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Singapore’s Parliament passed a bill preventing foreign entities or individuals from influencing politics in the country, amid criticism from the opposition and rights groups who said the new law gives the government sweeping powers to target dissent online.

The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) bill gives officials the authority to order social media platforms like Facebook Inc. and internet service providers to disclose information behind harmful content they suspect may be carried out by foreign actors or entities.

The government has long defended the need for such laws, saying Singapore is especially vulnerable to fake news and hostile information campaigns given that it is a financial hub with a multiethnic, international population that enjoys widespread internet access.

“The threat we face, as I said, is people armed with bazookas and I describe this legislation as a toy gun. Singapore believes in the law, so we give ourselves legal powers,” Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in Parliament on Monday during a 10-hour debate.

“But in reality, the kind of threats we face, the kind of adversaries and the resources they have in terms of manpower, are far greater than what we have,” he added.

Critics are concerned that what entails a violation under the new law is too loosely defined and there is little oversight as it is left to the discretion of Shanmugam, whose ministry sponsored the bill.

Shanmugam, who was a practicing lawyer before going into politics, is largely seen as the architect of Singapore’s “fake news” law that has been widely seen as censorship tool against political opponents and critics. The government says the fake news law is a crucial part of its fight against disinformation.

The 249-page foreign interference bill was passed late on Monday just three weeks after it was introduced in Parliament, where the ruling People’s Action Party has a firm majority. The party extended its rule in Singapore despite its weakest ever performance in last year’s election and, while there were no indications of foreign interference then, the government wants the new laws to act as a deterrent in the future.

Opposing the law

Singapore’s opposition led by the Workers Party had opposed the law’s reach though it supported the need to counter foreign interference. The party put forward 44 amendments, including getting the high courts to hear appeals made under the law rather than an independent tribunal as proposed and seeking revisions to a clause that broadly defines activities as “directed towards a political end in Singapore.”

“Most Singaporeans would have readily supported the use of executive power to curb foreign influence,” opposition leader and Workers Party lawmaker Pritam Singh said in Parliament. “However, I am also sure that if asked, most Singaporeans would be in favor of our courts acting as a check to ensure that executive power is exercised lawfully, appropriately and fairly.”

Other opposition parties were concerned about the extensive powers ministers would hold under the law with member of Parliament Leong Mun Wai submitting a petition to delay the bill’s passing in order to carry out public consultation and set up a select committee to scrutinize the legislation.

A new law in Singapore is set to be a countermeasure to disinformation campaigns from foreign entities, but the boundaries remain loosely defined. | BLOOMBERG
A new law in Singapore is set to be a countermeasure to disinformation campaigns from foreign entities, but the boundaries remain loosely defined. | BLOOMBERG

Their concerns are reflected in some parts of Singapore society with an online petition asking for a rethink on the law now drawing over 7,800 signatures.

Under the new law, if the government has reason to believe that social media or internet user accounts are being used as part of hostile information campaigns, it can order providers to block content in these accounts from being viewed in Singapore. It may also direct social media and internet providers to carry a message to warn Singapore citizens about such hostile activities.

“Anything that gets into public controversy or political debate in Singapore can be something that is regulated,” said Chong Ja Ian, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore who has written extensively on the topic of foreign interference. “Now, that’s a very broad brush. I suppose the point is to give the state a lot of discretion.”

The government has said the new legislation doesn’t apply to citizens airing their views on political matters, “unless they are agents of a foreign principal.” Even then, the new law creates “a lot of areas of vagueness and uncertainty, including for business,” Chong said in reference to companies that may publicly advertise or otherwise publicly advocate on issues.

Lively online forums

Facebook’s director of global threat disruption, David Agranovich, said that while the company had detected covert influence operations on its platform, it found no such cases in Singapore, Today Online reported, citing a briefing with reporters last week. Agranovich warned against “perception hacking” where people are misled to believe there are influence campaigns when there are none.

For a country that’s ranked 160th out of 180 nations in the world for press freedom this year, Singapore’s lively online forums as well as political blogs and websites provide an avenue for government criticism, and an alternative to mainstream media.

In recent weeks, however, Singapore has suspended the class license of a news website called The Online Citizen for failing to declare its funding sources, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong won a defamation suit against its chief editor.

While the home ministry has assured the new law won’t apply to foreign individuals and publications commenting and reporting on Singapore politics — even if it might be critical of the country or the government — the broad provisions may spur self-censorship, press freedom and human rights groups said.

The law’s passage “constitutes a human rights disaster for community activists, independent media, and opposition politicians,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Using this law, the government can easily make its critics run the gauntlet of discriminatory restrictions, and shut down viewpoints it doesn’t like.”

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