SINGAPORE: Legislative “leverage” may be needed to make Singapore better able to respond to hostile information campaigns as part of efforts to protect against foreign interference in state politics.
These levers will allow the government to obtain the necessary information to investigate hostile information campaigns to determine whether they are of foreign origin or artificial, another interior minister, Josephine Teo, said on Monday (March 1st).
Authorities would also allow the authorities to “break the virality” of such campaigns if they find that they are being carried out by foreign actors to undermine Singapore’s politics, and are carrying out counter-messages to alert people in Singapore to these campaigns.
She added that the government is examining the approaches of other countries to such campaigns.
READ: Comment: What’s next when the government focuses on external influence in Singapore goes beyond misinformation
“Singapore needs to be open to the world to make a living. But our diversity and openness also represent opportunities for foreign actors, ”Teo said during a discussion by the Home Affairs Committee of the Ministry of the Interior (MHA).
In the 1970s, Singapore was the target of two interference operations involving The Eastern Sun and the Singapore Herald, she pointed out. These newspapers received funding from foreign sources and in return published articles that “tried to undermine our emerging state-building efforts”.
When Singapore faced bilateral issues with “our immediate neighbor” in 2018 and 2019, there was a “curious spike” in online comments criticizing Singapore, she said.
“Many of these comments came from anonymous accounts that tried to give Singapore an artificial impression that there were important and fundamental objections to Singapore’s position,” she said.
Ms Teo found that the Australian Institute for Strategic Policy had shown that cases of cyber interference by foreigners in elections around the world had increased from seven between 2011 and 2015 to 41 between 2016 and 2020. They also reported from Australia, Canada and New Zealand has shown that foreign forces and their agents have sought to influence the policies of these countries by buying out political parties and individual politicians.
“At the same time, social media platforms have not addressed these threats and are of little interest to them,” Ms. Teo said.
“Political observers in the U.S., for example, have attributed the attack on the U.S. Capitol to the failure of social media platforms to take timely and decisive action against misinformation about the election, and call for violent resistance.
READ: Shanmugam draws attention to foreign interference in Singapore; issues, online citizen funding
“Fortunately for us, last year’s parliamentary elections were peaceful. However, given what is happening in other countries, there are reasons for stronger preventive measures. “
Many countries have taken steps to mitigate this risk, for example by introducing legislation to eliminate threats of foreign interference in their domestic policies, Ms Teo said.
“For example, Australia has required those carrying out activities on behalf of foreign principals to disclose information publicly to prevent covert attempts at influence,” she added.
“To deal with the threat of foreign interference in our domestic politics, we must first develop the ability of Singaporeans to perceive legitimate and artificial online discourse and respond appropriately.
“However, as interventional operations are increasingly sophisticated and well disguised, it is not enough to have a judicious public.”
In the light of the recent experience of other countries, further measures to protect against “foreign subversions of politically important individuals and entities” should also be considered, Ms Teo said.
“For example, what level of funding, support and leadership transparency is appropriate for whom?” she added.
“The public has a big role to play in formulating proposals and possible safeguards, which they strongly support. Only in this way can bad foreign actors be effectively deterred from exploiting our vulnerabilities. “
In February 2019, Edwin Tong, who was then senior state attorney general, said the government would consider updating the legal framework to respond to threats of foreign interference and an information campaign.
Mr Tong said there were signs that Singapore was targeting information campaigns. Testimonies at meetings of the Selected Committee for Deliberate Online Lies highlighted the use of news and social media to influence segments of Singapore’s population.
READ: The government will examine legislation against alien interference: Edwin Tong
HARMFUL CONTENT AND TERRORISM
Alien interference was identified by Ms Teo as one of the “key challenges and emerging threats” to which the MHA pays special attention, and the other two are terrorism and harmful online content.
“Some platforms are trying to deal with harmful content. But not every platform puts the interests of society first. This is to be expected – the platforms are driven by their own values and commercial interests, ”she said, adding that many countries saw the need for regulation.
Germany, for example, has passed legislation requiring platforms to respond to user complaints about illegal content, she said.
“Many technology companies have recognized the need for regulations, even if they disagree with governments on‘ how, ’” Ms. Teo said.
“We work with MCI (Ministry of Communications and Information) to study experiences and regulatory models in other countries and explore our options. This may include new regulatory levers that allow us to deal effectively with severe online damage. “
READ: Comment: Redpilling, rabbit holes and how far-right ideology is spreading online
Terrorism remains a “serious threat,” the minister said, adding that terrorists “only have to break through once to cause us serious harm.”
Singapore has established close working relationships with foreign security agencies to share intelligence and disrupt complications, while encouraging members of the public to report suspicious activities or individuals.
“The best way to neutralize their (terrorist) threat is to rehabilitate and reintegrate into society,” Ms. Teo said.
“Over the years, we have perfected our approach based on our own experience, learning from international best practices and in response to the changing profile of detainees. We have achieved good results and will continue to improve our approach to rehabilitation. “
READ: ISD adapts approach to rehabilitation when more young people are committed to a terrorist ideology
MAINTAINING PUBLIC TRUST
Ms. Teo said the home team will continue to advocate “the highest level of integrity and behavior” among its officers.
“Where there are allegations of improper performance of home team staff duties, we will investigate thoroughly,” she said.
“If the allegations are substantiated, decisive action is taken against the police officers. Where we have slipped as an organization, we have unreservedly acknowledged and tightened this. “
She said some have sought to “delegitimize our police and other law enforcement agencies” by spreading false accusations on social media.
“These irresponsible posts on social media seek to weaken public confidence in the home team and weaken our ability to maintain public order and peace. For responsibility, we need the help of the public and refrain from spreading false accusations and misinformation, “said Ms Teo.
Meanwhile, the MHA is also improving its processes to better serve the public.
Ms Teo noted that the video recording of police interviews (VRIs), which was introduced in 2018 and was initially used only to investigate rape crimes, was gradually being extended to crimes such as child abuse.
“The SAI requires significant investment in technology, infrastructure and most importantly from all training. We will gradually expand the types of crimes covered by the SAI, ”she said, noting the“ budgetary constraints ”as progress has been made in this area.
Police are currently providing foreign language interpreter services, including Baha’i Indonesia, Tagalog and Bengali.
Ms. Teo added that if the police need interpretation, the police hire an interpreter and record the statement only if an interpreter is available.
Ms Teo emphasized that the security and protection of Singapore was becoming increasingly demanding.
“We have done quite well and will invest more resources to deal with new threats. We will continue to do what is necessary to support the trust of Singaporeans with our skills, integrity and impartiality, ”she added.
“We will need strong support and help from Singaporeans and we need to be able to count on that.”