We, The Citizens in the time of FICA
DON’T PANIC! While the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, or FICA, has been passed by Parliament, it’s not yet in force, and therefore no one has been designated as “politically significant”, nor received any directive under this law just yet. Let’s all take a deep breath.
That said, I’m sending this out now because I think it’s important to be as clear and accountable to every subscriber of this newsletter — regardless of whether you’re a Milo Peng Funder or not — as I can. While I can’t provide certainty or guarantees, I can foresee ways in which FICA might affect my work on this newsletter and, by extension, your subscription and support.
In this issue, I’m laying out ways in which We, The Citizens could potentially be impacted by FICA, and what might happen as a result. These are educated guesses; at this stage, I have no way of actually knowing what will happen.
There’s no need for you to take any action right now; I’m just providing some mental prep because I want people to have the time to think and consider.
Potential Scenario #1: I get designated a “politically significant person”.
Given that I was already name-checked in Parliament during the FICA debate, I think this is a likely scenario. Getting designated doesn’t in and of itself trigger any criminal investigation or penalty — that kicks in if you don’t comply with the government’s orders — but it means that there will likely be reporting requirements, as well as specific directives.
For instance, I could get a directive that would prohibit “political donations” (widely defined) from non-Singaporeans, or Singaporeans below the age of 21. If this happens, I will shut down my Ko-Fi account, because it would be beyond my capacity to ensure that every person who tips me there is a “permissible donor” under the law.
I’m of the view that Milo Peng Funders aren’t donors, because they’re paying a subscription fee, making it a commercial transaction rather than a donation. However, I’m mindful that the Infocomm Media Development Authority took the view that The Online Citizen’s subscription model was not sufficiently distinguished from their free access, and therefore insisted that subscribers should also be considered donors. To pre-empt this, I’ll be making the distinction between Milo Peng Funder access and free access to this newsletter clearer.
At the moment, only Milo Peng Funders get all issues emailed to them; free subscribers only get the weekly wraps. But I tend to leave the paywall down on the website for special issues, thus allowing people to access them via links shared on social media. Moving forward, I’ll be stricter about the paywall; I’ve already retrospectively put some of the special issues back behind the paywall, and will probably have to leave the paywall up more often now. However, this doesn’t stop Milo Peng Funders from forwarding the emails that they receive, if they would like to do so. I have no way of tracking that, anyway, nor do I want to!
Getting designated could also mean other directives such as a prohibition on accepting voluntary services from foreigners. Since We, The Citizens is a one-person operation, this isn’t likely to affect things as much.
Potential Scenario #2: We, The Citizens is named a “proscribed online location”.
For this to happen, I’d first have to be issued a Part 3 directive under FICA, which I’d be legally required to comply with, even if I want to appeal the order to a Reviewing Tribunal. Such directions could, for example, tell me to take down or stop communicating certain content, or to publish a government notice. Any “online location with a Singapore link” that receives at least one such Part 3 directive can be declared a “proscribed online location”.
Such a declaration would make it illegal to seek funding for We, The Citizens, and also illegal to support/fund it. Basically, I’ll no longer be able to offer paid subscriptions, and it would be against the law to become a Milo Peng Funder (i.e. get a paid subscription).
If this happens, I will cancel all subscriptions and work on refunding people the remainder of their fees (which I’m hoping I can do via Stripe). Since it’d be no longer possible to run We, The Citizens as something that can be monetised, the newsletter will probably also become much more stripped down, so that I can offer it for free even as I find other ways to pay the bills.
Potential Scenario #3: The government demands information related to We, The Citizens.
Section 108 of FICA allows the authorities to demand information — such as membership details, “relations with foreign principals”, etc. — to cross-check information that has been reported to them, or to figure out if they should be issuing any directive under FICA. It gives the government very wide discretion to ask for information from anywhere, and doesn’t require the individual or organisation to be a proscribed online location or a politically significant person.
What this means for We, The Citizens is that if the government were to demand information — such as the list of subscribers to this newsletter — I would not be able to refuse. Failure to comply can result in a fine of up to $5,000, with an additional $500 per day for every day I refuse to comply even after conviction.
This is something that’s important to be aware of: while I have no intention of voluntarily publishing or divulging the subscriber list for this newsletter, I don’t have the power to refuse the authorities if they come asking for it.
I don’t think it’s inherently risky to simply be a subscriber of We, The Citizens — after all, a subscription doesn’t equate to an endorsement of my views, nor should subscribers be expected to assume responsibility for what I write — but I just want to make sure I’m clear about this so everyone can make informed choices for themselves. Obviously I hope that We, The Citizens won’t lose any subscribers over this, but I completely understand and won’t judge if anyone would prefer to end their (free/paid) subscription.
“So, what should I do now?”
You don’t need to do anything right now — as I said, FICA is not yet in force and these are currently hypothetical scenarios that I’m sharing so people can be informed and prepared.
The only two groups of people who need to take some action will be:
- Those who have opted not to receive emails, and
- Those who are currently receiving emails but would like to stop.
Because of the way Ghost works, choosing to unsubscribe from emails doesn’t remove an individual from the members list on the back-end. I’ll therefore be emailing these people separately to check if they would like to remain in the database. If not, I’ll delete them manually.
If you are currently receiving emails, but would like to unsubscribe from We, The Citizens and remove yourself completely from the member list, please let me know by replying to this email.
Thank you for taking the time to read this! I hope this doesn’t trigger panic or unnecessary anxiety; my intention is to ensure that people have time to digest and make their own decisions, and be spared nasty surprises at the last minute.
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