Attempts thwarted in Australia and Europe

In introducing the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill, Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) alluded to a number of cases where external attempts to intervene with domestic politics were detected and largely neutered. Here's a look at two cases overseas:

THE AUSTRALIAN SENATOR

In the MHA's statement on the new Bill, there is mention of a former Australian senator who "advocated" a foreign country's position while receiving donations.

The senator was not named, but Mr Sam Dastyari, a Labor Party senator in Australia's Parliament between 2013 and 2018, fits the description.

Mr Dastyari had not only received multiple donations from Yuhu Group but also gone on all-expense-paid trips to China and had the group settle a legal bill for him for what was reported to be A$40,000 (S$39,300).

Yuhu Group was owned by Chinese billionaire real estate developer Huang Xiangmo, a former permanent resident and political donor in Australia.

The scrutiny on Mr Dastyari's Chinese links and his allegiances was at its peak in 2017 when he contradicted his party's stance on the South China Sea dispute.

A leaked recording had him saying Australia should not involve itself in "several thousand years of history", prompting then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to accuse him of receiving "cash for comments". Mr Dastyari also tipped Mr Huang off about state surveillance measures.

Mr Dastyari, the first person of Iranian origin to sit in the Australian Parliament, formally resigned from his posts in 2018. He was recently seen in reality show I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!, where he admitted his fall from grace was "self-inflicted".

Mr Huang has been barred from entry into Australia on national security grounds.

THE EUROPEAN UNION MPs

Another example of foreign interference alluded to in the MHA statement was connected to the European Union-China Friendship Group.

Mr Nirj Deva, a British former Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and founder of the group, and Czech MEP Jan Zahradil, the group's current chairman, went on frequent free trips to China. Both were given access to high-ranking Chinese officials and returned from their trips expressing support for stronger Chinese ties.

According to a report by Washington-based think-tank Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, after a state-guided tour of Tibet in 2016, Mr Deva claimed that what he learnt on the ground did not resemble "Western propaganda", and that he now understood how the territory was always a part of China.

When Britain in 2019 deliberated over banning Huawei's 5G technology because of cyber-security concerns, he urged his colleagues in Parliament to decide "based on facts", adding that no foul play had been found in the Chinese company's products.

Mr Zahradil's position as vice-chairman of the European Parliament's powerful International Trade Committee afforded him access to sensitive negotiating documents, and European officials were concerned when they felt that the friendship group was getting too close to Beijing.

The Czech has admitted only to the Chinese mission paying for snacks and drinks for one of its events in Strasbourg, France, claiming that he had not received "any funding, donations and contributions or any other support".

The friendship group is currently suspended, as Mr Zahradil is probed over alleged conflict of interests with China.

Online newspaper EUobserver has said he is unlikely to face serious reprimand.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2021, with the headline 'Attempts thwarted in Australia and Europe'. Subscribe