Singapore and Australia push for global effort to combat extremism online

(From left) Australian Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham, Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Australian Minister for Defence Christopher Pyne and Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing at the Singapore-Australia Joint Ministerial Committee Meeting in Sydney on March 29, 2019. PHOTO: MINDEF

SYDNEY - Singapore and Australia on Friday (March 29) agreed to cooperate on combating violent extremism and ensuring that technology firms prevent the spread of hate speech and intolerance in the wake of the Christchurch mass shooting.

Following a meeting in Sydney of their ministers for foreign affairs, defence and trade, the two countries said they had directed officials to prevent Internet technologies being exploited for terrorist purposes.

"In the shadow of this horrific attack, the Ministers reaffirmed their shared commitment to inclusion and diversity," said a joint statement after the meeting which coincided with a national remembrance service in New Zealand for the 50 people killed in the attack by a white supremacist at two mosques in Christchurch on March 15.

At a press conference after the meeting, Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, said that new media and technologies had allowed for the promotion of hate speech and posed a threat to the "broad centre" of society.

"There is a need for the Internet technology companies to also take responsibility. They will have to be part of the solution," he said.

"The advances in digital technology and the rise of new media, and the impact … of having broadcasting being replaced by narrowcasting, and the development of echo chambers which affirm, and sometimes inflame, very partisan views - has not helped to build and strengthen the broad centre."

Dr Balakrishnan added: "It is something that governments, the private sector and civil society will have to engage in."

The Christchurch attacks, in which the gunman livestreamed the massacre on Facebook, has led to growing calls for technology companies to ensure that their platforms are not exploited by extremists. Australia is pushing for an upcoming summit in Japan of world leaders from the Group of 20, a grouping of major advanced economies, to address social media oversight as a priority.

Australia and Singapore had discussed scope for cooperating to push the G20 to lead a co-ordinated international response, Australian Foreign Minister, Ms Marise Payne, said on Friday. She noted that Singapore was a hub for technology firms and had a strong role to play.

"We have certainly agreed today that there is significant opportunity for us to work together," she said.

"Singapore is in the box seat in relation to some of the technology capacity that is relevant here. We have absolutely identified the need to ensure that wherever we see extremism - whatever form it takes - that we are calling it out, that we are addressing it and that we are working collaboratively in our region to … deter those who would seek to cause us harm."

The ministerial meeting on Friday included the two foreign ministers, as well as Singapore's Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen and his Australian counterpart, Christopher Pyne, and Singapore's Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing and Australia's Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham.

The meeting reaffirmed the deal to allow Singaporean troops to train in the Australian state of Queensland. Construction is due to commence on the facilities later this year. The deal will eventually allow 14,000 Singapore Armed Forces personnel to train in central and north Queensland for 18 weeks a year for 25 years.

Dr Ng said: "What we are building in these two areas, to me, is a physical embodiment of those extremely close ties that Australia and Singapore have."

Dr Ng said Singapore and Australia had discussed efforts to share intelligence, particularly after the Christchurch massacre, which had raised the risk of reprisal attacks.

"We again agreed on the need to have intelligence sharing, both in anticipation of the returned fighters from Iraq and Syria, as well as unfortunately, the expected reprisals coming out from the Christchurch incident," he said.

The meeting also discussed the need to bolster free international trade and to prevent tensions rising in the South China Sea.

Dr Balakrishnan said Australia and Singapore faced similar challenges in the region, due to their close economic links to China and security links to the United States.

"It is clear that America and China are working out a new modus vivendi - this is something that we don't have a say on, but it will affect us," he said.

"We are not just passive passengers… Australia and Singapore have done more than our share, for instance, with the pursuit of the CPTPP (the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international trade agreement)."

Friday's meeting marked the eleventh such gathering of ministers from the two countries.

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