SINGAPORE – A bill will give authorities new powers to counter foreign attempts to influence domestic policy, encourage social tensions or influence key national decisions.
The Foreign Interference Bill (Countermeasures) presented to Parliament on Monday (September 13) will provide the government with a range of tools – including powers to force Internet and social media providers to pass on information about users, remove online content and block user accounts – to counter these hostile actors.
The proposed law will strengthen Singapore’s ability to prevent, detect and disrupt foreign interference in its domestic policy through hostile information campaigns and the use of local proxies, the Home Office (MHA) said.
Individuals and groups directly involved in Singapore’s political processes will be identified as politically significant persons (PSPs), who will be subject to measures to mitigate the risk of foreign interference should the law occur.
It will require political parties, politicians, election candidates and their election agents to declare any foreign affiliation.
In a statement on the bill, the ministry noted that foreign interference and hostile information campaigns (HICs) – the use of online tools and tactics in a coordinated way to mislead or encourage users and promote the interest of a foreign country – pose a serious threat to Singapore’s political sovereignty and national security.
“Hostile foreign actors may seek to mislead Singaporeans on political issues, arouse disagreement and disharmony by playing up controversial issues such as race and religion, or seek to undermine trust and confidence in public institutions,” it said.
Singapore is particularly vulnerable to such an impact given its open, highly digitally connected and diverse communities, MHA added.
“We are strengthening our capacity for discovery and response, as well as the ability of Singaporeans to distinguish between legitimate and artificial online discourses,” it said.
“To complement these efforts, our laws need to evolve, just as other countries have introduced new laws to tackle foreign interference.”
The proposed legislation will, among other things, allow the government to obtain information on foreign interference operations, prevent harmful online communication and quickly block or contain the proliferation of such activity.
The authorities may also designate persons or organizations that may become targets of foreign influence, compel them to provide relevant information on a regular basis and to obtain information on foreign interference operations.
Singapore has not been immune to such attempts at interference, the MHA noted.
It cited how in the 1980s a first secretary at the US Embassy in Singapore, Mr. Hank Hendrickson, had cultivated a group of local lawyers to participate in opposition politics and contest the election in 1988. These lawyers were offered funding, and one of those, Francis Seow, were offered refuge in the United States should he encounter difficulties with the Singapore government. He later obtained U.S. citizenship.
There have been reports of similar attempts abroad, with foreign players using funding and other leverage to get local proxies to push their agenda. In Australia, a former senator received donations from a foreign billionaire and was in favor of a foreign country’s stance on a sensitive national security issue.
There have also been many instances where social media and communication technologies have been used to mount hostile campaigns, including intensifying controversial domestic issues ahead of last year’s US presidential election (2020) and spreading skepticism about Western vaccines against Covid. 19.
The MHA also cited the abnormal rise in online comments from anonymous social media accounts critical of Singapore as the republic faced bilateral problems with another country in late 2018 and 2019.
The ministry added that it can appeal against instructions issued under the proposed law and will be dealt with by an independent court.
PSPs wishing to challenge their designation or countermeasures imposed on them may also appeal the decisions.
The ministry noted that the select committee for online fraud in 2018 had warned that foreign state-linked disinformation efforts are likely to already occur here and that Singapore is particularly vulnerable to foreign influence.
It added that while efforts are being made to strengthen the ability to detect and respond to such attempts and help Singaporeans distinguish between legitimate and artificial online discourse, laws here need to evolve that they have elsewhere to tackle the threat.
“This bill will strengthen our ability to counter foreign interference and ensure that Singaporeans continue to make our own choices about how we govern our country and live our lives,” the MHA said.