Think-tanks 'may disagree with Govt but not under a foreign state's influence'

Mr K. Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, speaks at the 2017 Asia Economic Forum held at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on Aug 28, 2017.
Mr K. Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, speaks at the 2017 Asia Economic Forum held at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on Aug 28, 2017. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Think-tanks may sometimes disagree with the Government, but they must not do so under the influence of a foreign country, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

While such institutions play an important role - to explore issues civil servants may not be able to - they must maintain an independent stance.

"Objectivity is critical," he said at a forum at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

His remarks came shortly after an academic was rapped for working with a foreign government to influence Singapore's foreign policy.

Dr Huang Jing, 60, who was from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, had his permanent residency cancelled this month after the Home Affairs Ministry labelled him "an agent of a foreign country".

While Mr Shanmugam did not refer to a specific case, he said it is unacceptable for academics to be "suborned" and to project the views of a foreign country "under the guise of objectivity and academic freedom", with a hidden agenda of influencing Singapore's policies.

He said academics do so either because they are "working with foreign intelligence" or because they are "seduced by them".

He was responding to a question about the role of think-tanks and businessmen in foreign relations.

Mr Shanmugam said the late deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee set up think-tanks here to provide fresh perspectives and to prevent groupthink.

Dr Goh envisioned think-tanks challenging the Government's views at times and being knowledgeable, objective and clear.

"Dr Goh would certainly turn in his grave if he thinks that the think-tanks he set up or was responsible for have become instruments of influence for other countries," he said.

He added that think-tanks could challenge the Government - not "for the sake of challenging", but "where (the Government) needs to be challenged". Academics ought to be "real scholars and... put forward scholarly viewpoints, but practical ones, that help the country".

Turning to businessmen, he said they play a key role in expanding Singapore's gross national product and in building good economic relations with other countries, which helps Singapore's foreign relations.

But both businessmen and the Government should "understand where the line is drawn".

"Sometimes, the Government cannot take the advice of businessmen... because businessmen will carry a business perspective, but the Government has to take a larger, countrywide perspective as a sovereign state," he said.

Elgin Toh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2017, with the headline 'Think-tanks 'may disagree with Govt but not under a foreign state's influence''. Print Edition | Subscribe