Foreign Interference and Assessment of Security Risk of Singaporeans

Anthea Indira Ong
9 min readSep 26, 2021

Parliamentary Question 4 November 2019

Ms Anthea Ong asked the Minister for Home Affairs (a) what are the criteria used to determine whether Singaporean individuals, firms, or media organisations are at risk of being compromised by foreign influence for national security reasons; (b) whether a list of such individuals or organisations at risk, and the reasons for these risks, will be published; and © whether positions that involve media, communications, or outreach, that address issues of social or political concern should be staffed exclusively by Singaporeans due to the risks of foreign influence.

Assoc Prof Walter Theseira asked the Minister for Home Affairs (a) what are the facts behind the concerns expressed at the recent Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures Conference that certain activists and media persons are potential agents of foreign influence; and (b) how can Singaporeans protect themselves against foreign influence given that association with and receiving income from foreign sources is common amongst globalised Singapore firms and individuals.

The Minister for Home Affairs (Mr K Shanmugam): Mr Speaker, please allow me to take Question Nos 12 and 13 from Ms Ong and Assoc Prof Walter Theseira together.

Mr Speaker: Please do.

Mr K Shanmugam: First on Ms Anthea Ong’s questions, say you push a foreign country’s or a specific party’s agenda to subvert your own country, the position is clear. You are acting against Singapore’s national interests. Often, this is done for money; sometimes, for other reasons. I am not sure you can do this, identify this by specific criteria. It really depends on what is actually done, what actually happens. The cases of Eastern Sun and Singapore Herald are illustrative.

On the second part of Ms Ong’s question, as the Nominated Member knows, no such general lists have been published about organisations and individuals who may potentially be subject to foreign influence. In fact, I am a little perplexed by the question because how do you make a comprehensive list of all people who may potentially be recruited by foreign agencies or be subject to foreign influence? When I put it in those terms, you can see that the point is quite absurd.

In foreign countries, even Members of Parliament have been recruited by foreign agencies. So, it will be quite meaningless to publish such lists.

Whether we should identify specific areas which are more likely to be vectors for foreign influence and have some better way of managing those risks — given that the environment is changing — that is a different issue. Of course, there are specific jobs that already have requirements for security clearances for these and other reasons. If action is in fact taken against a particular individual or organisation, the case often becomes public. This will be so unless there are national security reasons not to reveal the details. The Nominated Member will be aware, for example, of the case involving Mr Huang Jing. There have been other examples as well.

The Nominated Member of Parliament has also asked about controlling employment of foreigners in organisations involving media, communications, outreach. I assume she is referring to my statement on 25 September at the Foreign Interference Tactics and Countermeasures Conference. I will say we have to look at the issue from a broader perspective, for example, the nature of the organisation, the confidence that we can have that the employees are likely to be immune to foreign influence, that there are controls, and also our own ability to identify any possible foreign influence.

I will next address Nominated Member of Parliament Walter Theseira’s questions. He asked about the facts behind the concerns expressed at that Conference. The facts which led to me as well as others expressing concerns can be found in my speech as well as in the presentations made by some of the other speakers. A transcript of the speech is on my Home Ministry’s website and I have asked my officers to send a link of it to the Nominated Member of Parliament. I have also asked my officers to send him the material that was presented at the Conference.

On the second part of his question, I think the Nominated Member of Parliament may have misunderstood what I have said. It is not all foreign influences that we seek to avoid. We seek to deal with, for example, foreign influences that seek to disrupt our society, weaken our country, affect our foreign policy. This cannot come as a surprise. Every country seeks to protect itself. Again, my speech sets that out. I will also refer as an example to some of the statements made at the congressional hearings held on 7 December, 2018, 24 July, 2019, and 26 September, 2019 in the United States. I have attached a short list of quotes made at that hearing that the Nominated Member of Parliament may find useful and with your permission, Mr Speaker, may I ask the Clerk to distribute those handouts.

Mr Speaker: Yes, please. [Handouts were distributed to hon Members.]

Mr K Shanmugam: Thank you.

Mr Speaker: Mr Saktiandi Supaat. Oh, Assoc Prof Walter Theseira.

Assoc Prof Walter Theseira (Nominated Member): Mr Speaker, I am sorry. I was not aware that the Minister has finished his statement. I share the Minister’s concerns about foreign influence risk. I think my only supplementary question is that I wish to ask if the Minister would agree that in assessing these kinds of foreign influence risk, we should look more at the facts of what these persons are doing in terms of their actions, their writings, points of views expressed and so forth, at their actions and behaviours and perhaps less at whether they, for example, just received foreign funding or employ foreigners in sensitive positions. I am concerned because if we are too quick to judge on these matters, we may deter Singaporeans from engaging in foreign exchanges, international exchanges and so forth, and that is going to be very important for us as a globalised society.

Mr K Shanmugam: I think what the Nominated Member of Parliament has said is one part of it. Let me try and put a perspective to that. First, the current law is that in certain categories, there is no foreign influence allowed whatsoever. For example, in order to be a Member of Parliament — obvious. Equally, Members of Parliament, political parties are not allowed to take donations from foreign agencies, other foreigners. So, the Nominated Member of Parliament’s point does not quite deal with the issues. You have got to identify the risks. Certain types, certain categories of positions, organisations like political parties which seek to contest and represent the view points of Singaporeans must not accept money from foreign institutions, and it is no answer to say, “Oh, you should not prevent Singaporeans from engaging with international opinions.” There is nothing to prevent politicians, political parties from engaging with foreign parties but you cannot take money from them. You need to identify what it is that we are speaking about.

Then, in certain other areas, for example, newspapers. We do not allow foreigners to control or fund newspapers. That is in the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA). Again, the reason is obvious. But if I were to put it in broader terms, we want to keep foreign influence out of our political environment, not allow foreigners to influence our own political processes and we have crafted a series of laws over the years. I think Singaporeans accept that and the quotes that I gave you would show to you that the Americans accept that as well. I do not think that is really arguable. How that should be applied in specific cases, we can always discuss.

Let me give you some specific examples. Let me talk about the Eastern Sun.

This was an English language daily. It was launched in July 1966. A local businessman, Aw Kow — he is son of one of the Tiger Balm brothers. He wanted to own a newspaper. He wanted money. He approached senior officials of a news agency from communist China — it was based on Hong Kong — for money. The news agency was a state-owned organisation. Aw was given loans totalling HK$6 million with very friendly interest rates and repayment terms. The Eastern Sun faced financial problems soon after it began operations. The communist officials injected another HK$1.2 million with an added condition that Aw appoint their representative as adviser to the newspaper and Aw agreed to that. The Eastern Sun was also known to undertake non-journalistic functions at the direction of the People’s Republic of China government such as de facto diplomatic representation, support and cover for People’s Republic of China intelligence officials and the senior officials whom Aw approached were, in fact, undercover intelligence agents of communist China.

The Government exposed this in May of 1971. The Eastern Sun’s senior editorial staff resigned en masse. The newspaper ceased publication a few days later. The Eastern Sun was a case of black ops. It was an attempt by communist China to capture and manipulate the local media, ultimately to influence public opinion and create a political situation favourable to their own interests. Communists even allowed the newspaper to take an anti-communist line. As the former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew pointed out, this reflected their long-term approach and patience so that ultimately they have an agent, they have an institution of influence.

So, you have to identify different aspects. Certain categories of jobs, certain categories of operations, media, are commonly used as vectors. You need to look at it very carefully and you cannot say, “Oh, we need to interact with the people from overseas and therefore, it is okay.” It is not okay to go and take money to run a foreign country’s agenda in Singapore.

Let me tell you about the Singapore Herald. English newspaper, started in July 1970, used as a tool for foreign interference in the 70s. Its editorials played up issues relating to, for example, National Service, that it should be done away with. It was making losses, this newspaper. The supposed shareholders were a former Chief Minister of Sabah, a Hong Kong businesswoman and a foreign bank. Then Prime Minister Lee and Foreign Minister Rajaratnam met with the Hong Kong businesswoman, Aw Sian, and Singapore Herald’s managing director, Jimmy Hahn, as well as the editor, Ambrose Khaw. They met in City Hall. Mr Lee asked them about the finances of the paper. Aw Sian gave the initial financing of $500,000. She said she had no knowledge of the financial standing of the paper. She said that the $500,000 was her money. So, Mr Lee Kuan Yew asked her, if you know nothing about the newspaper and you do not know how it is doing, how come you are sending this money in, if it was your money? You are a veteran business person.

She apparently gave the money on the basis of three receipts and had no control over the Singapore Herald. There were considerable doubts on the part of our intelligence agencies and the local Chase Manhattan branch gave overdraft facilities to the Singapore Herald and that was contrary to Chase Manhattan’s policy. Mr David Rockefeller, the chairman of Chase Manhattan, told Prime Minister Lee in May 1971 that the bank had a standing rule of not lending money to newspapers. Yet, here, they lent money. He claimed that Hendrik Kwant, the manager in Singapore, did not know of this standing rule and approved the overdraft to the Singapore Herald.

Our intelligence agencies concluded that American intelligence had a significant role in these operations and that this was a foreign influence operation and the motive was to create a weapon that would shape public opinion as a pressure point and also to create an outlet that would be anti-communist against the Soviets and against communist activities in this region.

So, you can see it is equal opportunity. It is not just one country or another. And, of course, the Nominated Member of Parliament would be aware of the Hendrickson affair. We all meet with foreign diplomats. There is nothing with it. But when a foreign diplomat engages Singaporeans and encourages them to form a political party and run, that crosses well beyond what diplomats are entitled to do.

If you look at the Political Donations Act, that sets out the restrictions. If you look at the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA), that sets out a number of restrictions and I can name you other legislation. But the key point is politics and Singapore should be for Singaporeans. It can be maintained without saying, “Therefore, we cannot interact with people outside of Singapore”. Of course, we must! Whether it is in business or in the academia or in politics, we must keep track, interact and understand what is going on and have deep relationships. But that is different from taking money from people or allowing people to influence operations. And we in this House should stand against that.

Ms Anthea Ong (Nominated Member): Mr Speaker, I thank the Minister for the response. I am sorry that I perplexed him and that he found my question absurd. It was actually —

Mr K Shanmugam: I would not suggest that of your question.

Ms Anthea Ong: I genuinely was concerned because at the Conference, certain Singaporean individuals were mentioned repeatedly and I wanted to know if there was a list that the Minister could share with us, so that we are aware who these individuals are who are actually under foreign influence that have security risks.

Mr K Shanmugam: I think my speech was clear as to what I said. I will have them send a copy of my speech to the Member. And I had not suggested that the Member’s question was absurd but I had said any suggestion would be absurd.