Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Govts must lead fight against foreign interference, cannot rely on tech firms: Shanmugam

By Kenneth Cheng

Singapore wants to work with technology companies to fight foreign influence in national affairs, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said on Wednesday (Sept 25).

25 September, 2019

SINGAPORE — Governments must lead the fight against foreign interference in national affairs and cannot look to technology companies to solve the problem, Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Wednesday (Sept 25).

“Governments have to lead from the front and we need to ensure we have the right tools to fight this,” Mr Shanmugam, who is also Law Minister, said at a conference on foreign-interference tactics and countermeasures.

Mr Shanmugam, who stressed the need for laws to tackle the issue, said technology companies cannot be left to self-regulate in the absence of legislation.

“The responses (from technology companies) have been varied so far to the challenges that have come out, from denial that there are problems to taking some reasonably effective steps,” Mr Shanmugam told more than 200 people at the Parkroyal hotel on Beach Road.

The audience at the conference, organised by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, included academics, public servants, and representatives from civil society and the business world.


The business model of technology companies, which include social networks such as Facebook, “militates” against proper self-regulation, the minister said.

Higher profits are derived from having more users, content on their platforms and user attention that they can sell to advertisers, Mr Shanmugam said.

“Removing fake users, removing fake accounts, investigating into co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour — these are all costly. Tech companies are in a position of conflict, where their business interests often conflict with what needs to be done in broader society’s interests,” he said.

Therefore, the Government here does not accept that those mired in such conflicts should decide for themselves the remedies or framework to deal with foreign interference.

Mr Shanmugam said that within countries, there will be laws that deal with how conflict of interest ought to be resolved in specific industries.

“It cannot be any different for technology companies.”

Singapore, nevertheless, would like to work with technology companies, which are partners and not opponents, he said.

The minister noted that Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg had said in March that more regulations were necessary, but there was a need for global standards agreed by countries.

Mr Shanmugam believed that the different social, political and cultural contexts of each country will make broad international agreement “nearly impossible”.

“Do you expect the United States, Russia, China, for a start to… agree on common standards on what’s not acceptable, and what the common standards ought to be?” asked the minister.

While he said the suggestion that there could be laws was welcome, it is not very practical to propose that such legislation be based on universal standards.


Mr Shanmugam described foreign interference as a matter of sovereignty and national security.

In this vein, every country has the sovereign right to decide how it should protect its national security, Mr Shanmugam said.

“The Government with the consent of the people will have to decide. Commercial companies cannot tell us what to do about this. They have to work within the framework of the law,” he said.


In his 45-minute speech, Mr Shanmugam made the point that foreign interference was an “age-old” practice that dates back thousands of years — glimpsed in China as early as 300 BC and the Roman expansion in Greece in the second century BC — and is a basic principle of international relations.

In the present day, Mr Shanmugam noted that just last week, Hong Kong democracy activists had appeared before United States lawmakers urging them to intervene in the city’s affairs.

While foreign interference has a long history, the concept has now been “turbocharged” because the Internet has opened up almost limitless possibilities to advance such interests.

It has made hostile information campaigns not only cheap, but easy and effective to mount, with an expanding commercial industry supporting those who want to spread content far and wide.

Some of these attempts, noted Mr Shanmugam, have been targeted squarely at influencing the outcome of elections or national referenda, including the 2016 US presidential vote.

Singapore’s next general election is due by April 2021.

Ultimately, Mr Shanmugam said that governments must have the right tools to deal with foreign interference.

International co-operation will be needed as well.

“But I’m not holding my breath that… proper international co-operation with acceptable standards would materialise very quickly, but we hope that it would come through at some point in time.”

[Related story]

Shanmugam warns of foreign interference in Singapore, questions agenda, funding of The Online Citizen

By Aqil Haziq Mahmud

25 Sep 2019 

SINGAPORE: There have been “nascent attempts” to combine online and offline approaches of foreign interference in Singapore, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Wednesday (Sep 25).

One example, he said, was when Singapore political activists like Kirsten Han and Thum Ping Tjin met Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in August last year and urged him to bring democracy to Singapore and other countries.

The activists have also paired up with online news site The Online Citizen (TOC), Mr Shanmugam said, adding that the site employs foreigners including Malaysians to write “almost exclusively negative” articles on Singaporean social and political matters.

The minister was speaking at a conference on foreign interference, labelling attempts by one country to shape the actions and policies of another country as an “age-old” principle of international relations.

Offline forms of foreign interference, he said, include using diplomatic channels, agents of influence, the media, non-governmental organisations and cause-based movements.

However, Mr Shanmugam said foreign interference has adapted to modern technology, stressing that the Internet has made hostile information campaigns cheap, easy and effective, and that states must be able to tackle them as issues of sovereignty and national security.
In the conference titled Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures organised by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), he reiterated that Singapore needed laws to deal with hostile information campaigns that might be orchestrated by foreign sources, stating that technology companies like Facebook cannot self-regulate due to conflicts of interest in their business model.


This comes as some countries have been hit by an “extremely toxic, extremely powerful” combination of online and offline foreign interference, Mr Shanmugam said.

In Singapore’s case, Mr Shanmugam said Dr Thum and Ms Han had set up the New Naratif website, which he said is funded by a foreign foundation and has received other foreign contributions.
“Ms Han on video has said that Singapore has failed to compare with Hong Kong because 500,000 people don’t go on the streets to march,” he said, pointing out that Ms Han wants to change this through classes run by New Naratif.

“My primary point is: Is it right for foreign funding to be received in order to advance these viewpoints?” Mr Shanmugam added.

This is coupled with articles on TOC, some of which supported a call for Singaporean civil servants to follow Hong Kong’s protests and made allegations against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The latter article is the subject of a civil suit by Mr Lee.

Mr Shanmugam noted that a Malaysian woman named Rubaashini Shunmuganathan had written these two articles, pointing out that most readers would assume they were written by a genuine Singaporean contributor.

“I’m not commenting on the legal merits of the article since it’s the subject of a lawsuit. Only that a foreigner staying in Malaysia … has written many other articles to try and influence viewpoints in Singapore,” he said.

“Who controls her? Who pays her? What’s her purpose? These are all legitimate questions.”

Nevertheless, Mr Shanmugam said online news sites featuring anonymous writers could be found across the world, highlighting that they have been used by foreign countries to “attack and deepen divisions”.

“For all you know, (the writers) can be foreigners – as we see in the case of TOC – writing inflammatory stuff and have got no interest in social or political stability within the country,” he added.

“Their only interest is to get eyeballs, and perhaps if they are under the influence of other agencies, then there are other interests as well. It can easily be used as tools for foreign interests.”


Mr Shamugam proceeded to reiterate the need for legislation in Singapore, pointing out that each country has a “sovereign right” to decide how to protect its national security interests.

These laws will be designed to counter foreign interference by allowing the Government to investigate and respond quickly to hostile information campaigns, including finding out the “provenance of content” and if or how much of it is foreign influenced.

“It will have to give the Government powers to make targeted, surgical interventions,” Mr Shanmugam said.

Other countries have passed similar laws, he said, highlighting how Germany’s Network Enforcement Act gives it powers to compel social networks to remove “obviously illegal” hate speech within 24 hours of receiving a notification or face fines.

“States cannot take a hands-off approach,” Mr Shanmugam said.

“The serious impact of hostile information campaigns on the social fabric, political sovereignty, peace, stability and national security has to be met head on. And it has to be met head on by states working with tech companies as partners.”

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