Singapore’s parliament is set on Monday to debate a proposed law to counter foreign interference that has sparked concerns from opposition parties, rights groups and experts about its broad scope and limits on judicial review.
The small and open city-state says it is vulnerable to foreign meddling. The measure, which comes after a far-reaching law targeting fake news in 2019, is likely to be passed, as the ruling party has a majority in parliament.
The new law will give authorities powers such as compelling internet, social media service providers and website operators to provide user information, block content and remove applications.
But some critics have said its broad language risks capturing even legitimate activities, while rights group Reporters Without Borders said the law could ensnare independent media outlets.
“The pre-emptive powers… and broad scoping of provisions could potentially provide the government with significant wherewithal to curb legitimate civil society activity,” said Eugene Tan, a law professor at Singapore Management University.
“Fica has the makings of being the most intrusive law on the statute books,” he said of the bill, to be formally known as the Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act.
The measure targets content that can cause immediate and significant harm and imposes obligations on those it designates as “politically significant persons” directly involved in Singapore’s political processes, such as MPs.
But others could be also be designated that way if their activities are directed towards a political end.
The bill allows the home minister to order investigations in the public interest to “expose hostile information campaigns”, based on suspicion of foreign interference.
Instead of open court, an independent panel, chaired by a judge, will hear appeals against the minister’s decisions, a move the government says is necessary as matters may involve sensitive intelligence with implications for national security.
In response to a Reuters query, the home ministry said the bill does not apply discussion or advocacy by Singapore citizens, or the vast array of their collaborations with foreigners.
But orders can be issued if a citizen acts for a foreign principal in a manner contrary to the public interest, it added.
As use of social media and communications technology increases, experts and opposition parties have agreed on the need to counter a growing threat of foreign interference in domestic affairs.
But the main opposition Workers’ Party has called for changes to the draft law, such as narrowing the scope of executive powers to reduce the chance of an abuse of power.
Earlier, the home ministry had said the bill would not apply to foreign individuals or publications “reporting or commenting on Singapore politics, in an open, transparent and attributable way.”
Rights groups had warned the 2019 law on fake news could hurt freedom of expression. The government said legitimate criticism and free speech are unaffected.