Singapore Sets a New Free Speech Trap

Draconian legislation aimed at “foreign interference”

On September 25, five reporters with the Singapore Straits Times, a newspaper that does little that the Singapore government doesn’t want done, published a massive five-part package of stories raising the specter of foreign interference in the island republic’s politics and society.

Unfortunately, its sleuthing out of foreign influence in the press was largely concentrated on a 50-year-old episode in which a scion of the family that owned the famed Tiger Balm ointment empire set up a newspaper that appeared to be backed by Chinese Communist intelligence. Otherwise, the main episodes of foreign interference, according to the series, actually appeared to be taking place in Australia and had little to do with Singapore.

Nonetheless, it was clear, looking at the package of stories, that this was what the government wanted the Straits Times to print, and that this is the start of a disconcerting campaign that is emblematic of how the government works. In the past, it often ignored reporting on Singapore from outside. That appears to be less so.

At the heart of this new campaign is a measure introduced by the Ministry of Home Affairs called the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA). It is likely not aimed at foreign spies but the foreign press, Singapore’s growing political opposition and its increasingly pesky social media, particularly the news portal Online Citizen, whose editor Terry Xu was recently successfully sued for defamation by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with the intention of bankrupting him.

“It is an attempt by Prime Minister Lee to further muzzle the media and suppress opposition parties like possibly the Progress Singapore Party,” said a longtime Singapore source. “The government said the new law will target "Politically Significant Persons". Amazingly, the acronym of this is PSP, the same as that party.” 

At least two local opposition parties, the PSP and Workers’ Party, oppose FICA in its current form. Some 33 local arts and civil society organizations have endorsed a petition calling for a multi-party Select Committee to be convened to carry out extensive public consultation on the issue of foreign interference. The petition, called "Say no to unfettered power! Rethink FICA!", has so far attracted more than 5,500 signatures.

Singapore, according to Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, “is preparing the political equivalent of a lynching party to go after the few remaining political activists, community organizers, and independent media outlets like TOC and New Naratif, using claims of foreign involvement to disguise this blatant repression. Basically, Singapore’s ruling party has decided that it must eradicate any remaining political threat to its power, and it will use ‘foreign influence’ as the bogeyman to justify the surveillance, discriminatory targeting, and violations of civil and political rights to follow.”

It is beyond doubt that the bill will pass in Singapore’s parliament, in which the People’s Action Party holds an overwhelming majority. And once it is passed, the home affairs ministry will collect a “list of people and entities designated as ‘politically significant persons’” and name them in the press. The government will be able to set its own parameters on who will be labeled a ‘foreign agent’ and will have the authority to impose stiff sentences for the intent to publish content. It also appears to allow the government to introduce a system of prior censorship.

In response to queries from the Straits Times, a ministry spokesman said any additional measures that these PSPs are subjected to will also be made public.

At that point, the Minister for Home Affairs will be empowered to “issue directions to various entities, including social media companies and Internet access providers, to help the authorities investigate and counter hostile communications activity from abroad.”

This all smacks of a similar crackdown called Operation Spectrum, the code name for a 1987 security operation in which 22 young Catholic lay workers, social workers, and artists were detained under Singapore’s Internal Security Act for alleged involvement in "a Marxist conspiracy to subvert the existing social and political system.” They were run over the washboard and told they would be freed only if they confessed by interrogators who forced them to make televised confessions of transgressions that were strikingly innocent including sending books to China – not receiving books from China.

That was accompanied with the blare of television and hysterical stories in the Straits Times. Among the victims of this editorial frenzy was a diplomat in the US embassy who had apparently met with some of the arrested individuals. He was pointed out on the front page of the Straits Times as a foreign agent and vilified although he was only following common practice of outreach practiced by embassies everywhere. Others, including a Catholic priest, had their lives wrecked. Francis Seow, the lawyer for the young detainees, was hit with trumped-up charges of tax evasion, arrested and forced into permanent exile. Seow died recently in the United States.

Eventually authorities years later quietly called the arrests politically motivated. In a Straits Times interview in 2001, then-Senior Minister of State Tharman Shanmugaratnam acknowledged that "although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but were not out to subvert the system.”

If that sounds familiar, it should. Singapore is losing its fear of the government and the Lee family, and it is time to do something about that. Lee Hsien Loong’s recent successful defamation suits against local politicians and Terry Xu have been met with enthusiastic crowdfunding exercises that have paid off Lee’s victims’ court judgments. In the 2020 general election, although the People’s Action Party secured its 15th consecutive term, setting the world’s second-longest uninterrupted record in charge, it won only 61.23 percent of the vote as opposition parties struggled against ruthless gerrymandering, press suppression and other drawbacks. The PAP still managed 91 percent of the seats in parliament despite winning only 61 percent of the vote.

With the citizenry no longer cowed, the government has had to resort to other means. starting with putting The Online Citizen out of business. With five young Malaysian citizens as reporters, Xu’s publication was squarely in the government’s sights as “influenced by foreigners.” Another new media entity is the New Naratif website, also Singapore-based, which covers Southeast Asia and whose editor, Thum Ping Tjin, received “stern warnings” from the government about “illegal election activity.”

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a statement saying it “is appalled” by the proposed legislation, which “will enable the government to designate any independent media outlet as a foreign agent and to censor its content.”

As RSF pointed out, this foreign principal “can obviously be a government, but it can also be an entity or an individual, even one residing in Singapore. And the type of relationship between the ‘foreign principal” and any Singaporean partner is of little concern. It can be shares in a company, a commercial contract, or even an informal collaboration provided free of charge. All these extremely vague concepts give the government a great deal of leeway.”

If any of those crowd-funders are from overseas, look out.

Ranked 160th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Singapore has been colored black on the RSF press freedom map since 2020 as the situation is now classified as “very bad,” in part because of the draconian anti-fake news law adopted in 2019.  This is a reversion to the Singapore of Lee Kuan Yew and his statement in his 1998 book that “my response has been such that nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac ... If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try.”