Be vigilant against insidious info campaigns: Tony Tan

Dr Tony Tan speaking during a question-andanswer session moderated by Ambassadorat- Large Chan Heng Chee yesterday.
Dr Tony Tan speaking during a question-andanswer session moderated by Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee yesterday. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

S'pore cannot tolerate attempts by foreign entities to influence local sentiments, he says

Singapore needs to be vigilant against those who seek to mount insidious information campaigns to influence segments of Singaporeans for their own ends, said former president Tony Tan Keng Yam yesterday.

''Singapore cannot tolerate attempts by foreign countries or entities to manipulate our people's sentiments,'' Dr Tan told 800 diplomats and students in his first public lecture since his six-year presidential term ended on Aug 31.

He highlighted how foreign influences like religious extremism are already worsening societal divisions in other countries.

Singapore will not be spared.

He warned that attempts may be made by external forces to divide Singapore along racial and religious fault lines.

In the face of such attempts to manipulate sentiments, the ties that bind Singaporeans as one people are vital, he said at the annual S. Rajaratnam Lecture organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

''At the end of the day, a successful foreign policy also requires strong domestic support at home.

''Notwithstanding any differences we may have internally, we have to close ranks and stand firm on issues that have significant impact on Singapore's national interests,'' he added.

In a 30-minute lecture titled The Domestic Context of Singapore's Foreign Policy, Dr Tan made the case that for a small country like Singapore, domestic and foreign policies are inextricably linked.

Singapore must not shy away from standing up for its vital interests, even if bilateral relations turn sour for a while, he stressed. And Singaporeans need to have the confidence to stand together as a nation and weather such turbulence.

He cited two instances.

One is the dispute over Pedra Branca, which is a sovereignty issue, and the other is on honouring important international agreements such as the terms of the Water Agreements and the Points of Agreement with Malaysia.

''Each time and at each test, we have stood firm,'' said Dr Tan, who is now honorary patron of Singapore Management University.

The rocky outcrop of Pedra Branca is back in the spotlight, after Malaysia asked the International Court of Justice in February to review its 2008 decision to award it to Singapore.

Dr Tan said Singapore also needs to stay cohesive and resilient to succeed.

But, he added, there is one major threat to Singapore's domestic and foreign policy: the spread of fake news and misinformation.

Big and small states realise they can use misinformation to undermine the will of nations they have problems with, Dr Tan noted.

And smaller players can manipulate social media to do this at little cost, he added.

The technique is new but the goal is age-old, he said. ''They seek to divide a country against itself.''

Singapore is vulnerable as it is one of the world's most Internetconnected societies, and one of the most diverse nations on earth.

To guard against this threat, Dr Tan urged people not to take information at face value. ''The next time you read a foreign policy commentary or op-ed, ask yourself who stands to benefit from the proposed course of action.''

Singaporeans also need to be well-informed and understand not just a diversity of views but also the trade-offs that
come with each policy position, he added.

For instance, training officers from other countries may divert resources from local policies, but will go a long way in generating goodwill for Singapore, said Dr Tan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2017, with the headline 'Be vigilant against insidious info campaigns: Tony Tan'. Print Edition | Subscribe