Mr Speaker, the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) is strongly against foreign interference in our country’s affairs. But the PSP cannot support the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act which I shall refer to as FICA, in its current form because of the insufficient evaluation by both parliamentarians and members of the public of its far-reaching implications. So, PSP calls upon the Government to delay the passing of the Bill, hold public consultations and appoint a Select Committee to scrutinise the Bill closely.
The Minister has just got through two hours in this Chamber on the possible amendments. These are exactly what should have been done in Select Committee. Is it realistic or fair to expect parliamentarians to understand the pros and cons of the amendments in just a few hours of debate?
So, our recommendation is based on three considerations.
One, for such an important Bill, it should not be rushed through Parliament, disregarding proper legislative processes and the feelings of Singaporeans suffering under a worsening COVID-19 crisis.
Two, countering foreign interference is an ongoing task and sufficient resources have already been deployed to it. Do we need to restrict our citizens’ freedom further to achieve better outcomes?
Three, is it wise to pass a legislation giving extensive power to a Minister without any judicial oversight? The possibility of abuse cannot be ruled out.
FICA is a complex Bill with 127 sections over 249 pages and the content difficult to make sense of, even for senior lawyers. In spite of that, the Bill was only tabled at the last Parliamentary sitting on 13 September, barely three weeks ago and we are already rushing through its passage today. Many Members of this House are probably not adequately prepared for a thorough debate today.
It is difficult to understand why the Government is trying to rush the passage of this Bill or 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.
Just earlier this year, the Government established a two-month long public consultation process for the Copyright Bill. The POFMA Bill also went through a long consultation, lasting more than a year and, in addition, through a Select Committee before it was passed into law.
So, where is the Select Committee for FICA which arguably should be held to even greater scrutiny in light of the removal of judicial supervision of the Government’s usage of FICA’s powers and our citizens’ constitutional rights?
We should also delay the reading of this Bill because we should be now focusing our resources and attention on the worsening COVID-19 situation in our country. The number of infections has shot up exponentially and there are more and more distressed situations amongst many of us Singaporeans. This is a time when Members of Parliament should be busy helping constituents get through the many challenges in their lives due to the current COVID-19 crisis, instead of being distracted to mull through and digest this draconian Bill.
On the other hand, the Government is not new to dealing with foreign interference for which it has been well-equipped to deal with after many years of experience.
PSP recognises that foreign interference had existed in the past and will continue to exist. But countering foreign interference is an ongoing task and this Government already has substantial resources to deal with it. As I said, do we need to restrict our citizens’ freedom further to achieve better outcomes?
We deploy substantial resources to national security every year. For FY2021, we are spending $15 billion on defence; $6.5 billion on home affairs and $0.5 billion on foreign affairs, all for the purpose of upholding and protecting our sovereignty. This makes a total of $22 billion accounting for more than a quarter of our operating budget.
There are also tough laws in place to deal with internal security and public issues.
To start with, we have the Internal Security Act (ISA) which was passed in 1960 when we were still part of Malaysia. The Court of Appeal’s ruling that the ISA was subjected to judicial review was already overruled in a legislative amendment in 1988, giving the Government wide powers in administering the ISA. Incidentally, Malaysia had repealed its ISA in 2012 while our ISA is still in force.
Then, we have the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) since 1975, which is designed to ensure there is no foreign control on Singaporean newspapers and limits the circulation of foreign printed media. There is also the Broadcasting Act 1994 which requires online sites discussing Singapore’s political issues to register for a licence with conditions covering foreign funding and interference.
The NPPA and Broadcasting Act allowed the Government to have almost monopoly control over the narrative on major policies and issues through the mainstream media. That was until the rise of social media, as a strong alternative platform from around 2010. As a result, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) came into being in 2019 to allow the Government to tackle the spread of fake news and false information online.
Between the ISA, NPPA, Broadcasting Act and POFMA, this Government already has extensive powers to deal with any internal security threat, manage public opinion and prevent the spread of false information online. So, is there a need to give this Government further powers to deal with foreign interference at the expense of our citizens’ constitutional rights?
As there is no urgency but ample reasons why we should delay the Bill, we should then make best use of the opportunity to evaluate the implications of FICA properly.
We understand all that has been said about combating foreign interference. But we cannot ignore the basic principles of democracy, which is not based on a benevolent ruler but on separation of powers and checks and balances. A law like FICA, which ignores those principles, ought to be considered carefully and over a long period of deliberation.
Just look at some of the frightening implications on people, on an accused person under FICA. It is possible that you may inadvertently commit an offence because the definition of an offence is broad and vague. There is no need to give you a reason to arrest you, and if evidence is offered later, the Government does not need to reveal the source and detention is non-bailable. You cannot choose your own legal Counsel and can be trialed in absence. And to cap it all, there is no judicial review for all the actions that are taken against you. Thus, FICA appears even worse than the Internal Security Act.
There are many more provisions and, to me, all sounded like a joke for someone living in a modern democratic society, based on the Rule of Law. FICA can be described in Singlish. This also called law? Or in more accurate English, tyranny in the name of law.
Mr Speaker, in Chinese, please.
新加坡同胞，FICA，这个名义上是为了防止外来干预的法律，像一只披上羊皮的老虎，其实是一个有可能严重侵害民主和民权的法律。国家安全当然是我们国民密切关注的问题，我们也支持给予政府足够的资源去应付这个问题。譬如在 2021 财政年度里，拨给国家，维持国内外安全方面的预算就高达 220 亿新元，等于总预算的四分之一。 政府也通过内安法，新闻法，广播法和 POFMA 基本上控制了国内安全的威胁，舆论和网上假消息的转播。因此，FICA 可以说是一个“莫须有”的法案，它给予政府“欲加之罪，何患无辞”的权力来对付持有不同意见的每一个国民。我们应该吸取历史的教训，譬如日本和德国的军国主义的教训，每当一个政府走向极权主义，都可能给国家带来灾难性的结果。国家需要政府和民意互相制衡才有望长治久安。这 FICA 是一个有可能抹杀民意和民权的法律,我们不可不防。不要以为 FICA 跟日常生活没有关系。因为没有了言论自由，就算是讨论就业和生计的问题，以后都可能会受到很大的约束。所以前进党认为应该延迟通过这项法案，让国民和特别委员会有足够的时间去把它彻底的审查。
(Translation of the above Mandarin Speech. My Singapore compatriots, FICA, in name, is a law to prevent foreign interference, but actually, it is a tiger in sheep’s skin and may severely infringe on our democratic and civil rights. National security is of course something that we are very concerned about, and we also support giving the Government enough resources to deal with it. For example, in Financial Year 2021, $22 billion was allocated to maintain domestic and external security, accounting for a quarter of the total budget. Through the Internal Security Act, the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, the Broadcasting Act and the POFMA, the Government has basically controlled threats to domestic security, public opinion and the transmission of fake news online.)
Hence, FICA is really a law that is unnecessary. It gives the Government the power to deal with citizens who hold dissenting views. We should learn from history, such as the lessons of Militarism in Japan and Germany. Every time a government moves towards authoritarianism, it can bring about disastrous consequences for the country. The country needs checks and balances between the Government and the people in order to have lasting peace and stability.
FICA is a law that can could suppress public opinion and civil rights. We must guard against it. Do not think that FICA has nothing to do with our everyday life. This is because without freedom of speech, even discussions on employment and livelihood issues could be restricted. Therefore, PSP feels that the Bill should be postponed to give the people and the Special Committee sufficient time to scrutinise it thoroughly.
(In English): Mr Speaker, the excessive controls of FICA over civil rights would not stop a determined foreign state from conducting foreign interference. While our capable security agencies and diplomatic channels are dealing with it, the best defence against foreign interference is not more laws to control our own people but to raise the awareness of our people towards national security threats. Hence, the anti-terrorist awareness campaign, SGSecure, which is aimed at all Singaporeans, is a wise move.
Like what the Leader of the Opposition has commented just now, this Government should be more proactive in educating Singaporeans on what is online foreign interference, so that every citizen can be its eyes and ears. Accordingly, we should not have laws to restrict and control Singaporeans’ interaction with foreigners. But we should encourage more interactions so that we know firsthand if there are developments of concern to the interest of Singapore.
Mr Speaker, all things said, and to reiterate, is it wise to hastily pass a legislation, giving extensive power to a Minister without judicial oversight? I, as do many Singaporeans, urge you and all Members of this House, to delay the passing of this Bill and allow for public consultations and the appointment of a Select Committee to scrutinise the Bill. You have the power to do so, Mr Speaker, under Standing Order No 68. It can be done.
And how each Member votes 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 the foundation of all democratic nations. For the sake of Singapore and Singaporeans, Mr Speaker, I urge you again to exercise your power, under Standing Order No 68 to refer the Bill to a Select Committee.
Sir, I oppose the Bill. Singaporeans deserve better. And I just received a message from a Singaporean through my handphone which says, “I want freedom of information. I don’t want FICA.”