Wednesday, 27 September 2023

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Narrative of ‘foreign intervention’ is deeply divisive

by Désirée Lim Harkins

For chrissakes, let’s stop worrying about the threat of ‘foreign intervention’. At its mildest, this variant of xenophobia is alarmingly inconsistent. The kneejerk willingness to accuse other Singaporeans of treason exists in the very same space where international cooperation and diplomatic ties are lauded alongside the tireless flow of global capital. The interactions that are labelled ‘treacherous’ are, quite obviously, not all meetings between foreigners and Singaporeans, but only those meetings that are regarded as threatening by the government. (By ‘threatening’, I don’t mean a problem for security, but ‘out of its control’.)

The working definition of ‘foreign intervention’ essentially applies to those interactions between Singaporeans and foreigners that the state does not sanction – whether it’s interviews with a famous statesman, funding from a wealthy non-Singaporean, or even attendance at a large-scale (legal) protest.

At its most troubling, the narrative of ‘foreign intervention’ is deeply divisive. It asks us to treat foreigners as inherently suspicious. Of course, they are allowed to labour for us, be of economic benefit to us, but god forbid they have a social impact on the country they are embedded in. As the blatant suspicion towards Malaysian-born citizens indicates, it also creates a hierarchical notion of citizenship: Singaporeans are seen to exist along a continuum of ‘more or less suspicious’ depending on their birthplace or parentage.

Every time the ‘foreign intervention’ angle is called into question, I inevitably see the same tired response: Does this make covert intervention from, say, China and Russia okay? What if a foreign country sneakily deploys agents to pour poison into the ears of local politicians, thus creating policies more accommodating to its malevolent aims? If we abandon criticism of ‘foreign intervention’ entirely, does this deprive us of the tools needed to criticise egregious instances of foreign subversion? Absolutely not.

There is *nothing* categorically wrong with allowing oneself to be persuaded or influenced by a foreigner. It is not at all clear why this should be treated as a bad thing, unless we adopt the absurd position that we are not allowed to have views other than those held by ‘our countrymen’, whatever those may be. Trump’s relationship with Russia is troubling not simply because he was persuaded or influenced by Putin’s silver tongue, but because it *undermines democracy*. Under-the-table dealings of this sort often lead to political consequences that are contrary to the will of the majority and treat the citizenry as mere instruments for the aims of corrupt politicians.

Again, it sucks to have to say something so obvious, but NOT ALL political interactions with foreigners have a democracy-undermining effect. Trump has the power to enact policy that is friendly to Russia but effectively hurts Americans. Singaporean activists meeting Mahathir for a brief interview have no such power. Political interactions with foreigners, on the other hand, can also have a democracy-ENHANCING effect: for example, if we band together with citizens from neighbouring countries to discuss how basic human rights can be improved throughout the region.

The point is, there is nothing inherently wrong with adopting ideas suggested by foreigners, agreeing to cooperate with foreigners, or accepting their help. In pathologising these perfectly mundane exchanges, we inevitably exclude an enormous category of cross-border interactions that we normally recognise as desirable, beneficial, and most of all unavoidable. It is chauvinistic and regressive to describe anyone, even Trump, as a ‘national traitor’ – the real harm of foreign collusion lies in its threat to democratic values, not in disloyalty per se. Of course, the Singaporeans pointing fingers and baying for blood right now could care less about political equality.

This article was first published on Désirée’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission

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