Published: 04 October 2021
1. Mr Speaker, on behalf of the Minister, I will now take Members through second part of the Bill that empowers us to counter foreign interference through local proxies.
2. Despite the proliferation of foreign interference attempts in the digital space, we still see many instances of interference by hostile foreign actors in the physical world, through compromising local proxies. One example that was raised in Minister’s speech took place in Australia, where a former Senator received donations from an individual with connections to a foreign government. The former Senator then advocated for the foreign country’s position on the South China Sea despite it being contrary to his party’s position.
3. Another example took place in 2015, where Reuters reported that a State-linked company was covertly backing at least 33 radio stations in countries across the Asia-Pacific region to form a global network broadcasting news that placed that particular State in a positive light.
4. Closer to home, Singapore is not immune. In the 1980s, the First Secretary of the United States Embassy in Singapore, Hank Hendrickson, cultivated a group of Singaporean lawyers to join opposition politics and contest the 1988 General Election. The lawyers were offered funding, and one of them was even offered refuge in the US should he subsequently run into difficulties with the Singapore Government.
5. We should update our laws to address the new ways that foreign actors can influence local political individuals and entities.
Purpose of Bill
6. We currently have the Political Donations Act, or PDA, that prohibits political associations, as well as election candidates and their agents, from accepting monetary donations from foreign sources.
7. However, the PDA does not cover other individuals who are directly involved in our political processes, such as our Members of Parliament, or MPs. Also, the PDA only covers monetary donations, and does not cover other possible vectors of interference such as through formal affiliation with a foreign organisation and provision of voluntary services by foreigners.
8. To strengthen our safeguards, this Bill will repeal the PDA, bring the existing PDA obligations into this Bill, and introduce some additional countermeasures.
Politically Significant Persons
9. First, let me go through the individuals and entities that this Bill aims to cover.
10. Clause 14 of the Bill defines individuals and entities, who are formally involved in our political processes, as Politically Significant Persons, or PSPs. These are listed in the Bill, and are, namely: political parties; Political Office Holders; MPs, which includes elected MPs, NCMPs and NMPs; Leader of the House; Leader of the Opposition; election candidates; and election agents.
11. The Bill also empowers the Competent Authority, a civil servant in MHA appointed by the Minister for Home Affairs, to designate other individuals and entities as PSPs, if certain conditions are met.
12. Clause 14, read with Clause 47 and 48, empowers the Competent Authority to designate entities and individuals respectively as PSPs if:
a. they are members of foreign political or legislative bodies, or their activities are directed in part towards a political end; and
b. the Competent Authority assesses that it is in the public interest that countermeasures be applied.
13. It is important that we have levers to designate and impose countermeasures on individuals and entities who may be at risk of foreign interference and have exhibited behaviour that points to such risk. It also has the effect of promoting transparency and deterring would-be foreign actors with malicious intent from trying to influence Singapore’s politics through these local proxies.
Countermeasures on PSPs
14. I will now talk about the different countermeasures that will be imposed on both defined and designated PSPs.
15. All PSPs will have to comply with a baseline set of obligations and countermeasures.
a. We will apply the most stringent countermeasures on defined PSPs, as they are directly involved in Singapore’s political processes.
16. For designated PSPs, in the first instance of designation, their obligations only pertain to disclosure. However, Clause 88 provides for countermeasures to be stepped up, if conditions are met, potentially to the same level as those for defined PSPs.
17. The countermeasures on PSPs are detailed in Chart 2 that was earlier distributed.
18. First, let me talk about donations.
19. Clauses 62 to 65 require all PSPs, both defined and designated, to disclose donations to the Competent Authority.
a. Donations need to be disclosed if they are $10,000 or more.
b. Smaller donations from the same donor that when aggregated during the same reporting period amounts to $10,000 or more, also have to be disclosed.
20. Donations that need to be disclosed do not only cover those that are made in cash; Clause 51 articulates the types of donations that the Bill will cover, including donations made in kind, or the provision of goods and services for a fee below the fair market value.
21. That said, the Bill does not cover all kinds of donations, only donations that are directed wholly or in part towards a political end.
22. The disclosure requirements do not cover personal gifts, for example, as the intent of the Bill is to safeguard against foreign interference in our domestic politics. Certain other donations or gifts may be handled by other laws.
23. Defined PSPs are subject to more stringent donation controls. For example, defined PSPs are:
a. Prohibited from receiving donations from impermissible donors, such as foreign donors and Singaporean donors below the age of 21 years old;
b. They are not allowed to receive $5,000 or more of anonymous donations; and
c. Are required to maintain a dedicated bank account to hold their political donations.
24. Designated PSPs are not subject to these restrictions at the onset of designation.
25. Members will see from the Annex that most of these requirements already exist in PDA today.
26. Influence can also come though volunteers, apart from donations.
27. Clause 56 prohibits defined PSPs from accepting voluntary labour or services from foreigners. The Bill is not concerned with all types of voluntary services, and only prohibits defined PSPs from accepting voluntary services that relate specifically to the duties and responsibilities of the PSPs in question. For instance, a MP cannot allow foreigners to volunteer at the Meet-the-People sessions or any other programmes that are organised by the political parties.
28. For designated PSPs, there is no prohibition on foreign volunteers in the first instance.
29. However, if there is an increased risk of foreign interference, Clause 85(2)(b), read with Clause 88, empowers the Competent Authority to require that the designated PSP report voluntary labour and services that are rendered by foreigners.
30. Next, disclosure requirements on foreign affiliations. The Bill does not cover all kinds of affiliations; for example, personal friendships, or co-workers, are not covered by the Bill.
31. The Bill does not restrict association with a foreigner and is not intended to reduce foreign partnerships or businesses.
32. An example of what the Bill is concerned with is foreign affiliations where the foreign principals are in position of control over the PSP and the PSP is taking direct instructions from the foreign principal. For example, being an employee of a foreign company would be one such arrangement that will need to be disclosed if you are a PSP. These reportable arrangements are defined in Clause 78.
33. If there is an increased risk of foreign interference, Clause 84, read with Clause 88, empowers the Competent Authority to require the PSP to terminate its foreign affiliations.
34. Clauses 78(3) and 78(4) will require defined and designated PSPs individuals to declare if they have been granted migration benefits by foreign countries.
a. Examples of migration benefits will include a foreign passport, travel identification documents, an entitlement/privilege/status to work or reside in the foreign country, or an honorary citizenship.
b. The purpose of this declaration is simply for transparency – there would be no stepped-up countermeasures to prohibit the acceptance of migration benefits.
Leadership and Membership
35. Next, on leadership and membership.
36. The Societies Act already disallows foreigners from being members of political parties, and this will continue.
37. Designated Politically Significant Entities, or PSEs, in the first instance, are not prohibited from appointing foreigners to leadership positions, or accepting foreign memberships.
38. If there is an increased risk of foreign interference, Clause 83, read with Clause 88, empowers the Competent Authority to prohibit the PSE from accepting foreigners as members or appointing them as responsible officers within the entity.
39. There may be instances where the Government will need to act even before we designate an individual or organisation as PSPs. The Bill provides for countermeasures in two of such cases.
40. First, foreign states may attempt to cultivate Singapore citizens to influence our domestic politics through their involvement in foreign political and legislative bodies. Examples of these would be a foreign political party, or political advisory body.
41. Clause 79 will require Singapore citizens to declare their involvement in foreign political or legislative bodies.
42. MHA recognises that there may be innocuous instances where Singaporeans living abroad join foreign political bodies, such as Singaporean students joining foreign political parties while they are studying abroad, out of their own personal interests. However, this can nonetheless still pose a threat, as such Singaporeans may be cultivated, approached or influenced, even unknowingly, and subsequently made use of to affect our local politics. As such, it is necessary to require them to disclose their involvement in such bodies, for transparency purposes.
43. Second, based on our experience of seeing foreign writers masquerading as local writers in penning articles relating to Singaporean political matters, we felt that it was important for Singaporeans to be aware of the origin of such articles and perspectives.
44. If there is an increased risk of foreign interference, Clauses 80 to 82 will allow the Competent Authority to issue a transparency directive to direct any newspaper, media outlet which includes online media, or any defined or designated PSP that publishes matters on political issues relating to Singapore, to disclose the particulars of any foreign author and foreign principal for whom or at whose direction the article or programme is published, if the article or programme is a political matter concerning Singapore.
45. To be clear, this will only apply to entities that are issued with the transparency directive.
Appeals and Assurances
46. There is no fixed expiry date for the designation and countermeasures imposed on PSPs. This approach is the same as that under the PDA.
47. But the process is transparent when we designate PSPs.
a. Clause 49 of the Bill states that when we designate a politically significant person or entity, the Competent Authority must, without delay, give the individual or entity notice of the designation.
48. Moreover, if a PSP wishes to challenge its designation or the stepped-up countermeasures imposed on it, it may submit an application for the Competent Authority’s reconsideration or an appeal to the Minister for Home Affairs.
a. Clause 102 allows the Minister to consult an advisory body before arriving at a determination on the merits of the appeal.
49. Unless a Singaporean or entity is acting as a foreign agent or working with foreigners to affect our public interest, they will not be covered.
a. Academic research, business partnerships, creative collaborations, cultural exchanges – such interactions will not be designated.
b. An employee working for an American tech firm that is openly advocating for American technology as part of their business will not be designated as there is no public interest in doing so.
c. It is also not within the Bill’s intent to prevent local NGOs from freely working with foreign businesses on their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects.
d. The Bill also does not seek to stop businesses and organisations from building overseas partnerships or soliciting for overseas business, networking with foreigners, going to conferences or seminars, or engaging in cultural exchanges.
e. These types of activities and dealings will not be constrained in any way by the proposed Bill.
f. It will be business as usual as we know it for the vast majority of Singaporeans and residents in Singapore.
50. Allow me to give an example of how the PSP measures will apply.
51. Let’s take a case of a Singapore-registered entity which has been actively commenting on Singapore’s politics and in advocating on potentially divisive social issues. The Competent Authority has reason to believe that the entity may be receiving support from a foreign state-linked agency. This entity may be designated by the Competent Authority as a PSE.
52. To ensure transparency of its activities, the PSE will have to submit donation and foreign affiliation disclosures in the very first instance.
53. This is in fact less stringent than the PDA of today. Under the PDA, if an entity is designated as a political association, the controls are the same as that imposed on a political party – this includes not being allowed to receive foreign funding, and a cap on anonymous donations.
54. If the Competent Authority assesses that there is a heightened threat of foreign interference, the PSE may be issued with stepped-up countermeasures.
55. For example, if the PSE is suspected to be receiving funding from foreign agencies to organise a petition against the Government calling for a change in our laws on the issue that the group is advocating for, the Competent Authority may issue a directive prohibiting the PSE from receiving foreign donations.
56. If the PSE is affiliated with a foreign group which is suspected to be taking instructions from a foreign state, the Competent Authority may direct the PSE to end its affiliation with the foreign group.
57. If the PSE has been publishing articles related to Singapore politics, it may also be issued with a transparency directive to disclose the nationalities of contributors of the articles.
No substantial changes from PDA
58. Finally, it is useful to highlight that a substantial portion of the Bill that deals with local proxies was ported over from the PDA. Where it is new, it is meant to address the gaps.
59. Our approach is also narrower than the Australian or US approach.
60. Mr Speaker, allow me to now speak and conclude in Chinese.
[Translation: Mr Speaker, Sun Tzu’s Art of War has a saying, “It is better to win the heart of people than to capture the city.” This saying encapsulates why we need the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill. Historical thinkers have warned us against overlooking psychological defence in warfare. As the saying goes, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” In today’s context, the best strategy in warfare is to win the war without the firing of a single bullet.]
[Translation: History is full of such examples. One such example is Ukraine, which is said to have suffered extensive intervention during the 2014 Crimean status referendum, where sensitive societal faultlines were targeted by a hostile information campaign orchestrated by the Russians to build popular support for Crimea to join Russia. This eventually led to the annexation of Crimea.]
[Translation: If we were to allow foreign interference in our domestic politics, Singapore may similarly be subject to such divisive forces. This may result in us losing our autonomy and becoming a vassal state to a foreign power, or a puppet to foreign forces. This is certainly not a desirable outcome.]
[Translation: The PAP Government has always taken a firm stance that our domestic politics are for Singaporeans to decide, and that we should not allow foreign actors to interfere in them.]
[Translation: However, this is easier said than done. Being a small, open economy, and a multicultural society, Singapore is highly susceptible to foreign interference. To ensure that we keep step with the evolving tactics of hostile actors, it is timely for us to update our laws to address the threat of foreign interference.]
[Translation: In addition, I must point out that contrary to what some commentators have been saying about FICA, the Bill is not intended to target businesses, academic institutions, trade associations, clan associations or other cultural, religious, community or charity groups, in their legitimate dealings with foreigners. Singaporeans will still be free to express their views. In fact, the Government’s wish is that with FICA, Singaporeans will be able to freely voice their opinions on Singaporean matters, and not the perspectives of others.]
67. 我希望大家谨记，FICA 所针对的攻心之计，是最难抵御的，因为一个人的观念受到了外来势力影响，是没有痕迹的。一旦观念变成信念，要改变，就可能已经太迟了。立法能够为我们设下基本的防御，但是我们更希望 FICA 能够警惕国人，不要被外来势力利用来做出危害新加坡国家利益的事情。我希望我们能够全民一心，下定决心，坚持新加坡自身的命运，只能由新加坡人来决定。
[Translation: I want to remind the public that the foreign interference threat is an invisible one, and the threat that the passage of FICA aims to mitigate is one that is hard to guard against because it insidiously targets our world view. And once these perspectives are allowed to fundamentally alter our belief systems, it would be too late for us to take remedial action. The Bill provides Singapore with the basic levers to defend ourselves, but we hope FICA will raise Singaporeans’ awareness about the threat of foreign interference, so that we will not unwittingly become vehicles for hostile foreign actors to undermine our national interest. My wish is for Singaporeans to commit to working together to ensure that our affairs will be for Singaporeans only to decide.]
68. Mr Speaker, this Government has taken a firm stance against foreign interference since our independence. This Bill ensures that Singaporeans retain the freedom to decide how we should govern our country, how we should live our lives. Thank you.