Parliament: Politics in Singapore should be for Singaporeans, says Shanmugam

Minister sets out why MPs, political parties are barred from taking funds from foreigners

Workers at an NTUC rally in 1988 to protest against US interference in Singapore politics. US diplomat Hank Hendrickson had encouraged a group of Singaporean lawyers to enter opposition politics and contest the elections. ST FILE PHOTO
Workers at an NTUC rally in 1988 to protest against US interference in Singapore politics. US diplomat Hank Hendrickson had encouraged a group of Singaporean lawyers to enter opposition politics and contest the elections. ST FILE PHOTO

Whether in business, academia or politics, Singaporeans do and must interact with foreigners to understand what is going on and have deep relationships, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday in Parliament.

But that is different from taking money from foreigners or letting them influence operations, he said, adding: "We, in this House, should stand against that."

He made the point in his reply to Nominated MP (NMP) Walter Theseira, on the issue of assessing foreign influence risks.

Associate Professor Theseira had suggested that in such assessments, one should look more at a person's actions and behaviour and "perhaps less at whether they, for example, receive foreign funding or employ foreigners in sensitive positions".

He was concerned that "if we are too quick to judge on these matters, we may deter Singaporeans from engaging in foreign exchanges, and that's going to be very important for us as a globalised society".

Prof Theseira said this during an exchange after asking Mr Shanmugam what lay behind the concerns he had expressed at a forum in September on Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The minister had cited then how historian Thum Ping Tjin and freelance journalist Kirsten Han had set up an organisation called New Naratif that was "significantly funded" by a foreign foundation.

It had been reported that OSEA company, which was to provide editorial services to New Naratif, has links to funding from a group led by American billionaire George Soros.

Mr Shanmugam had also said then that online news site The Online Citizen employs foreigners to write "almost exclusively negative articles" on Singapore social and political matters, including inflammatory articles that seek to fracture social cohesion.

 
 
 
 

Yesterday, the minister stated categorically: "Politics in Singapore should be for Singaporeans." Hence, MPs and political parties are barred from taking donations from foreign agencies and other foreigners, since they seek to contest and represent the viewpoints of Singaporeans.

So, what is important is to identify the risks, he said. "It is no answer to say, we should not prevent Singaporeans from engaging with international opinions.

"There's nothing to prevent politicians, political parties from engaging with foreign parties. But you cannot take money from them. So you need to identify what it is you're speaking about."

He also cited cases of foreign interference, including the Hendrickson affair. American diplomat Hank Hendrickson had encouraged a group of Singaporean lawyers to enter opposition politics and contest against the People's Action Party in the late 1980s. He was eventually expelled from Singapore.

Foreigners are not allowed to control or fund newspapers in Singapore under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. "The reason is obvious," said Mr Shanmugam as he gave the examples of the now-defunct Eastern Sun and Singapore Herald newspapers.

The issue of foreign interference was also raised by NMP Anthea Ong. She asked whether a list of Singaporean individuals, companies, or media organisations that are at risk of being compromised by foreign influence will be published.

The minister replied: "As the NMP knows, no such general lists have been published... In fact, I am a little perplexed by the question, because how do you make a comprehensive list of all people who may potentially be recruited by foreign agencies, or be subject to foreign influence? When I put it in those terms, you can see that the point is quite absurd."

As for how Singaporeans can protect themselves against foreign influence, he said not all foreign influences should be avoided. "We seek to deal with, for example, foreign influences that seek to disrupt our society, weaken our country and affect our foreign policy. This cannot come as a surprise. Every country seeks to protect itself," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2019, with the headline 'Politics in S'pore should be for S'poreans: Shanmugam'. Subscribe