Singapore Set to Increase Control Over Online Content

SINGAPORE—The country’s legislature approved a bill that targets foreign influence campaigns by giving Singapore’s government new powers over internet content, despite criticism that officials could use them to stifle dissent.

Proponents said the bill, which was passed late Monday and awaits the president’s signature, would stop foreigners and their local proxies from using social media and messaging apps to interfere in Singapore’s affairs. Opponents said it just as easily could allow the government of the Southeast Asian nation, ruled since independence by a single party, to block the views of critics, cut their funding and snoop on their online activities.

Countries around the world are debating how to stop internet meddling by foreign governments, following cases such as Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“The internet has created a powerful new medium for subversion,” said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in Monday’s parliamentary debate. “Countries are actively developing attack and defense capabilities, as an arm of warfare equal to and more potent than their land, air and naval forces.”

The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act would give Singapore’s Home Affairs Ministry new powers over social-media companies and others that host web content. The ministry could order the companies to hand over details about their users, block content judged to be a security risk and remove apps.

The ministry could also designate people and entities as “politically significant persons” and then order them to disclose and potentially give up foreign funding.

Mr. Shanmugam, the Law and Home Affairs minister, cited the case of Huang Jing, a Chinese-American academic who was expelled from Singapore in 2017 because of allegations he collaborated with foreign intelligence agents to influence government officials. The Singapore government didn’t specify which country he was accused of aiding.

The ruling party’s control of Parliament enabled it to overcome objections from opposition lawmakers after a 10-hour debate.

Critics said the bill would grant the Home Affairs Ministry too much discretion without judicial oversight. They said it could be used against academics, nonprofit groups and journalists. France-based advocacy group Reporters Without Borders called it a “legal monstrosity with totalitarian leanings.”

“If we accept that such broad-ranging, broadly defined powers should be legislated to deal with foreign interference, then this house must ensure the legislation of equally robust oversight mechanisms to prevent abuse of power,” opposition leader Pritam Singh said during the debate.

In 2019, Singapore enacted a similarly contentious law targeting what it called online falsehoods. That law required news outlets and social-media platforms such as Facebook to publish corrections attached to content the government deemed false. 

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