SINGAPORE: To ensure that Singapore does not fall prey to foreign interference and information campaigns, the Government will consider updating the legal framework to respond swiftly to such threats, said Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong in Parliament on Tuesday (Feb 12).
Mr Tong was responding on behalf of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Member of Parliament (MP) Cheng Li Hui.
Ms Cheng had asked if there was a need to introduce new laws or strengthen existing laws when dealing with foreign interference and Singaporeans who work with foreign actors to influence Singapore's elections and politics.
In his response, Mr Tong referred to the meetings of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods (DOFs), which met in March last year.
"The Select Committee had recommended that the Government consider measures to address both deliberate online falsehoods and also state-sponsored campaigns that threaten our national security. The Government will consider the report and will also consider legislation in both of these areas this year," Mr Tong said.
In response, Mr Tong brought up the case of New Zealand as well, where an opposition leader had allegedly circumvented political donation laws by disguising a donation by a businessman linked to a foreign government so that it did not have to be declared. This sparked debate within the country on the need to review policies against foreign interference.
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Mr Tong also spoke about foreign disinformation.
"Indeed, today, information can easily be weaponised by foreign actors, at low cost, and with anonymity and impunity. No country is immune. This is asymmetric information warfare, fought in a theatre and era with no distinction between war and peace," said Mr Tong.
"In this battlefield, Singapore, an open, democratic, digitally-connected and diverse country, is especially vulnerable. We are a young country with sensitive fault lines that foreign actors can exploit to foment distrust and ill-will among our various communities," Mr Tong added.
SINGAPORE 'ESPECIALLY VULNERABLE' TO FOREIGN INFLUENCE
Mr Tong said that foreign influence has had a long history in Singapore. In the 1970s, two newspapers were taken to task for taking foreign money and attempting to undermine the Government.
Mr Tong also gave the example of Huang Jing, a former professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy who was expelled from Singapore after being identified as an agent of influence acting on behalf of a foreign country.
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Huang had knowingly interacted with and cooperated with intelligence organisations and agents of a foreign country to influence Singapore's foreign policy and public opinion, he said.
Huang had done so by engaging prominent and influential Singaporeans and gave them what he claimed was "privileged information" about the foreign country so as to influence their opinion.
He also recruited others in aid of his operations, Mr Tong said.
He added that there were also other signs that Singapore has been targeted for information campaigns. Testimony given during meetings of the Select Committee highlighted the use of news articles and social media to influence segments of Singapore's population.
In his remarks to Parliament, Mr Tong noted that in December last year when Singapore and Malaysia's bilateral ties were strained, the Government saw a spike in critical comments made online by avatars, which are anonymous accounts with pictures that do not show the owner's face.
"On one such issue, jams at land checkpoints, around 40 per cent of comments on alternative media outlets pages on social media came from avatar accounts. We do not know who these suspicious accounts belong to nor do we know if they are being coordinated by foreign actors," Mr Tong said.
"But it is clear that these accounts have sought to give and create artificial impressions to netizens of the opposition to Singapore's position at a time of heightened bilateral difficulties," Mr Tong added.
TAKING ACTION TO EXPOSE, COUNTER FOREIGN INFLUENCE
In this regard, existing legal frameworks - which are outmoded against modern and technologically-sophisticated tactics - would have to be updated and enhanced, to counter hostile information campaigns, Mr Tong said.
He added that new legislation should have two broad objectives. First to allow the Government to act swiftly and effectively to disrupt and counter false, misleading and inauthentic information and narratives spread by foreign actors.
Second, the Government must be able to pre-emptively expose clandestine foreign interference campaigns.
"In the physical world, foreign actors may interfere in our domestic politics through the use of proxies, by funding or donating to politically-involved individuals and organisations, or by taking on key leadership roles in the organisations," he said.
"Our laws must minimise the possibility of such entities being thus used and manipulated. We must not allow foreign actors to undermine our political sovereignty, nor our ability to make our own choices on how we want to govern our country, and live our lives," Mr Tong added.
Singaporeans would also need to be sensitised to the threat of foreign influence.
"We are our own first line of defence. We must learn to be sceptical of and be able to discern falsehoods or half-truths, and detect foreign actors and their attempts to interfere in our politics," he said.
"The threat is real, and we will be moving onto these issues later this year."