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Singapore passes law to tackle foreign meddling in domestic politics

October 08, 2021 01:24 PM

Singapore, Singapore’s Parliament has passed a law that aims to tackle foreign meddling in domestic politics conducted through hostile information campaigns and the use of local proxies.

The law was passed on Monday (Oct 4) after a 10-hour debate in the House, three years after it was first raised and three weeks after the extensive, hotly debated legislation was tabled.

The law will empower the government to order the removal of any online content deemed to be part of a “hostile information campaign” orchestrated by a foreign power.

The passage of the law comes days after a French think-tank said in a report that Singapore's structural vulnerabilities could be targeted and exploited by China.

“Singapore, which has an ambivalent relationship with China, a mixture of both closeness and distrust, has several characteristics that make it a particularly vulnerable target and, at the same time, particularly resilient to Chinese influence," the report said.

The 646-page document, titled "Chinese influence operations: A Machiavellian moment", describes how China is ramping up attempts to infiltrate and coerce states around the world through a mix of overt and covert means.

Singapore's Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act passed on Monday will arm the Ministry of Home Affairs with a range of tools to fight hostile information campaigns, or HICs, in bureaucratic parlance.

These include powers to compel internet and social media platforms to disclose information on users, remove content, and block user accounts. The law also gives authorities the power to prevent apps from being downloaded in Singapore, if those apps are known to be used by foreign principals to conduct hostile information campaigns.

"This Bill is intended to address a serious threat that concerns our national security and sovereignty," said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in Parliament.

"And these are important to ensure that Singaporeans continue to make our own choices on how we should govern our country and live our lives."

In a speech Shanmugam said Singapore's interracial and inter-religious mix was easily exploitable by foreign actors, who have been steadily building up covert, clever narratives to try and condition Singaporeans' thinking.

"In my view, this is one of the most serious threats we face, and our population and I think most MPs are not really aware of this," he said.

While international media regularly identifies Russia, China, Iran and North Korea as perpetrators, the United States and other Western countries have similar, or in the case of the US, even superior capabilities, added the minister.

In a statement earlier on the proposed law, the Ministry of Home Affairs argued that foreign interference, particularly the use of online tools to mislead or incite users and advance a foreign country’s interest, “poses a serious threat to [Singapore’s] political sovereignty and national security.”

“Hostile foreign actors can seek to mislead Singaporeans on political issues, stir up dissent and disharmony by playing up controversial issues such as race and religion, or seek to undermine confidence and trust in public institutions,” said the statement.

It said that Singapore was especially vulnerable to such influence, given its open, highly digitally connected and diverse society.

The home affairs minister will be empowered to issue “technical assistance direction” to social media services to disclose information required “to determine if the harmful communications activity is being undertaken by or on behalf of a foreign principal,” the statement said.

Shanmugam, in his speech in Parliament, also referred to the report of the French think-tank which said that Singapore's structural vulnerabilities could be targeted and exploited by China.

The chapter on Singapore in the document, titled "Chinese influence operations: A Machiavellian moment", noted that its primary vulnerability was the very nature of its multiethnic and inter-communal society - both an asset and a lever that could easily be used by an ill-intentioned third party.

The Irsem report said the main narratives conveyed by Beijing's influence operations include how Singapore:

- Is a Chinese country that is part of and should be loyal to "Greater China"

Is a small state that cannot afford to be arrogant and alienate the Chinese giant

- Lacks a strong leader since the late Lee Kuan Yew, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong underestimating the importance of ties with Beijing

- Is too close to the United States, which is the past while China is the future and it is in Singapore's interest to align with Beijing; and

- Should not get involved in the South China Sea debate.

The widespread use of English and Chinese here also makes Singapore all the more penetrable by external actors, said the report, the Straits Times reported.

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