SINGAPORE: Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said the Government has to look at the issue of employing foreigners in jobs susceptible to foreign influence from a "broader perspective".
He was responding in Parliament on Monday (Nov 4) to a question by Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong, who asked whether positions that address issues of social or political concern – like those involving the media, communications or outreach – should be staffed "exclusively by Singaporeans" due to the risk of foreign influence.
"I will say we have to look at the issue from a broader perspective," Mr Shanmugam said.
"For example, the nature of the organisations, the confidence that we can have that their employees are likely to be immune to foreign influence, that there are controls, and also our own ability to identify any possible foreign influence."
READ: Shanmugam warns of foreign interference in Singapore; questions agenda, funding of The Online Citizen
This comes after the minister, speaking at a conference on foreign interference tactics and countermeasures on Sep 25, questioned the agenda and funding behind online news site The Online Citizen (TOC).
Mr Shamugam had said that the site employs foreigners, including Malaysians, to write “almost exclusively negative” articles on Singaporean social and political matters.
“Who controls her? Who pays her? What’s her purpose?" he had asked of one of TOC's Malaysian authors whose article is the subject of a civil suit by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
NMP Walter Theseira also asked on Monday how Singaporeans could protect themselves against foreign influence, given that associating with and receiving income from foreign sources is "common" among globalised Singapore firms and individuals.
"It is not all foreign influences that we seek to avoid," Mr Shanmugam replied.
"We seek to deal with, for example, foreign influences that seek to disrupt our society, weaken our country, and affect our foreign policy. This cannot come as a surprise. Every country seeks to protect itself."
In a follow-up question, Dr Theseira asked if the Government, when assessing the risk of foreign influence, should look more at the facts of what individuals were doing in terms of their "actions, writings and points of view expressed", and less at whether they received foreign funding or were employed in sensitive positions.
"I'm concerned because if we’re too quick to judge on these matters, we may deter Singaporeans from engaging in foreign exchanges, and that’s going to be very important for us as a globalised society," he added.
Mr Shanmugam pointed out that in certain categories, current law prohibits any sort of foreign influence. For instance, he said Members of Parliament and political parties are not allowed to take donations from foreigners or foreign agencies.
"You’ve got to identify the risks, certain types, certain categories of positions. Organisations like political parties which seek to contest and represent the viewpoints of Singaporeans must not accept money from foreign institutions," he said.
"It is no answer to say: 'You should not prevent Singaporeans from engaging with international opinions.' There is nothing to prevent politicians, political parties from engaging with foreign parties. But you cannot take money from them."
Mr Shanmugam identified newspapers as another category where foreign influence is not allowed, pointing out that the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act prohibits foreigners from funding or controlling newspapers in Singapore.
"But if I were to put it in broader terms, we want to keep foreign influence out of our political environment, not allow foreigners to influence our own political processes, and we have crafted a series of laws over the years," he said.
"And I think Singaporeans accept that."
READ: Stronger safeguards against foreign influence, updated restraining order as MRHA amendments passed
Mr Shanmugam said in the past, newspapers like the Eastern Sun and Singapore Herald have been found to be tools of foreign influence for communist China and America, with evidence of funding by foreigners.
"The key point is politics in Singapore should be for Singaporeans," he stated. "It can be maintained without saying: 'Therefore, we cannot interact with people outside of Singapore.'
"Of course we must, whether it's in business, academia or politics. We must both keep track and interact and understand what’s going on, and have deep relationships.
"But that’s different from taking money from people or allowing people to influence operations. And we in this House should stand against that."