Will 'follow-the-money' formula work in changed landscape?


Does the Singapore Government work in mysterious ways?

You might think so going by two recent events which caught quite a few people by surprise.

First was the Home Affairs Ministry's statement earlier this month about foreign sponsorship of the annual Pink Dot event at Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park.

The ministry said it was taking steps to make sure foreign entities do not fund, support or influence these activities which involve members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

The move made many see red as foreign companies have been sponsoring the annual gathering for several years without any problems, including the likes of Google, Apple and Facebook.

Then, there was the news that from next year, public servants will no longer be able to access the Internet through their work computers, but have to use their mobile devices or dedicated terminals to reduce the risk of hackers infiltrating the system and stealing or damaging information.

There was disbelief all round over what many saw as an over-reaction on the part of the authorities and it had to take the Prime Minister to explain why it was acting like a fortress under siege.

So, what to make of all this?

Has the Government suddenly turned its back on the world?

In fact, the issue is an old one for Singapore: how to operate an open economy with one of the most connections to the rest of the world, but still keep a tight lid on unwanted elements and what it considers to be undesirable influence detrimental to the country's well-being.

This has been a continuing challenge for the country because while its livelihood depends on it being open, the political instincts of the Government have tended towards management and control.

The easiest fights have been when the enemy was clearly foreign and evil.

When traffickers from the region, which is one of the world's largest producers of opium and heroin, threatened to make Singapore their transit point, the country introduced one of the toughest anti-drug laws in the world, imposing the death penalty on offenders.

This position has remained unchanged even in the face of mounting criticism from international human rights groups.

Singapore isn't afraid to be different on issues that threaten its security.

Sometimes, what's being kept out was at first welcomed with open arms - like foreign money looking for safe havens.

When it poured into the property market here in the 1990s, it was actively sought and encouraged because the plan then was to make the city attractive to the super wealthy.

But too much of a good thing can be hazardous to one's well-being.

When prices went through the roof, and a property bubble developed, measures were introduced to cool down the hot market.

They are still in place today.

Banking laws have had to be tightened to prevent money laundering through Singapore. Indeed, the Monetary Authority of Singapore announced last week it wanted banks to tighten even more.

These examples show that the Government believes it is possible for Singapore to square the circle, operating a free and open economy while selectively shutting out unwelcome visitors.

The move to protect public service computers from foreign hackers is the latest variation of this thinking.

Expect the Government to hold the line even if it proves unpopular among civil servants.

But what if it is ideas it is attempting to shut out, like "political issues or controversial social issues with political overtones", which the MHA statement said were off limits to foreigners.

Will a people educated in some of the best universities in the world, connected to the World Wide Web in one of the most wired countries which is home to some of the leading lights of the digital economy, accept they need protection from foreign influence by a Government which believes it knows best?

The improbability of the challenge might deter some governments, but not the one here.

In fact, it has had much practice on this front, going back to the 1970s when it laid down the rule that foreign magazines and newspapers had no role to play in Singapore's domestic politics.

Those were bruising political battles with some of its fiercest critics, including publications like Time magazine, the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Economist.

One by one, though, they were forced into submission, and the policy was entrenched.

Can the same approach work today, even if the world - and Singapore - has changed irrevocably?

There is one unspoken strategy the Government has used to much effect at every encounter: Follow the money.

Whether it's the foreign media, alternative news websites, or LGBT causes, it believes that if it is able to trace the source of their funding and shut or squeeze it, even the toughest will eventually comply.

During its fights with the foreign media, it restricted the circulation of offending publications, hurting their pockets.

In the more recent moves to regulate online media, it required those of a certain size to declare their funding sources, with financial penalties for offenders.

In clamping down on foreign funding of LGBT events, it is following the same script, going where the money trail leads.

End of story?

For these specific battles, I have no doubt the Government will prevail, as it has repeatedly done.

But it will be a very narrow victory because the foreign ideas that have had the biggest impact on Singaporeans, for better or worse, have long stormed the Singapore gates.

The most powerful ideas - and they mostly originated outside - are neither overtly political nor controversial.

They simply change fundamentally the way people think and, in doing so, disrupt and destroy the old way.

The Internet and social media overturned traditional concepts of hierarchy and attitudes towards authority.

Disruptive technologies like Google and Facebook revolutionised the media industry, making it impossible for governments to control information.

Indeed, it is because these ideas have changed the world that causes like those associated with the LGBT community have gained so much traction worldwide, including in Singapore.

Politics might remain off limits to foreigners.

But the politics itself has already changed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 19, 2016, with the headline 'Will 'follow-the-money' formula work in changed landscape?'. Print Edition | Subscribe