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Singapore foreign interference law: Who will it affect?

February 27, 2024

For decades, global business hub Singapore has lauded itself as one of the world's most open economies. But the Southeast Asian country's new foreign interference law could taint its liberal image.

Singapore Merlion Park & Business district
Singapore sits at 129 out of 180 countries in the Reporters without Borders world press freedom rankings for 2023Image: Yeen Ling Chong/AP Photo/picture-alliance

Chan Man Ping Philip, a 59-year-old businessman, was officially designated as a "politically significant person" by the Singapore state in February. Chan was born in Hong Kong but later became a naturalized Singaporean.

Singapore's Home Affairs Ministry said in a statement that Chan had "shown susceptibility to be influenced by foreign actors" and has a "willingness to advance their interests."

The Singaporean Parliament passed the Foreign Interference Countermeasure Act (FICA) in October 2021. The law aims to prohibit foreign companies and individuals from influencing the country's political landscape.

Chan is the first person to have been designated under the FICA law.

Accusations of involvement with Beijing

Singaporean media have reported that Chan has been involved in several recent pro-Beijing events in recent years, which may have contributed to the decision.

In March, he was part of a group of 30 overseas Chinese that attended an annual session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing, which is an advisory body of the Chinese government. 

In 2019, during Hong Kong's widespread anti-government protests, Singaporean authorities gave a warning to Chan for arranging a public meeting opposing the demonstrations.

The meeting was held without a permit in a restaurant Chan owned in Singapore.

Chan has since resigned from his role as president at the Hong Kong Singapore Business Association, reports said on Monday. But the businessman still holds prominent positions, including investment and property firms in Singapore, and is president of Hong Kong's Kowloon Club.

Why is Chan being targeted now?

Chan is allowed to appeal against the designation, but if the decision is upheld, Chan would need to disclose annual political donations that exceed $10,000 Singaporean dollars (€6,900/$7,400) that he receives from foreign affiliations.

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Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, says the reasons for Chan's designation is unclear.

"Chan is not the only one from Singapore who's participated in such activity. There have been others, and this is a matter of public record," Chong said about Chan's ties with Chinese overseas delegates. As for the Hong Kong protests, Chong also questioned the timing.

"[That was] almost five years ago, and he was able to do it. What is it that he's been designated for? That's not clear."

Chan has been accused of publishing Chinese-language articles in Singapore media with a pro-Beijing agenda.

"All of Singapore's Mandarin-language mainstream press [are] also government owed. Someone obviously made an editorial call to publish those letters. Why that was the case?" Chong added.

Singapore treating China 'with kid gloves'

Chan's alleged activities come as Chinese interference in Singapore affairs has been highlighted in the past decade. 

Beijing began a so-called "pressure campaign" towards Singapore in 2015 to seek support over Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.

In 2016, nine Singapore military vehicles were impounded at Hong Kong customs after Singapore conducted training exercises with Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory.

Huang Jing, an academic and director at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy's Centre on Asia and Globalisation, was accused by Singapore of being an agent of foreign influence and consequently expelled in 2017. Media later referred to Jing as a Chinese spy, which he denied.

In 2020, Singaporian national Dickson Yeo was sentenced to prison in the US after pleading guilty to spying on behalf of China. He was deported to Singapore and ultimately released in December 2021.

Chong says though these examples indicate Chinese interference, Singapore's government may be trying to be cautious when pointing the finger at Beijing regarding Chan's case.

"Singapore seems to be very reluctant to paint the People's Republic of China in any sort of negative light. They are happy to do that with all other actors, but the PRC they really treat with kid gloves," he said.

"Even though they've not talked about attribution officially, the fact that the state media has talked it up sends a signal to the public that something related to the PRC interference is not okay, even though they're not very specific on what that might be," Chong added.

Singapore's tightly state-controlled media landscape

International media operating in Singapore are also at risk of the foreign interference law.

The government has in the past reassured that the law wouldn't apply to foreign journalists, individuals or publications who publish on Singaporean politics, but critics say the law gives the Singapore government powers to target dissidents and the leverage to influence self-censorship.

Singapore sits at 129 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom rankings for 2023.

"I think what happens is the law will probably silence and shut down people who might have a legitimate reason to be more critical on certain issues," Chong said.

But the wording of the law is "vague," Chong adds, meaning its effect could be more of a deterrence to groups being critical or advocating for change within Singaporean affairs.

"It really isn't just foreigners in Singapore. This would affect civil society. A place like Singapore has many international links. When does it constitute interference? All that is very vague," he said. "I think the law, perhaps what it tries to do is to get people to be more careful and sort of watch what they do."

 Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum

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Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker Reporter focusing on Southeast Asian politics, conflicts, economy and society.@tommywalkerco