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Reporters record a speech by Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as it is streamed on Facebook live during vote counting in the general election in Singapore, July 11, 2020.  © 2020 RAHMAN/AFP/Getty

(New York) – The Singapore government should withdraw a proposed law that significantly undermines the rights of activists, academics, journalists, and others to freedom of expression, association, and participation in public affairs and to privacy, Human Rights Watch and ten other international organizations said in a statement released today. The parliament passed the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill on October 4, 2021, and it awaits signature by the city-state’s president.

“The Singapore government could wield the proposed Foreign Interference Act as a bludgeon against activists and journalists with contacts outside the city-state,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should immediately withdraw this rights-abusing law, which threatens those not frightened into self-censoring with having their content blocked and being labeled foreign agents.”

The law would grant sweeping powers to the Minister for Home Affairs to "prevent, detect, and disrupt foreign interference in... domestic politics." Under the proposed law, he could require removal or disabling of online content and mandatory publication of government-drafted notices; and could require preventing an online app from being downloadable in Singapore, based on his “suspicion” that action is being taken on behalf of a foreign principal.

An authority appointed by the Minister for Home Affairs would also be able to designate individuals or entities as “politically significant,” after which they will be forbidden from accepting donations or voluntary labor from “impermissible donors” who are not Singapore citizens or entities. The designated individuals or entities – including journalists, researchers, and academics – may also be required to reveal information about and communications with non-Singaporeans. Appeals of government orders and designations would be made to a government-appointed review tribunal, with judicial review limited to procedural violations.

Individuals and entities who fail to comply with government directives under the act would face heavy criminal penalties. Other broadly defined offenses in the act could result in criminal penalties of up to 14 years in prison and fines of S$100,000 (US$74,000).

“It’s hard to believe that the Singapore government could make the laws against fundamental freedoms even worse than they already are, but the Foreign Interference Act manages to do that,” Robertson said. “Failure to withdraw the law would reinforce Singapore’s international reputation as a human rights disaster, both online and off.”

The joint statement was signed by Access Now, Amnesty International, ARTICLE 19, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Digital Defenders Partnership, Forum Asia, Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists, Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, and Wikimedia Foundation.

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