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The first FICA designation

The authorities have issued notice of their intention to designate Philip Chan as a "politically significant person". What does this mean?

When it was reported that the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act would come fully into force at the end of last year, many of us expected a list of designated “politically significant persons” to be released on the day itself. But then 29 December rolled ‘round, and only members of political parties and political organisations (i.e. those previously covered by the Political Donations Act that FICA replaced) were automatically designated by the law’s implementation.

Now we have the first announced (intended) designation, and wahey! It’s not a civil society activist, whew.

Philip Chan is a 59-year-old naturalised Singaporean who moved here from Hong Kong in 1990. If designated, Chan will be required to report to the registrar about political donations of $10,000 and above, foreign affiliations and migration benefits from other countries. He has 14 days from 2 February (when he was served notice) to submit representations to the Registrar of Foreign and Political Disclosures about his political insignificance. If he still gets designated, he can appeal to K Shanmugam, the minister for home affairs.

So who’s this guy? Chan runs businesses, including one that serves rich people from China who want to buy or invest in property in Singapore. He’s founder of a consultancy that runs courses to “nurture better understanding and more appreciation towards China from within the ASEAN communities”. He was president of the Hong Kong Singapore Business Association (although he’s resigned since receiving the FICA notice) and president of the Kowloon Club. The club’s website describes its work as assisting “members to integrate into the society by organizing activities with focus on cultural, recreational, educational and charitable natures”. On top of that, he also used to be a patron of the Kampong Chai Chee Citizens’ Consultative Committee and the Bukit Timah Community Club Management Committee; the People’s Association has taken pains to emphasise that he’s already stepped down from all these grassroots appointments.

What does this tell us?

The intention to designate Chan gives an indication of what the government is concerned about, even though it’s worth noting that the press release published on the Ministry of Home Affairs’s website is careful not to name the country they think Chan is susceptible to influence from (although, as the media coverage shows, it’s pretty damn obvious who they’re worried about).

I have to first say that I don’t know if Chan is an agent of foreign interference; even the FICA notice doesn’t make such a claim. The press statement merely says that Chan was assessed to have shown “susceptibility to be influenced by foreign actors, and willingness to advance their interests”. The way that FICA works, you don’t have to already be a legit foreign agent to be designated. Still, it’s interesting to see how Philip Chan’s profile contrasts against those of us who had been previously singled out.

Before FICA was introduced in Parliament and passed, there was a lot of talk from the PAP about foreign interference involving members of Singapore civil society; people like myself, PJ Thum of New Naratif and Terry Xu of The Online Citizen were all at some point or other used as examples of potential agents of foreign influence in Singapore’s domestic politics, to the point where I had to release rebuttals like this one. But activists and independent media workers like us aren’t actually worth cultivating as foreign agents—we would provide very, very bad returns on investment. We don’t have the ear of the important people who make law or policy, and the direct interactions we have with the state tend to come in the form of police investigations, which would be of no use for meddling purposes. We’re more likely to end up on the receiving end of a ruinous lawsuit or in prison than in the corridors of power where we would be able to bend Singaporean decisions to the will of a foreign power. If a foreign country had an agenda to push, Singaporean activists are just not worth their resources.

With Philip Chan we see a different sort of profile: someone with capital and connections. He was invited to attend China’s Two Sessions parliamentary meetings last year as an “overseas Chinese representative”—one of only 30 such representatives from around the world. He is/was part of organisations in Singapore that, while nowhere near being kingmakers, at least have more clout with the establishment than the average grey-/blacklisted civil society groups. He not only believes that it is “our duty as overseas Chinese to tell China’s story well”—especially since he feels that China has been so maligned by “the West”—he can/could also get his views published in the mainstream Chinese-language newspaper, Lianhe Zaobao. He was active in grassroots organisations run by a statutory board closely associated with the ruling party. He has/had access to people in powerful positions, such as Sim Ann, a senior minister of state at the foreign affairs ministry and national development ministry.

If a foreign state was really looking to meddle in Singapore’s politics and promote their interests, someone of this profile makes much more sense than burnt-out, sidelined activists. As has been pointed out even before FICA was passed, when it comes to malign foreign influence operations, elite capture is the name of the game. The closer a meddler can get to the real centre of power, the better.

On transparency

It’s worth quoting from Ian Chong’s 2021 op-ed on FICA (back when it was still a bill):

“Accounts of multiple cases of undue foreign influence, intimidation, and pressure in Australia that spurred passage of the 2018 Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act came about in no small measure from determined investigative reporting. Public awareness of United Front work and online election meddling in Taiwan that brought more careful media regulation and independent fact-checking was possible due to robust media reporting, civil society mobilisation, and rigorous academic research. Singapore does not enjoy the protections against foreign interference afforded by active free press, civil society, and academia. This makes greater transparency through public disclosure as well as more comprehensive reporting and auditing standards even more important in the defence against unwelcome forms of foreign influence. These are areas where FICA can and should go further. The risks from the targeting of key persons are real, persistent, look set to continue, and will only become more sophisticated. Broad but basic measures, often informed by the past, are simply not enough and potentially leave Singapore exposed.

Singapore’s model of governance places a premium on having key individuals in positions of authority to afford faster decision-making. Potential liabilities include having obvious critical nodes to target in ways that can compromise institutions, state functions, and public confidence.”

FICA was passed and implemented since this op-ed was written, but the issue of transparency (or lack thereof) remains. The parliamentarians, politicians, political organisations and individuals designated under FICA are only required to report on things like donations, foreign affiliations and migration benefits to the authorities, and these disclosures are not required to be made public. We’re just supposed to trust that reporting privately to the government is going to be good enough.

There is also very little transparency about how the authorities go about deciding who they want to designate as “politically significant persons”. How does the government determine whether someone is susceptible to foreign influence? What criteria needs to be fulfilled before someone stops being a regular person with their own political opinions and starts becoming someone who could potentially become a patsy for malign foreign meddling?

I wonder why Philip Chan was selected as the first person the authorities intend to designate, and not, say, someone like the super rich and well-connected Robert Ng, a Singaporean billionaire whose family businesses hold significant sway in both Singapore and Hong Kong. He’s chairman of Sino Group, a major property developer in Hong Kong, while his brother runs Far East Organisation, described by Tatler as “Singapore's largest private landlord and property developer”. Ng’s also a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)—it says right there in his profile on the Sino Group website—a Chinese political advisory body and key to China’s “united front” strategy. Again, I'm not saying that Robert Ng, or any member of his family, is definitely an agent of foreign interference. But if someone like Philip Chan is potentially going to get designated, then I can't help but wonder what the registrar thinks about others. How did the authorities decide who to FICA first? I don't know the answer to this question, but would be most interested to find out.