SINGAPORE — Singapore is facing one of the “most serious threats” from foreign parties seeking to undermine the country, said Law and Home Affairs Minister Minister K Shanmugam on Monday (4 October).
Speaking during the second reading of the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill (FICA), Shanmugam mentioned a report by the Strategic Research Institute of France’s military college on influence operations, which named Singapore as among the country case studies.
While Shanmugam did not name the country that was the main focus of the institute’s findings, the report is entitled "Chinese influence operations - a Machiavellian moment". In the 646-page report, the institute wrote about the extensive network that China has built over the years to exert its influence around the world including Singapore.
The report noted several factors which made Singapore vulnerable including its size, hyperconnectivity, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, Shanmugam said.
It also stated that Singapore is resilient through a counter-narrative of the Singaporean identity and its swift reactions to hate speech, and is one of the best prepared states in the fight against information manipulation and hybrid threats, he added.
“I am not so sanguine as the people who wrote this report. 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.”
The narratives are not obvious propaganda but they condition people to think in certain ways, particularly on foreign policy issues, and often appeal to a larger racial identity beyond the Singaporean identity, Shanmugam said.
The minister added that Singapore’s population and most Members of Parliament are not really aware of these serious threats.
The proposed FICA will empower the Minister for Home Affairs to order takedowns of content deemed to be part of hostile information campaigns. It will also enable him to compel, among others, social media companies to disclose information to help investigate and counter hostile communications activity that is of foreign origin.
The Bill will not apply to Singaporeans expressing their own views on political matters, unless they are agents of a foreign principal, said the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Past cyber attacks against Singapore
Singapore has been subjected to cyber attack and cyber manipulation in recent times, Shanmugam said.
Among them was the cyber attack in 2018, when hackers targeted SingHealth’s databases and stole the particulars of 1.5 million patients, including that of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
In the area of cyber manipulation, Singapore experienced a coordinated Hostile Information Campaign (HIC) that attempted to undermine its foreign policy position during a period of tension with another country between 2016 and 2017.
“Online commentaries and videos were uploaded by social media accounts, which had lain dormant for many years. Many of these were in Mandarin and targeted our Chinese-speaking population,” Shanmugam said. The contents were widely circulated and aimed to influence sentiments among Singaporeans, he added.
In another case, during a period of bilateral tension with a country in 2018, Singapore saw a large spike in online comments critical of the city-state with many originating from anonymous accounts.
“I will say so far, these have been relatively low level, except the strategic move, the attempts to condition our population’s thinking which is going on,” Shanmugam said.
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