Thinking Aloud

The world of spy fiction becomes reality

News of Chinese operations to influence policy in Australia reminds us that espionage is real

I grew up reading thrillers, especially espionage fiction in which brave men with troubled pasts (they usually had troubled pasts) went into target countries to carry out their duties - which might be to assassinate someone, recruit or rescue someone, plant or retrieve something, or just disrupt the smooth flow of a society.

John le Carre, Jack Higgins, Robert Ludlum, Len Deighton and Frederick Forsyth were constant companions. I even wrote my undergraduate thesis on le Carre's novels.

I thought being a spy would be an exciting profession. But I became a journalist - and realised I'd make a very bad spy because I'm too upfront. I find it hard to dissemble and hate to lie; and I like to share what I know with people, not use it to manipulate them.

But, of course, the world of espionage, intelligence and counter-intelligence is far more complex than fiction, and it strikes societies in many more guises.

These days, I sometimes feel that the fictional world of espionage has leapt from the pages of novels into real life.

There's news of Russian actors, possibly state-backed, meddling in the United States presidential election last year via cyber attacks, releasing sensitive information at opportune times, or outright creating false information to be disseminated to sway votes.

Those reports triggered fears across Europe this year that similar attempts might be made to influence the French, British and German elections.

Last week, a five-month-long investigation by Australia's leading media companies, Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Fairfax Media, concluded that the Chinese Communist Party was secretly infiltrating Australian domestic politics and society to influence policy and opinion.


Business leaders allied to Beijing are said to use donations to major political parties in Australia to gain access and influence, even tying donations to pro-China policies that may be against Australia's national interest.

My colleague in Australia, Jonathan Pearlman, reported that one of the individuals named in the report is a Chinese developer called Mr Huang Xiangmo. He wrote: "Mr Huang allegedly threatened to withdraw a A$400,000 donation to Labor last year over the party's call for Australia to conduct a freedom of navigation patrol near disputed parts of the South China Sea.

"A Labor MP and power broker, Mr Sam Dastyari, appeared with Mr Huang the next day and softened Labor's position - but the MP denied he knew about the donation. He resigned from Labor's frontbench soon after over the foreign donations scandal."

Last year, the Australian media landscape was rocked by reports that even stalwart dailies such as The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), The Age and Australian Financial Review, were accepting multi-page pull-out supplements prepared by the CCP's official English-language China Daily. These advertorials carry the Chinese government's point of view, straight into Australian homes.

SMH's correspondent Philip Wen, reporting on this trend last May, said: "Individually, the deals offer compelling commercial opportunities. But, viewed collectively, they underline the coordinated nature in which China's propaganda arms are seeking to influence how the Communist Party is portrayed overseas - the potential pitfalls of which were highlighted when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was caught self-censoring news reports on its Australia Plus website."

What is happening elsewhere can happen in Singapore too. Just as the country is a terrorist target, it is also a target for whatever espionage or "black operation" a foreign power might mount.

As you sip your coffee this morning in bucolic Singapore,you might wonder: What's this all got to do with us?

My answer is: Everything.

What is happening elsewhere can happen in Singapore too. Just as the country is a terrorist target, it is also a target for whatever espionage or "black operation" a foreign power might mount.

Singapore is tiny, but influential. It is also at the heart of the cross- flows of finance, shipping routes, information, trade, commerce and air links. It is a fulcrum in South-east Asia, theatre of what is probably the No. 2 geopolitical hot spot (after North Korea).

Singaporeans may just want to get on with their lives, but likely won't be allowed to as long as there are bigger players that want to influence them.

I think a hard-headed look at the changing world we live in today will reveal the truth that the world is not a benign place for a small, rich country.

We are in a an era marked by divisions. Even as Singapore works with others to build up cooperative institutions, it must live as though its future depends on itself alone.

This is why, while I chafe at some of the moves, I understand completely why the Singapore Government has made certain decisions in recent months that appear to take Singapore backwards.


For example, the move to delink government computers from the Internet looked excessive when The Straits Times first reported on it last year. Today, in the wake of a few pervasive cyber attacks, some possibly state-sponsored, it begins to look less extreme and may one day appear forward-thinking.

Then there was the decision to ban foreign sponsors of the Pink Dot event that supports LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) issues. When news of that ban broke, many people, including myself, assumed that the move was meant to hobble the Pink Dot rally by starving it of funds. But local sponsors stepped up and the event will go on as scheduled, on July 1.

Then came more reports that actually, foreigners aren't even allowed to take part in Speakers' Corner events - which meant they can't even go to the Pink Dot event.

Again, like many others, I thought this was a move by the moral police to try to curb the spread of Pink Dot's pro-gay message. But more reading around the issue made it clear that the locals-only rules apply to all Speakers' Corner events, not just Pink Dot. These rules specify that only Singapore entities, and Singaporeans and permanent residents, are permitted to sponsor, protest or participate at such events. Foreigners can do so with a permit.

So if the move wasn't targeted at Pink Dot, what was the target?

Why keep foreigners out of Speakers' Corner?

It sounds retrograde, especially for such an open society like Singapore that is told to welcome foreign workers; and appoints any number of international advisory panels to guide its research and economic policies.

The move, however, makes more sense when you consider it against the backdrop I painted earlier in this article: a world of espionage, where states use their soft, hard and financial power to influence events and shape policy to their own advantage; where others will work against your national interest; operating often unseen, via a word here, a cheque there, nudges everywhere.

Singapore has long been suspicious of foreign funding that goes to its domestic politics and media and has taken stern action against any such "black operations". In the 1970s, the Government closed down the Eastern Sun newspaper, an English daily, after disclosing that its proprietor had received loans made by Chinese communist agents in Hong Kong. Another paper, the Singapore Herald, was also shut down over "black operations" charges of receiving questionably-sourced foreign funds. Foreign donations to political parties, candidates and associations are curtailed.

In Australia, a foreign donor conditions political donations on foreign policy. Last week's ABC-Fairfax report also said China was funding Chinese students in Australia who took part in pro-China protests and activities, and intimidating those who took part in pro-democracy activities.

It is not too far-fetched to imagine a dubious foreign organisation funding a Speakers' Corner event or protest to foment discord on an issue for its own ends.

It is, of course, possible that my view of the world, which is subjective, is out of sync with reality.

If so, then consider this a mental exercise that skirts close to fiction.

But, as a literature student, a good Singaporean brought up on a diet of the survivalist narrative, and a battle-scarred woman who has lived through poverty, cancer and failures, I also know that truth can often be stranger than fiction.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 11, 2017, with the headline 'The world of spy fiction becomes reality'. Print Edition | Subscribe