Finding the right response to foreign influence

There is an important conversation about foreign influence in Singapore. Serious, sustained societal discussion on the topic shapes better-informed policies.

Involvement in governance and political processes by foreign actors is inevitable for highly connected societies, given trade, investment, labour flows and information exchanges.

A sustainable and effective long-term approach rests on accurately identifying and prudently managing the risks.

Singapore is no stranger to external participation in policy processes and society.

The National Wages Council includes non-local representatives; chambers of commerce and business associations with foreign members regularly engage officials and seek policy adjustments.

Officials, students and others with overseas experience bring different ideas, as do the many foreign education institutions and collaborative arrangements based locally.

Outside influences are not intrinsically frightening. Much recent attention on the dangers of foreign intervention centres on the ongoing Hong Kong protests.

Large-scale efforts to disrupt entire societies, however, are rare. They entail high costs and risk for interveners, often for uncertain return.

Despite claims in China's state-affiliated press, there is no clear evidence of foreign instigation. There ought to be much eagerness to reveal such data, since they discredit protests and any foreign backers.

Hong Kong's protesters generally blame an inadequately representative system for economic and social problems - conditions not applicable to Singapore.

In addressing real risks, there needs to be a focus on the more common and insidious forms of foreign influence. Much of these are consistent, quiet efforts to shape political processes by manipulating individuals in critical positions.

Reports from Australia about elected officials taking policy or legislative stances favoured by foreign-linked donors and businesses provide examples of more pernicious external influence.

Data mining from large-scale breaches of personal data - such as the SingHealth and Securities Investor Association hacks - may expose vulnerabilities of those holding key posts, making them susceptible to pressure.

A useful means of managing the dangers associated with hidden attempts to distort political processes is greater transparency from the state and those holding high office.

Steps include regular public statements of assets, income, directorships, and valuable gifts for senior officials and their immediate family members.

Elected officials and political parties can openly disclose political contributions as well as engagements with current and potential funders.

These measures cannot fully remove unwelcome external influence, but can reduce risk by making collusion more difficult.

Thoroughness in addition to toughness is what signals resolve when facing foreign threats.

Chong Ja Ian (Dr)

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2019, with the headline Finding the right response to foreign influence. Subscribe