Foreign interference act is a risk for academic freedom

The government has for decades proclaimed higher education and research as vital to Singapore’s development as a knowledge economy. But its proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act or FICA – without watertight assurances against overreach in the text of the law – could represent the single biggest threat to academia in Singapore and its chances of realising that vision.

This is not because academia is full of the kinds of malign, clandestine foreign manipulation that any government has a responsibility to counteract. Rather, the bill casts a broad shadow over activities that academics consider not only legitimate but also necessary: activities involving cross-border collaboration, wide online dissemination and strong social impact.

While academia is not the main target of FICA, in an environment already rampant with second-guessing by university administrators nervous about what might earn official displeasure, there is every chance that it will suffer collateral damage.

Universities play a valuable role in research as well as in educating the public about malign forms of foreign interference. Stifling them may inadvertently make Singapore more, not less, vulnerable to foreign manipulation.

A thoroughly globalised sector

Universities are among the most globalised sectors in advanced industrial economies. Internationalisation played a major role in the impressive progress that Singapore’s universities have made over the decades, and remains a prerequisite for realising further aspirations.

Most academics on the research track have multiple active foreign ties in any given year. At present, there are strong incentives for them to make such international connections. Internationalisation is one of the criteria considered in university rankings, and helps account for our universities’ stratospheric positions in international league tables.

Foreign connections could include: presenting research at overseas conferences; writing for international journals and multi-author book projects; publishing in and reviewing for prestigious academic presses; participating in international collaborative research projects; partaking of fellowships, visiting appointments and training programmes; and participation in international funding opportunities.

Any of these may be subsidised or fully funded by foreign universities, foundations and states. Academics usually report the sources of grant funding, but are not currently expected to keep track of funding sources of overseas conferences or publications through which they disseminate their work. Nor do academics generally unearth or report the financial background of foreign entities they work with.

FICA, as it stands, will suddenly transform activities that are currently encouraged into a legal minefield. As Senior Counsel Harpreet Singh Nehal points out, the bill’s broad definition of “foreign interference”, “collaboration” and “public interest” extends its net to “legitimate online activity undertaken by Singaporeans to influence our laws and public policies”, regardless of whether there is “any manipulation or influence by a foreign government or its agents”.

Section 8 says that FICA covers any activity “directed towards a political end in Singapore”, including attempts to influence views on matters “that have become the subject of a political debate in Singapore”. Thus, it appears that any academic work directed at issues that Singaporeans care enough to debate can be ruled offside by the government.

Part Three of FICA allows the government to issue directions against certain online communications that have been undertaken or are being planned. Stop-communication directions (Section 30) could be levelled at academics disseminating their research.

Disgorgement directions (Section 38) could require academics to return grants. Academics who regularly contribute to public debates could be slapped with a Part Four directive designating them as “politically significant persons”, which would especially complicate further involvement in public life if they are employed by foreign universities.

FICA does not set out the exceptions that even the Sedition Act specifies.

In its definition of “seditious tendency” (Section 3.2), the Sedition Act excludes activities that merely tend “to show that the government has been misled or mistaken in any of its measures”; “to point out errors or defects in the government … with a view to the remedying of such errors or defects”; or “to persuade the citizens of Singapore or the residents in Singapore to attempt to procure by lawful means the alteration of any matter in Singapore”.

If even the colonial era Sedition Act can give a nod to the vital importance of political criticism in a democracy, it cannot be unreasonable to expect FICA to do likewise.

The need for autonomy

The Social Science Research Council points out: “As Singapore progresses and matures as a nation, the social sciences and humanities are increasingly important to enrich understanding of our society and issues such as ageing, social mobility, cultural diversity, quality of life, and regional and global challenges that affect Singapore.” In other words, academics have a special obligation to engage with complex, contentious issues that matter to Singaporeans.

FICA’s language reframes this social responsibility as a taboo.

FICA’s suspicion of international exchange and online tools poses additional problems for academia. Many academics in Singapore as well as Singaporean academics based overseas are deeply engaged with non-Singaporean peers and institutions, because the exercise of reason is an enterprise that should know no borders.

Increasingly, academics are also expected to reach out beyond the ivory tower by disseminating their research-based viewpoints and recommendations widely. The internet has become a standard vehicle for achieving social impact.

The government needs to understand that the university sector operates very differently from most other industries, which are more top-down. In most companies, international partnerships are struck by c-suite executives. In universities, the senior leadership spearheads only a small number of international tie-ups. The overwhelming majority of cross-border collaborations are by individual or small groups of faculty members operating with a high degree of autonomy.

Moreover, some of this research could inform efforts to shape policy, prove publicly controversial or become the subject of political debate in Singapore – what Section 8 of FICA could classify as having a “political end”. Such research could include everything from race, gender and religion to crime, poverty and inequality or the roles big business may play in climate change and the obesity epidemic.

Other subjects that fall under politics, foreign policy, discrimination, migration, public housing, public finance, public health or law enforcement could come under this rubric as well. An overabundance of caution by researchers or administrators due to FICA could obstruct cutting-edge – and correspondingly contentious – work in these areas, leaving Singapore academia and society worse off.

Singaporean academics need to function with the same freedom that counterparts overseas enjoy. Otherwise, potential foreign partners in an increasingly competitive industry are likely to choose to work with academics and departments in countries less distrustful of foreign connections.

The government needs to provide clear guidelines or at least assurances that its moves to prevent malign foreign interference will not result in Singapore academia being sidelined by the world.

Examples of research at risk

Below are a few examples of recent works that involve foreign collaborations and online dissemination to the Singapore public and also have some risk of becoming points of social and political contestation locally.

• A PhD student challenges the criminalisation of gay sex under the controversial Section 377A, in a special issue of an online, open access cultural studies journal published by the International Academic Forum, a think-tank and research centre based at Osaka University.

• A journal article in Asian Bioethics Review spotlights the “multiple barriers to access” to healthcare faced by migrant workers in Singapore. It argues that “Singapore’s boundaries of solidarity must be redrawn to include migrant workers”. One of the co-authors is employed by a university overseas.

• A Singaporean political scientist presents a webinar on current political issues in Singapore as part of a series sponsored by the Southeast Asian studies centre of the University of Sydney. The webinar is freely accessible to the Singapore public.
As mentioned, such activities are routine, institutionally encouraged and intellectually important in Singapore universities today.

Could such activities be subject to FICA’s Part Three powers? What guarantees exist that they would not? What about academics who regularly participate in public debates? Would they be subject to Part Four designation as “politically significant persons”, along with the onerous and intrusive reporting requirements it entails?

The current administration may argue that curtailing such activities is not their intention, but nothing in the letter of the law stops them or their successors from changing their minds.

Indirect threats

Not only might FICA permit excessive executive behaviour by the Singapore state, it could also become a weapon for students, faculty and staff to intimidate one another over matters unrelated to actual foreign interference.

This has a potential of escalating into damaging mutual recriminations and allegations over undue foreign links, reminiscent of United States McCarthy-era ‘red-baiting’, PRC Cultural Revolution-era ‘struggle sessions’ or Philippine Duterte-style ‘red-tagging’.

Even if a person is exonerated in the end, they still undergo the inconvenience and stress of facing investigation due to an accusation not grounded in fact. Law enforcement and other resources would be expended where they could be better directed to actually protect the country.

Even if the government refrains from using FICA to punish socially impactful online communications by academics, the law can open the door to more indirect harms. As our recent Academic Freedom in Singapore report noted, external political signals from the state are largely internalised by university administrators, who then rein in critical scholarship without necessarily receiving instructions from outside.

We found evidence that even administrative procedures for ethical review of research proposals – a global practice for protecting human subjects – have been extended to include vetting of politically sensitive research that may complicate the institution’s relationship with politicians.

There is every reason to believe that an unmodified FICA, even if this is not the government’s intention, will make university administrators impose additional scrutiny on activities that they fear might be politically sensitive.

To guarantee that academics’ online outputs do not fall foul of an overbroad law, universities might have to introduce more red tape. Mindful of the risk that any faculty member may be designated as a “politically significant person” for regularly contributing to online debates about public affairs, department heads and deans are likely to advise their staff to stay clear of controversial issues.

Experience overseas shows that universities are not immune to or exempt from malicious forms of foreign interference. However, weakening the university sector by curtailing its autonomy will be counterproductive.

Such vulnerabilities can be exploited by malign forces, as shown by reports in recent years of university administrations in various parts of the world being complicit in inhibiting research and campus activities.

Such incidents are allegedly a result of foreign pressure, taking advantage of fears of the withdrawal of funding, and access or declining enrolments from particular groups of students.

There have also been allegations of student groups affiliated with particular states harassing those they disagree with on campus or disrupting activities those states do not condone. Even more serious are allegations of espionage and influence operations that involve people on university campuses.

What is problematic with the above is not foreignness. It is behaviour that would be worrisome regardless of its source and that would leave universities more susceptible to financial and political blackmail. Harassment as well as disproportionate and excessive acts of disruption have no place on university campuses whether they are perpetrated by local or foreign groups.

Likewise, people should not be unlawfully surveilling others on campus – or anywhere else, for that matter – and monitoring their private lives. A prudent approach to managing risk for universities – like any other institution – should be diversifying as much as reasonably possible, carefully reviewing potentially problematic funding and building governance structures that emphasise professional judgement and transparency over administrative expediency.

To build resistance to corrupting influences, universities should be protecting academic freedom, their students and faculty.

FICA does not address the above foreign threats that higher education is confronting around the world. Instead, its vague language will heighten the controversy-averse, hassle-avoiding tendencies that already stifle academia in Singapore.

This may leave Singapore academics less able to hold their own against pressures, society worse off and the country potentially more vulnerable.

Ironically, some of the best ways to defend against insidious foreign influence result from findings based on the very types of academic research FICA could smother for possibly affecting foreign relations.

Cherian George is professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. Chong Ja Ian is an associate professor in the National University of Singapore’s political science department. Linda Lim is professor emerita of corporate strategy and international business at the University of Michigan, United States. And Teo You Yenn is associate professor and provost's chair in sociology and head of sociology in the School of Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This article was first published in Academia|SG.

This article was updated on 5 October as FICA was passed by the Singapore parliament on Monday 4 October with three amendments, which did not significantly allay the concerns expressed by the authors in this article.