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Bertha HarianBertha Harian


Pause needed on passage of Foreign Interference Bill

Twice in recent time, I tried my best to get Singaporeans to sit up and look at the laws that have been proposed that will have a great impact on our way of thinking and living. 

The first was when changes were proposed to the elected presidency post-2015. Flushed with a big mandate at the election, the Prime Minister directed a constitutional commission to find ways to incorporate a racial component into the office to ensure that ethnic communities will have a shot at getting their own man or woman into the job.

I wrote at least a dozen columns on the subject, both reporting on the proceedings of the commission and commenting on representations and reactions. I was almost sure that most citizens were not paying enough attention to this dimension, focusing instead on whether the changes were aimed at keeping certain people out.

I wondered what would happen when the majority Chinese community came to the realisation that they would have only a choice of Malay candidates to choose from and, in this case, a walk-in President. I also did not think the Malays would be too enamoured of having a direct line to the office. 

I was correct. Belatedly, there were cries of discrimination and “whither the element of merit” in the election to the top office in the land. Once, I was even told off by a poster who said that my column came too little, too late, when the fact was that he hadn’t seen so many others written earlier. 

That’s the trouble with being a scribe. You are only useful if enough people read you. Most people also aren’t too fussed about what they see as “politics’’, as though this is an area that doesn’t concern them. My hope is that that would be the first and last time that the “hiatus’’ trigger would be triggered to reserve the slot for a specific ethnic community. It probably won’t happen in my life-time because all the ethnic groups seemed to have had their turn. 

Then when proposals for POFMA came along, I was similarly triggered. I have never liked the idea of too much power in the hands of the executive, never mind how high the level of trust we have in them. Once made law, it is hard to amend or revoke. Worse, once made law, a whole host of regulations can be added without many people knowing of it. 

I was extremely heartened when a special parliamentary committee was set up to take in views on the proposed as-yet-unwritten legislation. I wrote one paper for the panel’s consideration and reported on the proceedings almost every day.

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When it was over, I realised that the more important – and critical – examination really comes later, when the draft legislation is scrutinised clause by clause, to gauge the extent and impact of the measures.  

I did my (admittedly limited) best to get people to lobby their MPs for a pause to have a parliamentary select committee scrutinise the Bill, instead of having it wing through second and third readings. I even wrote a template if anyone needed it. Some people thought I was playing with fire, even though I was doing it the legitimate way, going through the MPs to have our voices heard. Others just shrugged and pronounced the effort as useless, with the usual mutterings of a PAP-majority Parliament welded to the party line. 

So POFMA was passed too. People might say that both pieces of the law haven’t done us any harm – so far. 

The reserved presidency might well be a one-off, so I can bear with it even though I am opposed to it in-principle.

POFMA has been activated as well, but more frequently pre-GE2020 election and during the campaign, than in the last almost 20 months of the Covid-19 outbreak. It strikes me that there can’t be much misinformation around that affects people’s lives and livelihoods since they didn’t attract the consistent attention of POFMA.  Instead, communications between the government and governed went back to “normal’’, with public responses and counters, as is the case in any society which values transparency and discourse. 

In any case, as the G keeps saying, the backstop is recourse to the judiciary. It’s not the minister who has the last say even though he or she issues the POFMA. It’s the courts.  

But now comes a proposed piece of legislation which doesn’t involve the courts – the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill. I am sure we’ll be treated to a long discourse on how bad it is to have foreigners interfere in our business – and of course it is bad. Doubtless, all MPs, including the opposition, will say this. They will also acknowledge the insidious nature of foreign influence, which goes beyond money changing hands.

Agreement on first principles, however, does not mean carte blanche to enact laws to counter this. 

I had a look at the weighty tome of legislation – and I quaked. Even as a layman who is not legally trained, I can see how much power it gives to the executive who can define public interest and presume foreign involvement in matters of public interest – on the basis of a suspicion. Don’t take my word for this, go read this and this

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To quote lawyer Harpreet Singh: “Taken together, even open, non-clandestine “collaboration” between a Singaporean and any ordinary, private foreign citizen to improve any aspect of our laws and public policies constitutes “foreign interference”, notwithstanding the absence of any foreign state manipulation or foreign funding.’’ 

I declared on my Facebook that I have an interest because I might well be termed a Politically Significant Person because I write about stuff that’s “directed in part towards a political end in Singapore within the meaning of section 8’’.  As for section 8, it’s practically any comment on any thing of public interest, including seeking to influence “G decisions, parliamentary proceedings, public opinion on matters of public debate or controversy’’. 

Go check the Bill

Anyone can be designated a PSP so long as the executive thinks it is “ in the public interest that the countermeasures… be applied in relation to that individual’’. That means adhering to rules on donations and declarations of foreign affiliation.

I can already hear people say: if you have nothing to hide, why worry? I worry because there’s no need for any real evidence of foreign influence to designate someone a PSP. It’s like a shadow being cast over citizens who could be ‘loving critics’ – that Big Brother is watching you. Doubtless, Big Brother is already watching some people. Nothing deters comment like the knowledge that you are now being “officially’’ watched. 

What if I want to ask the executive: “What? Me? Why?’’

I can appeal, but here’s what lawyer Stephanie Yuen Thio said about the process:

There is no obligation on the government to inform him of the full basis for its decision to make the designation. This secrecy is because the information may be politically sensitive and disclosure may prejudice Singapore’s national security and foreign relations. But how is an affected person supposed to defend his position if he does not know the basis of a determination against him? 

And while FICA seeks to place restrictions only on activities that are linked to foreign interference, it is not known what the indirect consequences of being designated a PSP are. Would society feel that he is “black marked” for instance, and how would this affect him in, say, his employment prospects?’’

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I say, that sounds ominous. The G can declare all it likes about how it’s a preventive measure, but you can’t reckon with how people in a small place like Singapore will view PSPs. It’s like having a star put on your forehead. What’s worse is, if you aren’t designated a PSP, it will be construed as having the stamp of official approval, which I am not sure any commentator worth his or her salt likes. 

I am quite sure the response will be that this is all conjecture and speculation, that the G will proceed softly with extreme due diligence. But with the spectre of a swift passage of the legislation, I would just like to get my oar in first.

Already, I see people drawing parallels between FICA and the Internal Security Act. There are two camps: those who say the ISA should be used instead of this new legislation, and those who say, it’s like the ISA, so what’s the big deal? 

FICA is nowhere near like the ISA which provides for detention without trial. In fact, it might be sold as a softer version of the ISA with POFMA-like direction orders. But it is like the ISA in the sense that it is so blanketing a law that you must really trust that the executive is using its powers appropriately because there is no recourse to the judiciary. FICA, like the ISA, will have a hush-hush review tribunal which can consider the appeal “without the person who brought the appeal having been given full particulars” of the reason for the authorities’ decision. 

It’s true that there’s not much fuss over the existence of the ISA these days. I believe that’s because it is tuned to monitoring religious fanatics and would-be terrorists. They do not look like “people like us’’. But let’s not forget that it has been used against others who had performed what would be considered perfectly legitimate activities today. Let’s not forget that so long as the law is there, it can be used for the common good or for purposes way beyond our comprehension on the basis of “public interest and security”.

I have always considered the ISA to be a concession granted to the G for our protection. Compared to FICA, it’s actually easier to comprehend with Restriction and Detention Orders. FICA is full of conditions and caveats which I am sure will be described as “calibration’’ – but it has the same bottomline, that the G has the first as well as the last say. 

The G shouldn’t take people’s trust for granted. People deserve a lengthier explanation and proper elaboration not just about the dangers of foreign intervention (which I am sure we will be subjected to), but also the right to secure themselves against abuse by the executive in the wielding of this proposed law. Parliament has to show that it has done its duty by the people who elected them. We need to be able to turn to an institution out of executive reach, the judiciary, if we feel that we’ve been unfairly treated.

I see that other politicians and legal types are weighing in before the Oct 4 parliamentary debate with amendments and a petition. I am glad. It seems too weighty a legislation to rush through. I would be extremely disappointed if it sails through second and third readings in one sitting (never mind the number of days or nights). There should be a break after hearing from the executive about the finer points of the law. The reasons and safeguards must be allowed to sink in first so that everyone can get up to speed, including the layman. 

Hence, I call for a parliamentary select committee to be set up to examine the Bill in detail after the second reading. If anyone reading this agrees with me, please lobby your MP. This is my third concerted effort at influencing public opinion. I make no bones about it.

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And just to be clear: It’s my opinion and mine only.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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