Safeguards needed for academia as foreign influence bill passes

The University Times

The Singapore parliament this week passed legislation to counter foreign interference that could threaten its national security and sovereignty, amid growing concerns globally about the use of digital tools and campaigns by foreigners to advance their national interests abroad. But critics said the law could impact on free speech and academic freedom and academics are calling for more safeguards for free and open inquiry and research.

The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act or FICA was passed on 4 October with just three amendments, after the bill was first unveiled a month ago.

FICA aims to prevent foreign actors from interfering in local politics by giving the state the power to shut down hostile information campaigns and direct internet service providers to block such content from being seen in Singapore.

It also allows the government to curb foreign interference using local proxies, creating a special category – ‘politically significant persons’ – who would be subject to specific rules on donations and declaring foreign affiliations if their activities were deemed to have “political ends”.

FICA covers any activity “directed towards a political end in Singapore”, including attempts to influence views on matters “that have become the subject of a political debate in Singapore”.

But Singaporean academics have said FICA defines some key terms such as ‘political ends’, ‘public interest’ and ‘collaboration’ so broadly that it could cover the legitimate work of academics and other active citizens. They have argued that additional safeguards to protect academics are needed in the law.

“Academics have a special obligation to engage with complex, contentious issues that matter to Singaporeans. FICA’s language reframes this social responsibility as a taboo,” according to an article by Academia|SG, a group of Singaporeans, published in advance of the parliamentary session and reproduced by University World News.

“Mindful of the risk that any faculty member may be designated as a ‘politically significant person’ for regularly contributing to online debates about public affairs, department heads and deans are likely to advise their staff to stay clear of controversial issues,” the article by Cherian George, Chong Ja Ian, Linda Lim and Teo You Yenn said, pointing to its effect on academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Response to questions on effects on academics

While specific countries are not mentioned in the bill, Singapore’s Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam pointed in parliament to specific examples of Russia and Iran, which have used disinformation networks “including journalists and academics to carry their views”. And he pointed to overseas think-tank publications that have named Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

On the effects on academic collaborations with non-Singaporeans, Shanmugam told parliament, academics “collaborate, create, partner, pursue their research interests professionally”, but if it is not a hostile information campaign, “it doesn’t come under FICA.”

As long as activities are conducted in an “open and transparent manner, and not part of an attempt to manipulate our political discourse or undermine public interest such as security”, it does not come under the new law, he said.

“So, the bill will not affect the vast amount of academic work that is being done. We value the intellectual output, collaborations, exchange of ideas, the work our academics do. And they need to link with the rest of the world for work, bona fide and professional work. It is important for Singapore,” Shanmugam told parliament.

“But in some situations, there are academics who go into a different realm, around the world. And they are dealt with, like we did with Huang Jing,” he said, referring to the case of a professor at the National University of Singapore, a Chinese national resident in Singapore, who was identified as a spy in 2017 and expelled from Singapore as an “agent of influence for a foreign country”.

Shanmugam has said elsewhere that actions will only come under FICA if there is an attempt to “turn the person into an agent of influence” – although academics have noted that it is unclear how this will be identified or determined.

In parliament, Shanmugam said: “Being conferred with an honorary title or degree by a foreign state or university alone is unlikely to be sufficient grounds for designation as a PSP [politically significant person]. It is not FICA’s intent to stop these types of interactions and activities. But, you know, again, we will look to see whether there is an attempt by a foreign actor to cultivate a Singaporean to undermine our national interest.”

Effect on freedom of speech

Shanmugam dismissed concerns raised by some parliamentarians that FICA could affect some types of foreign interactions with academics, and that there could be a “chilling effect on freedom of speech”.

Despite his statements, Singaporean academics said they were not completely satisfied with the minister’s responses.

“There were assurances that regular academic work would not be interfered with, which made things clearer. But obviously I’d prefer things to be codified [in law] since there remains broad scope for discretion when it comes to implementation, as it provides some scope for interpretation,” Chong Ja Ian, of the department of political science at the National University of Singapore, told University World News after the bill was passed.

“Policy can change. A minister or administration can change them because they have a different orientation, or a new administration may come in and decide they want to take things in a different direction. Text codified in laws provide more stability.

“Some uncertainty remains. There were also some requests for guidelines, so a lot more will rest on what those guidelines will look like and how stable they are over time,” Chong said.

While the bill passed with just three amendments, Chong explained that only one was relevant to academia – the amendment to set up a registry of ‘politically significant persons’.

“That affects academics because previously there was some talk of a registry but it was not codified. The good thing about further codification is that everyone can see it so you can adjust your own behaviour, and for academics that allows for better risk assessment” in terms of collaborations, Chong said.

“Of course, depending on how the registry is applied, it could become overly restrictive. It is difficult to tell what to expect right now. Ultimately, it is up to the discretion of the minister and competent authority, including when and what changes their successors would like to make down the line,” he added.

The bill could become law within months with the assent of President Halimah Yacob.

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