A response to claims made about me during the FICA debate
Last night, the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act was passed by Parliament, just three weeks after it was first introduced in Parliament. This was despite concerns from civil society, lawyers, academics, tech companies, parliamentarians, and a significant number of Singaporeans. Although there was an extensive debate of 10 hours, none of our main concerns — to do with an overly broad law that hands an extraordinary amount of power to one man — were adequately addressed.
In arguing for the necessity of a law like FICA, the Minister for Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam, spent a portion of his second reading speech attacking myself, along with New Naratif’s Managing Director Thum Ping Tjin, and The Online Citizen’s Chief Editor Terry Xu. He painted a picture of us mounting a “disinformation campaign” against FICA because of our own self-interested desires for foreign funding and foreign influence in Singapore.
I would like to respond to the claims that were made about me.
Shanmugam: “There have also been others [...] who have been actively trying to put out misinformation about the Bill. Chief amongst them, Mr Thum and Ms Kirsten Han.”
I completely reject the accusation that I have been involved in any disinformation campaign on FICA. Throughout the three weeks that I sought to raise public awareness of this troubling law, I encouraged people to read the bill for themselves, and repeatedly provided the link to the actual text. I also often attached screencaps of the bill to my tweets, so that people could read the text themselves.
Understanding that it would be difficult for people to read and digest such a long bill, I worked with some friends to produce a summary that was extensively footnoted to point people to the exact provisions that we were referencing, so that they could look them up and check for themselves.
While I made it clear that my comments on FICA were based on my own layperson’s reading of the bill, I was in no way alone in my concerns. Others who have raised similar issues with the broad reach of the law and the lack of judicial oversight include senior lawyers, academics, and civil society organisations.
Eugene Tan, an Associate Professor of Law at the Singapore Management University, told the press that FICA is “potentially the most powerful law [in Singapore] because of the extensive range of powers available to the authorities and the very limited ability of the courts to review the manner in which those powers are used.” Carol Soon, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, also pointed to FICA’s lack of clarity over terms such as “collaboration” with a foreign principal, and urged the government to take heed of the concerns that had been raised.
Shanmugam: “Thum and Han, as I said in 2019 in the conference, take money from George Soros. Some of you may recall Soros’ Open Society Foundations (OSF) has a history of getting involved in the domestic politics of sovereign countries. In 2018, ACRA rejected Thum and Han’s attempt to register a company funded by OSF to organise “democracy classroom” sessions in Singapore. They have set up an organisation called New Naratif which receives significant foreign funding.”
New Naratif, a Southeast Asian platform that I co-founded along with PJ and Sonny Liew in 2017, received grant funding from the Open Society Foundation. It was no different from the grants that media companies, arts organisations, research institutes, etc. throughout the world apply for from various grant-making bodies, and did not come with any expectation or ability to control the editorial decisions that we made at New Naratif. The Open Society Foundation has funded a large number of groups and initiatives; among them are organisations like ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a network of which PAP parliamentarians are members, and Harvard College.
We willingly provided information about our funding to ACRA when we applied to register a company in 2018. We later also addressed this accusation of foreign influence in a statement in 2018, after ACRA decided to deny our application.
In any case, I left New Naratif in the first quarter of 2020 to return to full-time freelancing. My current work — running my own newsletter, and freelance writing and research — is not funded by George Soros.
Shanmugam: “Thum and Han, and some other activists, met with Dr Mahathir on 30 August 2018. They asked Dr Mahathir to bring democracy to Singapore – I suppose Malaysian-style democracy.”
This is just false. PJ asked Mahathir “to take leadership in Southeast Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of information”, which is not an odd thing to ask someone who was, at the time, the prime minister of a Southeast Asian country. It takes a great leap in logic to construe this comment as an invitation to intervene directly in Singapore's politics, or bring democracy to Singapore.
We met Mahathir in 2018, not long after a stunning election in which Malaysians booted the long-ruling Barisan Nasional out of power. I took the opportunity to observe the man in person, and wanted to see if I could gain any insight about him and/or Malaysian politics during this meeting — particularly since I was the chief editor of a regional publication at the time. Meeting him did not amount to an endorsement on my part.
This was made clear in a blog post on the meeting that I published that very night, in which I concluded, “My meeting with Mahathir—which I attended out of curiosity and sheer kaypoh-ness—didn’t result in any earth-shattering revelations or heart-stopping epiphanies. All it did was reinforce in my mind that we can’t rely on any one individual to “rescue democracy” or bring lasting, meaningful reform to a country. Democracy isn’t a commodity that can be acquired; it’s an ongoing project, an aspiration that all of us need to fight for, over and over again.”
At no point did anyone ask Mahathir to bring democracy to Singapore. I already addressed this claim in a follow-up blog post in 2018.
Shanmugam: “Han described a social movement, and I quote, ‘the work that goes into potentially one day having 500,000 people in the streets’.”
This is a transcript of the speech I gave in 2016 that the Minister is referencing. I have already responded to his mischaracterisation of my statements back in 2019, when he first brought it up.
The point that I was making was that “500,000 people on the streets” is not a useful way to measure the strength, maturity, and success of a country’s civil society. What’s more important are the communities, networks, and solidarity, because these form the foundation to building trust and a sense of ownership, which are things that are needed regardless of whether there are 500,000 people protesting in the streets or not. If this civil society can, together with the government and the citizens, build meaningful democratic processes, then there’ll be no need for mass protests, which we can all agree would be the ideal situation.
However, if there is one day a rogue government that abuses its power and perpetuates injustice, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope that Singaporeans will be willing to organise and take action to protect our democracy.
Shanmugam: “She has also said, ‘When the government says foreigners should not influence domestic affairs, or foreigners should not bring their country’s politics into Singapore, we should push back on that as well, because why not, because solidarity is important.’ Her view is that Malaysians can influence our politics. She says so openly.”
This is another piece of misinformation. It is not my position that Malaysians can or should influence Singapore politics.
In a world that is hyper-connected, with movement of people, trade, business, etc., it is only natural, and in fact desirable, that transnational organising and solidarity emerges. It is not surprising that people care about issues and struggles beyond their own borders, or want to support or stand in solidarity with others. The reaction among authoritarian leaders, though, has been to weaponise terms like “foreign interference” to discredit both domestic and international critics, and curb civil liberties. It is in this context that I made that statement, saying that we should challenge rhetoric about preventing foreign influence because it is sometimes little more than an excuse to clamp down on legitimate activities that do not subvert local politics or undermine democracy.
Singapore is home to many foreigners, all of whom should have access to rights as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is not in line with international standards to deny foreigners the right to freedom of expression or assembly by clamping down on peaceful gatherings or protests in solidarity with movements in their home countries. Similarly, foreigners who live in Singapore, or are interested in its affairs, have the right to be able to express their views or participate in civil society activities without fear.
Shanmugam: “And I believe, I haven’t seen it, but I assume the petition that PSP is presenting in Parliament is the one that is inspired by Ms Han.”
I was involved in putting together the parliamentary petition and am one of its signatories, but this was a group effort. As was clear from the debate in Parliament yesterday, I am far from the only person concerned about the breadth of FICA, or the speed with which it was rushed to a vote.
Shanmugam: “Han has said, in arguing against this Bill, that it is difficult to get money for these causes in Singapore, so foreign funding is necessary. You can see, Singaporeans are excited about it, interested, they will contribute. Or because they won’t contribute, therefore I need foreign funding.”
It would be ideal to run a civil society organisation or independent media outlet in Singapore entirely on subscriptions, donations, or crowdfunding from citizens, but I don’t think the Minister is familiar with this space and its challenges. Multiple media start-ups in Singapore, such as SIX-SIX or The Middle Ground, have folded due to struggles with financial sustainability. There are also many civil society organisations that are constantly underfunded. A lot of the work that’s done by civil society might also not be suited to commercial profit-making models, and not everything can be crowdfunded. Donor fatigue sets in, and there is a limit to how much an average Singaporean can give.
In this context, applying for foreign funding is not unusual, and is in fact common practice for civil society organisations, media organisations, researchers and academics, artists etc. Even our local mainstream media companies have partaken: in 2019, Zaobao.sg, owned by the Singapore Press Holdings, received $200,000 from the Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge.
The Minister’s comments about PJ, Terry, and I — made under parliamentary privilege — during his speech demonstrate the crux of concerns about FICA.
During the long hours of debate yesterday, we were repeatedly told that the law will not suppress freedoms or stifle legitimate activity, because it will not affect anyone’s freedom of expression or association, unless one is a local proxy for a foreign actor. But, as we can see from this, it is the government that gets to point the finger and make accusations.
Many of the allegations made against me yesterday were claims that I had already clarified and responded to in 2018 and 2019. Under FICA, the Minister will now not only be able to continue repeating these claims, but also be empowered to act on these accusations, while my avenues for appeal will be limited, given the limits on judicial oversight.
This is why FICA is a dangerous law.
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