Singapore waves red flag on foreign interference, fears impact of naming

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Logos of social media applications WeChat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, Telegram, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and Signal. (PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: Chesnot/Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — Over the past year, Singapore’s government ministers have been waving the red flag on foreign interference activities and referred to a particular country.

The ministers have dropped hints about the country in their speeches but stopped short of revealing the identity of the elephant in the room.

Analysts that Yahoo News Singapore spoke to said the Singapore government is fearful of a severe economic impact arising from any reprisal that could be undertaken by the country if it were named. Unlike the government’s reticence, the analysts have identified the origin of foreign actors behind a recent wave of hostile information campaigns targeting various countries including Singapore: China.

The Asian superpower has been actively engaging in global foreign interference activities amid its intense geopolitical rivalry against the US and the West, and desire to trumpet its achievements and authoritarian system of government in the eyes of the world, the analysts said.

Through various social media platforms, particularly Wechat, China has been targeting societal groups, businesses, the broader public, and officials in Singapore. Its goals are to steer global perspectives towards Beijing’s positions on issues ranging from Taiwan, the South China Sea disputes, to even the ongoing Ukraine war, the analysts said.

These efforts may further bolster the generally positive views of China among Singaporeans, as indicated in a Pew Research Centre survey of 17 economies released last year. The survey showed that Singapore and Greece were the only economies where the majority of their respondents have broadly positive views of China. About 64 per cent of respondents in Singapore viewed China positively, compared with only 10 per cent in Japan, 22 per cent in South Korea, and 27 per cent in Taiwan.

Associate Research Fellow James Char from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) said, “There is very likely an attempt by Beijing to shape narratives in Singapore to actually align…normal Singaporeans to believe in the greatness of the Chinese model and the narratives about Chinese foreign policy.”

In general, China’s desire to push its perspective on policies on the global stage is not necessarily a problem, said National University of Singapore (NUS) political scientist Chong Ja Ian. “The problem is when these actions start complicating political processes that need to run their course in these various countries,” Associate Professor Chong added.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam speaking in Parliament on 4 October 2021.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam speaking in Parliament on 4 October 2021. (SCREENSHOT: Ministry of Information and Communications/YouTube)

Singapore is a ‘price-taker’

During the second Reading of Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill in Parliament on 4 October last year, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law K Shanmugam spoke about one of the “most serious threats” from foreign parties seeking to undermine Singapore.

Shanmugam did not name any country but he referred to a report published “a few days ago” by the Strategic Research Institute of France’s Military College on influence operations, which named Singapore as among the country case studies. While Shanmugam also did not state its title, the Military College released its 646-page report written in French entitled "Chinese influence operations - a Machiavellian moment" in late September last year. In it, the Military College wrote about the extensive network that China had built over the years to exert its deleterious influence around the world, including Singapore.

Similarly, Shanmugam mentioned the expulsion of academic Huang Jing from Singapore in 2017 for collaborating with foreign intelligence agents, without naming any country.

He said, "Can you imagine naming one of our neighbours involved, or a much larger country? When we asked Huang Jing to leave, we did not say who he was acting for. Why? The foreign policy and national security implications are too serious. The US can name any country it wishes, but we are a price-taker in this business of international relations."

In contrast, Singapore has openly confronted the US government as far back as the 1960s and 1970s about its interference in the city-state’s affairs. For instance, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had accused Washington over the Central Intelligence Agency’s attempt to bribe a Singapore official and American attempts to finance the local English newspaper, the Singapore Herald. In 1988, bilateral ties soured after First Secretary of the US embassy E. Mason "Hank" Hendrickson was expelled by the Singapore government for his attempts to influence domestic politics.

Assoc Prof Chong of NUS and Char of RSIS agreed that Singapore adopts a very calibrated approach towards managing the foreign interference activities of the Americans and the Chinese.

The approach arose because of the stark contrasts between the transparent American style of governance and the opaque Chinese Communist Party model, they said.

Assoc Prof Chong said the Chinese would respond particularly strongly to being named as a key source of foreign interference activities. “This is a feature of authoritarian systems that are very powerful. They would rather have a lot of praise for the system. In the case of China, they have been particularly robust in their efforts to clamp down anything that could look like criticism.”

Unlike the Chinese, the Americans are used to criticisms from other countries including Singapore, according to Char. “Our government understands it is fine to pick out certain things that we don’t agree with the Americans and they don’t throw a hissy fit. Our relations remain stable, they don’t use economic coercion,” he said.

A ship docks at PSA's Tanjong Pagar container port in Singapore.
A ship docks at PSA's Tanjong Pagar container port in Singapore. (PHOTO: Reuters)

High risks of economic fallout

Assoc Prof Chong and Char flagged the high risks of an economic fallout if Singapore were to publicly confront China about its foreign interference activities. The significant trade volumes between Singapore and its largest trading partner attested to their concerns.

In 2021, Singapore’s two-way trade with China totalled S$164.3 billion, with the city-state running a trade surplus, according to data from the Department of Statistics Singapore. China has been Singapore’s largest trading partner since 2013 while Singapore is also China’s largest foreign investor. The centrepiece of their close trading relationship is the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, which has been in effect since 1 January 2009.

Given the significant risk exposure in terms of trade and investments, Singapore’s government is afraid of any potential economic punishment inflicted by Beijing, Assoc Prof Chong said. “The real fear is that there'll be some sort of punishment, be this market access, limits on exports, investment in China, or outward Chinese investments,” he added.

Char said the economic risk is the overriding concern of the government and as such, it has to confront the threat of Chinese foreign interference behind the scene. “With the growth of the Chinese economy, it is very hard for us to get entangled (in a quarrel over foreign interference). I think we do not want this to affect our daily (trade) operations as there is too much going for us,” he added.

Both analysts cited the example of how Australia’s exports to China were severely curbed as a result of Canberra’s public accusations about Chinese foreign interference and its demand for transparent investigations into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of nine Terrex armoured vehicles, which belong to Singapore, waits to be loaded onto a truck at a cargo terminal in Hong Kong on 26 January 2017.
One of nine Terrex armoured vehicles, which belong to Singapore, waits to be loaded at a cargo terminal in Hong Kong, China on 26 January 2017. (PHOTO: Reuters)

Tensions with China during Terrex saga

Such concerns over the ripple effects – whether in the economic realm or otherwise – from China reacting to what it may perceive as any slight by Singapore are warranted.

From late 2016 to early 2017, Singapore was embroiled in the “Terrex” saga after nine armoured military vehicles from a vessel that were bound for the city-state from Taiwan were seized in Hong Kong on 23 November 2016. While the Hong Kong custom authorities said they were conducting “a routine ship search”, analysts across the region attributed the seizure to Beijing’s unhappiness over Singapore’s continuous military ties with Taiwan, including the city-state’s army exercises in the “renegade province”, and its internationalist stance over the South China Sea disputes.

During a parliamentary debate, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the matter regarding the Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles would be resolved between Singapore and Hong Kong authorities. Dr Ng also said the Terrexes “cannot legally be detained or confiscated by other countries”, without mentioning any country. The Terrexes were returned to Singapore in late January 2017.

A few days after the seizure of the Terrexes, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang mentioned Singapore at a regular media briefing. “The Chinese government has always firmly opposed countries that have diplomatic ties with China to have any form of official exchanges with Taiwan, including military exchanges and cooperation. We asked that the Singapore government strictly abide by the One-China principle.”

Char said it was clear that China-linked actors were involved in the saga and noticed the considerable online chatter against Singapore then. “During the Terrex saga, this trope was being spread that Singapore was taking a position against China when it was quite obvious we were voicing the usual platitudes about observing an international rules-based order (on the South China Sea disputes) and UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).”

Office workers at the Central Business District in Singapore on 26 April 2022.
Office workers at the Central Business District in Singapore on 26 April 2022. (PHOTO: Reuters)

Targeting Singapore’s Chinese population?

To further underscore the government’s concerns about foreign interference, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the issue at the recent National Day Rally in his English and Chinese speeches.

“Stay alert against foreign actors who are looking out to exploit our vulnerabilities and to influence our people for their own interests. I talked about this in my Chinese speech. Do not believe that everything that you read online is true,” said Lee, who did not identify the origins of the foreign actors.

When asked if Singapore is targeted by China for foreign interference because of its Chinese-majority population, Assoc Prof Chong said there are sustained efforts to play up ethno-nationalism among the ethnic Chinese communities living outside the mainland. Similar concerns have also been highlighted in Malaysia, where the ethnic Chinese population is a fairly large minority, he added.

The bigger concern is the potential for ethno-nationalism to fuel tensions among the different races in Singapore, according to Assoc Prof Chong. “It is the playing of ethno-nationalist sentiments that can somewhat be exclusionary and emphasise certain ideas of superiority. That is of concern because discriminatory behaviour towards minority groups could potentially be pronounced as a result of such polarisation.”

While regulatory frameworks including the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) are critical in defending Singapore against such activities, Assoc Prof Chong said that there has been a recent spike in disinformation regarding issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the Ukraine war, with the latter characterised by an amplification of Russian and Chinese perspectives.

He added, “Sensitising the public (against foreign interference) through public education and media literacy is something that in Singapore's case, we can probably see a lot more.”

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