The Straits Times says

When influencing turns into meddling

The developing crisis in the United States as the Robert Mueller investigation into alleged Russian meddling in last year's presidential election proceeds is a serious matter. While dismissing the probe with his usual mix of disdain and implied victimhood, President Donald Trump is clearly uncomfortable with the direction it is taking. Worryingly, large sections of the American populace are also showing a dismissive attitude. One reputed right-wing mast has already suggested that Mr Trump should use his presidential powers to pardon everyone potentially involved - including himself, if that were necessary to protect his presidency. If such abuse of power is displayed, the US would be headed for tumultuous times.

Whatever the ultimate results of the Mueller probe, it has to be emphasised that no country should be allowed to meddle in the domestic politics of another. Russia's skills in this regard have been considerable, stemming from its status as the successor of the Soviet Union, a state often linked with insecurities and intrigues. Countries such as the Ukraine continue to feel the sting of its multiple interventions. The US has an equally blemished record. A half-century ago, the Central Intelligence Agency was involved in ousting Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, working with that country's former colonial masters in Belgium. The CIA's participation in the ouster of Salvador Allende in Chile is also well documented. That left the nation in the hands of a military junta for decades. As Singapore's own experience with the Hendrickson affair showed, even friendly countries are not immune.

Many countries seek to influence others deemed significant to their interests. Armies of diplomats, aid programmes, trade offices, think-tanks and language centres are raised for specifically this purpose. China, for instance, has a South China Sea institute branch office in Washington. While this is perfectly legitimate, direct meddling in internal affairs is unacceptable, especially in that most sacred of democratic blessings - a people's right to choose a government they want. Whether through direct fund transfers, personal blackmail, infiltration of society, disinformation or other dark methods, any attempt to subvert elections must be swiftly checked.

In Asia, the most egregious recent instance of all this was Indian meddling in Sri Lanka's affairs from the mid-1980s that fuelled an ethnic insurgency and saw a once-promising nation set back a quarter century. Alas, that's not the only example.

The emerging digital landscape, which diffuses the concept of territory and sovereignty, heightens the challenges faced by a polity. Cyber security, the vital gatekeeping for the digital age, is usually at least one step, if not two, behind foreign attackers. Whatever the form of intrusion, such meddling has to be stopped.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2017, with the headline 'When influencing turns into meddling'. Subscribe