'Absurd' to have list of those vulnerable to foreign influence: Shanmugam

Singapore's Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam addresses Parliament. PHOTO: Screengrab from Gov.sg YouTube channel

SINGAPORE — Any attempt to make a list of individuals and organisations who may be subject to foreign influence would be both “absurd” and “meaningless”, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam on Monday (4 November) in response to a parliamentary question.

Shanmugam told the House, “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.”

The minister was responding to Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong’s questions on the criteria used to determine whether Singaporean individuals, firms, or media organisations are at risk of being compromised by foreign influence for national security reasons; and whether a list of such individuals or organisations at risk, and the reasons for these risks, will be published.

Ong also asked whether positions that involve media, communications, or outreach, which address issues of social or political concern should be staffed exclusively by Singaporeans due to the risks of foreign influence.

In response, the minister did not answer directly but said the issue required a broader perspective. “For example, the nature of the organisations, the confidence that we can have that their employees are likely to be immune to foreign influence, that there are controls, and also our own ability to identify any possible foreign influence.”

Guarding against foreign influence

In September, during a S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) conference on foreign-interference tactics and countermeasures, Shanmugam spoke on how websites that receive funding from and hire foreigners can easily be subverted to advance foreign interests.

He then questioned the funding sources behind sociopolitical website The Online Citizen (TOC), noting that it receives support from foreigners and employs foreigners, including Malaysians. He claimed that TOC writes “almost exclusively negative articles” on Singapore.

Shanmugam also noted that New Naratif, a movement which supports democracy in the region and is set up by freelance journalist Kirsten Han and historian Thum Ping Tjin, receives foreign funding.

On Monday, when asked by NMP Associate Professor Walter Theseira to clarify the facts behind the concerns he had expressed at the RSIS conference, Shanmugam referred him to his speech at the event.

But he responded directly to Prof Theseira’s question on how Singaporeans can protect themselves against foreign influence, given that association with and receiving income from foreign sources is common amongst globalised Singapore firms and individuals.

“I think the NMP may have misunderstood what I had said. It is not all foreign influences that we seek to avoid,” said Shanmugam.

“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.”

Noting that MPs and political parties are prohibited from receiving foreign funding, he also cited the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, which prevents foreigners from funding or controlling newspapers in Singapore.

Decades ago, the Eastern Sun and Singapore Herald were found by authorities to be tools of foreign influence for communist China and America. "The key point is politics in Singapore should be for Singaporeans. It can be maintained without saying: 'Therefore, we cannot interact with people outside of Singapore.”

He added, "But if I were to put it in broader terms, we want to keep foreign influence out of our political environment, not allow foreigners to influence our own political processes, and we have crafted a series of laws over the years.”

"And I think Singaporeans accept that."

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