S'pore studying new laws to protect Republic from foreign interference, says Josephine Teo

More robust preventive measures against foreign intervention are needed given concerning developments in other countries, said Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo on March 1, 2021.
More robust preventive measures against foreign intervention are needed given concerning developments in other countries, said Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo on March 1, 2021.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - Singapore is "fine-tuning" proposed laws to counter hostile information campaigns and guard against the threat of foreign interference in its domestic politics.

Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo said the country is studying "legislative levers" that will allow it to obtain information to investigate if such campaigns are conducted by foreign actors to subvert domestic politics, break their virality and carry counter-messaging to alert Singaporeans.

The Government is looking at how other countries are approaching interference operations that are increasingly sophisticated and well disguised, she added during the debate on the Ministry of Home Affairs' (MHA) budget on Monday (March 1).

A ministry spokesman told The Straits Times that last year's general election interrupted preparations on proposed laws to tackle foreign interference, and that it is now fine-tuning the proposed legislation.

Mrs Teo noted that while the threat of foreign actors working to subvert Singapore's politics has always been present, this danger has grown.

"In recent times, it has risen in potential and severity because of the increasing ease to carry out such operations," she said, adding that Singapore's diversity and openness to the world present opportunities for foreign actors.

It was fortunate that GE2020 went peacefully, she said. However, more robust preventive measures against foreign intervention are needed given concerning developments in other countries.

She cited how countries like Australia have reported instances where foreign powers attempted to influence their politics by buying off political parties and politicians.

According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, global cases of cyber-enabled foreign interference in elections have increased from seven between 2011 and 2015, to 41 between 2016 and 2020.

Mrs Teo said proposed laws will also have to guard against foreign subversion of politically significant individuals and entities here, for instance, by considering what levels of transparency in funding, support and leadership will be needed, and from whom.

She added that the public has a big part to play in this by helping to shape these measures and giving their strongest support.

"It is the only way we can effectively deter bad foreign actors from exploiting our vulnerabilities," she added.

On the threat of terrorism, she said people have a key role in turning the tide by looking out for suspicious activities or individuals.

Responding to Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) on Singapore's capabilities to detect terrorists, Mrs Teo said such threats are transnational in nature, and the authorities have strong working relationships with foreign security agencies to share intelligence and disrupt plots.

Local threats involving self-radicalised individuals may be harder to detect, she noted, urging the public to report such cases.

On maintaining public trust, Mrs Teo pledged that the Home Team will continue to uphold the highest level of integrity and conduct by investigating any allegations of its officers who discharge their duties improperly. It will take firm action if necessary, she stressed.

She also lamented the fact that some have published "irresponsible" untruths about law enforcement agencies and officers on social media to de-legitimise them. These will weaken public trust in the Home Team, as well as its ability to maintain law and order, she cautioned.

She called on the public to be discerning and responsible, and to avoid spreading false allegations and misinformation.