SINGAPORE - The Online Citizen website has employed foreigners, including Malaysians, to write almost exclusively negative articles on social and political matters in Singapore, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said on Wednesday (Sept 25).
These include inflammatory articles that seek to fracture social cohesion, he said in a speech on foreign interference in domestic politics and the need for governments to take measures to counter the threat.
The minister highlighted two articles which he said were written by a Malaysian woman named Rubaashini Shunmuganathan who, based on publicly available information, is living in Shah Alam, near Kuala Lumpur.
The first article called for Singaporean civil servants to follow the example of their Hong Kong counterparts in protesting.
The second made allegations about Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, which has led to a civil suit by Mr Lee who says they are false attacks against his character and fitness to hold office.
Of this article, Mr Shanmugam said: "I'm not commenting on the legal merits of the article, since it is the subject of a lawsuit, only that a foreigner, staying in Malaysia, writes these things for a Singapore site to target a Singapore audience."
He added: "Who controls her? Who pays her? What is her purpose? All these are legitimate questions. Most readers would just assume this was by a genuine Singaporean contributor."
Mr Shanmugam noted that only five out of The Online Citizen's 14 administrators are said to be based in Singapore. "Nine are outside - four are in Malaysia, two are in Indonesia. We don't know who they are. Are they Singaporeans? Are they foreigners?"
He was speaking at the opening of a one-day conference on Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, at the Parkroyal on Beach Road hotel.
Mr Shanmugam also spoke of how a group of local activists, including historian Thum Ping Tjin and freelance journalist Kirsten Han, met Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad last year and urged him to bring democracy to Singapore, among other countries.
In a Facebook post after the meeting, Dr Thum said he had urged Dr Mahathir to "take leadership in South-east Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of information".
Dr Thum and Ms Han also set up an organisation, New Naratif, which was funded by a foreign foundation and received other foreign contributions as well, he said.
Ms Han has also said that Singapore has failed, compared with Hong Kong, because people don't go to the streets to march, "and she wants to change that, through classes run by New Naratif", said Mr Shanmugam.
"Everyone is entitled to their views, however reasonable or unreasonable. But my primary point is: Is it right for foreign funding to be received in order to advance these viewpoints?" the minister said.
He noted that there are responsible media - both Singaporean and foreign - who employ foreigners. The assumption is that the media will have some ethics but this can of course be exploited.
"But they are subject to a framework, foreign as well as Singaporean," he said. "In every country, there is a framework for how the media behaves."
But some online news sites tap anonymous contributors, leaving them open to being used as tools by foreign interests to publish inflammatory articles that attack and deepen divisions within a country.
"They have no interest in sociopolitical stability within a country," he said. "Their only interest is in eyeballs."
TOC website's chief editor Terry Xu, responding to the minister's speech, said all articles are directed and subsequently approved by him.
"Nothing goes unvetted by me, a Singaporean who has served his national service and held responsible by the Ministry of Communications and Information as the registered person in charge," he was quoted as saying in an article posted on TOC's Facebook page.
"If one is to observe the series of Facebook posts and now, the Law Minister comments, one can easily come to a conclusion that there is a collaborated campaign to discredit TOC."
He also said there is no law against hiring foreigners and that the website has not received any foreign funding. "So what is the Law Minister barking about?"
Mr Shanmugam also spoke on the need for countries to regulate the online space, noting that some technology companies have called for self-regulation.
"Can tech companies be left to self-regulate, in the absence of legislation? I think the clear answer is no," he said.
"The most diplomatic way of saying it is that the responses have been varied so far to the challenges that have come out: from denying that there are problems, to taking some reasonably effective steps."
Part of the problem is that the business models of such companies militate against proper self-regulation. The more content and users that such sites have, the more user attention they can sell to advertisers, he said.
"Removing fake users, removing fake accounts, investigating into coordinated inauthentic behaviour - these are all costly," he said. "The tech companies are in a position of conflict, where their business interests often conflict with what needs to be done in the broader society's interests."
And whether it is within companies or within states, proper frameworks exist to deal with such conflicts of interest. The person or institution in a position of conflict does not get to decide what the response should be, Mr Shanmugam added.
"It cannot be different for tech companies. There's no difference in principle."