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Early detection, exposure key to tackling foreign interference in domestic politics: Shanmugam

Laws may need to be strengthened and new ones could be enacted to address this emerging concern, says Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.

Early detection, exposure key to tackling foreign interference in domestic politics: Shanmugam

(Photo: Unsplash/Isai Ramos)

SINGAPORE: Foreign interference in domestic politics can “weaken the social fabric of different countries”, and Singapore is looking at ways to better fend off such threats, said Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Friday (Mar 1). 

Mr Shanmugam said the impact of foreign interference is known and documented, with hostile information campaigns used to weaken countries’ resolve or destabilise nations during times of conflict. 

READ: What next as the Government looks beyond disinformation in targeting foreign influence in Singapore? A commentary

Foreign actors have also tried to undermine democracy and elections in a number of countries and jurisdictions, he added during the Committee of Supply debate for his ministry. 

Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong had in February pointed out how such foreign interference was seen in countries such as the United States, Australia, France and New Zealand. 

He also said Singapore is “especially vulnerable” to this threat, citing 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. 

Another example he cited was the spike in critical comments made by online avatars last December when ties between Singapore and Malaysia were strained. Such acts are also known as astroturfing, which seeks to create an impression of widespread support for something when the reality is different. 

Mr Shanmugam said that Singapore is studying the experiences of other countries which are facing similar threats, such as Germany and Australia.

The latter, for instance, has laws that ban foreign political donations and those who act on behalf of foreign nations or entities must declare the relationship. Those who engage in foreign interference aimed at influencing elections or supporting foreign intelligence face up to 20 years’ jail, the minister said. 

“The kind of penalties that you see, I think indicate the severity of the threat and how countries are reacting to them,” he said. 

As such, the ministry is looking at the issue and finds that early detection and exposure is “critical”.

Similarly, authorities must be able to act quickly and keep up with new digital-age tactics. 

Finally, besides strengthening laws, the Government must also build up the ability of Singaporeans to discern and respond appropriately to try and resist foreign interference, he said.

“We must train people to spot it, but it is a reality that many people will find it difficult. We must also accept that,” Mr Shanmugam said.

He added the Government will come to the House with proposals “later this year”.

“WORRISOME” TRENDS UNDERMINING RELIGIOUS HARMONY

Mr Shanmugam also took aim at another developing concern today: Trends that may undermine Singapore’s religious harmony

He highlighted three in his speech, with the first on the resurgence of identity politics internationally. More people are identifying themselves in narrow ethnic, cultural and religious terms, and this causes them to turn inward, rejecting diversity and co-existence with others.

Political parties, such as far-right ones in France, the Netherlands and Germany, had ridden this wave to make electoral gains in their respective countries.

There is also significant support for religion-based politics and parties in the immediate region, the minister said. 

Another trend is how the Internet is allowing hate speech and incitement to spread further and faster, and this can have “devastating effects”. 

Religiously motivated terrorist groups are also continuing to spread their propaganda, he added. Overseas examples have shown that the immediate aftermath of terror attacks can foment distrust and suspicion between communities. 

To address these trends, Mr Shanmugam said there is a need to continue building a strong Singaporean identity while preserving and growing our common space and experiences – something which he described as “unsexy” but necessary.

“It’s hard work … and takes a lot of time,” he pointed out. “But we are where we are today because of all these steps that we have taken over 50 years.”

He pointed to Singapore’s education system, public housing and National Service as examples of common spaces where people of different backgrounds can come together and build common experiences.

“We have to also guard against segregationist thinking, teachings and practices, that seek to reduce the opportunities for Singaporeans of different religions to come together,” he said. 

There is also a need to keep religion and politics separate, Mr Shanmugam said, adding that Singapore has thus far managed to balance the right to religious freedom with the need to ensure harmony, peace and security.

READ: Singapore’s religious harmony laws must be up to date to deal with new threats, says PM Lee

He said the ministry is reviewing the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act to preserve this. The aim of the review is to make amendments to strengthen and preserve religious freedom, as well as inter-religious harmony, he said. 

Additionally, the culture of mutual respect for each other’s religion must be preserved, the minister said. 

To do this, Singaporeans must reach out across religious line and keep the avenues of conversation open, he said.

“Religious harmony is built and nurtured on the basis of trust among the communities,” Mr Shanmugam said, adding the Government will continue to provide platforms to facilitate dialogue and build trust.  

Source: CNA/kk

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