K Shanmugam questions funding support behind The Online Citizen: report

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Minister for Law K Shanmugam (PHOTO: Parliament screencap)
Minister for Law K Shanmugam (PHOTO: Parliament screencap)

This story has been updated with responses from Kirsten Han and Terry Xu.

SINGAPORE — Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam has questioned the funding sources behind sociopolitical website The Online Citizen (TOC), noting that it receives support from foreigners and employs foreigners, including Malaysians.

Today reported that Shanmugam was commenting on how websites that receive funding from and hire foreigners can easily be subverted to advance foreign interests. He was speaking at a RSIS conference on foreign-interference tactics and countermeasures on Wednesday (25 September).

The minister brought up TOC as an example, noting that it writes “almost exclusively negative articles” on Singapore. He referred to the defamation lawsuit brought by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong against TOC over an article about the long running Oxley Road saga.

The article repeated allegations by Lee’s siblings Wei Ling and Hsien Yang that he had misled their late father Lee Kuan Yew that the government had gazetted the old family home at 38 Oxley Road.

Stressing that he was not commenting on the legal merits of the article, Shanmugam noted that it was written by a Malaysian named Rubaashini Shunmuganathan, who apparently lives in Shah Alam, Selangor.

Given that Shunmuganathan has written many articles that seek to influence views in the Republic, Shanmugam said that this raises questions about who controls and pays her, and what purpose her work serves. He further claimed that most readers would assume a Singaporean contributor was behind TOC’s articles.

The minister also took issue with the fact that out of 14 administrators of the website, only five are in Singapore. Nine are based abroad, including four in Malaysia and two in Indonesia.

Shanmugam questioned, “We don’t know who they are. Are they Singaporeans? Are they foreigners?”

Meeting with Mahathir

The 60-year-old also alluded to a meeting between five Singaporeans and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur last year.

Historian Thum Ping Tjin, political dissident Tan Wah Piow, freelance journalist Kirsten Han, civil-rights activist Jolovan Wham and graphic novelist Sonny Liew met the 94-year-old leader in August last year.

A day after meeting Mahathir, Dr Thum extended his wishes on the occasion of Malaysia’s National Day by messaging “Selamat Hari Merdeka to the people of the former Federation of Malaya (and happy unofficial independence day to the people of Singapore)”. The historian also urged Mahathir to take leadership in the promotion of democracy in Southeast Asia.

Shanmugam said that New Naratif, a movement which supports democracy in the region and is set up by Han and Dr Thum, receives foreign funding.

Han also said that unlike in Hong Kong, Singapore had failed because its people have not been out in the streets, according to the Today report.

“(This) will seem ridiculous on so many levels, but leave that aside because everyone is entitled to their views, however reasonable or unreasonable,” said Shanmugam.

“Should foreign contributions be received in order to push these lines?” he added.

Such online sites are “only interested to get eyeballs” and have been targeted by other countries to sow internal divisions, he noted.

The minister called foreign interference an “age-old threat” with a history of thousands of years.

Stressing that Singapore cannot take a hands-off approach on the issue, Shanmugam said foreign interference in its affairs is a matter of “national security” and that legislation is necessary to deal with it.

Response from Han and Terry Xu

Meanwhile, Han has asked Today to make corrections and clarifications on various points made in the Today article.

In a post on her Facebook page, Han pointed to the “severity of the allegations against” her and included an email that she sent to Today and other relevant links.

“Insinuations that I am trying to stir up unrest like what's happening in Hong Kong right now are not only untrue but also playing with fire in that it smears myself (and my colleagues) as dangerous threats to our country,” she said.

Meanwhile, TOC chief editor Terry Xu has also posted a response to Shanmugam on Facebook, clarifying that all articles published on TOC are directed and subsequently approved by him.

“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,” said Xu, who also denied receiving any foreign funding for the site.

“To the best of my recollection, there is no law against hiring person of foreign nationality and TOC has not used nor received any foreign funding. So what is the Law Minister barking about?”

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