Parliament: Spike in online talk critical of Singapore during spat with KL

Senior Minister of State For Law Edwin Tong.
Senior Minister of State For Law Edwin Tong.

Incident shows how foreign interference can take place: Edwin Tong

When Singapore's dispute with Malaysia over maritime and airspace issues late last year was top news, there was a "curious" spike in online comments critical of the Republic on social media, said Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong.

These posts were made using what were essentially anonymous accounts, Mr Tong disclosed in Parliament yesterday.

He also said that on the issue of traffic jams at land checkpoints, these "avatar accounts", with profile photos that do not show the user's face, account for about 40 per cent of comments on the alternative media's social media pages.

This shows how foreign actors can interfere in Singapore's politics through online campaigns and false information, he said.

But steps are being taken to update the laws later this year to counter such threats, he added.

As for the case of the Singapore-Malaysia dispute, Mr Tong said: "We do not know who these suspicious accounts belong to. Nor do we know if they are being coordinated by foreign actors. But it is clear that these accounts have sought to give and create an artificial impression to netizens of the opposition to Singapore's position, at a time of heightened bilateral difficulties."

Mr Tong was replying to Ms Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC), who asked if there had been instances of foreign interference in Singapore.

WARDING OFF FOREIGN INTERFERENCE

We must not allow foreign actors to undermine our political sovereignty, nor our ability to make our own choices on how we want to govern our country and live our lives.

SENIOR MINISTER OF STATE FOR LAW EDWIN TONG

He pinpointed last year's SingHealth hacking incident, saying the cyber attackers - who are advanced and typically state-linked - wanted to extract the health data of Singaporeans, particularly that of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

"Cyber hackings are often deployed in concert with hostile information campaigns to search for information that can be weaponised," he added.

Earlier, Mr Tong described how foreign actors had interfered in the politics and elections in countries such as the United States and France.

"No country is immune. This is asymmetric information warfare, fought in a theatre and an era with no distinction between war and peace," he said.

 
 
 

"In this battlefield, Singapore, an open, democratic, digitally connected and diverse country, is especially vulnerable.

"We are a young country with sensitive fault-lines that foreign actors can exploit to foment distrust and ill-will among our various communities," he added.

Mr Tong said the nations he highlighted had learnt hard lessons and were taking action to expose and counter such interference.

To ward off foreign interference in local politics and elections, Singapore is developing a strategy on two fronts. Firstly, to sensitise Singaporeans to the threat and nurture a discerning public, he said.

"We are our own first line of defence. We must learn to be sceptical of and be able to discern falsehoods or half-truths, and detect foreign actors and their attempts to interfere in our politics."

Secondly, the legal framework will be updated and enhanced to counter hostile information campaigns. Mr Tong said the new laws have two broad objectives.

One, to let the Government "act swiftly and effectively to disrupt and counter false, misleading and inauthentic information and narratives spread by foreign actors".

"We must also be able to pre-emptively expose clandestine foreign interference campaigns," he added.

Two, to prevent foreign actors from manipulating politically involved individuals and organisations through the use of proxies, funding and donations.

He cited the case of Dr Huang Jing, a former professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, whom the Government identified as an agent of influence acting on behalf of a foreign country. Dr Huang was stripped of his permanent residency status in 2017.

"We must not allow foreign actors to undermine our political sovereignty, nor our ability to make our own choices on how we want to govern our country and live our lives," Mr Tong said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2019, with the headline 'Spike in online talk critical of S'pore during spat with KL'. Print Edition | Subscribe