In October 2016, General Jin Yinan, a senior advisor to China’s People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.), lambasted Singapore “for meddling in things that did not concern it” on Chinese National Radio. According to him, the city-state had to “pay the price for seriously damaging China’s interests”, and as such it was “inevitable for China to strike back at Singapore, and not just on the public opinion front”.
“Since Singapore has gone thus far, we have got to do something, be it retaliation or sanction. We must express our discontent,” he was reported as saying.
Less than two months later, nine Singapore Armed Forces’ Terrex armoured vehicles were impounded by Hong Kong Customs on their way back from a training exercise in Taiwan. According to the Customs Department, the vehicles were seized as the company transporting them lacked the necessary permits for handling military hardware. Nonetheless, there were a few clues that pointed to the fact that this was more than just a bureaucratic blunder.
The vehicles were first detected in the port of Xiamen in China, and were subsequently allowed to proceed to Hong Kong. Instead of seizing the vehicles there, Xiamen authorities tipped off Hong Kong customs, who then proceeded to impound the vehicles themselves. This deliberate diplomatic manoeuvre, which gave Hong Kong authorities the free hand to decide whether or not to impound the vehicles, “allowed China to ‘naturally expose’ the symbolism of the SAF vehicles incorrectly transiting its territory after training exercises in Taiwan”. While this was happening, reports suggest that a disinformation campaign hit Singapore, with many dormant social media accounts coming alive to spread pro-China narratives.
The experience seems to have profoundly affected Singaporean authorities, who started talking about the need for anti-foreign interference legislation in 2019. The process came to end last month, when the government introduced the Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act (FICA), a law that aims to counter “hostile information campaigns”. While the government insists that FICA is not aimed at any specific country and that “there are no angels” in the game of foreign interference, analysts and foreign news outlets have suggested FICA was passed in direct response to Beijing’s alleged cyberespionage activities.
But are the Chinese actually interfering with Singapore’s domestic affairs? If so, what do they want from the city-state and how is Singapore responding to these threats? These are the questions that are currently unanswered in the discourse surrounding FICA, and are the questions we’ll answer in today’s explained.
Sino-Singapore Relations: A Primer
The Sino-Singapore relationship is one that is robust but complex. On the surface, the two countries seem to share positive and comprehensive ties. Economically, China is both Singapore’s largest import and export trade partner, while since 2013, the tiny island-state has been the world’s largest foreign investor in Mainland China.
Politically, Chinese leaders have had an affinity for Singapore considering that it had a substantial influence on China’s free-market reforms. Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping in particular was impressed at how the island managed to combine authoritarian governance with free-market capitalism. In the “Singapore Fever” that followed his visit to the island in 1978, more than 55,000 Chinese officials were sent to Singapore to study “good governance”. To accommodate this, the Singaporean government set up various programs such as the “Mayor’s Class” at Nanyang Technological University, attended by thousands of mid-level mainland officials.
On the Singaporean side, leaders – starting with the elder Lee – strongly and publicly advocated for China’s constructive engagement in Asia. As part of its wider policy of practicing even-handedness when dealing with great powers, Singapore goes out of its way to prove that it does not take sides. In 2003, for example, the city-state reportedly turned down an U.S. offer of Major Non-NATO Ally status. Singaporean ministers in interviews with foreign news channels like C.N.N., always point out that Singapore is a ‘close strategic partner’ and not an ally of the U.S..
With that being said, the relationship is also characterised by mutual suspicion on some fronts. For Singapore, the only Chinese majority country outside of ‘greater China’, there is a lingering belief that Beijing views the island as a ‘Chinese country’. “Any experienced Singaporean diplomat should know that China, despite our consistent denials, persists in referring to Singapore as a Chinese country. In regarding Singapore as a Chinese country, the expectation may have been that we would naturally take China’s part, irrespective of our own national interests”, said Bilahari Kausikan, an ex-diplomat and the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2010 to 2013.
China, on the other hand, views Singapore’s close military and strategic partnership with the U.S. suspiciously. In 1990, Singapore signed a Memorandum of Understanding allowing the American military to use some of Singapore’s facilities. Since then, the US has rotationally deployed fighter aircraft for exercises, refuelling and maintenance, and Littoral Combat Ships and P-8 Poseidon aircrafts to Singapore. This is of concern to the Chinese as it offers the U.S. military more access to the disputed South China Sea. Also, despite only recognising the People’s Republic of China as legitimate, Singapore maintains unofficial and long-standing relations with Taiwan. This has caused more unease as cross-strait relations have become more uncertain.
Overall, while there is a certain degree of suspicion in the relationship, both sides recognise that their common interests are greater than their difference, and as such, for the most part, have productive ties.
The South China Sea Spat
According to Mr. Kausikan and other researchers, China asserted a pressure campaign on Singapore from 2015 to 2018. An approximate cause of this downturn in relations could be attributed to Singapore’s stance on the South China Sea. In general terms, Beijing expected Singaporean leaders to support Chinese claims in the region, or at the very least stay quiet. This was especially the case, considering that Singapore had become the ASEAN country coordinator for China in 2015. The role entailed Singapore coordinating the positions of ASEAN member states with respect to issues on China. Since Beijing viewed Singapore as a ‘Chinese country’, it seemed to have expected Singapore to coordinate the regional position on behalf of and in favour of China – a complete reversal of the role.
Defying China’s expectations, the island-state advocated for the problem to be resolved in accordance to international law, while also claiming that it does not pick sides as it’s a non-claimant state. When an international tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines’ claims against China in the South China Sea, Singapore issued a statement that supported the “peaceful resolution of disputes among claimants in accordance with universally-recognised principles of international law, including (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea)”. As a small state, the promotion of international law is a key tenant of Singapore’s foreign policy as it affords the country more room to manoeuvre. In a world where geo-politics is solely determined by military and economic might, small states like Singapore would be naturally at a loss. As such, the statement, which otherwise reaffirms the country’s “long-standing and friendly relations with all parties”, is consistent with Singapore’s wider foreign policy objectives.
In September 2016, the rift between the two countries became public, when the Global Times – a hyper-nationalistic Chinese newspaper viewed to be part of the Chinese government’s propaganda apparatus – accused Singapore of having raised the South China Sea issue at a Non-Aligned Movement summit in Venezuela. In response, Singapore’s ambassador to China issued a statement claiming that the article was a fabrication, and that the Singapore delegation did not raise the issue at the conference. Nonetheless, the Global Times and other C.C.P. affiliated newspapers continued publishing articles accusing Singapore of interfering in things that did not concern it.
During this period, Singapore also strengthened its defence agreement with the U.S., allowing for sophisticated surveillance planes to occasionally operate out of Paya Lebar airbase. Analysts have pointed out that this too could have angered Beijing, considering that the planes could hypothetically record Chinese actions in the South China Sea and also conduct surveillance against submarines operating out of Hainan Island.
The Influence Operation
In response to these perceived slights, Beijing is alleged to have waged a sophisticated and multi-pronged influence operation on Singapore. According to Mr. Kausikan and the French military’s Institute for Strategic Research (ISREM), the influence operation perpetuated five weaponised narratives about Singapore:
- Singapore is just a small country, which cannot afford to be arrogant and to alienate the Chinese giant
- As a ‘Chinese country’, Singapore should explain China’s position on the South China Sea and other issues to the rest of ASEAN. Appeals to ethnic pride were also made, urging a “fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability and desirability of a Chinese identity for multiracial Singapore”.
- The U.S. is in continual decline, while China is rising and the next regional superpower. Singapore might as well ally with China and be on the right side of history.
- Without Lee Kuan Yew, the current leadership does not know how to deal with China. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, underestimates the importance of the relationship with Beijing and is too close to the United States.
- Singapore has no claims in the South China Sea, as such it should not be supporting the U.S. or taking sides on the issue.
While there are kernels of truth in these narratives, Mr. Kausikan argues that they are oversimplifications that are meant to seem plausible to an audience that is only superficially interested in global affairs. Sino-Singapore relations under Lee Kuan Yew, for example, weren’t always rosy. Singapore was the last country in Southeast Asia to switch recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China, in order to ensure that the region doesn’t view the island as a ‘fifth China’. Similarly, Mr. Lee was one of the only Asian leaders to go up against a CCP-backed communist united front and win.
Nonetheless, these narratives were reportedly spread through multiple means. Businessmen, academics and others with interest in China were given broad hints that their interests might suffer unless Singapore was more accommodating of Chinese interests. Beijing exerts substantial leverage over this group of people by making it harder for them to get contracts, licenses, permits, especially in the real estate sector, where Singaporeans hold significant investments in China. As such, many of these individuals “provided feedback” to the government during the Terrex incident to “avoid finding trouble” with China by training in Taiwan.
On social media, Singaporeans were bombarded with YouTube videos in Mandarin parroting the same, aforementioned narratives. There were also numerous pro-China messages that were being forwarded through WeChat and WhatsApp.
More traditional forms of espionage were also used. In August 2017, Huang Jing, an academic who was the director of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Centre on Asia and Globalisation, was accused by the Ministry of Home Affairs “of being a an agent of influence of a foreign country” and was told to leave Singapore. Specifically, the man is alleged to have passed privileged information to a school administrator, who then passed that information to senior government officials. The aim was to influence these officials to institute a change in foreign policy in favour of the foreign government. The ISREM report alleges that the massive 2018 SingHealth hack, which saw the theft of the medical records of 1.5 million patients, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s, might have been in response to the Huang Jing affair. The objective may have been to find Kompromat (compromising material) on the Prime Minister as blackmail – but the attackers discovered nothing.
All of this was in addition to more explicit forms of diplomatic pressure, asserted through the seizure of the Singaporean armoured vehicles in Hong Kong and exclusion of the city-state’s representatives in some Belt-and-Road forums.
Why is this bad?
Being a civilizational state, the People’s Republic of China is the embodiment of thousands of years of Chinese culture and history. As such, Beijing can effectively appeal to the ethnic pride of Chinese people outside of the mainland. In fact, according to a 2018 U.S. Congressional study, this seems to have become part of China’s foreign policy. Senior officials in Beijing, including Xi Jingping, have called for Chinese people overseas to promote the P.R.C.’s interests and “mutual understanding”. This was institutionally reflected in early 2018, when the CCP’s United Front Work Department, which gathers intelligence on, manages relations with, and attempts to influence elite individuals and organizations in China, was tasked with managing overseas Chinese affairs as well.
Unlike other ASEAN member states, Singapore has the distinction of being the only country with a Chinese majority population. China’s alleged influence operations, which’s “fundamental purpose… is to impose a Chinese identity on Singapore so that it will align more closely with the P.R.C.’s expanding interests”, therefore are a bigger risk to Singapore than her neighbours. In addition, if Beijing succeeds in making Chinese-Singaporeans believe that the island should be ruled in accordance to the wishes of ethnically Chinese people, racial minorities in Singapore would be at risk of exclusion, or worse, oppression.
At the moment, this scenario seems far-fetched. Many analysts have pointed out that influence operations in Singapore have only been limited in their success due to the country’s tight control over the media and a development of a strong multi-cultural counter-narrative. The existence of two Chinese cultural centres in Singapore is emblematic of this counter-narrative. In his 2015 trip to Singapore, Chinese President Xi Jingping opened a China Cultural Centre, which aimed to promote Chinese culture to Singaporeans. Less than two years later, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong opened a state-of-the-art, $110 million Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, mostly funded by the government. In his speech at the opening, the Prime Minister made it a point to highlight the distinct character of ethnically Chinese people in Singapore. The building’s opening and the Prime Minister’s accompanying speech were said to be a reminder that “Singapore is not a Chinese Nation” and that “Singaporean Chinese culture is not the same as Chinese culture”.
The Singapore Doctrine
Singapore’s response to these influence operations have been nuanced, albeit understated.
- While cases of foreign interference are sometimes publicly revealed, Singapore does not explicitly name perpetrators. In the aftermath of the SingHealth data breach, Minister-in-Charge of Cybersecurity, S. Iswaran stated that authorities knew the identity of the attacker, but refused to comment further due to “national security reasons”. This is similar to the Huan Jing affair, when the Ministry of Home Affairs did not name the country the academic was alleged to work for. This lack of identification presumably exists to prevent the escalation of tensions between Singapore and the perpetrators and to preserve the island’s ability to claim neutrality. It’s also important to note here that sophisticated influence campaigns are often associated with great powers like the U.S. and China. These are countries which have deep trade ties with Singapore, and which can inflict substantial damage on the country if things go south.
- Intentional or not, enough secondary details are released by the Singaporean government to allow academics, journalists and experts to piece together the identity of perpetrators. In the case of the SingHealth data breach, it was revealed that it was an Advanced Persistent Threat group (typically a nation state or state-sponsored group) that was behind the attack. There are only a handful of these groups that actively operate in Southeast Asia, making identification easier. When it came to the Huang Jing affair, the academic’s dual Chinese-American citizenship was revealed, thereby further narrowing the suspects. By allowing journalists and academics to reveal the identity of perpetrators, Singapore retains plausible deniability, whilst indirectly informing its population of the risks it faces. This could also serve the purpose of a signalling mechanism – showing the offending country that it is aware of the operation and who is behind it.
- Though Singapore does not escalate these situations by naming and shaming, it also does not seem to reverse course or appease the countries conducting influence operations. China’s reported unhappiness with Singapore hasn’t changed the way the country continues to promote and support the rules-based international order. Similarly, in 2004, when China asserted significant pressure on Singapore to stop then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong from making an unofficial visit to Taiwan, Singapore decided to prioritise its credibility and go ahead with the visit. While this lead to the subsequent chilling of relations with China, the costs of being seen as subservient to Chinese interests would have dealt a big blow to Singapore’s credibility on the global stage. As a small country, Singapore has to repeatedly and actively show that it isn’t a vehicle for superpower interests or a satellite state. Appeasing countries conducting influence operations would do the opposite.
The pressure campaign on Singapore is said to have wound down sometime in 2017, when Beijing became increasingly concerned with the Trump administration. The influence operation in particular was paused after the expulsion of Huang Jing. Chinese leaders then went out of their way to project friendliness and warmth. Since then, C.C.P. affiliated media has poured praise on Singapore for being neutral in U.S.-China relations and for handling the Covid-19 pandemic well.
China for its part has vehemently denied the existence of any influence campaign. The Chinese Embassy in Singapore, for example, has called the Jamestown Foundation report on foreign interference “absurd” and an attempt to “alienate the friendship of our two peoples” and “hinder normal exchanges between the two countries”.
“We are pleased to see Singapore’s achievements of exchanges and cooperation with all countries. We respect Singapore as a multi-cultural and multi-religious state and will remain committed to developing friendly relations with Singapore on the basis of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit,” said the post. It is also unlikely that Singapore’s government officials will talk about this alleged pressure campaign openly and explicitly, meaning that in Beijing’s defence, it would be hard ascertain the true extent of the claims. Nonetheless, considering that much of what we know about this pressure campaign was revealed by Mr. Kausikan, a senior member of the Singapore foreign policy establishment, and considering that he wasn’t publicly rebutted by ministers (like other ex-diplomats have been in the past) it is reasonable to assume that there is some truth to this retelling of events.
For now, a vast majority of Singaporeans are unaware that they were potentially at the receiving end of an influence operation. “Our people haven’t even begun to realise what the problem is, and the nature of the problem,” said Minister K. Shanmugam in parliament during the FICA debate. While part of this can be attributed to the government’s refusal to officially acknowledge these operations, the population’s low interest in foreign or even political affairs could also be blamed. The importance of this knowledge cannot be understated.
Nothing makes an influence operation less effective than knowing that you are being subjected to it.