Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC, at the Second Reading of the Foreign Interference (countermeasures) Bill (Bill No. 24/2021)
Sir, foreign influence is the norm in Singapore. Whether you’re reading the news, watching a TV show or doing your job, there is no escaping the influence of foreign ideas, foreign innovations and foreign interests.
This is the reality we, as a cosmopolitan and small nation, have no choice but to embrace.
Today’s Bill aims to push against the tide. It gives the Government new powers, first, to deem individuals and groups as politically significant and, second, to monitor and restrict these people’s activities. The goal is to reduce foreign disruption of our domestic politics.
I agree that we should be concerned about such disruption and I believe most people do. But at the same time, it is essential to be fair and transparent in how we restrict the activities of fellow Singaporeans. Designing and imposing restrictions the wrong way can itself worsen the trust and stability of our domestic politics.
With the goal of ensuring fairness and transparency, I have four points of clarification to make.
My first point is on the consultation process for this Bill. Some residents have shared their concerns with me on this and it would be good for Minister to clarify some of their doubts.
Can Minister share the consultation process for this Bill and whether it has integrated productive feedback from the consultation into this proposed law.
Can Minister also share how does the Ministry decide how much public consultation to hold for any proposed legislation?
Sir, there were also some concerns about the interval between the first and second reading of the Bill. Some felt that the interval was too short and it would be good for Minister to provide some clarifications on this as well.
The definition of covertness, deception and opacity
My second point is on what it means to act with covertness, deception or concealment.
This Act makes it an offence to undertake clandestine electronic communications activity on behalf of a foreign principal. The emphasis here is on “clandestine”.
Subsection 1(d) of Section 17 requires that the person’s action is “covert or involves deception.” Similarly, subsection 1(d) of Section 18 requires that the person’s action “conceals from or fails to disclose” their relationship with a foreign principal.
Can Minister shed light on how an organisation can avoid being considered as having been covert, deceptive or otherwise opaque?
If they receive a grant from a foreign principal, would it suffice to state on their website the dollar amount received; the name of the grant-maker; and the terms of the grant?
Would they need to print this material on all marketing material? Would it need to be in their Facebook posts and their Twitter profile?
We should expect transparency and honesty. But this expectation is only fair if we make it clear what reasonable compliance looks like. Will MHA release guidelines and illustrations that can facilitate compliance by good-faith actors?
Designation as politically significant person
My third point is on the appeals process in this Bill.
Section 48 allows individuals the opportunity to be heard before being designated a politically significant individual. The exception is when the competent authority considers it not practicable or desirable to do so.
Can Minister elaborate on when it would not be practicable or desirable for individuals to have the opportunity to be heard? It seems odd that an individual might be denied even the chance to present their side of the story.
In addition, will the individual receive written reasons to explain decisions made by the Ministry and by the competent authority?
There are three scenarios where written reasons should be provided.
One, when the Ministry designates an individual as politically significant.
Two, when the competent authority decides that it is not practicable or desirable to hear an individual before they get designated as politically significant.
Three, when the Minister determines an appeal under section 101.
Providing written reasons to the politically designated person in all three scenarios would make clear that our process is transparent and fair.
My fourth and final point is on Reviewing Tribunals.
Can Minister share more about the considerations that the Cabinet should take into account when recommending the appointment of members to the Reviewing Tribunal? What is the profile of members envisioned for appointment to the Reviewing Tribunal?
This is important to clarify, as members of the Reviewing Tribunal may themselves be politically significant or otherwise at a heightened risk of hostile foreign influence.
In addition, Section 99 allows the Minister to prescribe the practices and procedures for proceedings and appeals before a Reviewing Tribunal.
Can the Minister share if these practices and procedures will be derived from the Rules of Court, practices, and procedures for Court proceedings?
Will these practices and procedures follow the same principles for a fair hearing in the Rules of Court, practices, and procedures for Court proceedings?
And finally, when the Reviewing Tribunal determines an appeal under section 97, will the Reviewing Tribunal provide written reasons for their decisions?
Sir, in conclusion I do stand in support of the Bill. I believe there is a strong need to tackle foreign disruption of our domestic politics but at the time there need to be safe guards in place and it is essential that we are fair and transparent in how we restrict the activities of fellow Singaporeans.
Watch the speech here.