FICA: Assurances to academics are welcome, but concerns remain

Academic Views, Editorials / Sunday, October 10th, 2021


The Government has told Parliament that international academic collaborations will not be harmed by the new foreign interference law. But some uncertainties remain and are likely to feed Singapore’s pervasive culture of academic self-censorship.

The foreign interference law that Parliament passed last week allows the authorities to police the streets of Singapore cyberspace and stop rogue, remotely controlled vehicles from disrupting the flow of information and ideas citizens need for democratic self-government. That is the purpose of FICA, the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, as explained by the Government. 

The Act’s actual wording, though, empowers the authorities to intervene in a much wider range of situations. There are inevitable trade-offs between leaving legal loopholes that could be exploited by malign foreign actors, and casting a net so fine-meshed that it could ensnare legitimate overseas collaborations and online communications along with its intended quarry. FICA’s catch-all language leans towards the latter. 

While we focus on what FICA means for academics, note that similar concerns apply to adjacent sectors. Nominated MP Tan Yia Swam, who is president of Singapore Medical Association1, used her speech in Parliament to share doctors’ misgivings about how a FICA regime might misperceive and hinder their involvement in humanitarian missions overseas, human rights work domestically, and their tapping of overseas sources of support. Another Nominated MP, Shahira Abdullah, a council member of the National Youth Council2, shared concerns circulating among youths in Singapore. After several hours of clarification, neither NMP was fully persuaded — in the vote on FICA, both abstained.

Our editorial of 1 October 2021 explained the risk that FICA posed to Singapore academia and appealed for the Bill to be amended, failing which the Government should at least provide watertight guarantees that academic work could proceed unhindered. In his Second Reading speech on 4 October, Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam indicated that FICA should mean business as usual for academics. 

We welcome his clarifications concerning the many kinds of overseas collaboration that we had mentioned in our article. Quoting our editorial (without attribution), he said:

“Another point that has to be made is that presenting research at overseas conferences, writing for international journals, multi-author book projects, publishing in and reviewing for prestigious academic presses, participating in international, collaborative research projects, partaking of fellowships, visiting appointments, training programmes, participation in international funding opportunities – any of these may be subsidised or fully funded by foreign universities, foundations and states. None of that on the face of it, as it is described, will fit within FICA, for the reasons I’ve already explained.”3

He added: 

“If you turn specifically to academics, questions have been raised about their collaborations with non-Singaporeans. They collaborate, create, partner, pursue their research interests professionally. No HIC [Hostile Information Campaigns]. It doesn’t come under FICA. So, the Bill will not affect the vast amount of academic work that is being done. We value the intellectual output, collaborations, exchange of ideas, the work our academics do. And they need to link with the rest of the world for work, bona fide and professional work, not affected. It is important for Singapore.4

This assurance was not unqualified. FICA could be activated, the minister said, if “there is a step-up to try and turn the person into an agent of influence, or there is an orchestrated campaign”. The example he cited was the case of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy academic Huang Jing, who was expelled in 2017 for “collaborating with foreign intelligence agents” in an “attempt to influence senior decision-makers in Government”, he noted. “[T]here are academics who go into a different realm, around the world. And they are dealt with, like we did with Huang Jing,” he said.5

The minister’s clarifications amount to a promise that he does not intend to abuse FICA by directing it against normal academic activity. His guarantee cannot allay such fears completely since, first, it has not been written into the letter of the law; and, second, it contained key ambiguities that may come back to haunt academics. 

The written law’s over-breadth

On the gap between the minister’s verbal assurances and the actual wording of the new statute, our main concern centres on FICA’s expansive definition of key terms. While FICA requires the government to act in the “public interest”, it (like POFMA) defines public interest to include stopping “a diminution of public confidence in the performance of” any part of the state.6 Such wording could cover any effective criticism of the government, regardless of whether that criticism is justified, since (unlike the Sedition Act) no exception is made for criticism with a view to improving government. FICA’s definition of activity directed to a political end” includes seeking to influence “public opinion on… a matter of public controversy” (imported from the Political Donations Act).7

Shanmugam acknowledged that the law could be abused. But his statements about FICA’s narrow intent are significant. He noted that the law already explicitly requires interventions to be “necessary or expedient”. His own interpretation, which he said was in line with the Attorney General’s, is that the law would require decisions to be “proportional”.  

“So, if a decision has to be made on the basis that it is necessary or expedient, you’ve got to look at the facts carefully, and the actions you want to take must be proportional. So, take an example – two academics, one of them foreign, collaborate on a paper on LGBT issues. It will be difficult to say it is necessary or expedient to issue Directions under FICA. And really, try explaining that to a Supreme Court Judge who will chair the Tribunal that it is necessary or expedient. So, the vast majority of collaborations, linkages, will not meet the required conditions, and they will also not meet the requirement of proportionality.8

It should be noted here that necessity and proportionality are tests required under international law for restrictions on freedom of expression; but “expediency” is an insufficiently high threshold since what a government finds merely expedient may not be objectively necessary to secure the public interest. That problem aside, it is worth highlighting here how, according to the minister, his statements in Parliament would carry weight in future cases:

“[I]f this Bill becomes law, and if it needs to be interpreted, it will be interpreted in the light of what the Government has said, its legislative intent, and how the phrases are intended to cover these things. It has been suggested by some that case law means that the test of proportionality cannot be applied. The advice I get from AGC is that it’s different for this legislation, because we are making clear the legislative intent for this specific Bill.9

Also noteworthy is the minister’s passionate endorsement of Singapore’s openness to the world.

“Singapore depends for its success and vitality on being open. And a Government that seeks to close down that, will lead Singapore to ruin.10

So, some of these doomsday scenarios that FICA is going to close off foreign collaborations, if that is correct, we as a Government must have suddenly gone mad. Because in a country like Singapore, which depends so much on the flow of ideas and international collaboration, is that even thinkable?11

Ambiguities in legislative intent

The Government’s attempts to pacify practitioners of bona fide academic work still contain some worrying ambiguities. There has long been a tension between the kind of social impact that many academics treat as a core professional responsibility and what the Government considers illegitimate entry into a “different realm”, to borrow Shanmugam’s phrase. The Government’s past attempts to distinguish permissible scholarly activity from discouraged activism — particularly when asked to comment on artist Alfian Sa’at’s aborted Yale-NUS College workshop — have been equally murky. 

In the FICA debate, the minister cited the work of the critically acclaimed New Naratif initiative: “You can organise democracy classrooms, we have no issues. Anyone can organise, anyone can criticise the current state of democracy, but it cannot be funded by Soros, or the US Embassy, or any other Embassy. … Make no mistake about it, we will say no to that in Singapore.”12 

It is not clear what general dos and don’ts can be abstracted from the New Naratif example in a way that does not implicate fairly routine academic activity. New Naratif received a start-up grant from George Soros’s Open Society Foundations (OSF), which the minister declared taboo.13 Yet, OSF funds a range of activities, including academic research as well as organisations such as ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and the ASEAN Youth Forum. APHR lists former PAP MP Charles Chong as a board member and current PAP MP Louis Ng as a member. Such apparent inconsistencies create confusion about  interpretations of the law. 

Large-scale scholarly collaborations commonly seek to make a difference across borders. Indeed, Singapore itself is a regional hub for worthy intellectual interventions in how our Asian neighbours fight corruption, manage water, and combat terrorism. The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, for example, has funded projects through which foreign academics try to export principles of good governance and transparency to countries where such reforms are not wholly welcome. The S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies has supported projects where local and foreign scholars examine everything from regional security architecture to piracy, the rule of maritime law, and even foreign interference, topics that may sit uneasily with some states.

Conversely, many international collaborations involving Singaporean academics aim to encourage positive reforms in the co-investigators’ home countries, including Singapore. Increasingly, funding agencies expect academics to incorporate pathways to non-academic impact in their research designs. These often include public education campaigns. Therefore, although the minister may have intended to cite New Naratif as an extreme outlier, many academics will see parallels between this case and mainstream scholarly activity.

Furthermore, the minister’s account of how New Naratif and its founders Thum Ping Tjin and Kirsten Han erred continues to be disputed. Han, one of Singapore’s finest journalists, has set out how she has been tarred by misinformation and misrepresentation for years. The minister’s characterisation of the conduct of Han and other opponents of the Bill now stand as part of the Parliamentary record, ready to be mustered when interpreting FICA, just like his welcome assurances. The net result is an ambiguity that may not have been intended, but is certainly present.

Indirect effects

We are not predicting that the authorities will apply FICA against academics any time soon. In our 1 October editorial, we focused on how FICA could instead cause indirect harm. In Singapore’s academic culture, external political signals from the state are largely internalised by universities, we noted. As detailed in our academic freedom study, Singapore universities are currently subject to multiple layers of politically-oriented restraints, including a secretive system of blacklisting that affects hiring, promotion and tenure, work visa applications, and even guest talks. Whether decisions are made externally or internally, they are often triggered by impressionistic judgments about whether individuals’ work and public profile might be considered controversial and sensitive in Singapore’s political context. 

To ensure compliance with FICA, university administrators might have to introduce more red tape. They are likely to ramp up already extensive advisories to stay clear of matters of “public controversy” or that could become a subject of “political debate”. Indeed, deans and department heads may feel they have a responsibility to warn their faculty about the political risks, and perhaps err too much on the side of caution. As one survey respondent said, “I think it is important, indeed, to ensure that junior faculty know how to navigate the present landscape and that certain activities don’t help their tenure chances and indeed give some stakeholders active reasons to view them as a threat.”

In the absence of clearly circumscribed laws, or, secondarily, written guidelines and offices from which to seek clarification, we can only rely on precedents, which neither provide clarity nor inspire confidence. Our concerns, we must stress, will not change the way AcademiaSG operates. We will continue to advocate for more critical, public-facing scholarship, including dialogue and debate with civil society. After all, open academic research and civil society engagement have proven to be useful defences against unwelcome and malicious forms of foreign interference everywhere from Asia to Oceania, Europe, and the Americas. We hope other academics will similarly not feel deterred by FICA. It would be naive, however, to expect that the new law will not add to Singapore’s pervasive culture of academic self-censorship.

Cherian George, Chong Ja Ian, Linda Lim and Teo You Yenn


  1. Tan Yia Siam spoke in her individual capacity.
  2. Shahira Abdullah did not cite her affiliation in her speech.
  3. Para 146.
  4. Paras 153-155.
  5. Paras 146, 15, 156.
  6. Clause 7.
  7. Clause 8.
  8. Paras 129-133.
  9. Paras 141-142.
  10. Para 116.
  11. Para 147.
  12. Para 164.
  13. Note that suspicions about George Soros, the OSF, and their activities coincide with a strong, long-standing association with right-wing, populist conspiracies. This has been covered independently across a range of news sources including the BBC, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and Forbes Magazine among others.