Is Singapore ready for malign foreign influence?

Singaporean politicians and commentators repeatedly emphasise the dangers of malign foreign interference. Attention has moved from a foreign academic being expelled for being an ‘agent of influence’ to civil society activists meeting with foreign leaders and independent media receiving foreign foundation fundingOpinion pieces echo the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) yet-to-be verified claims about external instigation in Hong Kong’s ongoing protests and discuss how Singapore may face similar issues.

Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is even convening a meeting for academics to discuss foreign influence. These events may lead to legislation on the issue. But Singapore’s approach to the management of undue foreign involvement in local politics can benefit from further discussion, explanation and refinement.

The city-state’s concerns are unsurprising. From Singapore’s perspective, the world seems increasingly tumultuous and uncertain given the possible economic decoupling of the United States and the PRC as well as more muscular foreign policy from both major powers. The island’s past prosperity rested on opportunities arising from the convergence of PRC and US economic and strategic interests. Then there are allegations of outside attempts to distort political processes in nearby Australia, New ZealandTaiwan and Malaysia as well as in the United Kingdom and the United States. These events are occurring against the backdrop of a leadership transition in Singapore, triggering its already acute sense of vulnerability.

Effective external manipulation of local politics often involves the manipulation of groups and individuals in positions of authority and sensitivity. This enables direct access to legislative processes, policymaking, policy implementation and sensitive information while lowering the risks of detection and the potential for blowback. Efforts to sow social discord typically rely on the exploitation of trusted figures, entities or sources of information to create or exacerbate existing cleavages.

Singapore’s minuscule independent media, feeble civil society and dormant academia simply do not have much social and political capital to be worth the effort to manipulate. They have less influence than chambers of commerce, industry associations and state-affiliated bodies that not only have foreign members but regularly interact with officials over policy matters.

It is unclear whether existing mechanisms can constrain persons in authority should ill-intentioned foreign actors compromise them, despite persistent warnings about threats from ChinaMalaysia and elsewhere.

Singapore’s MHA states that existing practices targeting corruption are sufficient for managing elected political office holders’ susceptibility to pernicious foreign influence that comes, in part, through monetary and other transfers. Ruling members of parliament have to formally declare gifts for valuation and pay the valued amount to keep them. Ministers must declare income, assets and financial liabilities to the President via the Prime Minister. But the Singapore presidency has significant constitutional and capacity limitations and these approaches still leave open other channels for unwanted outside influence.

The steps described take the integrity of the offices of the Prime Minister and other senior public servants for granted even when, like similar posts elsewhere, they too are potential targets for influence. Recurrent worries about the risks associated with an inability to rein in profligate spending by a rogue administration imply that mechanisms for restraining those in high executive office require further strengthening.

There appears to be little by way of requirements governing immediate family members, related interests and other engagements which can subject senior officials to undue influence, for instance. Public reporting requirements for these persons and concerns seem limited, restricting the use of transparency as a final check. Moreover, plainly accounting for the possibility of foreign interference would be more pragmatic than extrapolating from broad principles laid out in general doctrinal statements.

Singapore’s officials regularly cite insidious forms of foreign influence targeting the country. Addressing these more openly could reduce risks by raising public confidence and understanding. For example, officials could release how the state plans to safeguard individuals in key positions vulnerable to foreign pressure following the loss of healthfinancial and other data from several major data leaks. Analogous breaches elsewhere indicate that such data can be used to manipulate key personnel.

Open discussion of specific, current allegations regarding harmful use of breached data by outside actors may prove more helpful than repeating vague claims and dated illustrations.

Malicious foreign intervention is a longstanding problem reinvigorated by technology and newly motivated actors. Singapore needs to ensure that it has a set of robust, rigorous and comprehensive responses. Perceptions of a Singapore that is subject to foreign pressure reduces the country’s ability to play the role of an honest broker in delicate situations, such as in facilitating meetings between Pyongyang and Washington.

The United States, Australia, Japan and others have a stake in Singapore being able to effectively handle ill-intentioned foreign influence, given the sharing of sensitive intelligence and key defence technologies. As Singapore ponders foreign influence, publicly addressing the vulnerabilities associated with authority — however uncomfortable — is necessary.
Ja Ian Chong
*Article first appeared on East Asia Forum and is republished in accordance to the Cross-Post and Re-use policy.





6 Responses to “Is Singapore ready for malign foreign influence?”

  • Bapak:

    Do we need to go to such extend to look for such idiots? We already have one who sold our sovereign rights. This place belongs to everyone, remember?

    GD Star Rating
  • mike:

    Foreign influence, malign or not, you cannot stop it. You cannot control it effectively, only way is to manage it. Mid 90s introduction of internet changed how information is delivered.

    There are two models available currently:
    1. CCP Style
    2. Western Style

    And the middle road of struggling to restrict and use regulation to control. Even CCP is finding it hard to control information effectively (search, remove and ban) and have to use more regulations to extend into unreachable area such as VPN and Chain-blocks.

    Three things will help Singapore forward in managing foreign influence.

    1. Liberalisation of media and information
    2. Freedom of speech
    3. Political and rights awareness of its electorates.

    All those above with a strong fundamental of :
    A. Rule of Law
    B. Independence of Justice
    C. Seperation of Powers

    Shamefully, we are further away from it ever since Old Lee back tracked from the motivation behind elected presidency after the incident of President Ong.

    Any of you who did a backtracking on the History of TW elected Presidency and SG elected Presidency will realised that they were never a coincidence.

    But that is also the beginning of where the differences are:
    One gets more liberal, and the other is reversing.

    So, what is it about foreign influence? Does a government can effectively control and restrict it? Or an educated liberal population can more effectively fights it?

    TW had shown how it can managed it effectively in the recently elected presidency.

    GD Star Rating
  • TruBlu:

    Not just foreugn influence from foreign sovereigns but subtly from ALIEN$ dumped here by FT POLICY.

    PAPple-gahmen always try to PLEASE ALIEN$ here at sgs’ expense,it is so obvious.

    In doing so,sgs often get bashed by their own gahmen n even civil servants.
    More emboldened,ALIENS take to bashing their sg-hosts;even aliens from THIRD WORLD Countries who come here to $cavenge?

    Where is NATIONAL PRIDE?

    GD Star Rating

    I don’t know if I should call it malign. Singapore has all along been at the mercy of foreign investors and businesses. They can easily go elsewhere if they see Spore as unfavorable. Maybe that’s why labor and other laws tend to favor the employers.

    Malign influence or two edged sword?

    GD Star Rating
  • Harder Truths:

    This is land is housing , feeding and employing foreign nationals – which comprise half of its population.

    The foreign nationals have taken over the private sector and have also a big foothold in the public sector administration.

    Almost all of these foreign nationals who have converted to $G citizenship may still have dual passports and are still loyal to their country of birth.

    $G locals are third class citizens and almost all will emigrate if given the f**king chance.

    A group of 400 South Asian nationals in Little India can create havoc and the $G police hide until the Gurkhas (more foreign talent) came out to stop them.

    AS $G in reality is already in the hands of foreign nationals – courtesy of the Clowns – I do not see what kind of ‘foreign influence’ the article thinks this island should worry about.

    GD Star Rating
  • don't worry, bo tai chi:

    surely sinkie land is ever ready for (veri white idiotic capable in handling also) F influence, be it soft or hard, malign or benign influence ???

    anyway, sinkie land (via 6.9m or 10m) has ‘outsourced’ a lot of our work to FTs (many naturalized) or ex-FTs already be it in military, police and many holding senior positions of power / key decision making like some ministars and mps, etc, etc, etc ??????

    don’t worry, bo tai chi lar ?

    even if got tai chi, we still have 151th environmental standard of sh..-media to spin round & round the story telling ?

    GD Star Rating

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