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Politics

Singapore approves foreign interference law amid rights concerns

Critics question scope of legislation that allows blocking internet content

New legislation will allow Singaporean authorities to compel internet, social media service providers and website operators to provide user information, block content and remove applications.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE (Reuters) -- Singapore's parliament has approved a law that gives broad powers to the government to deal with foreign interference that has sparked concern from the opposition and experts about its wide scope and limits on judicial review.

The small and open city-state, which says it is vulnerable to foreign meddling, targeted fake news with a far-reaching law in 2019, and joins nations such as Australia and Russia that have passed laws in recent years to deter foreign interference.

The bill, formally known as the Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act (FICA), was passed late on Monday with 75 members voting in favor, 11 opposition members objecting and two abstaining, local media reported.

Among the measures, FICA allows authorities to compel internet, social media service providers and website operators to provide user information, block content and remove applications.

Those deemed or designated as "politically significant persons" under the law will have to comply with strict rules relating to donations and declare their links to foreign entities.

Instead of court, an independent tribunal, chaired by a judge, will hear appeals against the minister's decisions, a move the government says is necessary to protect national security.

The tribunal's decisions will be final.

The government said FICA does not cover the building of overseas partnerships, soliciting overseas businesses, networking with foreigners, sourcing for donations or those discussing policies or political matters that affect their businesses with foreign colleagues or business partners, or supporting charities.

"As long as they are done in an open and transparent manner, and not part of an attempt to manipulate our political discourse or undermine public interest such as security," K Shanmugam, minister for home affairs, said in parliament.

It will also not affect Singaporeans expressing their own views or engaging in advocacy. The home affairs ministry has also previously said it would not apply to foreign individuals or publications "reporting or commenting on Singapore politics, in an open, transparent and attributable way."

But some critics say its broad language risks capturing even legitimate activities, while rights group Reporters Without Borders said the law could ensnare independent media outlets.

Experts and Singapore's opposition parties have called for narrowing the scope of executive powers and more oversight through the judiciary.

The bill was passed without strengthening "the circumscribed checks and balances, particularly judicial review," said Eugene Tan, a law professor at Singapore Management University. "While assurances were given, they could have been given unequivocal expression through legislative codification."

However, Shanmugam said the bill represented the "best balance...between dealing with the risks and providing checks against abuse."

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