The Straits Times says

When meddling becomes interference

In some ways, Mr Sam Dastyari exemplified the best of Australia. The son of emigres from Iran, he had risen to be Senator from New South Wales (NSW) and is a former general secretary of the NSW branch of the Labor Party. In other ways, he is emblematic of an increasing worry Down Under: the pernicious trend of influential Australians being lured by the lucre thrown at them by interests thought to be linked to alien governments. Accused by opponents of taking money from a Chinese businessman to pay his legal bills, going over to his house and advising him to leave the phone inside while they stepped out for a chat, as well trying to bend Labor's position on the South China Sea, his career has ended.

This month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told Parliament that foreign intelligence services were involved in covert influence and interference on an "unprecedented" scale. He listed the political system, commercial interests and expatriate communities as areas targeted by these agencies as he proposed legislation that bans foreign political donations and will force lobbyists to reveal their overseas clients. Those sentiments are being echoed elsewhere; from New Zealand to the United States. The latter nation is fixated on observing a special prosecutor tightening the noose on people close to President Donald Trump who are thought to have been influenced by Russia, a circle that could include Mr Trump.

No country is immune from such tactics and the greater its weight in the geostrategic sphere, the higher the chances that its politics and policies will be targeted. A recent meeting of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance between Canada, the US, Britain, New Zealand and Australia raised specific concerns over Chinese actions. An analysis by Melbourne Law School's Dollars and Democracy Database found that, between 2000 and 2016, about 80 per cent of foreign political donations to Australia's parties came from China. Meanwhile, Russia seems to rely a lot on information warfare. By some counts, 126 million Americans may have seen Russian propaganda posts on Facebook meant to influence the 2016 election. Ukraine has long complained of being victim to Moscow's "hybrid" warfare, which includes disinformation.

Singapore should not think it is immune. From the short videos distributed on Whatsapp to firewalling various ethnic communities from foreign influence, a weather eye is required to ensure that foreign influences are kept at arm's length. National politics is only for nationals. Money and, even more dangerously, ethnicity must not be allowed as vehicles for one nation to influence the affairs of another. But it also is incumbent on politicians, bureaucrats, academics, and yes, journalists - anyone in a position of influence - to be especially watchful that they are, wittingly or otherwise, not suborned by an external power.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2017, with the headline 'When meddling becomes interference'. Print Edition | Subscribe