Singapore ’s parliament on Monday approved a controversial bill to counter foreign interference, after nearly 11 hours of heated debate that saw Law and Home Affairs minister K. Shanmugam cross swords with opposition lawmakers who flagged concerns about the legislation’s broad nature and inadequate oversight mechanisms. The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures), or Fica, bill cleared the third reading in the 104-seat parliament with 75 lawmakers giving their approval, 11 MPs – all from the opposition – voting no and two abstentions. It will be enacted upon receiving assent from President Halimah Yacob. Fica has been touted by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) as an urgent necessity given increasing instances of foreign meddling in countries’ local affairs, especially via the internet. Some examples of this include the kind of interferences that plagued Britain ’s Brexit referendum and the 2016 United States presidential elections, but apart from Australia , no other country in the Asia-Pacific has in recent times enacted new legislation to deal with it. Critics of the long-ruling PAP have charged that the Fica bill, tabled in parliament just three weeks ago, was so expansive that it could easily be turned against domestic critics by future “rogue governments”. What can Singapore learn from Australia’s foreign interference countermeasures? One strident critic, P.J. Thum, claimed in a commentary last week that the law was tantamount to a “stealth coup” on the part of Shanmugam – a top lieutenant of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – as it would allow him to be “theoretically free to abuse the law for political and personal benefit”. Opening the second reading debate on Fica, Shanmugam sought to paint much of the criticism as borne from misunderstanding, or “misinformation” by PAP critics. “This law gives the government a set of tools that can help. It is not a complete defence against foreign interference, but they can help,” the minister said in a nearly two-hour speech. “The bill represents the best balance that we can find between dealing with the risks and providing checks against abuse.” The Home Affairs ministry’s press release about the bill on September 13 had alluded to real-life scenarios that bore resemblance to Chinese-linked activities in Australia and the European Union. Shanmugam did not directly explain the omission of the source nations of potential threats, but mentioned the republic’s 2017 ejection of the Chinese-American academic Huang Jing for being an agent of foreign influence in the country. Huang Jing ‘glad’ Singaporean Dickson Yeo was caught spying for China The Singapore government at the time did not name which country it suspected Huang was working for – he had denied all wrongdoing – but speculation was rife that the authorities deemed he was acting at the behest of China. “When we asked Huang Jing to leave, we didn’t say who he was acting for. Why?” Shanmugam said. “The foreign policy and national security implications are too serious. The United States can name any country that it wishes. But we are a price taker in this business of international relations.” On the subject of abuse by a rogue future government, Shanmugam said the risk of foreign interference was far greater. “Ultimately, people have the final say in a highly educated literate population like Singapore: a final say of both public opinion and public opinion expressed through elections,” he said. “People in Singapore won’t stand for a rogue government”. Some Singapore-focused academics had sounded the alarm that the law would have far-reaching consequences for collaboration with their foreign counterparts, and that while the government had given assurances that this was not the case, these were not evident in the text of the 249-page bill. In parliament, Shanmugam doubled down on the caustic exchanges his ministry has had with the academics. “Some of these doomsday scenarios, that Fica is going to close off foreign collaborations, if that is correct, we as a government must have suddenly gone mad,” he said. “Because in a country like Singapore, which depends so much on the flow of ideas and international collaboration, is that even thinkable?” ‘The most powerful law’ in Singapore: Foreign Interference bill brings concerns for civil society Critics in the crosshairs Shanmugam also took aim early on in his speech at Thum, co-founder of the New Naratif website, and Singaporean activist and journalist Kirsten Han, over what he claimed were their positions on the Fica bill. Officials have in the past repeatedly sought to highlight that New Naratif – which Han was also previously part of – was a recipient of funds linked to the Open Society Foundations (OSF), a grant-making network funded by the American billionaire George Soros. Both Han and Thum have said there was nothing surreptitious about the funding, and Han has said the dog-whistling from Singaporean authorities inaccurately linking her with foreign actors has led to online harassment against her. In his speech on Monday, Shanmugam re-narrated another episode that has repeatedly been used by online trolls to target Han: a 2018 meeting that she, Thum and other activists had with then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, the elder statesman known for his ultra-hawkish view towards Singapore. Shanmugam repeated the allegation that Thum had asked Mahathir “to bring democracy to Singapore”. Han and Thum have long maintained this did not happen. The minister also ridiculed Thum’s assertion that the Fica was a form of coup by him, saying that the academic was “living in a fantasy to think of a coup in Singapore”. He said he and other home affairs ministers had already had “far more powers” under other legislation, such as the country’s Internal Security Act and the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act. “Fica in contrast is a toy gun,” Shanmugam said. Opposition leader Pritam Singh, who heads the Workers’ Party, was the first of 16 MPs who took part in the debate after Shanmugam’s speech. Singh took particular issue with the government’s seeming rush to pass the bill into law, noting that the authorities had chosen not to hold public consultations on the legislation. The lack of consultation was “perplexing” given that the government had mulled introducing the bill for months, Singh said, adding that the bill as it stood fell short on “grounds of perception and fairness”. The Workers’ Party, which has 10 MPs, proposed 44 amendments to the bill, and the government accepted some of them, though it put forth its own version of the changes. With Fica, the government will have the ability to direct global internet and social media companies to divulge user information, remove applications from app stores, and block content, among other things. In some instances, the authorities can use these measures pre-emptively – without having to give reasons. Individuals, meanwhile, can be designated as “politically significant persons” – a status that would be publicised and require them to abide by strict rules pertaining to political donations and the declaration of their links to foreign entities. Those who wish to challenge the countermeasures imposed will have a right to appeal, but only via mechanisms that exist outside the remit of the judiciary. The courts will otherwise have limited say in how authorities use the law, with judicial review restricted under the proposed bill. The government has said its proposal for these oversight measures took into account the likelihood that decisions may involve sensitive information and intelligence that cannot be revealed in open court processes.