A key method in addressing unwanted foreign influence is transparency, said Chong Ja Ian, a political science academician at the National University of Singapore on Monday (1 March).
Assoc. Prof Chong was referring to the Second Minister of Home Affairs Josephine Teo’s Parliament remarks on the same day regarding the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA)’s budget.
Mrs Teo said that the government is studying “legislative levers” to allow the state to obtain information to counter hostile information campaigns conducted in Singapore by foreign actors to subvert domestic politics.
She noted that the government is looking into how different countries deal with such interference operations which are increasingly sophisticated.
While this threat has always been present in Singapore, the danger has grown, said Mrs Teo, pointing to how Singapore’s openness and diversity present opportunities for foreign intervention.
The proposed laws will also have to guard against foreign subversion of politically significant entities and individuals in Singapore, said Mrs Teo.
This includes considering the level of transparency in funding, support and leadership.
In a thread on Twitter, Assoc. Prof Chong shared several ways in which transparency could be increased, noting that this is key in addressing unwanted influence.
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.”
In fact, such declarations could be done by board members and heads of statutory bodies. Key political appointees can also place their assets in a blind trust while they are in public office, Assoc. Prof Chong added.
Assoc. Prof Chong also suggested implementing a cooling-off period for public officials prohibiting them from working in a sector they oversaw for a set period after leaving the public office for the private sector.
The suggested range was between 18 to 36 months, depending on the “sensitivity” of their last job.
Gifts made to “political appointees and senior public servants, including services and meals” should be made public, said Assoc. Prof Chong.
“So should any engagements by political appointees and public servants. Donations to all political parties public too,” he added.
He suggested that all this info should be made available on a publicly accessible registry.
Assoc. Prof Chong later pointed out that much of this information on political parties already exists in the form of regular reporting to the Registrar of Societies. All that is needed is to make such information public.
He also noted that the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in the United States could be a useful piece of legislation to include as a case study as well, given that Singapore is already familiar with such a mechanism.
Assoc. Prof Chong cited a FARA filing for media consulting by the Singapore government with a US firm in 2018 as an example.
A key way to address unwanted foreign influence is transparency. 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. 1/https://t.co/HsvTseKVri
— Ian Chong (@ChongJaIan) March 1, 2021
In the thread, Assoc. Prof Chong also cited a letter he wrote in 2019, published by ST, in which he raised the issue of foreign influence in Singapore and how to guard against it, as well as the MHA’s reply at the time.
In that letter, he said, “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,” Assoc. Prof Chong wrote.
He suggested that elected officials and political parties openly disclose political contributions and engagements with current and potential funders, as a means of being transparent.
The MHA responded that there are already existing rules which require ministers and MPs to declare all gifts, stressing that there is a framework in place if the recipient wishes to keep the gifts.
“In addition, every minister must, upon his or her appointment to office, disclose to the President (through the Prime Minister) his or her sources of income, assets and financial liabilities,” said MHA.
It added, “These rules, and laws, have been drafted primarily to prevent corruption, and they have worked well. They will cover monies gratuitously received from foreign sources,” noting that foreign interference is a “separate and distinct danger”.
“When it takes the form of money transfers to ministers and MPs, it will be covered by the current rules and laws. There are, however, also several other insidious and dangerous forms of foreign interference.”
Several months after the MHA’s response, Assoc. Prof Chong wrote an article published on the East Asia Forum in January 2020 on the matter.
He branded “malicious foreign intervention“ as “a longstanding problem reinvigorated by technology and newly motivated actors“.
Thus, Singapore needs to ensure that it “has a set of robust, rigorous and comprehensive responses”.
Explaining that while there are rules in place for ministers to declare income, assets and financial liabilities to the President via the Prime Minister, Assoc. Prof Chong observed the Singapore presidency “has significant constitutional and capacity limitations and these approaches still leave open other channels for unwanted outside influence.”
He added, “The steps described take the integrity of the offices of the Prime Minister and other senior public servants for granted even when, like similar posts elsewhere, they too are potential targets for influence.”
Assoc. Prof Chong also pointed out the lack of requirements governing immediate family members, related interests and other engagements which could subject senior officials to undue influence, which seems to restrict the use of transparency as a final check.
“Addressing these more openly could reduce risks by raising public confidence and understanding,” he stressed.