The Singapore Government Wants to Break Down “Foreign Interference”

The law would give more control over publication and access of online content

Singapore wants to block access to “foreign hostile content” and could implement restrictions such as removing access to apps or forbidding advertisement on publications. The country started working on the law after tensions with Malaysia in 2019.

On September 13, the Ministry of Home Affairs of Singapore introduced the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill for a first reading in parliament.

The government wants to tackle publications creating “foreign interference” in domestic politics with “hostile information campaigns” and keep an eye on public figures linked to external entities who could act as “local proxies“.

The Ministry of Home Affairs of Singapore is responsible for national security, civil defense and border control.

The Ministry of Home Affairs of Singapore introduced the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill for first reading in parliament
The Ministry of Home Affairs of Singapore introduced the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill for first reading in parliament | Singapore parliament

Singapore could ask to take down content or remove apps from stores

If passed, the law would give the Minister more control on the content published online and restrict political activities linked to foreign entities or individuals.

It would have the power to require social media platforms, online messaging apps, search engines, internet providers, publishers or website owners to “help the authorities investigate and counter hostile communications activity that is of foreign origin“.

Singaporean authorities could demand social media companies to disclose information in order to “determine if the harmful communications activity is being undertaken by or on behalf of a foreign principal.

Similar to some of Singapore’s provisions, a legislation in India can require platforms to provide the identity of the user behind a message to the authorities. Part of an IT rules to regulate online information, it triggered a lawsuit by WhatsApp because it would force the company to store user data.

In 2020, China passed the Hong Kong National Security Act, a controversial law restricting content that could harm national security, leading to mass protests in the street.

As a consequence, the tabloid Apple Daily, one of the most popular news media of Hongkongers, was shut down in June 2021 because of “suspected collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security“. The police claimed articles were a conspiracy to “impose sanctions or blockade, or engaging in other hostile activities” against China or Hong Kong.

The statement specifies the provisions would not apply to foreign individuals or foreign publications, nor to Singaporeans expressing their opinions on politicsunless they are agents of a foreign principal“.

Singapore wants to control hostile foreign interference
Singapore wants to control hostile foreign interference | Illustration, TheDigitalArtist

Crippling the source of funding

In the Foreign Interference bill, Singapore plans to restrain the possibility of content to be shared or become viral without detailing the measures to do so. But authorities could stop apps from being downloaded in Singapore.

Moreover, authorities “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“.

As such, Singapore citizens, regardless of their locations, and Singapore residents would be required to return material or funds used to produce the hostile content to the foreign entities or Singaporean authorities.

Advertising on those publications could also be forbidden.

In Hong Kong, the Apple Daily shut down because its financial assets were frozen and as a consequence became unable to operate.

Two years to build the bill

After foreign interference in the United States presidential elections, the United Kingdom referendum on Brexit in 2016 or the French presidential elections in 2017, Singapore started to work on a bill in 2019.

The Minister considers “foreign interference poses a serious threat to [Singapore’s] political sovereignty and national security” and explains Singapore is vulnerable to foreign interference because of its “highly digitally-connected, and diverse society“.

But it also followed tensions between Singapore and Malaysia in 2019. Although the statement doesn’t explicitly mention its northern neighbor, it yet explains that, during bilateral issues in 2018-2019, Singapore noticed an “abnormal spike in online comments critical of Singapore on social media“. Coming from “anonymous accounts“, they were used to “create an artificial impression of opposition to Singapore’s positions“.

In December 2018, Malaysia claimed to regain airspace and maritime control of Johor, a southern state of Malaysia and neighbor to Singapore. For instance, Malaysia used to delegate airspace in southern Johor to Singapore, which therefore provided air traffic control services.

During that time, almost half of the comments related to heavy traffic congestion posted on social media or some “alternative media outlets” came from anonymous accounts, reported Today Online.

The negotiations lasted for several months until an agreement between the two countries was reached in April 2019.

Singapore was first part of Malaysia when it was created in 1963 in a union between the Federation of Malaya and former British colonies. But the city became independent only two years later after political and economic disagreements, and racial tensions.

Foreigners forbidden to volunteer in political activities

On top of restricting content, the law would also be stricter towards political figures receiving donations and force to disclose “affiliation with foreign entities“. It would also prohibit foreigners to volunteer for political activities.

Singapore citizens would need to declare their involvement in foreign political or legislative bodies for the government “to have oversight over such individuals“, stated the MHA.

Singapore is known for its strict policy on freedom of speech and is ranked 160 in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders. The bill is very likely to pass as the ruling party has more than 80% of parliament seats.

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