Josephine Teo trucks out the old and tired argument of the foreign bogeyman once more

Second Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo (Ms Teo) has said in Parliament that the Government was studying “legislative levers” that will allow it to obtain information to investigate if it considers that there are hostile information campaigns to interfere in Singapore’s domestic policies

Given that the Government already has far-reaching powers to police such perceived threats of “fake news”, this desire for more power seems odd. Given that she provides no examples of such foreign threats also raises eyebrows as to the necessity of more legislation.

Ms Teo seems to be concerned about so-called hostile information from foreign sources. From this, I infer that she is alluding to falsehoods from outside Singapore. But, how does where the source of the information comes from matter? But, how does it matter where the news is from? Fake news is fake news no? Don’t we already have the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) to tackle the apparent dangers of fake news?

Unless, Ms Teo is suggesting that POFMA has not worked? If so, this seems to run counter to recent reports which give a glowing report card on POFMA in the curbing of misinformation. This begs the question – If POFMA has had a positive impact on tackling misinformation, why can’t it be used to tackle such “foreign” sources of fake news?

When POFMA was first mooted, the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) dominated government had vociferously supported the passing of POFMA to ostensibly curb the proliferation of fake news and the threat of foreign interference. So how come we need more levers now? Has POFMA not worked?

Unless of course, POFMA was always meant to be used against errant local publications and has no power over foreign information?

About 9 months ago, this publication had queried this very point when it pointed out that no POFMA orders were issued to Nikkei Asian Review, Foreign Policy or The Economist for having published information that was rebutted by Ambassador to Japan for Singapore, Peter Tan Hai Chuan, Ambassador to the United States for Singapore, Ashok Kumar Mirpuri and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom for Singapore, Foo Chi Hsia respectively.

This had suggested that POFMAs had no bite on foreign publications which is why the establishment had to resort to relying on their various ambassadors to do the rebutting.

A prescient question that has emerged from Ms Teo’s speech is this – Why is the Government so concerned about the flow of information in Singapore from such foreign sources? She cites the foreign bogeyman without giving any concrete examples whatsoever. Who are these foreign agents that are so determined to destroy Singapore through misinformation?

Singapore is a small country with limited international clout. It is not a superpower like China, Russia or the United States. Why would anyone be so intent on sowing destruction in our city-state?

One must also remember that this line of logic is not new where the PAP is concerned. The PAP’s political history has shown numerous examples of how the foreign bogeyman is used as a convenient scapegoat for all manner of ills.

In 2018, retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan had sounded warning bells of the threat of foreign influence on the Singaporean identity. In the same year, Member of Parliament Seah Kian Peng and Minister for Law, K Shanmugam had also trucked out the foreign bogeyman by accusing local historian PJ Thum (Thum) of allegedly inviting Dr. Mahathir (Dr. M) to bring democracy to Singapore when factually, Thum did no such thing.

He had asked Dr. M to provide leadership to South East Asia. At no point in time, did Thum invite Dr. M to bring democracy to Singapore. Let’s also not forget former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s use of the foreign threat to justify each of Operation Coldstore and Operation Spectrum.

Ms Teo’s use of the exact same tired reason to justify stricter controls without any concrete examples sounds an awful lot like a broken record with no new songs to play.

Besides, how far does the Government intend to take this? Does it mean that international news publications such as The Economist will be restricted in Singapore? After all, this is a publication that has published articles that authorities had issues with (see above). If so, does it not sound a bit like the North Korean dictatorship?

If the Government does indeed introduce measures beyond POFMA to police the flow of information, this could have a very chilling effect on Singapore indeed.

Ja Ian Chong, an Associate Professor of political science at the National University of Singapore and a 2019–2020 Harvard–Yenching Institute Visiting Scholar had previously written on the issue of foreign interference in Singapore and had suggested that given Singapore’s minuscule independent media, feeble civil society and dormant academia, such avenues simply do not have much social and political capital to be worth the effort to manipulate.

Instead, he pointed out that we seem to take for granted the integrity of public officers when they might well be susceptible to foreign interference. Ja Ian Chong observed that 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.

In a letter to The Straits Times, Ja Ian Chong also said that a “useful means of managing the dangers associated with hidden attempts to distort political processes is greater transparency from the state and those holding high office. Steps include regular public statements of assets, income, directorships, and valuable gifts for senior officials and their immediate family members. Elected officials and political parties can openly disclose political contributions as well as engagements with current and potential funders.”

What’s more, in a Twitter thread yesterday, Ja Ian Chong asserted that a key method in addressing unwanted foreign influence is transparency. He said, “Gauge of seriousness in any new law are public asset and income declarations by political appointees and senior public servants and their immediate families, also political parties.”

While these measures cannot fully remove unwelcome external influence it can reduce risk by making collusion more difficult.

So why is Ms Teo seemingly putting the cart before the horse? It is not new legislation that we need or new powers.

Is it because the PAP would like to ensure public trust in a time of erosion of trust? If so, why not work on the reasons why there is an erosion of trust instead of coming up with even more legislation?

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