Singapore's racial and religious mix easily exploitable; proposed foreign interference law considered for over 3 years: Shanmugam

Traditional spying and subversion operations have inevitably increased in scope and intensity, said Mr K. Shanmugam in Parliament on Oct 4, 2021.
PHOTO: MCI

SINGAPORE - Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on Monday (Oct 4) described the covert escalation of foreign interference tactics targeting Singapore's multicultural make-up as one of the most serious threats faced by the Republic, with its people remaining largely oblivious to the dangers.

In a speech extending over two hours to open a parliamentary debate on the proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, or Fica, he also said such issues have been discussed at length and in-depth for more than three years now - since 2018, when a select committee was set up to study the issue of fake news.

That process eventually led to the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) being passed the next year.

"Our racial and religious mix is easily exploitable by different countries, and we see a steady build-up of different narratives, which is being very cleverly done," said Mr Shanmugam.

"It's not obvious propaganda but it conditions people to think in certain ways, particularly on foreign policy issues, often appealing to a larger racial identity beyond the Singaporean identity."

He said this in the context of a French think-tank's report released in late September, which observed that Singapore had several characteristics making it both vulnerable and resilient to Chinese influence operations.

The minister cited the report as he sought to explain the reasons underpinning the Bill, which targets foreign interference in domestic politics conducted through hostile information campaigns (HICs) and local proxies.

"The philosophy is that our politics, it's for Singaporeans to deal with. We can argue, disagree, but ultimately it is for us to decide," he said.

"It's not for anyone else to tell us what to do."

He noted that traditional spying and subversion operations have inevitably increased in scope and intensity, due to modern ease of communications, increased interactions, travel, evolving technologies and the Internet as a powerful new medium.

Mr Shanmugam brought up the Gerasimov Doctrine - a military doctrine for the Internet Age developed by Russia - in which aggressors identify issues of "protest potential" in a target country, and use information operations to polarise society in that country and keep it in a constant state of turmoil, so as to more easily achieve their political and military outcomes.

He also outlined several examples of foreign interference across the world, noting that the international media regularly identifies Russia, China, Iran and North Korea as perpetrators.

"I don't know whether these countries in fact did what they are said to have done, but few doubt that they have the capabilities," he said.

While the United States and other Western countries are not mentioned in these Western media reports, they have similar, or in the case of the US, even superior capabilities, he added. "Really, there are no angels in this game."

Mr Shanmugam pointed to a Washington Post report in February 2020 on a Swiss encryption communications provider that had sold devices rigged by American and German intelligence agencies to more than 120 countries.

The story came years after internal documentation by the agencies as early as 2004, and was simultaneously published by the Post and a German broadcaster last year.

"It has all the hallmarks of a deliberate planned leak," said Mr Shanmugam, adding that the US government was at the time warning about the dangers of relying on technology from China.

"So basically, without embarrassment, this leak came out saying 'we did it, now be careful about the Chinese'.

"Have the Americans actually stopped? We can only guess. But it's now got to be taken as a given that this sort of thing will be done regularly, and everyone will face this."

Mr Shanmugam then reiterated instances of foreign interference in Singapore that had been flagged when Fica was first tabled in Parliament on Sept 13 - including the 2017 expulsion of China-born academic Huang Jing for trying to influence senior decision-makers in Government; the 2016 impounding of the Singapore army's Terrex vehicles in Hong Kong while en route home from Taiwan; and a 2018 spike in critical comments online during tensions with Malaysia.

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The Terrex episode led to a coordinated hostile information campaign that attempted to undermine Singapore's foreign position, while online narratives largely in Chinese attempted to influence sentiments among Singaporeans.

So far, efforts targeting Singapore have been relatively low-level - except for ongoing strategic moves and attempts to condition Singaporeans' thinking, said Mr Shanmugam.

He acknowledged some concerns over the Bill being debated just three weeks after it was first tabled.

"We have been talking about this very seriously for more than three years, extensively," he said.

The 2018 select committee on fake news, for instance, had gathered extensive evidence on the seriousness of the foreign threat, he said, including from:

  • Disinformation expert Ben Nimmo, who testified on the tactics used by Internet research agencies controlled by Russia, to boost support for former US President Donald Trump's election campaign.
  • Cyber-security expert Kevin Limonier, who spoke of an alleged Russian HIC that tried to sway the 2017 French presidential polls using bots and leaked e-mails.
  • Dr Shashi Jayakumar, head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), who said it would be a mistake to assume that foreign HICs were not already happening in Singapore.
  • RSIS research fellow Gulizar Haciyakupoglu, whose closed-door testimony included indicators of information warfare being practised against Singapore.
  • Nanyang Technological University academic Liew Kai Khiun, who said Myanmar-based social media accounts had made inflammatory, Islamophobic comments inciting backlash from Singaporean Muslims.
  • RSIS cyber-warfare expert Michael Raska, who highlighted how foreign states could engage in information operations targeting Singapore's fault lines as a means of "asymmetric warfare".

Mr Shanmugam elaborated on Dr Raska's point, noting that Singapore's conventional military superiority in the region ironically meant it was an even larger target online, with the Internet as a particularly attractive theatre for adversaries seeking to harm the Republic.

The minister also noted that aside from at the select committee, the topic of foreign interference was also discussed several times at conferences here, in studies commissioned by think-tanks, in the media and in Parliament, with him and other ministers stating at various points that legislation would be necessary.

"The threat of foreign interference and its seriousness is not disputed by most people," said Mr Shanmugam.

"Most people also agree that something needs to be done."

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.