A Guide to the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA)

man giving speech at conference

On 26 February 2024, it was announced that the Registrar of Foreign and Political Disclosures, a competent authority appointed by the Minister of Home Affairs, had designated a Singaporean businessman, Mr Chan Man Ping Philip, as a Politically Significant Person under the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act 2021 (FICA). This was the first individual designation since FICA came into force in December 2023.

The basis for the designation was that upon assessment, Mr Chan “has shown susceptibility to be influenced by foreign actors, and willingness to advance their interests”, his activities are “directed towards a political end in Singapore”, and it was in the public interest for countermeasures under FICA to be applied to him.

At first blush, it may sound scary for someone to be designated a Politically Significant Person, and for such designation to lead to the imposition of legislated countermeasures against the person.

This article aims to unpack what the above truly entails, as well as to provide a general overview of FICA. It will cover the following topics:

What is the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA)?

FICA was enacted to strengthen the Singapore government’s ability to prevent, detect and disrupt foreign interference in Singapore’s domestic politics, by introducing a set of tools that the government can employ against foreign interference.

Foreign interference refers to attempts by foreign actors to manipulate Singapore’s domestic politics, often with the aim of undermining Singapore’s political sovereignty and harming Singapore’s social cohesion. The Ministry of Home Affairs oversees the administration of FICA.

Why was the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) Introduced?

During the introduction of the bill in Parliament, the Minister for Home Affairs explained that the underlying premise of FICA is that Singapore’s politics should exclusively be for Singaporeans to deal with.

However, he noted that the subversion of a country’s domestic politics, whether in Singapore or elsewhere, is becoming an increasingly serious issue in recent times, with the modern ease of communications, increased interactions, and travel.

In particular, he shared that Singapore was especially vulnerable to such subversion because of our size, hyper-connectivity, and multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, which is easily exploitable by bad actors (e.g. foreign countries or entities intending to hurt Singapore’s interests).

Examples of recent incidents that happened both overseas and locally were raised to justify the need for the countermeasures proposed in FICA. For example, the Minister shared that Singapore has been subjected to cyber-attacks and cyber manipulation in recent times, including:

  • The cyber-attack in 2018, where hackers targeted SingHealth’s databases and stole the particulars of 1.5 million patients.
  • A coordinated cyber manipulation campaign in 2016-2017, which coincided with a period of tension between Singapore and another country, during which online commentaries and videos were uploaded by once-dormant social media accounts. These contents were widely circulated and aimed to influence sentiments among Singaporeans.
  • During another period of tension between Singapore and another country in 2018, there was a large increase in online comments critical of Singapore. These comments came from various anonymous accounts and sought to create a false impression that Singapore’s position was widely objected to.

Other examples that were cited to specifically support the need for countermeasures against PSPs include:

  • In 2017, an academic working in Singapore was discovered to have been working with a foreign government, and its intelligence organisations and agents, to influence Singapore’s foreign policy and public opinion. In response, he had his Singapore permanent residency cancelled and was permanently banned from Singapore.
  • In the same year, an Australian former Senator was discovered to have received donations from an individual with connections to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government, and he advocated for China’s position on a hotly contested international issue.
  • In 2019, it was leaked that the Russian government was allegedly planning to provide financial and public relations assistance to the election campaign of a German politician. That same German politician was known to be outspoken in favou of ending sanctions against Russia and recognising Russia’s actions in Crimea.

As for the timing of the introduction of FICA, this is not the first time that legislation introducing similar countermeasures has been enacted or discussed. In fact, more than half of the FICA is based on and replaces the now-repealed Political Donations Act (PDA), which had set out rules for interactions with foreigners for election candidates, election agents and political associations.

Additionally, the issue of threat of foreign interference has also been discussed extensively prior to the introduction of FICA. The need for a law to counter hostile information campaigns (discussed below) being carried out against other countries was mooted by the 2018 Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, and the Select Committee heard extensive evidence on the seriousness of the foreign threat.

What Does the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) Target?

FICA focuses on foreign interference in Singapore’s domestic politics conducted through:

  1. Hostile Information Campaigns (HICs); and
  2. Politically Significant Persons (PSPs).

Hostile Information Campaigns (HICs)

HICs refer to coordinated attempts to advance a foreign country’s interests by using sophisticated online tools and tactics. This can be done in order to influence a country’s domestic political discourse, to polarise the society of the targeted country, and to undermine the targeted country’s political sovereignty. Examples of such online tools and tactics include:

  • Creating and using fake accounts to mislead users about their identity. For example, if the intention is to create the impression that Singaporeans are rallying in support of a current position being expressed in a post, fake accounts may be created using names commonly seen or used in Singapore and used to leave positive comments on a post.
  • Using bots on social media platforms or paying for advertisements to increase the field of dissemination of the content. This can include paying to “’boost” a post on Facebook or Instagram, or using a bot which automatically shares a single post multiple times.
  • Using fake accounts and bots together so as to create a false sense that there is strong support or opposition to a certain view.
  • Encouraging other users to attack, harass or intimidate a particular target. For example, if the target of the “attack” is a prominent person who made potentially racially insensitive comments, and the intention is to discredit the person and sow discord, the attack could take the form of leaving comments provoking outrage, by digging up information about that person and their previous statements, and twisting them out of context.
  • Creating widely followed accounts or pages which on the surface post about typical topics like fashion and lifestyle but are subsequently used to push out political content to their large following.

FICA provides the Minister for Home Affairs with the power to issue directions to various entities, including social media services, relevant electronic services, internet access providers, as well as persons who own or run websites, blogs or social media pages, to assist the authorities in their investigations, and to counter hostile communications activity originating overseas. Examples of directions that can be issued under FICA include:

  • Technical Assistance Directions: Directions to various entities for them to disclose information to the authorities so that the authorities can investigate and assess whether there is an ongoing HIC, and the source of the HIC content.
  • Stop Communication (End-User) Directions: Directions for the poster of certain content adjudged to be HIC content to take down their content, and to stop communicating the same to viewers in Singapore.
  • Disabling Directions: Directions for the internet intermediary (e.g. social media service or relevant electronic service) to stop the communication of HIC content in Singapore, i.e. by taking down the content.
  • Must-Carry Directions: Directions for relevant parties, including internet intermediaries, to include a mandatory message from the Singapore government to warn Singaporeans about an ongoing HIC.
  • Account Restriction Directions / Access Blocking Directions: Directions for an internet intermediary to suspend or disable the accounts posting HIC content, or to restrict access to their content so that the content is not viewable by end-users in Singapore.
  • App Removal Directions: Directions to app distribution services requiring them to stop apps known to be used by foreign parties to conduct HICs from being downloaded in Singapore.

Political Significant Persons (PSPs)

PSPs are defined as individuals and/or organisations who are directly involved in Singapore’s political processes, such as:

  • Political parties
  • Political office holders
  • Members of Parliament (MPs), including Non-Constituency MPs and Nominated MPs
  • Central Executive Committee (CEC) members of political parties
  • Election candidates and their election agents

The above individuals and organisations are referred to as Defined PSPs.

However, this is not a closed list. The competent authority appointed by the Minister for Home Affairs can designate other individuals and organisations as PSPs if:

  1. Their activities are directed towards a political end in Singapore; and
  2. It is assessed to be in the public interest that countermeasures be applied against them.

Individuals and organisations which are designated as PSPs in accordance with the above criteria are thus called Designated PSPs.

A table setting out the countermeasures applicable to PSPs is set out below. The countermeasures are separated into two levels:

  1. Baseline countermeasures, which apply to all PSPs; and
  2. Stepped-up countermeasures, which only apply if there are increased risks of foreign interference.

Defined PSPs

Political Parties (Organisations) Baseline countermeasures:

  • No political donations from impermissible donors
  • No foreign volunteers
  • Anonymous donations cap of $5,000
  • Disclosure of reportable political donations
  • Maintenance of political donations fund in a separate local bank account
  • Disclosure of donations by major political donors. Major political donors are individuals and/or organisations who have made political donations of more than $10,000 to a political party
  • Disclosure of foreign affiliations
  • No foreigners in leadership
  • No foreigners in membership

Stepped-up countermeasures:

  • Directive to end affiliation with foreign principal
Political Office Holders

MPs

CEC members of political parties

Election Candidates & Election Agents

(Individuals)

Baseline countermeasures:

  • No political donations from impermissible donors
  • No foreign volunteers
  • Anonymous donations cap of $5,000
  • Disclosure of reportable political donations
  • Maintenance of political donations fund
  • Disclosure of migration benefits

Stepped-up countermeasures:

  • Directive to end affiliation with foreign principal

Designated PSPs

Designated individuals and organisations Baseline countermeasures:

  • Disclosure of reportable political donations
  • Disclosure of foreign affiliations
  • Disclosure of migration benefits

Stepped-up countermeasures:

  • Prohibited donor directive
  • Anonymous donations directive
  • Directive to maintain political donations fund
  • Directive requiring disclosure of donations by major political donors
  • Declaration of foreign volunteers
  • Directive prohibiting foreign volunteers
  • Directive to end affiliation with foreign principal
  • Directive prohibiting foreign responsible officer
  • Directive prohibiting foreign membership

Is there an Appeal Mechanism Under the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA)?

Individuals and/or entities who have been issued with a direction or are subject to a measure under FICA may apply to the Minister of Home Affairs for reconsideration.

However, if the Minister does not amend his decision to issue the direction or enforce the measures, the individual and/or entity may appeal to an independent reviewing tribunal, which has the power to overrule the Minister.

The tribunal is headed by a Judge of the Supreme Court and includes two other individuals with legal or technical expertise who are not in the Singapore government. The findings and decisions of the tribunal are final and binding and cannot be appealed further.

What are the Consequences of Failing to Comply with Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) Directions?

Failure to comply with certain directions and measures under FICA may expose the individual and/or organisation to criminal prosecution. For example, the failure of a major political donor to submit the donation report is an offence.

In line with the prohibition against PSPs accepting donations coming from foreigners, any person who knowingly facilitates the channelling of such prohibited donations may also be liable for an offence and criminal prosecution.

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In the words of the Minister, FICA is necessary because “the Internet has opened an entirely new front for hostile action”, which has required the Singapore government to “update[e] [its] powers to ensure they are fit for the Internet age”.

FICA is intended to address the ever-present and ever-growing threat concerning Singapore’s national security and sovereignty and does so by equipping the Singapore government with the ability to impose and enforce countermeasures against HICs and PSPs.

If you have received a notice informing you that you are being designated as a PSP, you may wish to seek further guidance or advice from a criminal lawyer, who will be able to advise you on your rights, including what you can do to appeal against the designation, and the possible grounds for doing so.