on this could take place in future, he said.

 

Further public scrutiny

 

In his closing speech, Mr Shanmugam rebutted key concerns including the timing of the Bill and further public consultation to scrutinise the new law.

 

During the debate, several MPs questioned the timing of the Bill, which was tabled less than a month ago.

Mr Louis Ng (PAP-Nee Soon) said there were some concerns about the interval between the first and second reading of the Bill, with some feeling that the interval was too short. 

 

PSP's Mr Leong said: "It is difficult to understand why the Government is trying to rush the passage of this Bill and why the debate on this Bill cannot be postponed by three to six months to allow for proper scrutiny and consultation, involving a wide range of stakeholders."

 

In response, Mr Shanmugam said that the issue had been talked about "extensively" for more than three years. He also added that a select committee had also heard extensive evidence on the issue in 2018. 

 

Addressing the WP's proposed amendments to the Bill in his closing speech, Mr Shanmugam reiterated why the WP's suggestion to have the proceedings conducted in the High Court or an open court process would not work. 

 

"The judicial process will not be appropriate in matters where we rely heavily on sensitive intelligence collaboration with foreign counterparts, many things cannot be publicly disclosed," said Mr Shanmugam.

 

"The courts themselves have recognised their limitations in such matters," he added, pointing to the case of Chng Suan Tze where the Court of Appeal recognised that where a decision was based on national security concerns, judicial review of that decision will be precluded.

 

"The Court acknowledged that what national security requires, has to be left to those responsible for national security," he said, adding that in such situations, alternate ways have been found to provide for checks and balances to maintain accountability.

 

Mr Shanmugam agreed with WP chief and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on the importance of education about foreign interference and its dangers. 

 

"I agree and I have explained that FICA is part of a comprehensive strategy to deal with foreign interference. Powers under FICA are only part of the picture and I've said that it's a calibrated piece of legislation to allow us to act surgically against threats," he said. 

 

Besides legislation, Mr Shanmugam said the Government will continue to strengthen other defences, detection and response capabilities, as well as Singaporeans' ability to discern legitimate and artificial online discourse, to counter the threat of foreign interference. 

 

Responding to Mr Shanmugam's remarks, Mr Singh quoted a speech made by then-Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo at the Committee of Supply debates earlier this year. 

 

In her speech, she said that Singapore would need to consider further measures to guard against foreign subversion, and "the public has to have a big part in this to shape proposals and to give safeguards to stronger support", Mr Singh said. 

 

“There doesn't seem to be an answer as to why the Bill could not be put before public consultation, like other Bills are," he added. 

 

"This is an omission for which I don't think we've heard a response to yet."

 

The WP also "does not understand at the very base level" why judicial review must be limited in this case, said Mr Singh. 

 

The Leader of the Opposition noted the points made by Mr Shanmugam about national security, stressing that WP MPs have proposed no-camera hearings and that the files be sealed after that. 

 

"I don't mean to just facetiously give a counter response, but there could be leaks in the reviewing tribunals as well," he added. 

 

"I think if you asked me on balance, should a court at least ... review the decision of the minister? Should judicial review be allowed to be captured in its entirety by a court of law? I think the answer is 'Yes'." 

 

Responding to Mr Singh's clarifications, the Law and Home Affairs Minister reiterated that the Government has been engaging in extensive consultations with the public on the matter over the last three years. 

 

The public, primarily experts, has been involved in the "thinking through" of the Bill as well, said Mr Shanmugam. 

 

"In fact, we have considered the viewpoints that have been given to us by a wide variety of actors. But if we talk about whole-of-society, this is not the end. It's the beginning," he added. 

 

"We will face a major attack at some point, we need to bring the entire society together, we need to do a lot more to bring and shape public thinking, so there is a long haul ahead of us and the public has to be involved in that." 

 

Addressing Mr Singh's second clarification, Mr Shanmugam said many post-colonial countries inherited their systems from the British - a civil service, a judiciary, an education system, and the Singapore Government built up the judiciary.

 

"If we don't have a commitment to rule of law you think our judiciary will be ranked as it is today internationally?" 

Singapore's institutions were built with the foundations of "building order first” and making sure the law and commitment to rule of law "is there", but making exceptions, when necessary, said Mr Shanmugam. 



"Let us get out of this colonisation of our minds. Let us look at what works, what is fundamental. Checks and balances are important. But what is wrong with the checks and balances we built in here?"

 

 

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10 hours are too long. I prefer my Singaporean bills to pass in 8 hours or less. , anything over that is outrageous ! :w00t:

 

PS: it took me almost as long to read this very interesting article. 

Edited by sirineou
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