Saturday, 28 September 2019

Singapore needs laws to tackle foreign interference in domestic matters: Law Minister K. Shanmugam

Such interference is an age-old affair, but the Internet has revolutionised this, he says at RSIS Conference on Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures
By Adrian Lim, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 26 Sep 2019

Singapore needs laws to counter any foreign attempts to influence its domestic politics and public opinion, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

Pointing out that foreign powers have all along sought to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries, Mr Shanmugam said the Internet has revolutionised this process.

Such interference can be even more deadly than military force in undermining a country's politics and stability, and every state has the right to protect its national security, he said.

In Singapore's case, its laws should give the Government powers to tackle foreign interference attempts through targeted, surgical interventions, and to investigate and respond expeditiously to hostile information campaigns.

It must also have the power to get information in order to investigate the provenance of content, to see the extent to which it is foreign influenced and respond appropriately, he added.

Such legislation needs to be able to deal with a diverse range of threats, such as the flow of funds, and interference during and outside election periods, Mr Shanmugam stressed.



When it comes to addressing hostile information campaigns online, it cannot be left to technology companies to regulate themselves, he told a conference on foreign interference tactics and countermeasures organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"We may also need to consider how we restrict foreign participation in the leadership of specific organisations... that are closely involved in our political landscape," he said. "This is similar to our position on foreign participation in cause-based public assemblies and processions."

In his 45-minute speech, Mr Shanmugam outlined examples of how foreign interference has taken place at home and globally, including in the 2016 United States election.

He also spelled out the various methods which foreign interference can take, such as the use of diplomatic channels to subvert and interfere with other states.

The media can also be used, such as via secret funding and control of the publications, and in other cases, having agents use the cover of journalists themselves.

States have also been known to target cause-based movements in other places, mobilising activists in order to advance foreign countries' interests, said Mr Shanmugam.

He noted that foreign interference has been turbo-charged because of the Internet and the almost limitless possibilities it has opened up.

Hostile information campaigns can identify the "protest potential" of any population of the target country, he said. The campaigns seek to create protests which deepen divisions among different groups, and get people to distrust institutions.

But it is the combination of online hostile information campaigns, and offline activities, such as foreign-controlled media and agents of influence, that is extremely toxic and powerful, said Mr Shanmugam.

He cited the example of how this took place in Ukraine, where a foreign country built a narrative that the government was fascist and corrupt. He also cited how online campaigning and falsehoods during the vote on Brexit played on people's anti-Muslim and xenophobic sentiments.

"All that hasn't happened in its full glory in Singapore. But it can happen. Some of it has happened," he said.



The minister said there are attempts to combine the different approaches of foreign interference, and outlined how a group of local activists met Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad last year to urge him to bring democracy to Singapore. Two of them - historian Thum Ping Tjin and freelance journalist Kirsten Han - also started New Naratif, which is funded by a foreign foundation and has received foreign contributions.

He also noted that The Online Citizen website has employed foreigners to write almost exclusively negative articles on Singapore matters, including inflammatory pieces that seek to fracture social cohesion.

"Foreign interference is an age-old threat which has adapted to modern technology," he said. "This is an issue of sovereignty and national security. The governments have to lead from the front, and we need to ensure that we have the right tools to fight this threat".










Conference on Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures

The Online Citizen hired foreigners to pen negative articles, says Shanmugam
These include inflammatory content seeking to fracture social cohesion in Singapore: Minister
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 26 Sep 2019

The Online Citizen (TOC) website has employed foreigners, including Malaysians, to write almost exclusively negative articles on social and political matters in Singapore, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

These include inflammatory articles that seek to fracture social cohesion, he said in a speech on foreign interference in domestic politics and the need for governments to take measures to counter the threat.

The minister highlighted two articles which he said were written by a Malaysian woman named Rubaashini Shunmuganathan who, based on publicly available information, is living in Shah Alam, near Kuala Lumpur.

The first article called for Singaporean civil servants to follow the example of their Hong Kong counterparts in protesting.

The second made allegations about Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and this has led to a civil suit by PM Lee, who says they are false attacks against his character and fitness to hold office.

Of this article, Mr Shanmugam said: "I am not commenting on the legal merits of the article since it is the subject of a lawsuit, only that a foreigner, staying in Malaysia, writes these things for a Singapore site to target a Singapore audience."

He added: "Who controls her? Who pays her? What is her purpose? All these are legitimate questions. Most readers would just assume this was by a genuine Singaporean contributor."



He said that only five of The Online Citizen's 14 administrators are said to be based in Singapore. "Nine are outside - four are in Malaysia, two are in Indonesia. We don't know who they are. Are they Singaporeans? Are they foreigners?"

The minister was speaking at the opening of a one-day Conference on Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures held at Parkroyal on Beach Road hotel. It was organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Mr Shanmugam also spoke of how a group of local activists, including historian Thum Ping Tjin and freelance journalist Kirsten Han, had met Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad last year and urged him to bring democracy to Singapore, among other countries.

In a Facebook post after the meeting, Dr Thum said he had urged Tun Dr Mahathir to "take leadership in South-east Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of information".

Dr Thum and Ms Han also set up an organisation, New Naratif, which was funded by a foreign foundation and received other foreign contributions as well, said Mr Shanmugam.

Ms Han has also said Singapore has failed compared with Hong Kong because people do not go on the streets to march, "and she wants to change that, through classes run by New Naratif", he added.

"Everyone is entitled to their views, however reasonable or unreasonable. But my primary point is: Is it right for foreign funding to be received in order to advance these viewpoints?" the minister said.



He noted that there are responsible media organisations - both Singaporean and foreign - which employ foreigners. The assumption is that the media will have some ethics, but this can of course be exploited, he said. "But they are subject to a framework, foreign as well as Singaporean," he said. "In every country, there is a framework for how the media behaves."

But some online news sites tap anonymous contributors, leaving them open to being used as tools by foreign interests to publish inflammatory articles that attack and deepen divisions in a country.

"They have no interest in sociopolitical stability in a country," he said. "Their only interest is to get eyeballs."

TOC website's chief editor Terry Xu, responding to the minister's speech yesterday, said all articles are directed, and subsequently approved, by him.

"Nothing goes unvetted by me," he said in an article posted on TOC's Facebook page.

He added that there is no law against hiring foreigners, and the website has not received any foreign funding.

"If one is to observe the series of Facebook posts and now, the Law Minister's comments, one can easily come to a conclusion that there is a collaborated campaign to discredit TOC."

Mr Shanmugam also spoke on the need for countries to regulate the online space, noting that some technology companies have called for self-regulation. "Can tech companies be left to self-regulate, in the absence of legislation? I think the clear answer is no," he said.

"The most diplomatic way of saying it is that the responses have been varied so far to the challenges that have come out: From denying that there are problems, to taking some reasonably effective steps."

Part of the problem is that the business models of such companies militate against proper self-regulation. The more content and users such sites have, the more user attention they can sell to advertisers, he said.

"Removing fake users, removing fake accounts, investigating coordinated inauthentic behaviour - these are all costly," he said. "The tech companies are in a position of conflict, where their business interests often conflict with what needs to be done in the broader society's interests."

And whether it is in companies or in states, proper frameworks exist to deal with such conflicts of interest. The person or institution in a position of conflict does not get to decide what the response should be, he added.

"It cannot be different for tech companies. There is no difference in principle," Mr Shanmugam said.










TOC episode underlines need to be wary of sources of news reports

It was reported that the article published by The Online Citizen (TOC) website, that is the subject of a civil suit by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, was written by a Malaysian who, based on publicly available information, is residing in Malaysia (TOC hired foreigners to pen negative articles, says Shanmugam, Sept 26).

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said it was written by a Malaysian woman named Rubaashini Shunmuganathan.

Reports on Facebook surfaced that the writer had adopted a pen name "Kiara Xavier" for her TOC articles.

These revelations raise a few questions.

First, the use of a pen name. From a layman's perspective, this appears to be a departure from the norms adopted by established and credible news outlets which avoid the use of pen names to ensure that writers are held accountable for what they write.



In the light of the suit against TOC, would the writer of the report be liable as well? By extension, are we to also assume that the other writers in TOC are also using pseudonyms?

Second, one wonders whether foreign writers are directed by TOC editor Terry Xu, or if they operate independently. If they operate independently, it then begs the question if this is a form of foreign influence or intervention, as articles were written under the cloak of a pseudonym by people with no socio-cultural understanding of living in Singapore, and seemingly were out to stir disaffection in our community.

This episode thus reinforces the need for Singaporeans to generally be aware of the sources of the news consumed, both online and in print, and to always maintain a healthy dose of scepticism over what is read.

Hanafi Muhammad Ismail
ST Forum, 27 Sep 2019
















Examples of foreign interference in the course of history and in Singapore
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 26 Sep 2019

Active interference by one state in the affairs of another is an age-old problem that goes back centuries, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

But now, the Internet age has allowed countries to destabilise others without the need for conventional warfare, through the use of hostile information campaigns, he added.

Mr Shanmugam, who was speaking at the Conference on Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures, gave several historical examples of how foreign interference has destabilised states.

CHINA'S WARRING STATES PERIOD

Led by General Yue Yi, the state of Yan conquered most of the state of Qi in 284BC. But five years later, Yan's king died.

Tian Dan, a general from the conquered state, bribed Yan officials to spread rumours that Yue Yi wanted to become the new king.

Yue Yi was forced to flee for his life, and Tian Dan subsequently recaptured Qi's former territory.

ROME AND GREECE

Nearly 2,000 years ago, Greek politicians appealed to the Roman authorities to adjudicate conflicts in a bid to destroy their domestic opponents and court favour with the rising superpower.

Years later, the Achaean League - a confederation of Greek city-states - emerged. But some Achaean politicians started lobbying Rome to prop up pro-Roman allies in Greek states. When Sparta wanted to secede from the league, these groups appealed to Rome to intervene.

Over time, Greek independence became diluted and the Greeks eventually fell to Roman rule.

SINGAPORE HERALD AND EASTERN SUN NEWSPAPERS

In the 1970s, two newspapers shut down after it was revealed that they had taken foreign funding.

The Singapore Herald pushed an anti-government line and also published articles against national service. It took money from overseas sources, including a Malaysian politician.

The Eastern Sun was shut down after it was found to have worked with a news agency of communist China and received money from it.

In the words of then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, that funding meant the paper "would not oppose the People's Republic of China on major issues and would remain neutral on minor ones".

THE HENDRICKSON AFFAIR

In the late 1980s, American diplomat Hank Hendrickson encouraged a group of Singaporean lawyers to enter opposition politics, contesting elections against the People's Action Party.

One of them was then Law Society president Francis Seow, who was assured of refuge in the United States if he ran into difficulties with the Singapore Government.

Mr Hendrickson was eventually expelled from Singapore after he was found to have meddled in domestic politics.

2016 U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

In the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, a foreign troll factory conducted a disinformation campaign on various social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook.

These companies were slow to acknowledge the problem and rectify issues. For example, it was only in late 2017 that Facebook publicly acknowledged there had been foreign interference on its platform leading up to the election.

It estimated that between 2015 and 2017, about 126 million people received content from this troll factory and its associated accounts.

THE HUANG JING INCIDENT

In 2017, Singapore expelled an academic at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Dr Huang Jing was in contact with foreign intelligence groups and agents, and used his position at the school to engage prominent and influential Singaporeans.

He also tried to influence senior public officials in Singapore and change its foreign policy, as well as recruit others to help him. Dr Huang is an American citizen who is originally from China.





New Naratif says it doesn't allow foreign editorial intervention
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 27 Sep 2019

The co-founder and editor-in-chief of New Naratif Kirsten Han has said the media platform accepts foreign grant money but denied that contributors influence its editorial decisions.

She was responding to Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam's comments on Wednesday at a conference on foreign interference, where he said online news sites that receive foreign funding could be used as tools to advance foreign interests.

He also said Ms Han had stated on video that Singapore has failed compared with Hong Kong because 500,000 people do not march on the streets and that she wants to change that through classes run by New Naratif, which describes itself as a movement for democracy and free expression in the region.

In a blog post yesterday, she said New Naratif is supported by membership, donations and grants. It accepts foreign grant money "following applications through the proper channels". She added: "We don't take money if the funder wants to influence or control our editorial or operational decisions."

She said she and co-founder Thum Ping Tjin "publish regular transparency reports where we openly talk about our achievements and challenges, and share full financial statements so people can see what money we have and how we spent it".

She said her references to Hong Kong in her November 2016 speech, at a forum on civil disobedience and social movements, were taken out of context.

She was reported to have said that a social movement is "all the work that goes into potentially one day having 500,000 people in the streets".

In her post, Ms Han said that her point was that "'500,000 people on the streets' is not a useful KPI (key performance indicator) to use in measuring the strength and maturity of a country's civil society - the communities, the networks, and the solidarity between them are far more important".

"These are the things that you need regardless of whether you have 500,000 people on the streets to protest or not... But you're still going to need a mature and resilient civil society to be part of a functioning democracy."

In his conference speech, Mr Shanmugam said when referencing New Naratif: "Everyone is entitled to their views, however reasonable or unreasonable. My primary point is that - is it right for foreign funding to be received in order to advance these viewpoints?"

He noted that some online news sites tap anonymous contributors, leaving them open to being used as tools by foreign interests to publish inflammatory articles that deepen divisions in a country. "They have no interest in sociopolitical stability within a country," he said. "Their only interest is in eyeballs."






Conference on Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures

Experts look at measures to fend off foreign interference
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 26 Sep 2019

Small states cannot fend off foreign interference alone as it "takes a network to defeat a network", an expert said yesterday at the Conference on Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures.

In the same way that investors carry out public-private partnerships, governments need to enlist the support of other individuals and non-governmental organisations, Mr Jakub Janda, director of the European Values Centre for Security Policy, said during a panel discussion.

He outlined four steps governments can take to defend themselves: Document and increase understanding of the threat, mobilise self-defence through ambassador-level envoys and strengthen civil society, build resilience by regulating technology giants and funding digital and media literacy programmes in schools, and deter and punish by using sanctions and expulsions.

One example he gave was that of Australia's foreign interference laws passed last year. They make it a criminal offence to interfere in elections, provide intelligence to foreign governments and even steal trade secrets.

His fellow panellist, Associate Professor Taylor Owen of Canada's McGill University, said the bigger threat to national security is not the law-breaking behaviour of people, but the vulnerabilities in a country's information infrastructure, which is often outsourced to private organisations.

"This has left us open to manipulation," he said, citing fake activist campaigns and exploiting social divisions as some of the tools used by foreign organisations to create public confusion and anger.

To address this, the Canadian government passed the Elections Modernisation Act last year. It requires platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to maintain a registry of political and issue advertising during the election period.

Canadian universities have also been monitoring the media ecosystem and surveying voter behaviour towards Web content, he said.

"It is important to look at the nature of information itself - how do people come to know things during an election, and how are those things vulnerable to interference?"

But people's views on the right policy response can be hard to change. "We can correct people's belief on the existence of climate change, but it is much harder to convince them of the need for carbon tax," said Prof Owen.

This is worsened by the use of private online spaces such as encrypted messaging platforms. "The mood of much of the debate in private spaces... is a really wicked problem for receiving information, good or bad, during an election."





More collaboration needed to fight digital threats: Panel
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 26 Sep 2019

Social media giant Twitter has banned 1.5 million accounts linked to terrorists since 2015, its senior director of public policy in Asia-Pacific Kathleen Reen said yesterday.

The lessons learnt since have helped it to successfully drive those "bad actors" away from its platform, she added.

Similarly, Facebook's cyber security policy lead Saleela Khanum Salahuddin said its response to information or influence operations improves each time it disrupts an instance of foreign interference.

Its success makes it harder for the operatives to engage in the same tactics of foreign influence, she added.

But both were quick to add that they cannot combat digital threats and misinformation alone.

They were part of a four-person panel speaking about defending the online space from foreign interference at a conference organised by the Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The panel also included Ms Renee DiResta, technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, and Mr Fergus Hanson, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's International Cyber Policy Centre.

All four said that governments, private companies and civil society need to collaborate more to counter foreign interference.

"One of the things we seek to encourage is legitimate, authoritative voices being more active on public platforms," said Ms Reen. "We often see governments that are very concerned about these issues but somewhat reticent to join in these conversations."

Facebook's Ms Salahuddin agreed, adding that collaboration is "the only way to get ahead".

She said there has been a growing trend of "information operations for hire" in recent years, especially in Asia. Facebook received a tip-off about one such operation in an Asia-Pacific country from a political candidate who was running for office.

"He came to us and said he was approached by a digital marketing firm that offered to build up fake online engagement for him," said Ms Salahuddin. "It was because of that tip that we were able to identify, investigate and disrupt an information-operations-for-hire project."

Ms DiResta said one approach to curtailing an information operation is to define and understand its phases. These include: conception and coordination, content creation, dissemination campaigns involving the infiltration of legitimate communities, and "crossing the chasm" to mainstream media.

Ms DiResta added that understanding this can be helpful in identifying where to intercede and disrupt an operation earlier as most are discovered only when they start to trend online.

"That is way too late for us to be thinking about defending the cognitive space. We need to be thinking about how we can move up this value chain and intercede at the creation or the community infiltration phases."

Mr Hanson said democratic governments should consider publicly funding political campaigns and cyber defences for political parties to protect them from financial influence and cyber attacks.

In some countries such as Norway, political parties are publicly funded. Last year, 76.2 per cent of all funding for Norwegian political parties came from government grants, according to Norway's statistics bureau.





Facebook rolls out measures to boost advertising transparency ahead of Singapore's general election
Advertisers must confirm their identity and say who is behind ads, among other measures
By Malavika Menon, The Straits Times, 27 Sep 2019

Socio-political advertising on Facebook and Instagram will face greater scrutiny as Singapore heads towards a general election.

This follows Facebook's announcement yesterday of measures to bring greater transparency to its platforms here.

The social media giant's measures will take effect immediately, with advertisers being required to confirm their identity and location, and disclose who is responsible for the advertisements.

The authorisation process will cover advertisers who run ads on issues such as civil and social rights, immigration, crime, political values and governance.

Facebook had first put in place the requirements in June, starting with more than 50 countries. It had said then: "We are expanding proactive enforcement on these ads to countries where elections or regulations are approaching, starting with Ukraine, Singapore, Canada and Argentina."

Facebook's latest move comes after Singapore's Elections Department's announcement on Sept 4 that the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee was convened last month. The next general election has to be held by April 2021.



Singapore's Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which was passed in May but is not in force yet, includes a provision on political advertising.

Under the law, technology companies will be subject to a code of practice which may require digital advertising intermediaries to disclose the sponsor and other information linked to paid political ads communicated in Singapore.

Yesterday's announcement by Facebook comes on the heels of Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam's speech on Wednesday on why Singapore needs laws to counter foreign attempts to influence its domestic politics and public opinion. The minister, who was speaking at a conference on foreign interference tactics, cited cases of foreign meddling in Singapore and other countries, like in the United States' 2016 presidential election.

He said the Government wants to work with technology companies as partners to address the problem.

Facebook's public policy director for global elections, Ms Katie Harbath, said the advertisement transparency tools rolled out by her company will enable advertisers to get authorised, place "paid for by" disclaimers on their ads and keep their ads in an ad library for seven years.

"Starting today, we are making this a requirement in Singapore and will begin proactively enforcing our policy on ads about social issues, elections and politics," she added.

Elaborating, Facebook said an advertiser can select itself, a page it runs or its organisation to appear in the "paid for by" disclaimer. It also has to give extra information such as a phone number, e-mail or website if it chooses to use its organisation or page name in the disclaimer.

"Authorisations may take a few weeks to complete," she added.

Once authorised, advertisers will have their ads placed in an ad library for seven years, including their disclaimer information.

The ad library would include information about each ad, including its range of impressions. People can also learn about the ad's demographic information, such as the age, gender and location of those who saw the ad. Facebook will also launch an ad library report in the next few weeks to give less tech-savvy people information about ads on social issues, elections or politics.

Acknowledging Facebook's potential to give people a voice regardless of their age or political beliefs, Ms Harbath said: "We will continue to refine and improve our policies and tools as part of our commitment to help protect the integrity of elections in Singapore and around the world."

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said the initiatives would add a much-needed dose of transparency and accountability to political advertising on Facebook. While political advertising is not yet a key feature of socio-political discourse in Singapore, its potential to shape public opinion and influence public discourse is real and could be powerful, said the former Nominated MP.

"As advertisers on Facebook now cannot remain anonymous, advertisers can be held accountable, legally and politically, for the political speech and positions they are taking. In this regard, it can help to reduce blatant falsehoods," he said.

But in a sophisticated operation, a foreign entity can place political ads through proxies and third parties, he added. "There will be the need for legislation to require political advertisers to be Singaporeans or Singapore-based entities."

Mr Shanmugam has said that technology companies cannot be relied on to self-regulate and counter hostile information campaigns online.

When contacted, a People's Action Party spokesman said it will comply with Facebook's new requirements which, it added, would not impact its use of the platform.

The Singapore Democratic Party said it posts only material by its members, so the new rules will not affect it. But the wait for an ad to be approved will hamper its electoral campaign, it added.

The Progress Singapore Party said: "This aligns well with the PSP agenda for political institutions and their affiliates to deliver better transparency, accountability and independence. We at the PSP believe Singapore politics is for Singaporeans."

Additional reporting by Fabian Koh





Foreign meddling - why new laws are needed against an ancient threat: Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam
The Straits Times, 27 Sep 2019

The threat is age-old but the Internet has turbo-charged states' abilities to undermine others. Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam highlights the dangers in a speech on Wednesday at a conference on foreign interference tactics and countermeasures organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Here are edited excerpts of his address:

What is foreign interference? What are the methods, what is happening now?

Essentially, foreign interference is when a country, external agencies or people try to shape the behaviour, actions and policies of a target country.

This sort of foreign interference is age-old, and it is a basic principle of international relations.

We can find examples in China for many of these things. During the Warring States Period, we have the State of Yan. It was led by the brilliant General Yue Yi and he conquered most of the state of Qi by 284BC. King Zhao of Yan died five years later in 279BC. The opposing general saw an opportunity - that maybe he could bribe Yan officials and pass on the rumour that General Yue Yi was plotting to take over the Kingdom of Qi - to create discord between the newly installed King and his most effective general. Creating suspicion worked. General Yue Yi was dismissed and was forced to flee. Yan's forces were weakened and they were eventually driven away.

And we move over to the superpower around the 2nd century BC - Rome.

If we look at Rome and Greece in those times, Greek politicians were constantly quarrelling. They began to appeal to Roman politicians and authorities, to gain in both intra-polis conflicts and inter-polis conflicts. To court favour with the superpower Rome, some Achaean politicians also started to undermine the Achaean League's unity. They lobbied Roman senators to intervene in Greek affairs and prop up pro-Roman collaborators in Greek states, 2,000 plus years ago. When Sparta wanted to secede from the Achaean League, pro-Roman embassies appealed to Rome to intervene. Over time, the independence of the Greeks was diluted. Rome was, of course, very happy to do all of these. The collective resolve of the Greeks weakened. This eventually led to the conquest of Greece.



Active interference in another country's affairs is a given in international relations. Collaborators within a country, working with foreign interests, is also a given, knowingly as well as unknowingly. And if you look at methods of such interference, it has taken a variety of forms.

To start with, at the highest level, we have diplomatic channels. Often legitimate because you use diplomacy to bring across viewpoints and persuade other countries. But, of course, these channels can also be used to subvert and interfere with other states. And frankly, there are no angels in this business. So let's drop the hypocrisy. Many big countries do this to smaller countries and to one another. We have been the subject of such favours from China, from Russia, from the United States and the UK. Second, using covert agents of influence, under the control of intelligence agencies. You have recent reports from Australia and New Zealand. From Australia, there have been reports of attempts to fund a senator and control him.

Ourselves, just two years ago, we expelled Dr Huang Jing, an agent of influence. He was a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and was in contact with foreign intelligence organisations and agents. He used his position at the school to engage prominent and influential Singaporeans. He told them he had "privileged information". He tried to influence senior public officials. He tried to change and manage Singapore's foreign policy. He also recruited others to help him.

Third, is the media. A key node through which foreign states can exert influence over domestic public opinion and in some cases, through the secret funding and control of publications. In other cases, having agents use the cover of journalists themselves.

In the 1970s in Singapore, we had two such operations involving our newspapers, The Eastern Sun and The Singapore Herald. The Eastern Sun worked with a news agency of communist China and received funding from them. The Singapore Herald took money from foreign sources - a Malaysian politician. It pushed an anti-government line and was also stridently against national service, which was a key pillar in defending Singapore. The Singapore Herald continuously ran articles against national service.

More recently, we have received reports again from Australia and New Zealand of newspapers which receive money from overseas and push foreign countries' viewpoints.

Another way of doing this, non-governmental organisations (NGOs). States have been known to target cause-based movements in other states. But the whole concept has been, in a sense, turbo-charged and revolutionised because the Internet has opened up limitless possibilities to advance these interests.

THE GERASIMOV DOCTRINE

There is a military doctrine developed for the Internet age - it is called the Gerasimov Doctrine, named after the Russian military Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. He has said the "Rules of War" have been redefined, like using non-kinetic military measures such as hostile information campaigns (HICs). What they can do is identify what they call the "protest potential" of any population of a target country, then create protests, deepen divisions and increase hostility among the different groups, and get them to distrust institutions. In that country, trust in institutions and systems gets damaged, and the people lose faith in democracy as a whole.

The Gerasimov Doctrine states that these non-kinetic measures, done through the Internet, can in many cases exceed the power of force and weapons. And you don't need conventional warfare. You exploit the protest potential, keep the population in the country in a constant state of turmoil and ineffectiveness, and degrade their ability to deal with it - including their own economic issues or external threats. That is how you bring down a country.

Wars no longer need to be declared because the internal opposition is created as a "permanently operating front" in the target country. The fault lines are also exploited by bad actors, both internal and external, on hot-button issues. They tap legitimate sentiments, they target reasonable people. They use legitimate news outlets as conduits. They convert disinformation into mainstream information, they enlist what Lenin famously called "useful idiots" to the cause.

The Internet has made HICs cheap, easy and effective to mount. There is a growing commercial industry which supports all of this. Last year, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods was given some of the going rates for tools and services: You want one million Instagram likes - only US$18 (S$25). You want 100 Twitter followers, likes or retweets - 34 US cents. You want 100 YouTube subscribers - 66 US cents. You want to use online propaganda to instigate a street protest in the US - US$200,000. You can do it.

Princeton University did a count of large-scale online "foreign influence efforts" from 2013 to 2018. They found 53 distinct instances, targeting 24 different countries.

The combination of these online HICs and the offline activities - foreign-controlled media/sites, agents of influence, NGOs, groups of citizens who fan the flames, knowingly and unknowingly - all of this combined is extremely toxic, extremely powerful.

If you look at Brexit - surveys by King's College London suggested that 40 per cent of Britons still believe Britain sends £350 million (S$597 million) a week to the European Union. Nearly a third still believe that areas of Britain are controlled by syariah law, and there are no-go areas for non-Muslims. And these people overwhelmingly voted for Brexit, and there was a marginal victory for Brexit, about 4 per cent.

NEW NARATIF AND TOC

All of that hasn't happened in its full glory in Singapore, but it can. Some of it has already happened. And we also see some nascent attempts to combine the different approaches. I will give you one example.

A group of activists met Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad last year.

Historian Thum Ping Tjin urged him to bring democracy to Singapore; among other countries. Dr Thum also said Singapore should become part of Malaysia and celebrate Independence on Sept 16, Malaysia Day. Dr Thum and his partner Kirsten Han, who also met Tun Dr Mahathir, set up an organisation called New Naratif, which is significantly funded by a foreign foundation and has received other foreign contributions as well.

Ms Han, on video, has said Singapore has failed compared with Hong Kong because 500,000 people don't go out on the streets to march, unlike Hong Kong. She wants to change that, through classes run by New Naratif.

This will seem ridiculous on so many levels, but we can leave that aside because everyone is entitled to their views, however reasonable or unreasonable. My primary point is that is it right for foreign funding to be received in order to advance these viewpoints? That's the question that should be posed.

There is The Online Citizen (TOC), an online news site which targets Singaporeans. TOC uses foreigners, including Malaysians, and employs them to write almost exclusively negative articles on Singapore's social and political matters, including inflammatory articles that seek to fracture social cohesion.

They supported a call for Singapore civil servants to follow the example of Hong Kong civil servants in protesting. They made allegations about Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, which has led to a civil suit by PM Lee, and falsely attacked his character and fitness to hold office. These two articles are by a Malaysian who, based on publicly available information, is said to be in Shah Alam, near Kuala Lumpur. I am not commenting on the legal merits of the article since it is the subject of a lawsuit. Only that a foreigner, living in Malaysia, wrote these things for a Singapore site, to target a Singapore audience. Telling Singapore civil servants to protest and calling into question the Prime Minister's integrity. She has written many other articles to try and influence viewpoints within Singapore. Who controls her? Who pays her? What is her purpose? These are all legitimate questions. Appearing on the Internet, on TOC, most readers would just assume that this was by a genuine Singaporean contributor.

There are many other Malaysian writers as well on TOC. It is said that for TOC, out of 14 administrators, only five are located in Singapore. Nine are outside. Four in Malaysia and two in Indonesia. We don't know who they are. Are they Singaporeans? Are they foreigners?

There is a grey area here. For responsible media, both Singaporean and those employing foreigners, there would be the assumption that they will have some ethics. Of course that can be exploited, but they are subject to a framework. In every country, there is a framework for how media behaves.

For online news sites, there are anonymous writers where no one knows who they are. Their motivations and who is paying them is unknown. For all you know, they could be foreigners, as we see in the case of TOC.

Writing inflammatory stuff and having no interest in social and political stability within the country. Their only interest is to get eyeballs and if they are under the influence of other agencies, they can easily be used as tools for foreign interests. Such sites have been used by foreign countries to attack and deepen divisions.

THE RESPONSES

Some, in particular tech companies, suggest self-regulation.

The question is, can tech companies be left to self-regulate in the absence of legislation? I think the clear answer is no.

Part of the issue is that their business model militates against proper self-regulation. The more users, the more content there is on their platforms, the more user attention they can sell to advertisers, the more their profits.

Removing fake users, removing fake accounts, investigating coordinated inauthentic behaviour - these are all costly. The tech companies are in a position of conflict where their business interests often conflict with what needs to be done in the broader society's interests.

Within countries, there will be laws that deal with how, in specific industries, conflicts of interest ought to be resolved. It cannot be any different for tech companies. There is no difference in principle as to why they should be different.

We, as a Government, would like to work with the tech companies. Tech companies are our partners, they are not our opponents. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg himself has said in March that regulation is necessary, and that this is beyond the tech companies. But he also says there needs to be global standards agreed to by all the countries for such legislation.

Would you expect the US, Russia and China, for a start, to agree on common standards for what is not acceptable? And what the common standards ought to be? Suggestions that there can be legislation are welcome, but suggestions that such legislation should be based on universal common standards, I think, are not very practical. The different social, political and cultural contexts in each country will make a broad international agreement nearly impossible.

The state cannot take a hands-off approach. I think it is useful to look at what some countries have done.

France has introduced an Information Manipulation Law. The law mandates transparency over social media platforms' algorithms and election advertising. It allows the French national broadcasting agency to suspend television channels "controlled by a foreign state or under the influence" of that state if they deliberately disseminate false information likely to affect the integrity of elections.

In Germany, you have the Network Enforcement Act. It compels social networks to monitor and remove illegal online content. And I quote, "obviously illegal" hate speech and other postings must be removed within 24 hours of receiving a notification, or the platforms may face fines.

Australia passed a package of new laws very quickly last year, which were aimed at preventing foreign interference. It includes restrictions on foreigners making political donations, stronger espionage laws, tougher penalties, and a requirement that agents or lobbyists who represent foreign nations or entities must register their interests.

Israel has put in transparency requirements for NGOs receiving more than half of their funding from foreign state sources.

We put in legislation - the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act that deals with falsehoods. That's a framework for encouraging discussion based on facts. It allows corrections to be carried, requires corrections to be carried, if there are falsehoods which affect public interest. But it doesn't deal with HICs.

It wasn't intended to deal with HICs because well-done HICs don't just depend on falsehoods - it would be an entire apparatus targeting a target country using a mixture of falsehoods.

HOW TO TACKLE DIVERSE THREATS

I have said separately that we will put in legislation to deal with HICs, and I think we need to do that. If you look at what powers would be necessary to counter foreign interference, which includes HICs, it will have to give the Government powers to make targeted, surgical interventions to investigate and respond expeditiously to HICs.

Which also means getting the information so that we are able to investigate the provenance of content to see whether and to what extent it is foreign interference, and to have the appropriate response.

France's law targets falsehoods during elections. But HICs use a range of content, not just falsehoods, and it's not usually restricted to just election periods.

HICs, as the Gerasimov Doctrine makes clear, is where you constantly keep the other society off balance by increasing and exploiting the "protest potential".

So the legislation needs to be able to deal with this diverse range of threats, including the flow of funds. And we may also need to consider how we restrict foreign participation in the leadership of specific organisations, and say Singaporeans are fine, but to what extent should foreigners be there? They are closely involved in our political landscape.

I would like to leave you two thoughts: First, foreign interference is an age-old threat, which has adapted to modern technology, and states must be able to deal with these threats. Second, this is an issue of sovereignty and national security. The Government has to lead from the front, and we need to ensure we have the right tools to fight this threat.


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