Extensive powers given to ministers can lead to abuse: Tan Cheng Bock on Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act

© The Independent Singapore

Singapore ― Chairman of opposition Progress Singapore Party (PSP) Dr Tan Cheng Bock, aired serious concerns on Saturday (Sept 25) on the Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act (FICA), noting it would give ministers “extensive powers” to execute the bill.

Under FICA, the government will obtain powers to compel Internet and social media service providers to disclose information on users or remove online content to counter foreign attempts to influence domestic politics.

“From the title of the bill, it would seem a reasonable piece of law upholding the international principle that no country should interfere with the affairs of another country,” said Dr Tan, noting that PSP fully supported noninterference.

It is the basis for international peace and cooperation between countries, he added.

“Singapore, being a small nation, does not wish nor can afford to have foreign interference in our own domestic affairs.”

However, Dr Tan highlighted that there was more to the bill than what the title suggests.

The bill consists of 249 pages of details covering many areas from definitions of Politically Significant Persons or entities to rules governing political donations and disclosure, said Dr Tan.

FICA includes requirements for operating online sites and various directives affecting stakeholders.

“What is significant is the extensive powers given to the ministers to execute the bill,” said Dr Tan.

He noted that such power can lead to abuse, especially when many areas of the bill are “vaguely defined” and decisions are “left to the discretion of ministers, who could simply act based on suspicion.”

According to Dr Tan, FICA gives the government far more reaching power and latitude to prosecute than the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).

Urgency to pass the bill ‘troubling’

Another issue Dr Tan highlighted in his statement was the urgency FICA is being pushed through amid the Covid-19 pandemic with more urgent matters on hand.

He noted that FICA is scheduled for a second reading on Oct 4, meaning only three weeks passed from the bill’s introduction on Sept 13 to the second and third readings on Oct 4.

“What is the hurry for such a lengthy piece of legislation to be brought through Parliament and pass as law in three weeks?” he asked.

Dr Tan mentioned there wasn’t enough time for all Members of Parliament to study the impact and implications of the bill thoroughly.

“Given that this FICA bill has lots of implications and potential for abuse, the second reading should not proceed until a comprehensive review of the bill has been carried out,” he suggested.

Dr Tan compared FICA to POFMA, which is a much shorter piece of legislation yet went through public consultations and a review by a select committee.

“Is FICA really to prevent foreign interference?” Dr Tan asked.

“Or is it a means to stifle freedom of expression, alternative views and political discourse in the name of foreign interference?”

He called it “irresponsible” of the government to push the bill through “hastily” over three weeks. /TISG

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