The nature of organisations and the Government’s own ability to identify any possible foreign influence should be looked into when assessing the risks of employing foreigners in positions prone to said influence, and must be viewed from a “broader perspective”, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in Parliament on Mon (4 Nov).
Mr Shanmugam was responding to a question by Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong regarding whether positions that involve media, communications, or outreach – those that address issues of social or political concern – should be staffed exclusively by Singaporeans due to the risks of foreign influence.
When asked by Ms Ong regarding the criteria used to determine whether Singaporean individuals and entities – including the media – are at risk of being compromised by foreign influence for national security reasons, Mr Shanmugam said that it is tangential upon “what is actually done” and “what actually happens”.
“Say you push a foreign country’s or a specific party’s agenda, to subvert your own country, the position is clear. You are acting against Singapore’s national interests.
“Often this is done for money, sometimes, for other reasons. I am not sure you can do this or identify this by specific criteria,” he added.
Touching on Ms Ong’s question as to whether a list of such individuals or organisations at risk, and the reasons for such risks, will be published, Mr Shanmugam said that such lists are not present.
“In fact, I am a little perplexed by the question, because how do you make a comprehensive list of all people who may potentially be recruited by foreign agencies, or be subject to foreign influence?
“When I put it in those terms, you can see that the point is quite absurd. In foreign countries, even MPs have been recruited by foreign agencies. So it will be quite meaningless to publish such lists.
“Whether we should identify specific areas, which are more likely to be vectors for foreign influence, and have some better way of managing those risks, given that the environment is changing – that is a different issue,” said Mr Shanmugam, adding that “there are specific jobs that already have requirements for security clearances, for these and other reasons”.
However, Mr Shanmugam noted that if action is taken against a particular individual or organisation, the case often becomes public “unless there are national security reasons not to reveal the details”, as seen in the case of China-born US academic Huang Jing.
Huang had served as director of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation, and as professor at the Lee Foundation Professor on US-China Relations at the NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP).
The Ministry of Home Affairs revoked the permanent residency status of both Huang and his wife Shirley Yang, and cancelled both of their entry and re-entry permits in 2017 under Section 14(4) of the Immigration Act after he was identified as “an agent of influence of a foreign country” who had “knowingly interacted with intelligence organisations and agents of the foreign country” to “influence the Singapore Government’s foreign policy and public opinion in Singapore”.
“To this end, he engaged prominent and influential Singaporeans and gave them what he claimed was “privileged information” about the foreign country, so as to influence their opinions in favour of that country. Huang also recruited others in aid of his operations,” said MHA in a statement on 6 Aug that year.
While MHA did not specify the country Huang had allegedly co-operated with in said influence operations, it is of note that Huang is currently serving as the dean of the Institute of International and Regional Studies at Beijing Language and Culture University, which could further solidify the speculation around his alleged role in serving China whilst teaching in Singapore at NUS.
NMP Walter Theseira posed a question regarding the measures suggested by the Government for Singaporeans to protect themselves against foreign influence, given that “association with and receiving income from foreign sources is common amongst globalised Singapore firms and individuals”.
Mr Shanmugam replied: “I think the NMP may have misunderstood what I had said … It is not all foreign influences that we seek to avoid.
“We seek to deal with, for example, foreign influences that seek to disrupt our society, weaken our country, and affect our foreign policy.
“This cannot come as a surprise. Every country seeks to protect itself,” he stressed.
He stressed that “politics in Singapore should be for Singaporeans”.
“It can be maintained without saying: ‘Therefore, we cannot interact with people outside of Singapore.’
“Of course we must, whether it’s in business, academia or politics. We must both keep track and interact and understand what’s going on, and have deep relationships.
“But that’s different from taking money from people or allowing people to influence operations. And we in this House should stand against that,” said Mr Shanmugam.
Media in Singapore may be “effectively exploited” by malicious foreign actors and foreign States; HICs have a long history beyond the present Internet age: Minister of Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam
Previously at the Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures Conference organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at NTU on 25 Sep, Mr Shanmugam expressed concerns regarding how media in Singapore may be “effectively exploited” by malicious foreign actors and foreign States.
Under “a military doctrine developed for the Internet age” named the “Gerasimov Doctrine”, non-kinetic military measures such as Hostile Information Campaigns (HICs) target potentially vulnerable populations of a target country.
“There are an increasing number of people who are losing faith in traditional political parties, and being attracted to strongmen and specific populist ideologies. Part of it is because trust has broken down, and not simply because of HICs.
“Trust has broken down for a variety of reasons, including growing inequality, the wealth gap, globalisation and the consequences of countries not catering effectively to people who have been left out by globalisation.
“People see that the system benefits a small group, and they are not being taken care of. That is being effectively exploited by HICs as well,” said Mr Shanmugam.
Thus, said Mr Shanmugam, malicious foreign actors utilise the media – “a key node” – to “tap on legitimate sentiments” and “target reasonable people”, including by using “legitimate news outlets as conduits” and converting “disinformation into mainstream information”.
Citing The Eastern Sun and The Singapore Herald in the 1970s, Mr Shanmugam pointed out that the former “worked with a news agency of Communist China and received funding from them”, while the latter “took money from foreign sources”, including “a Malaysian politician”.
“It pushed an anti-Government line and was also stridently against National Service, which was a key pillar in defending Singapore. The Singapore Herald continuously ran articles against National Service,” he added.
Minister of Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam questions the need for New Naratif‘s alleged foreign funding, TOC‘s need for foreign staff
In recent times, alleged Mr Shanmugam in his speech at the conference, such threats are present in the form of publications such as New Naratif – set up by historian PJ Thum and journalist Kirsten Han – which “is significantly funded by a foreign foundation and received other foreign contributions as well”.
“Ms Han, on video, has said that Singapore has failed compared to Hong Kong, because 500,000 people don’t go on the streets to march, unlike Hong Kong. She wants to change that, through classes run by New Naratif.
“These are matters that Singaporeans can argue about – do we think it is appropriate for 500,000 people to go on the streets and you want to run classes on that? Well, that’s one view.
“But should there be foreign funding? Should foreign NGOs be involved? Should foreign donations be received in order to push these lines?” Mr Shanmugam questioned.
In the same vein, Mr Shanmugam also cited TOC‘s use of foreign staff as a possible example of foreign interference in Singapore.
“I’m not commenting on the legal merits of the article, since it is the subject of a lawsuit, only that a foreigner, staying in Malaysia, writes these things for a Singapore site to target a Singapore audience,” said Mr Shanmugam, in reference to an article that is now a subject of a lawsuit filed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong against TOC‘s editor-in-chief Terry Xu.
“Who controls her? Who pays her? What is her purpose? All these are legitimate questions. most readers would just assume this was by a genuine Singaporean contributor,” he added, highlighting that nine out of 14 of TOC‘s administrators are located outside of Singapore, based on publicly available information.
“Nothing goes unvetted by me, a Singaporean”; no law against hiring foreigners: TOC editor-in-chief Terry Xu
Responding to Mr Shanmugam’s fiery statement, Mr Xu maintained that all articles published on TOC are directed and subsequently approved by him.
“Nothing goes unvetted by me, a Singaporean who has served his national service and held responsible by the Ministry of Communication and Information as the registered person in charge,” said Mr Xu in a statement on 25 Sep.
“If one is to observe the series of Facebook posts and now, the Law Minister comments, one can easily come to a conclusion that there is a collaborated campaign to discredit TOC,” he added.
In response to the heated debate on the issue of hiring foreign staff at TOC, Mr Xu said: “To the best of my recollection, there is no law against hiring persons of foreign nationality and TOC has not used nor received any foreign funding. So what is the Law Minister barking about?”