Foreign interference 'far greater risk' than rogue government abusing power: Shanmugam

·Assistant News Editor
·2-min read
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam speaking in Parliament on 4 October 2021. (SCREENSHOT: Ministry of Information and Communications/YouTube)
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam speaking in Parliament on 4 October 2021. (SCREENSHOT: Ministry of Information and Communications/YouTube)

SINGAPORE — Rogue foreign interference is a "far greater risk" than that of a rogue government abusing its power, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, as Parliament debated the controversial Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill on Monday (4 October).

Acknowledging a "degree of risk" in giving any government powers, Shanmugam nevertheless said, "And ultimately, people have the final say in a highly educated, literate population like Singapore, final say of both public opinion and public opinion expressed through elections.

"People in Singapore won't stand for a rogue government."

The proposed law, or FICA, which was tabled in Parliament for a second reading on Monday, will empower the Minister for Home Affairs to order takedowns of content deemed to be part of hostile information campaigns. It will also enable him to compel, among others, social media companies to disclose information to help investigate and counter hostile communications activity that is of foreign origin.

The Bill will not apply to Singaporeans expressing their own views on political matters, unless they are agents of a foreign principal, said the Ministry of Home Affairs. 

FICA has been criticised by some opposition politicians and academics for its broad provisions and lack of judicial review, which leaves it vulnerable to abuse by a rogue government.  

The Workers' Party has tabled amendments to the Bill seeking oversight of executive action by the judiciary, and a more precise scoping of executive powers to significantly lower the likelihood of abuse of power.

For example, the law in its current form allows for appeals against FICA directives to be made to a tribunal appointed by the President and chaired by a High Court judge. Its decisions are final and cannot be challenged in court. The WP proposed that appeals to the minister, and then the High Court, be allowed. 

However, Shanmugam noted that the tribunal's decisions will be published so that "people can see and assess themselves".

He claimed that the risk of not giving the power to the government or requiring a court process will "severely compromise" its ability to deal with the real risk of foreign interference.

While everyone would wish for a world where the government has the power to act, while providing for complete checks against abuse, this is not possible. "If we can find that formula. We will gladly take that, because that's ideal. But there is no such formula," said the minister. 

The Bill, claimed Shanmugam, is a calibrated piece of legislation that enables the government to act surgically against "threats that have come and continue to loom over us".

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