Foreign Interference in Singapore Elections: Laws and Penalties

foreign man in dark room

Foreign interference in elections refers to attempts by foreign actors (people, agencies or countries) to influence the domestic elections of a sovereign state. The motive of such interference is to impact people’s voting behaviours in a way that is consistent with the foreign actor’s agenda.

With the massive amount of information being dispensed during the Singapore General Elections 2020, in relation to the electoral process, candidates, party manifestos and so on, .you should be aware of the possibility of foreign interference in elections and be cautious against such influence.

For instance, there have been reports of foreign interferences in the 2016 United States Presidential Elections, 2017 French Presidential Elections, and 2018 Italian General Elections. Singapore may not be immune to such threats.

This article aims to inform you of the possible methods of foreign interference, the laws surrounding them, and how the general public, as well as political parties, can play their part to safeguard against foreign interference in the upcoming Singapore general elections.

Methods of Foreign Interference

Foreign interference in elections can occur in several forms and is often done in a secretive or inflammatory manner. Here are a few methods:

Distortion or fabrication of political news content

First, foreign actors could deliberately distort or fabricate certain news content (i.e. create fake news). This may be intended to manipulate or confuse the public through narratives that are misleading or that undermine trust in politics and institutions. Such news content could target electoral processes, regulations, and their enforcement. They could also target socially divisible issues so that the public is swayed against a particular candidate or political party.

Sentimental influence

Second, foreign actors could artificially inflate the spread of sentiments or narratives which are useful for their agenda.

For instance, they may use coordinated fake accounts, troll accounts, and bots in order to spread distorted narratives or inflammatory material that could unjustifiably undermine public opinion of certain political candidates or parties. This may even be aimed to create social fragmentation and polarisation or threaten public order and security.

Creation of false online identities 

Third, foreign actors may create fake online identities which create and interact with networks of followers that would be especially susceptible to the foreign actor’s agenda.

Funding or cultivating relationships with political parties

Lasty, foreign actors may directly or indirectly fund a political candidate or party’s election campaign so that their desired candidate or party would have better chances of being elected.

Alternatively, they may seek to cultivate clandestine relationships with a political candidate or party to achieve an outcome favouring their agenda. This may done through promising business incentives, donations, or titles under the disguise of seemingly legitimate platforms such as academia or institutional linkages

Laws Surrounding Foreign Interference in Elections

Since there are many ways foreign actors may seek to interfere in Singapore elections, you should be aware of the laws governing this issue so that you may recognise when they are being contravened:

Political parties are not allowed to accept foreign donations

Political parties may accept anonymous donations of less than S$5,000 during any one financial year. Donations of larger amounts may be accepted from only the following permissible donors:

  • Singapore citizens who are at least 21 years of age,
  • Singapore-controlled companies which conduct their business mainly in Singapore; or
  • (For candidates) The particular political party that the candidate is standing for.

This helps prevent foreign actors from making large anonymised donations to support candidates or parties they deem to be in their interests. If a political party is unable to ascertain the identity of the donor who wishes to donate S$5,000 or more, it is prohibited from accepting the donation.

If the political party or organisation does not abide by these restrictions, the Public Prosecutor may apply to the District Court to order the party or organisation to forfeit an amount equal to the value of the donation.

Therefore if you intend to make a significant donation to a particular political party, do ensure that your identity is verifiable so that the party can accept your donation.

Only Singaporeans may take part in election activities and campaigning

Only Singaporeans may take part in election activities and campaigning. This ensures that foreign actors are unable to play any role in election activities during the election period.

If any non-Singaporeans are found to have taken part in election activities, they are liable upon conviction to a fine up to  $2,000 or to imprisonment for a term up to  12 months or to both.

Prohibition on disseminating fake news 

Facebook has said that approximately 126 million Americans might have received Russian-backed election content during the 2016 United States Presidential Elections. Such distorted information is believed to have influenced the outcome of the elections.

In Singapore, the spreading of fake news is prohibited. Individuals, whether in or outside Singapore, must not do any act that communicates in Singapore a false statement:

  • That the person knows or has reason to believe to be false; and
  • Which is likely to influence the outcome of an election or diminish public confidence in any government or state body.

An individual found guilty of communicating such false information will be fined up to  $50,000 or imprisoned for a term up to 5 years or to both. Non-individuals (such as organisations) found guilty of the same can be fined up to  $500,000.

Thus, foreign actors who are outside Singapore are prohibited from spreading fake news or distorted information in Singapore. Similarly, Singaporeans are prohibited from retweeting or sharing posts and articles that they know to contain false content, that may be from such foreign actors.

Actions Political Parties May Take to Safeguard Against Foreign Interference

Political parties and candidates should seek to learn more about attempted foreign electoral interference in other jurisdictions. This would help them ensure that their campaigns are free from foreign actor’s influence.

For instance, since there have been instances of malicious cyber activities like data theft, disruptions and defacement during foreign elections, political parties should adopt precautionary measures to reduce cybersecurity risks. This would include protecting their IT infrastructure, ensuring the protection of their online and social media accounts, and the management of their data.

They should also remain vigilant for suspicious activities on their platforms and refrain from resharing posts or tweets with suspicious origins.

The outcome of Singapore elections should remain for Singaporeans alone to decide.

Given the possibility of foreign intervention in our elections, Singaporeans should be cautious of any suspicious media or activities that may originate from foreign actors.

You should verify the credibility of sources of information before sharing them, so you do not unwittingly become an agent for foreign intervention in our elections.

If anyone should detect or suspect foreign interference in elections, they should make a police report and inform the Elections Department of their suspicions.