Think-tanks must be objective, cannot become instruments of foreign influence: Shanmugam

Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, speaking at the 2017 Asia Economic Forum held at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on Monday, Aug 28 2017.
Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, speaking at the 2017 Asia Economic Forum held at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on Monday, Aug 28 2017. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

SINGAPORE - Think-tanks may sometimes disagree with the Government, but they must do so objectively and not under the influence of a foreign government, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said on Monday (Aug 28) morning.

He added that such organisations play an important role, which is to say and explore things that civil servants may not be able to.

His remarks at a forum held at the Asia Competitiveness Institute, which is part of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, come very shortly after an academic was stripped of his permanent residency for working with a foreign government to influence Singapore's foreign policy and public opinion.

Dr Huang Jing, 60, who was from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, had his permanent residency status cancelled earlier this month after he was identified by the Home Affairs Ministry as "an agent of a foreign country".

While Mr Shanmugam did not refer to any specific case, he said it was "unacceptable" for academics to be "suborned" and to hence project the views of a foreign country "under the guise of objectivity and academic freedom", but with a hidden agenda of influencing Singapore's policies.

He added that academics can be bribed or induced to commit an offence "either because you are working with foreign intelligence or because you are seduced by them".

He was responding to a question about the role of think-tanks and businessmen in foreign relations at the forum.

Mr Shanmugam said the late deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee was instrumental in the setting up of think-tanks in Singapore to provide independent advice. Dr Goh believed that think-tanks helped prevent group think within government.

"Dr Goh saw the think-tank's role as being very knowledgeable, being very objective, being very clear, and putting those views to the government, which means not necessarily agreeing with the government," he said.

"Dr Goh would certainly turn in his grave if he thinks that the think-tanks he set up or was responsible for have become instruments of influence for other countries."

Sometimes, think-tanks would challenge the government - not "for the sake of challenging", but "where (the government) needs to be challenged, said Mr Shanmugam.

"That I think is the critical role that think-tanks must play, should play. To be very alert, to be real scholars and to put forward scholarly viewpoints, but practical ones, that help the country," he added.

Turning to businessmen, he said they played an important role in expanding Singapore's Gross National Product and in building relationships abroad.

He added that "foreign affairs and relationships prosper if there are good economic relations", which are forged by businesses.

But he said it was important for both businessmen and the Government to "understand where the line is drawn".

"Sometimes the government cannot take the advice of businessmen. It has to decide what is in Singapore's interests. Because businessmen will carry a business perspective, but the government has to take a larger, country-wide perspective as a sovereign state," he said.