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The Answer to Tackling Foreign Interference? Understanding FICA in Singapore


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In this Explainer, find out...

  • What is the rationale behind the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA)?

  • How is FICA enforced?

  • How are other countries countering foreign interference?


Introduction


What do the Prime Minister, a political office holder, and an election agent have in common? Clearly, they are highly involved in political processes such as policy formation and parliamentary proceedings. To put it more formally, however, they may be designated as ‘Politically Significant Persons’ under the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA). 


FICA was first introduced in September 2021 by Minister of Law K. Shanmugam, before eventually being passed in October 2021.¹ Simply expressed, FICA empowers the Government to counter foreign interference, which refers to instances where foreign agents try to manipulate the domestic politics, actions or policies of a target country to advance their interests. These attempts may range from overtly malicious social media campaigns to covert donations to politically influential persons. 


Under FICA, the Government may step in to investigate and remove such online content as well as to place safeguards on politically influential people. Read on to find out the rationale and mechanisms behind this Act! 


Rationale Behind FICA  


The principle that every nation has a sovereign right to ensure its national security is the core of FICA. The Government believes it must take a hands-on, active approach to countering foreign influence by creating regulatory frameworks that are equipped to manage a diverse range of threats.²


Furthermore, many internal and external factors render FICA especially urgent and relevant today. 


Internal Factors


As a highly connected and diverse society, Singapore is particularly vulnerable to external influence and internal division. Thus, FICA is needed to maintain national security, political stability, and social harmony in Singapore. 


Firstly, FICA hopes to safeguard Singapore’s sovereignty by enabling the Government to expeditiously counter espionage and hostile influences. Secondly, FICA seeks to protect democracy in Singapore by warding off foreign actors who intend to sway domestic political affairs, regardless of whether the country is in the midst of an election. Lastly, FICA strives to keep Singapore's social fabric intact by minimising polarisation and social division. Foreign interference has the potential to disrupt the resolve and solidarity of a nation, emphasising the need to ensure social cohesion.


Singapore has been the subject of damaging fake news cases in recent years, for instance, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when fraudulent news stories and government announcements proliferated on social media platforms.³ This highlights Singapore’s susceptibility to malicious online actors and underscores the importance of unity in the face of hardship. 


External Factors 


External factors also make FICA more pressing. These include the advancement of technology and rising geopolitical tensions. 


As communications technology and artificial intelligence advance, it has become much easier for foreign actors to influence local affairs through platforms like social media and online blogs. Hence, now more than ever, Singapore must be on the lookout for foreign interference campaigns online. 


Moreover, given the rise in geopolitical tensions, there are opportunities aplenty to sow seeds of distrust and discord among Singaporeans. This is readily apparent from recent cases of foreign interference found abroad. One example is the 2020 U.S. presidential elections when Russian troll farms sought to discredit presidential candidate Joe Biden by using private online chat rooms and message boards to circulate falsehoods, undermining fairness in the democratic process. Such a case serves as a cautionary tale for Singapore, emphasising the need for vigilance against foreign threats through measures such as FICA.

How FICA is Enforced


Legislated on 4 October 2021, FICA aims to counter foreign manipulation of domestic politics by empowering authorities to i) issue directions to counter Hostile Information Campaigns (HICs) and ii) issue safeguards on Politically Significant Persons.


Countering Hostile Information Campaigns 


FICA empowers the Minister for Home Affairs to issue FICA directions to “social media services, relevant electronic services, internet access services, as well as persons who own or run websites, blogs or social media pages, to help the authorities investigate and counter hostile communications activity that is of foreign origin.” 


Speaking in Parliament on 4 October 2021, Minister Shanmugam expressed that FICA does not increase the Government’s Substantive Powers (such as powers to detain and investigate) to tackle HICs. Instead, it provides updated Executory Powers (such as powers to enforce the removal of content) for calibrated responses to online HICs (see Figure 1). 


Figure 1: Existing and Updated Powers under FICA


With such powers, the Government can obtain information to verify the presence and origin of a HIC. In addition, the Government can issue directions for a social media service to remove the content of HICs. Finally, for applications known to be used by foreign principals to spread HICs, application removal directions can be issued to application distribution services, allowing for more preventive interventions.


Online sites determined as HIC spreaders may also be declared Proscribed Online Locations (POL), making it an offence to operate or support such sites. Doing so will facilitate the de-monetisation of POLs, hampering their ability to launch further HICs against Singapore.


Safeguards on Politically Significant Persons (PSPs)


Local proxies can also be a conduit for foreign interference. Foreign actors may provide monetary or non-monetary support for politically engaged persons to influence domestic decisions and politics. Provisions relating to PSPs are based on existing legislation, namely the Political Donations Act (PDA), which requires persons directly involved in Singapore’s political processes to declare political donations.


FICA defines Politically Significant Persons as:


  1. Political parties; 

  2. Political office holders;

  3. Members of Parliament, including Non-Constituency MPs and Nominated MPs; 

  4. Central Executive Committee members of political parties; and

  5. Election candidates and their election agents.


Defined PSPs are required to report substantial donations. There are also restrictions placed on their activities with foreign parties. For one, defined PSPs are prohibited from receiving donations from foreign donors and cannot accept voluntary labour or voluntary professional services provided by non- Singaporeans. 


Furthermore, defined PSPs must disclose their affiliations with foreign principals. Should there be a heightened risk of foreign interference, the defined PSP may be required to terminate such affiliations.¹⁰

 

Under the ambit of FICA, the Minister for Home Affairs can appoint a Competent Authority (person or organisation given the legal power to perform a task) to designate individuals and organisations as PSPs upon fulfilment of these conditions:


  1. Their activities are directed towards a political end; and

  2. The Competent Authority assesses that it is in the public interest that countermeasures against foreign inference be applied.


The first PSP designation was applied in February 2024, when the Registrar of Foreign and Political Disclosures designated Mr Philip Chan as a PSP. A naturalised Singaporean who moved to Singapore from Hong Kong, Mr Chan was assessed to “have shown susceptibility to being influenced by foreign actors, and willingness to advance their interests”.¹¹ 


Mr Chan heads the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce in Singapore and was previously the president of the Kowloon Club. In March 2023, Mr Chan was one of 30 global representatives to be invited to attend China’s Two Sessions parliamentary meetings, which is China’s annual legislative meeting and the most important political event of the year. As Mr Chan also held grassroots appointments, Assistant Professor Benjamin Ho at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) expressed that “to the extent that he might have sort of influenced people within his circle of domestic networks about China, I guess that’s where you’ve got the government a bit concerned”.¹²


As a designated PSP, Mr Chan must disclose foreign affiliations, migration benefits and political donations of $10,000 or more.


Appeal Mechanisms and Cases Where FICA is Not Applicable


Individuals or organisations can appeal to the Minister for Home Affairs to challenge designations under FICA. Furthermore, FICA does not apply to Singaporeans acting on their own accord, foreigners making open and attributable comments, and unintentional acts. As Minister Shanmugam expressed in Parliament, “This Bill does not target Singaporeans participating independently in our domestic political discourse nor the very vast majority of interactions with foreigners.”¹³


Discussion


What are Some Concerns Surrounding FICA?


Concerns have been raised about FICA’s impact on academic activities, for example, its potential to limit collaborations between local and overseas academia. However, these concerns have been assuaged by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which clarified that FICA will not be applied against most academic activities and that it does not target foreigners from commenting on local matters in a transparent fashion.¹⁴ 


Separately, the business community has raised concerns about FICA’s lack of clarity on ‘acceptable’ overseas activities. For this, Minister Shanmugam has provided clarifications on the interpretations of the conditions listed under FICA.¹⁵ Additionally, preliminary clarifications surrounding the conditions of FICA can be seen in the parliamentary debate preceding the passing of the Bill for FICA.¹⁶ 


How are Other Countries Countering Foreign Interference?


Many countries abroad mainly rely on the restriction of financial donations to counter foreign interference. For example, the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act in India grants India’s Ministry of Home Affairs the authority to cancel foreign contribution agreements if foreign sources are found to have threatened national interests.¹⁷ While not all countries have legislation in place to address foreign interference, countries like Japan and South Korea have shown their intent to move towards limiting foreign interference through financial donations too.¹⁸ 


How Does FICA Differ?  


While legislation abroad primarily focuses on restricting financial donations, FICA extends to protection against foreign interference in cyberspace. Hence, activities like cyber attacks and HICs are also controlled under FICA. This two-pronged approach ensures both online and offline protection against foreign interference. 


Conclusion


In all, FICA was introduced in response to the rise of foreign interference worldwide. By targeting both online and offline spaces, FICA provides comprehensive protection against foreign interference,thus strengthening Singapore’s national security and democracy. 


MAJU PE_2024_21_The Answer to Tackling Foreign Interference_ Understanding FICA in Singapo
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This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own. 


By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of  Singapore.

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