Press Releases

First Reading of Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill

Published: 13 September 2021

1.    The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) introduced the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill for First Reading in Parliament on 13 September 2021. The Bill will strengthen our ability to prevent, detect and disrupt foreign interference in our domestic politics conducted through (i) hostile information campaigns (HICs) and (ii) the use of local proxies.

Background

2.    History is replete with examples of countries interfering in the politics of other countries. Singapore is not immune. For example, in the 1980s, the First Secretary of the United States (US) 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, Francis Seow, was even offered refuge in the US should he subsequently run into difficulties with the Singapore Government (he was eventually conferred US citizenship).

3.    We have read reports of similar attempts overseas, where foreign principals use funding and other leverage to get local proxies to push their agenda. In Australia, a former Senator received donations from a foreign billionaire, and advocated for the foreign country’s position on a sensitive issue of national security, contradicting his own political party’s official position.  In Europe, a chairman of an European Union foreign friendship group was sponsored flights and hotel stays by a foreign government, and subsequently voiced views that supported the foreign country’s policies on various issues, including urging sympathy towards a foreign company.

4.    We have also seen many instances in recent years where social media and communications technologies were used by entities to mount HICs against other countries. These covert, coordinated and sophisticated online activities seek to advance the interests of the attacking country, for example by manipulating public opinion in the target country on domestic political issues, subverting its democratic institutions, polarising society, or influencing the outcome of domestic elections. The US intelligence community found that ahead of the 2020 US Presidential Elections, foreign actors established troll farms to amplify controversial domestic issues, and sought to promote or run down certain candidates. There were also influence campaigns to discredit the US government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and spread skepticism of Western-developed vaccines.

5.    Foreign interference poses a serious threat to our political sovereignty and national security. During a HIC, hostile foreign actors can seek to mislead Singaporeans on political issues, stir up dissent and disharmony by playing up controversial issues such as race and religion, or seek to undermine confidence and trust in public institutions. For example, when Singapore faced bilateral issues with another country in late 2018 and 2019, there was an abnormal spike in online comments critical of Singapore on social media. These posts, made by anonymous accounts, sought to create an artificial impression of opposition to Singapore’s positions. The Select Committee on Online Falsehoods in 2018 warned that foreign state-linked disinformation efforts were likely already occurring in Singapore. 

6.    As an open, highly digitally-connected, and diverse society, Singapore is especially vulnerable to foreign interference. To counter this evolving threat, we are strengthening our detection and response capabilities, as well as Singaporeans’ ability to discern legitimate and artificial online discourse. To complement these efforts, our laws need to evolve, just as  other countries have introduced new laws to tackle foreign interference. This Bill will strengthen our ability to counter foreign interference, and ensure that Singaporeans continue to make our own choices on how we should govern our country and live our lives.

Countering Hostile Information Campaigns

7.    Hostile foreign principals can deploy a sophisticated range of tools and tactics in a coordinated manner to interfere in domestic political discourse, incite social tensions and undermine our sovereignty. These include, but are not limited to:

a.    Creating and using inauthentic accounts to mislead users about their identity and credibility, for example, by purporting to be a bona fide local person or organisation. These accounts may subsequently be used to spread messages aimed at stirring unrest and discontent among different local communities (e.g. xenophobic or racist messages).
b.    Using bots on social media platforms or taking out advertisements to artificially boost the reach of these messages (e.g. by actively engaging or reposting content at an extremely high frequency).
c.    Using inauthentic accounts and bots in combination to engineer an artificial sense that there is strong public support or opposition to a certain position or sentiment.
d.    Inciting other users to “troll”, harass or intimidate a particular target.
e.    Creating accounts or pages and cultivating a public following by posting on benign topics such as fashion and lifestyle, before using the same accounts or pages to push out political messages subsequently.

8.    HIC tactics will continue to evolve. More recently, we have observed a shift from widespread interference operations to more specific ‘retail’ operations, to evade detection. These operations use fewer accounts, focus on narrowly targeted audiences, and spend more time creating a credible persona that is less easily detected.

9.    This Bill provides the Government with legislative levers to detect and counter this serious threat.

Directions to Address HIC Content

10.   Under the Bill, the Minister for Home Affairs will have the powers to issue directions to various entities such as social media services, relevant electronic services, internet access services, as well as persons who own or run websites, blogs or social media pages, to help the authorities investigate and counter hostile communications activity that is of foreign origin.[1]

11.   These provisions do not apply to Singaporeans expressing their own views on political matters, unless they are agents of a foreign principal. Singaporeans have the right to discuss politics. Nor do they apply to foreign individuals or foreign publications reporting or commenting on Singapore politics, in an open, transparent and attributable way, even if their comments may be critical of Singapore or the Government.

Directions to Investigate and Expose HICs

12.   HICs typically involve the use of highly sophisticated and secretive methods. To detect and expose HICs, the Bill empowers the Minister to issue Technical Assistance Directions to social media services, relevant electronic services, internet access services, and those who own or run websites or social media pages where suspicious content is carried, to disclose information required for the authorities to determine if the harmful communications activity is being undertaken by or on behalf of a foreign principal.[2]

13.   A Technical Assistance Direction can be issued if the Minister suspects that there are preparations or plans to undertake an online communication activity in Singapore by or on behalf of a foreign principal, and the Minister is of the opinion that it is in the public interest to issue the direction.

Directions to Counter HICs

14.   If there is reason to believe that social media or relevant electronic service user accounts are being used, or being set up with the intent of being used for HICs, the Minister will be able to issue Account Restriction Directions to the providers of these services. These directions will require them to block content in these accounts from being viewed in Singapore. 

15.   The Bill provides the Minister with the powers to take down content that is part of a HIC. This is especially necessary when the content can cause immediate and significant harm in Singapore, such as inciting violence or causing hostility between groups. This consists of three types of direction:

a.    A Stop Communication (End-User) Direction will require the communicator to cease communication of specific HIC content to viewers in Singapore.
b.    A Disabling Direction will require Internet intermediaries to stop the communication of specific HIC content in Singapore.
c.    In the event that Internet intermediaries or communicators fail to comply with these directions, the Minister may order Internet access service providers to block access to the HIC content through an Access Blocking Direction.

16.   As a HIC may involve a series of content that is being persistently pushed out, the Bill provides for upstream intervention as well. Specifically, a Service Restriction Direction will require social media services, relevant electronic services and internet service providers to take practicable and technically feasible actions to restrict the dissemination of HIC content. This could include disabling or limiting functions that allow content to become viral. An App Removal Direction can be issued to require an app distribution service to stop apps known to be used by foreign principals to conduct HICs, from being downloaded in Singapore. This direction can be given if the app has previously been subject to at least one direction (except for Technical Assistance Direction or another App Removal Direction). 

17.   The Bill will also introduce powers to require various parties to carry a mandatory message from the Government, in a conspicuous and timely manner. The intent is to be able to warn Singaporeans about a HIC. The Must-Carry Direction can take four forms:

a.    A Class 1 Must-Carry Direction requires the communicator to carry this message.
b.    A Class 2 Must-Carry Direction requires social media services or relevant electronic services where HIC content is carried to do likewise.
c.    A Class 3 Must-Carry Direction requires social media services, relevant electronic services, as well as telecommunication companies, newspapers and broadcasting licensees to carry a mandatory message if a HIC is afoot, even if the content has not been carried on their platform.
d.    A Class 4 Must-Carry Direction requires the owner or operator of a Proscribed Online Location (see para 20) to carry a message on the online location, so that Singaporeans accessing it are aware of its proscription.

18.   We also want to be able to cripple the source of funding for harmful online content that is undertaken by or on behalf of a foreign principal. A Disgorgement Direction will require individuals (this includes Singapore Citizens regardless whether resident in Singapore, or other individuals resident in Singapore) and locally registered entities who have enabled or published harmful online content, to return money or material support accepted for the enabling or publishing of the information/materials of concern to (i) the foreign principal (or those acting on behalf of the foreign principal) who provided the funding or support, or (ii) to surrender the amount received to the competent authority (see para 22).

19.   The Stop Communication Direction, Disabling Direction, Access Blocking Direction, Service Restriction Direction, App Remove Direction, Must-Carry Direction and Disgorgement Direction can be issued if all of the following conditions are met:

a.    There is communications activity taking place, or has already taken place;
b.    The communications activity is conducted by or on behalf of a foreign principal;
c.    There is information or material published in Singapore as a result of the communications activity; and
d.    After having regard to the circumstances of the case, the Minister assesses that it is in the public interest to authorise the giving of these directions.

Measures Against Proscribed Online Locations

20.   The Bill will provide for measures to target HIC platforms, such as websites created by the foreign principals to publish HIC content against Singapore. The Minister can proscribe an online location that is a purveyor of HIC content, once that online location has been the subject of at least one direction under this Bill (excluding Technical Assistance Directions). These Proscribed Online Locations (“POLs”) must then declare themselves as such, and no one will be allowed to purchase advertisement space on these POLs or on other websites that promote the POLs. The aim is to discredit and de-monetise these POLs in order to stem their ability to mount further HICs against Singapore. Failure to comply with these measures will be an offence. 

Safeguarding Those Who Take Part in Our Domestic Politics

21.   Individuals and non-individuals who are directly involved in Singapore’s political processes will be defined as “Politically Significant Persons” (“PSPs”) and will be subject to countermeasures to mitigate the risk of foreign interference:

a.    Political parties;
b.    Political office holders;
c.    Members of Parliament (“MPs”), including Non-Constituency MPs and Nominated MPs;
d.    Leader of the House;
e.    Leader of the Opposition; and
f.    Election candidates, and their election agents;

We term the PSPs listed in paragraph 21 as “defined PSPs”.

22.   In addition, a competent authority, appointed by the Minister for Home Affairs, can designate other individuals and non-individuals as PSPs if their activities are directed towards a political end, and the competent authority assesses that it is in the public interest that countermeasures be applied. We call these “designated PSPs”.

23.   The countermeasures on defined and designated PSPs will cover the following vectors of foreign interference – (i) donations, (ii) volunteers, (iii) leadership and membership, and (iv) affiliations. If there are increased risks of foreign interference, the competent authority can step up countermeasures on the defined and designated PSPs.

Countermeasures on Defined PSPs

24.   The Political Donations Act (“PDA”) currently prohibits political associations and election candidates and agents from accepting donations from foreign sources. However, there are no prohibitions on donations to MPs, political office holders, Leader of the House or Leader of the Opposition. In addition, currently, foreigners are allowed to volunteer with political parties, election candidates and MPs. These are potential avenues for foreign principals to influence our domestic politics. The Bill seeks to address these gaps.

25.   To streamline the provisions which safeguard defined PSPs, who are directly involved in our political processes, the PDA will be repealed, and its existing obligations ported into the Bill, with some additional countermeasures. The whole suite of countermeasures on defined PSPs are:

a.    To report single donations of $10,000 or more from permissible donors, and multiple donations from the same permissible donor that amount to $10,000 or more in any calendar year;
b.    Not allowed to receive anonymous donations beyond the cap of $5,000 during the relevant period or in any calendar year;
c.    To maintain a separate bank account to receive political donations, so that there are proper records of monies relating to their political activities;
d.    No foreigners will be allowed to volunteer for their political activities; and
e.    To disclose affiliations with any foreign entity.

26.   If there is an increased risk of foreign interference, the competent authority can issue directives to prohibit defined PSPs from affiliating with foreign principals.

Countermeasures on Designated PSPs

27.   A designated PSP will be required to:

a.    Report single donations of $10,000 or more from local and foreign donors, and multiple donations from the same local or foreign donor that amount to $10,000 or more during the relevant period; and
b.    Disclose affiliations with foreign entities.

28.   If there is an increased risk of foreign interference, the competent authority can issue stepped up countermeasures ranging from more disclosures or prohibitions to match that of defined PSPs, including:

a.    Only receive donations from permissible donors, and not allowed to receive anonymous donations beyond the cap of $5,000 in a calendar year;
b.    Maintain a separate bank account to receive political donations;
c.    Prohibit foreigners from holding leadership positions and/or membership in the organization;
d.    Not to allow foreigners to volunteer in their political activities; and
e.    Prohibit designated individuals and non-individuals from affiliating with foreign principals.

Transparency on Migration Facilities Held by PSPs

29.   Besides the threat vectors highlighted above, immigration facilities present opportunities for cultivation, as they confer tangible benefits or prestige which may make the individuals beholden to the foreign country. Individual PSPs, both defined and designated, will be required to declare if they have been granted migration facilities by foreign countries, even if they did not voluntarily claim or apply for these.

Transparency on Content Contributors

30.   The competent authority can direct any newspaper authorised under s21 of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, any media outlet licensed under the Broadcasting Act, or any PSP (both defined and designated) that publishes matters on political issues relating to Singapore, to disclose the particulars of any foreign author(s) and/or foreign principal for whom or at whose direction the article or programme is published. This disclosure must be done within the newspaper, news programme or online posting.

31.   To reduce duplication of levers exercised, the competent authority will consider other means of regulating such entities (including other written laws such as Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and Broadcasting Act) before issuing this countermeasure.

Transparency on Major Donors to Political Parties, and Designated Non-Individual PSPs

32.   There is currently a requirement in the PDA for any person or entity who has made donations of $10,000 or more in a calendar year to political parties, to disclose their donations to the competent authority. This provision will be ported over to FICA – it will continue to apply to such donors to political parties, and will be expanded to such donors to designated non-individual PSPs as a stepped up countermeasure. This will allow us to monitor large donations to political parties and designated non-individual PSPs.

Countermeasures for Singapore Citizens Involved in Foreign Political and Legislative Bodies

33.   Foreign states may also attempt to cultivate Singapore citizens (“SCs”) to influence our domestic politics through their involvement in foreign political and legislative bodies. It is necessary to have oversight over such individuals as they may potentially be exploited to influence our political processes. The Bill will hence require SCs who are members of foreign political or legislative bodies to declare their involvement.

Appeals Against HIC Directions and PSP Designation or Countermeasures

34.   An independent Reviewing Tribunal, chaired by a sitting High Court Judge and comprising two other persons outside of the Government, will be set up to hear appeals against HIC directions issued by the Minister. The decisions made by the Reviewing Tribunal will be final and binding on all parties. 

35.   The Government is proposing that such a Tribunal hear appeals against HIC directions instead of having such appeals heard in open court, because sensitive intelligence with national security implications may be involved.

36.   Separately, PSPs that wish to challenge their designation or stepped up countermeasures imposed on them may submit an application for the competent authority’s reconsideration or an appeal to the Minister for Home Affairs.  The Minister for Home Affairs may consult an advisory body when he hears appeals regarding designation and stepped up countermeasures.

Conclusion

37.   This Bill targets foreign interference in Singapore’s domestic affairs. The provisions proposed in this Bill will help ensure that Singaporeans continue to make our own decisions on how we govern our country and live our lives.



[1] “Relevant electronic services” includes online messaging apps and search engines.

[2] For example, HICs may involve the use of fake accounts and bot networks, which are highly sophisticated, and authorities will require information that resides within the social media companies to ascertain if the HICs are carried out by foreign principals.