Vivian outlines how Singapore is battling three key security challenges

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Ambassador Ong Keng Yong (second from right), executive deputy chairman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, at the conference yesterday.
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Ambassador Ong Keng Yong (second from right), executive deputy chairman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, at the conference yesterday. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

With technological disruption, today's world is confronted with three security challenges: polarisation, radicalisation and cyberthreats.

And Singapore, being a small and open economy, and a country that is multiracial and multi-religious, is seeking to deal with these challenges based on three key principles, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday.

The first is to address the social disruption brought about by technological advancements; second, to promote interfaith dialogue and enact laws to fight fake news; and third, to take a multi-faceted approach to tackle cyberthreats.

Speaking at a regional conference on national security, Dr Balakrishnan noted that the new technological revolution is resulting in an explosion of big data, as well as breakthroughs in automation and robotics, among other consequences.

"This, in turn, is leading to another cycle of social and political disruption, and it will have profound implications for national and global security," he told more than 80 national security practitioners, policymakers and academics at the 13th Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior National Security Officers.

This year's theme is National Security in the Age of Disruption.

In his 30-minute opening speech at the event at the Marina Mandarin Singapore hotel, Dr Balakrishnan drew a parallel between the Industrial Revolution and the current "digital gilded age" - both of which created winners and losers.

Today, the digital winners are supranational technology companies such as Google and Facebook, which are growing exponentially in economic and political influence.

The losers are those who have not been able to reskill and are losing their jobs, among other things.

This, the minister added, has created a feeling that the fruits of globalisation and technology have not been evenly distributed, leading to a widening rift between the political views of the left and right.

Digital media has also created ideological echo chambers in which people can affirm their views - no matter how mistaken or biased - and this leads to a more fractious and divided society, he said.

To deal with such polarisation, Dr Balakrishnan said, Singapore seeks to give citizens the confidence that society will stand collectively with them, and this is done by investing in Singaporeans.

Schools are encouraged to tap technology to cultivate a generation of "digital natives" who can quickly adapt to labour market shifts.

Schemes such as SkillsFuture also enable Singaporeans to master new technologies, the minister added.

Investments are made in the social security system to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are protected, and to enable people to bounce back and keep up with the challenges of the future, he said.

"If we succeed in building confidence domestically, then that gives us the ability to counter the spread of radical ideas, hateful ideologies and instead, to focus on promoting social unity and to stem the danger of increased polarisation."

On radicalisation, Dr Balakrishnan said cyberspace has become the front line where terrorists and political opportunists spread propaganda, recruit followers and coordinate attacks.

Even the less obviously dangerous falsehoods can have severe consequences for the social fabric over time, he pointed out.

"Singapore believes in doubling down on our efforts to promote interfaith dialogue and to enact laws, and to educate our public on fake news and online manipulation."

Building on efforts to promote interfaith understanding, Singapore will host its first international conference on social cohesion and interfaith harmony later this year.

He also said that to allow the Government to act decisively against online falsehoods, a draft law has been introduced in Parliament.

While legislation is critical, the most crucial line of defence against online falsehoods is having well-informed and discerning citizens, Dr Balakrishnan said. To this end, the Government is expanding the school curriculum and has launched campaigns to encourage good cyber habits among Singaporeans.

Third, Singapore will continue to take a multi-pronged and multi-sectoral approach in tackling cyberthreats.

At the domestic level, this means fostering close collaboration among the Government, businesses, community organisations and individuals. At the international level, countries need to come together to forge a unified method to address cyberthreats and to set the norms that govern cyberspace, he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2019, with the headline Vivian outlines how Singapore is battling three key security challenges. Subscribe