Laws needed to counter foreign interference: Shanmugam
There have been nascent attempts to use both online and offline methods of foreign interference here, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday, reiterating the need for laws to counter them.
Such laws will need to give the Government powers to make targeted and surgical interventions to investigate and respond to hostile information campaigns.
Such campaigns use a range of content, not just falsehoods, and are not just restricted to election periods, so the laws must also deal with a diverse range of threats, including the flow of funds, Mr Shanmugam added.
Speaking at a conference on foreign interference tactics and countermeasures, Mr Shanmugam said foreign interference is an age-old threat.
But it has been revolutionised by the Internet, and can bring down a country without the need for conventional warfare.
In particular, the combination of hostile information campaigns online and offline activities, like foreign-controlled media, is extremely powerful.
"All of that hasn't happened in its full glory in Singapore, but it can. Some of it has already happened," the minister said.
He cited a meeting between local activists, including historian Thum Ping Tjin and freelance journalist Kirsten Han, and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad last year.
Mr Shanmugam said the group urged Dr Mahathir to bring democracy to Singapore. He also noted that Dr Thum and Ms Han started New Naratif, which is funded by a foreign foundation and has received other foreign contributions.
"Everyone is entitled to their views, however reasonable or unreasonable. My primary point is that is it right for foreign funding to be received in order to advance these viewpoints?"
In the absence of legislation, tech companies cannot be left to self-regulate and states cannot take a hands-off approach, Mr Shanmugam added.
"Commercial interests cannot tell us what to do about this. They have to work within the framework of the law. Our task is to make sure that the approach is fair and reasonable, and at the same time effective."
Speaking to The New Paper on the sidelines of the conference, McGill University's Associate Professor Taylor Owen, who is studying digital interference in the ongoing Canadian elections, said political advertising laws passed in Canada last year have had an impact.
But countries are still waiting to see how these laws and countermeasures play out.
He said the problem was a systemic one, and an individual has very little agency.
"The biggest thing individuals can do is to learn about how the infrastructure works, how they are being manipulated, how they are vulnerable, how their emotions are being torqued, and to actively support changes to the system."