Shanmugam warns of foreign interference in Singapore; questions agenda, funding of The Online Citizen
SINGAPORE: There have been “nascent attempts” to combine online and offline approaches of foreign interference in Singapore, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Wednesday (Sep 25).
One example, he said, was when Singapore political activists like Kirsten Han and Thum Ping Tjin met Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in August last year and urged him to bring democracy to Singapore and other countries.
The activists have also paired up with online news site The Online Citizen (TOC), Mr Shanmugam said, adding that the site employs foreigners including Malaysians to write “almost exclusively negative” articles on Singaporean social and political matters.
The minister was speaking at a conference on foreign interference, labelling attempts by one country to shape the actions and policies of another country as an “age-old” principle of international relations.
Offline forms of foreign interference, he said, include using diplomatic channels, agents of influence, the media, non-governmental organisations and cause-based movements.
However, Mr Shanmugam said foreign interference has adapted to modern technology, stressing that the Internet has made hostile information campaigns cheap, easy and effective, and that states must be able to tackle them as issues of sovereignty and national security.
In the conference titled Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures organised by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), he reiterated that Singapore needed laws to deal with hostile information campaigns that might be orchestrated by foreign sources, stating that technology companies like Facebook cannot self-regulate due to conflicts of interest in their business model.
ONLINE, OFFLINE COMBINATION
This comes as some countries have been hit by an “extremely toxic, extremely powerful” combination of online and offline foreign interference, Mr Shanmugam said.
In Singapore’s case, Mr Shanmugam said Dr Thum and Ms Han had set up the New Naratif website, which he said is funded by a foreign foundation and has received other foreign contributions.
“Ms Han on video has said that Singapore has failed to compare with Hong Kong because 500,000 people don’t go on the streets to march,” he said, pointing out that Ms Han wants to change this through classes run by New Naratif.
“My primary point is: Is it right for foreign funding to be received in order to advance these viewpoints?” Mr Shanmugam added.
This is coupled with articles on TOC, some of which supported a call for Singaporean civil servants to follow Hong Kong’s protests and made allegations against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The latter article is the subject of a civil suit by Mr Lee.
Mr Shanmugam noted that a Malaysian woman named Rubaashini Shunmuganathan had written these two articles, pointing out that most readers would assume they were written by a genuine Singaporean contributor.
“I’m not commenting on the legal merits of the article since it’s the subject of a lawsuit. Only that a foreigner staying in Malaysia … has written many other articles to try and influence viewpoints in Singapore,” he said.
“Who controls her? Who pays her? What’s her purpose? These are all legitimate questions.”
Nevertheless, Mr Shanmugam said online news sites featuring anonymous writers could be found across the world, highlighting that they have been used by foreign countries to “attack and deepen divisions”.
“For all you know, (the writers) can be foreigners – as we see in the case of TOC – writing inflammatory stuff and have got no interest in social or political stability within the country,” he added.
“Their only interest is to get eyeballs, and perhaps if they are under the influence of other agencies, then there are other interests as well. It can easily be used as tools for foreign interests.”
Mr Shanmugam proceeded to reiterate the need for legislation in Singapore, pointing out that each country has a “sovereign right” to decide how to protect its national security interests.
These laws will be designed to counter foreign interference by allowing the Government to investigate and respond quickly to hostile information campaigns, including finding out the “provenance of content” and if or how much of it is foreign influenced.
“It will have to give the Government powers to make targeted, surgical interventions,” Mr Shanmugam said.
Other countries have passed similar laws, he said, highlighting how Germany’s Network Enforcement Act gives it powers to compel social networks to remove “obviously illegal” hate speech within 24 hours of receiving a notification or face fines.
“States cannot take a hands-off approach,” Mr Shanmugam said.
“The serious impact of hostile information campaigns on the social fabric, political sovereignty, peace, stability and national security has to be met head on. And it has to be met head on by states working with tech companies as partners.”