Published: 06 July 2022
1. The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) was passed in Parliament on 4 October 2021.
2. The legislation provides measures 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. The provisions to counteract foreign interference via HICs will take effect from 7 July 2022, while the provisions to counteract foreign interference via local proxies will come into force at a later stage.
Threat of Foreign Interference through HICs
3. Foreign interference may take the form of foreign actors seeking to manipulate our domestic politics, including through covert and deceptive means, to undermine our political sovereignty and harm our social cohesion. In recent times, the threat of foreign interference has risen in potential and severity because of the internet and social media. These platforms have contributed to the increasing ease, sophistication, and impunity with which hostile foreign actors are able to carry out HICs.
4. Hostile foreign actors can deploy a sophisticated range of tools and tactics 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;
(b) Using bots on social media platforms or taking out advertisements to artificially boost the reach of these messages;
(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; and
(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.
Singapore’s Vulnerability to HICs
5. As an open, highly digitally connected, and diverse society, Singapore is especially vulnerable to foreign interference. When Singapore faced bilateral issues with another country in 2018, there was an abnormal spike in online comments which were critical of Singapore on social media. These posts, made by anonymous accounts, sought to create an artificial impression of opposition to Singapore’s positions. During a period of tension with another country between 2016 and 2017, Singapore experienced a coordinated HIC that attempted to undermine our foreign policy position. Online commentaries and videos were uploaded by social media accounts which had lain dormant for years. These contents were also widely circulated via chat apps and aimed at influencing sentiments among Singaporeans.
Countering Hostile Information Campaigns
6. Under FICA, 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, and 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. FICA also includes offences related to clandestine foreign interference by electronic communications activity, which deal with persons covertly and knowingly acting against the public interest on behalf of a foreign principal.
7. FICA does not apply to Singaporeans expressing their own views and acting on their own accord. Nor does it apply to foreigners 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
8. HICs typically involve the use of highly sophisticated and secretive methods. To detect and expose HICs, FICA empowers the Minister for Home Affairs to issue Technical Assistance Directions to various parties, requiring them to disclose information to the authorities to investigate if there is an ongoing HIC and the source of the HIC content, in particular whether it originates from a foreign source.
Directions to Counter HICs
9. FICA also provides the Minister for Home Affairs with the powers to authorise directions to deal with content or accounts that are 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. Examples of directions to counter HICs include:
(a) Stop Communication (End-User) Direction – requires the communicator to cease communication of specific HIC content to viewers in Singapore.
(b) Disabling Direction – requires social media or relevant electronic services to stop the communication of specific HIC content in Singapore.
(c) Must-Carry Direction – requires various parties to carry a mandatory message from the Government in a conspicuous and timely manner to warn Singaporeans about an ongoing HIC.
(d) Account Restriction Directions – 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 provider of these services, to block content in these accounts from being viewed in Singapore.
(e) If there is failure by communicators or service providers to comply with directions (excluding Technical Assistance Directions), the Minister may order access to the HIC content to be blocked through an Access Blocking Direction.
(f) An App Removal Direction can also 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 (excluding Technical Assistance or another App Removal Direction).
Measures against Proscribed Online Locations
10. FICA provides measures to target HIC platforms, such as websites created to publish HIC content in Singapore. The Minister for Home Affairs can declare an online location that is a purveyor of HIC content to be a proscribed online location (POL), once that online location has been the subject of at least one direction (excluding Technical Assistance Directions). Once proscribed, it is an offence to operate this POL, provide support to it, or have advertising dealings with it. To ensure that the public is aware of its POL status, the owner can be required to put up a notice about its proscribed status. The aim of this POL regime is to discredit and de-monetise these POLs, to stem their ability to mount further HICs against Singapore.
11. Persons issued with FICA directions and proprietors of POLs may apply to the Minister for Home Affairs for reconsideration, before appealing to a Reviewing Tribunal for the direction or declaration of proscribed online location to be varied or cancelled. The Reviewing Tribunal is independent and can overrule the decisions of the Minister. It is chaired by a Supreme Court judge and includes two other individuals from outside the Government with legal or technical expertise. The decisions of the Reviewing Tribunal are final and binding on all parties.
12. FICA targets foreign interference in Singapore’s domestic politics. The legislation ensures that Singaporeans continue to make our own decisions on how we govern our country and live our lives. For more information on FICA, please refer to the Annex.
First Reading of Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill
Second Reading of Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill – Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law
Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill - Wrap-Up Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law