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Corralling the Lion: Singapore's Biggest Foreign Threats Lie Close to Home
Singapore's location, coupled with reasonable, friendly governance, has long attracted foreign business to the island. But, as it has grown in prosperity and importance, it has also brought lots of attention - not always welcome. And with increasingly tighter international interdependencies between countries around the globe, pursuit of influence over critical nodes (that Singapore is as well), is only bound to get more intense.
Singapore is in a quite unusually complex situation. It is effectively just a city - a tiny state in an advantageous (though not entirely unmatched) location. And yet it has to deal with foreign pressures coming not only from the region - but from thousands of miles away as well.
This is the price of success and significance it has earned over 50 years.
Interestingly, while those regional and global foreign parties take aim at it, their goals are vastly different.
Regional players - mainly Malaysia but to some degree Indonesia as well - certainly wouldn't mind if Singapore lost a bit of its stability and good reputation, what would drive some capital away to them, partly also relieving some of the pain of it being a safe, prosperous torn in the side of its neighbors who struggle with various degrees of poverty, corruption and crime.
Singapore may be small - a bit under 6 million inhabitants - but its economy is as big as neighboring 30+ million Malaysia and equal to a third of what 260+ million Indonesia is generating each year.
For global players, however, chiefly USA and China, political stability in Singapore is not a concern - far from it. Both benefit from having a stable, trusted partnership with the authorities (unless they know someone else would be more loyal to them). They just want to ensure the country is in their camp.
In Beijing, Singapore is seen as a major strategic node that cannot be allowed out of its sphere of influence. This geopolitical problem was first openly formulated by president Hu Jintao, who dubbed it the Malacca Dilemma in 2003. The crux of it is that vast majority of Chinese trade - including important energy imports of oil and gas from the Middle East - passes through the choke point that Malacca Straits is. In case of a conflict, starving China of important resources would be an easy task - especially if Singapore chooses to align with the US (or any other Chinese rival). It is also one of the arguments in favor of the enormous Belt & Road Initiative, which will provide China with alternative routes - though even if completed, won't entirely eliminate the threat in Southeast Asia.
Similarly, USA is interested in the city precisely because of its strategically important position, both allowing Americans to source supplies for their global operations, as well as keeping China in check, in case of a bigger conflict.
Singapore has already expelled one Chinese academic working at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy for alleged foreign interference back in 2017 - much like it did with a US diplomat Hank Hendrickson in 1988. And now, just a few months ago, a report about Chinese activity on the island - how the country leverages i.a. Chinese clan associations in Singapore - was released.
The claims it makes are really no secret but the real irony is that the document itself - even if it is largely true - can be a part of a foreign influence campaign on behalf of the US and Taiwan, as it was released by Jamestown Foundation in Washington, authored by Mr Russell Hsiao - executive director of Global Taiwan Institute.
It is a rather amusing example of how this rivalry is intersecting. Interestingly, however, these big player games are not a major worry for Singapore - at least not in the short-term. They are a strategic long-term concern, should one of the two superpowers stumble.
Despite their power, neither Beijing nor Washington can overplay their hands what could push the city-state into the arms of the rival.
If China realistically threatens billions of dollars that Singaporeans have invested on the mainland, then the city is likely to move closer to America. If, however, the US wants to pressure the island or becomes a weaker trade and security partner, then Singapore may choose to open its doors to Beijing a little wider - especially given the geographic proximity and ethnic composition.
At the same time neither scenario is really preferred locally. The primary objective for Singapore is to retain the status quo - careful balancing of both relationships, without pledging allegiances.
The long-term bet of either of the superpowers is that the opponent's strength will simply wane with time. China hopes for a gradual withdrawal of America from international affairs, under increasing political and economic pressures at home, forcing it to scale back its ambitions. America, on the other hand, is waiting for economic problems that could force Beijing to yet again turn inward to protect its integrity and stability, before it can return to projecting its power thousands of miles away.
And since Singapore has no interest in taking sides (dependence on anybody is never a good position to be in) it simply has to cautiously tread between the two as long as they are locked in their rivalry.
For that reason, the really significant threats to Singaporean sovereignty and stability are far closer to its borders.
Singapore's relationship with its bigger brother has been rather good in recent years, up until the elections in 2018 which put in power the old Malaysian strongman - and certainly not a big friend to the city-state - Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.
Within months the old tensions were revived - over the bridges linking the two states, over high speed rail link or the deal that supplies Singapore with raw water from Johor river, and is the cornerstone of the separation agreement from 1965, followed by disputes over maritime borders, airspace and even food imports.
With or without Mahathir, however, regardless of how positive cross border sentiments have been, Malaysia has long continued to pursue direct competition with Singapore, to chip away at its enormous prosperity, mainly within one area the city is most known for - international trade.
Investments in ports and railway links - such as ECRL - are meant to spur growth of Malaysian harbors, which could compete with Singapore - much like Mahathir's last child of his first premiership, deep water port of Tanjung Pelepas, that managed to poach Danish shipping giant Maersk from across the Straits of Johor. Railway connection crossing the peninsula linking Kuantan with Port of Klang could, in theory, serve as bypass of Singapore Straits, providing an alternative trade route - of importance mainly to China, which has included it in its BRI plans and been contracted to carry out the project.
Antagonizing Singapore, however, is more a ploy of domestic politics, to drum up nationalist narrative and rally support of the Malay majority. It is counter-productive to the foreign policy aim of undermining Singapore's position (or perhaps even leading to the collapse of the government which has been successfully in charge since 1959) because it unifies Singaporeans in defense of their country and the authorities.
So for any political surprises to happen, different methods have to be used to erode trust in the PAP.
Any change at the helm in the Lion City would likely rattle foreign investors and cast fears over the future of the island, prompting capital to seek greater diversification within its nearest vicinity.
That's where Malaysian - but also Indonesian (e.g. Special Economic Zones in Batam) - causes could get greater share of attention, which right now is focused on their diminutive but highly reliable neighbor.
Surprising Marriage of Convenience
As a result, politicians in neighboring countries - especially up north - may be quite rambunctious publicly for domestic purposes but, at the same time, could be willing to (directly or indirectly) support any causes that shake the little neighbor and lead to some political shift in the future.
Paradoxically, their interests align with the goals of many domestic Singaporean activists and perhaps even politicians, who seek to unseat PAP for their own reasons.
While Singapore is known for economic prosperity and great business freedoms, it has over the years caught a lot of flak from abroad over its stance on human rights or freedom of speech. This created some ground for self-righteous "progressive" activists who take a stand against the government which, in their opinion, is authoritarian or, at the very least, way behind the times (as judged by Western standards).
This alignment of interests has produced really rather exotic alliance between several Singaporean opposition activists, who claim to be fighting for democracy and free speech, and a quite notorious Malaysian PM, who has for decades dictated his country's politics.
Surely the most dubious group of people can be found in the New Naratif quasi-magazine / movement led by self-professed journalist Kirsten Han and a historian PJ Thum, accompanied by a bunch of other content producing activists.
They're currently based in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, after - predictably - being denied registration by Singapore's ACRA on the grounds of foreign funding, with US$75,000 (ca. S$100,000) received from an organization linked to George Soros' Open Society Foundation.
Other revenue comes through NN memberships, which are available in multiple tiers starting around $50 reaching over $550 per year, which - reportedly at least - currently have been bought by ca. 400 individuals from 17 countries.
The group claims to promote human rights, freedom of speech and democracy around Southeast Asia - but has exhibited a particular liking for striking against Singapore, which is arguably the safest, most prosperous and overall best place to live in for thousands of miles (if not globally).
Surely, if you want to promote change in Southeast Asia, there are far bigger problems, affecting far more people than the governance in the most successful country in the entire region.
And yet, clearly excited by the surprise win of the Malaysian opposition in General Election in 2018, New Naratif's crew made a pilgrimage to the man who was the linchpin of Pakatan Harapan's success - Dr. M.
Despite his rather atrocious track record on everything they claim to stand for, with vast allegations of cronyinsm and corruption during his decades in power, and abuses which led to jailing of his aspiring competitor, Anwar Ibrahim (imprisoned on absurdly bogus charges of sodomy) - not to mention overall rather wasteful governance, which saw Malaysia left behind by Singapore - New Naratif chose Mahathir as the person to call on to help promote democracy, human rights and free speech in the region.
This visit had a special significance as it came during the time of renewed diplomatic hostilities directed at Singapore - raising the old dispute over water deals and bridges over the Straits of Johor, with conflicts over territorial waters, airspace and even food imports, erupting in the following months.
PJ Thum is an especially suspicious character in this whole masquerade, since - as a historian - he should know really well the track record of the man shaking his hand in the picture.
And yet, not only does he appear to be sympathetic towards him but even presented him with a book which effectively questions Singaporean history and legacy.
It's hypocrisy of absolutely gargantuan proportions for any activist aware of regional history to seek aid in promoting liberty and democracy from a leader who entrenched the ousted Barisan Nasional in its position, destroyed political opponents, perpetuated the racist, discriminative Bumiputera policies and oversaw humongous spread of cronyism and corruption, all of which deny good livelihoods to millions of Malaysians even today.
Of course you may think that PJ Thum is merely blind and stupid. But following many of his public declarations suggests a rather duplicitous nature.
On August 18, 2018, during a public forum in JB, live-streamed by another activist entity - The Online Citizen - on Facebook, he played the role of a dedicated, caring citizen, concerned about the future of Singapore, when answering the question "Can Singapore do a Malaysia?" (i.e. can Singapore overthrow the ruling party):
"I'm not sure I want to do a Malaysia. The victory of Mahathir is probably, maybe an action to protect elite privilege [...] That's not really what I want for Singapore. I want a country that elects the best regaradless of race, language or religion. [...]If you ask me shall we follow a Malaysian model I would also say no. We should follow a Singapore model.[...]I want Singapore to do a Singapore."
All of this sounds perfectly reasonable - even admirable. The only problem is that it comes from a person who repeatedly expressed hope Singapore would cease to exist.
Mr. Historian was scrutinized by online public quite quickly and easily, and it turned out that year after year he celebrated Malaysian National Day or other dates associated with history of unified Malaysia, while taking swipes at Singapore.
Any person acquainted with the history of both countries knows that Singapore's position within Malaysia was untenable as UMNO refused to abandon racial politics and continued with preferential treatment of the Malays, effectively creating two classes of citizens - a divide which exists in Malaysia until today, enshrined in its constitution and executed through Bumiputera policies.
Any activist claiming to fight for human rights, while seeking help from a man who spent over 20 years enforcing these policies and strengthening the position of the Malay community at the expense of all other citizens, who continue to suffer poverty, crime, urban chaos and often catastrophic pollution, is either a complete fool or a simply an agent of hostile, foreign interests.
It turns out that New Naratif is an entity effectively endorsing racist, discriminative policies, only so that the people running it can continue to carry out their attacks against the only country which managed to quell racial discontent and give all of its citizens equal opportunities and broad representation of their interests - Singapore. The country which the Managing Director of New Naratif wishes did not exist.
Meanwhile, his partner in crime, Kirsten Han, has expressed opinions that Singapore is not a mature civil society, because thousands of people are not taking to the streets to protest - like Malaysians or Hongkongers do - as if that was a sign of some greater freedoms (rather than discontent with reckless policies of the authorities, which Singapore is free from).
Their ambitions to influence political situation in Singapore do not end on mere declarations, as they were supposed to conduct - hand in hand with another local writer Alfian Sa'at - a comprehensive course on "Dissent and Resistance" at Yale-NUS, only for it to be cancelled after public uproar.
For all their declarations about carrying out work on Southeast Asia, both Kirsten and PJ appear to be publishing about Singapore on their Facebook profiles with surprising frequency - while, rather hypocritically for "free speech" activists - blocking all public comments on their posts.
Nobody who believes in the power of free expression shuns the opportunity to interact with their detractors because that's the only way to convert them (or at least demonstrate to onlookers the superiority of your views). If you brand yourself a journalist why do you refuse to speak to those who disagree with you? And how are you going to fulfill your mission if you don't?
Of course unless your activism is not really about convincing anyone but rather a self-pleasing activity, carried out in a bubble, a safe space, surrounded only by those who parrot your views.
Or if it's a vehicle of interference that's meant to disrupt and destroy at the behest of somebody else.
Blanket censorship is a domain of ideologues who are well aware of the flimsiness of their arguments, so they need to protect them by preventing all dissenting commentary from disrupting the message they broadcast.
In the curious case of Kirsten, PJ and their buddies, it appears to be a quite ceaseless barrage of assaults against Singapore, done from a foreign country and with aid of foreign funding, under the guise of struggle for some greater ideals.
The only question remains whether they really so ignorant or whether all of their activities are a deliberate foreign influence campaign.
The Obstinate Citizen
The Online Citizen is one of the last major anti-government news outlets remaining in Singapore, stuck in an endless crusade to portray the local reality in a negative light - much like in this article how Singaporeans pay the most out of pocket for healthcare (as a percentage of total spend) - what is a quite egregious manipulation and misrepresentation of data, since the smaller the overall expenses (as Singapore's healthcare is efficient and doesn't cost as much as e.g. American does) then any expense out of pocket will be larger in relation to it.
That said, the site remains in existence and has quite carefully toed the legal boundaries, even as it is struggling financially.
It's perhaps for financial reasons that Terry Xu employed writers in Malaysia who then produced often scathing articles about Singapore.
I do not suspect Terry to have deliberately nefarious intentions but surely it must have dawned on him how hypocritical his behavior was as TOC often advocated against employment of foreigners in Singapore and greater protections for the locals.
And now it turns out that the biggest opposition news site in Singapore is effectively an outlet for Malaysian writers.
Whether or not Terry's intentions were good, by doing so he also compromised the integrity of his own work. Surely many Malaysians would find it rather enjoyable to write bad things about Singapore - but that certainly does not constitute good reporting. (Of course as long as good reporting is the stated goal - which in case of TOC likely never has been.)
So, willingly or not, The Online Citizen could (or has) become an outlet attacking the foundations of governance in Singapore, playing into the hands of its neighbors by attempting to undermine the political situation in the city.
But there are more questions about it, as new names are being unearthed, and they come from the new Facebook feature that allows to look up locations of current managers of any page. Here's what it shows for TOC:
Out of 14 admins of TOC's Facebook page, only 5 are located in Singapore. Besides 4 people in Malaysia there are 2 in Indonesia, 2 in New Zealand and 1 in the UK.
It is, of course, entirely possible that most of these people are Singaporean citizens simply living abroad but given the latest revelation about Malaysian writers it is fair to ask who these people really are - and do they represent anybody else other than themselves?
The Online Citizen is not the only Facebook page employing a questionable team. At least two other major pages - All Singapore Stuff and Legit Singapore - are managed by a number of people either in foreign countries or cloaking their locations:
Here's All Singapore Stuff:
and here's Legit Singapore:
In both cases the majority of page managers are located abroad. But the really interesting thing is that both pages share a number of the same - and rather unusual - countries: UAE, Kazakhstan and Sweden. It's a clear indication that both pages are likely run by the same group of people.
When I originally checked this for ASS in May this year (I posted my findings on Facebook HERE) Kazakhstan was not on the list - today it's visible on both. It looks that either the managers are using different VPNs to cloak their locations or perhaps some management was outsourced to infamous troll farms in foreign countries to produce harmful propaganda in great quantity, quickly and cheaply.
Most importantly, however, it proves that allegations of foreign interference in Singaporean affairs are not a fantasy.
What About Politics?
Surely any Singaporean politician - whether sympathetic to PAP or not - would (and should) support the firm stance of the authorities against the progressive escalation of tensions undertaken last year by Mahathir's government.
So you can imagine my shock when I found myself under a barrage of accusations by Brad Bowyer - at the time still a minor wannabe candidate, who has jumped between different parties in the past few years. Mr. Bowyer attacked me for my articles critical of irrational Malaysian demands, which had pretty much destroyed considerable good will which has been built up in the previous years.
But it turns out, that - really bafflingly - he came out in support of Malaysia several times during the stand-offs between the two countries.
Here he goes on a rampage accusing PAP government of diversionary tactics and accused it of imposing demands on Malaysia - indirectly praising its new government for not lying down as, allegedly the previous administration has done. He later expounds on his theories by making really rather weird accusations, talking about how war must be avoided (who ever really called for it?) because Singapore is not like Israel
"Israel survived ONLY because its has been supported by the Global Elite, the likes of the Rothschilds and a Superpower that helped create it and we certainly do not have that kind of backing. In addition, that Superpower is now very much domestically focused, and the Global Elite and branches of the Rothschild family are being exposed for the real criminals they are and being removed from power and or prosecuted around the world."
I think many people will agree that besides being deeply irrational and surprisingly defensive of Malaysian stance towards Singapore, his comments are bordeline Antisemitic as well.
And he is the latest draft pick to Tan Cheng Bock's brand new party - PSP. Is that the envisioned Progress? Bending to Malaysian pressures?
But that's not all, in another lengthy rant he goes on to question i.a. alignment of Seletar airport and reclamation works done in Tuas - while defending Malaysian ambitions to grow competitive harbor facilities:
We're not done yet! In another post from April, he praised Malaysia for loosening media laws just as Singapore passed the POFMA, targeting online falsehoods:
Isn't it at least troubling to see an aspiring Singaporean politician regularly praising Malaysian authorities - which have, let's be honest, single-handedly destroyed pretty good cross-border relations built with the previous administration? When Malaysian vessels intruded into Singaporean waters, when ILS system at Seletar airport was installed at a request of a Malaysian airline, to accommodate its needs, he went on and on how bad and selfish Singapore is?
Now, perhaps it's just an attempt at earning greater following. Writing something disturbing to garner attention on social media. Maybe seeing this coming from a man rambling on about "Rotschild criminals" should not be surprising.
Or that, until recently, he was a partner of Lim Tean, in People's Voice Party. The very same Lim Tean, accompanied by Leong Sze Hian met Tan Wah Piow and Malaysian MP and Bersih organiser Maria Chin Abdullah in August 2018 - just days after the show put up by New Naratif team meeting Mahathir and Tan Wah Piow as well.
The fact that a group of Singaporean politicians and activists, met in Kuala Lumpur with a Singaporean dissident, under the patronage of Mahathir, suggests that it was likely a broader political ploy aimed at portraying Singapore and its authorities in negative light, while rejuvenating Malaysia's desires at improving its international position by claiming to be a civilized country speaking up about global injustice - what was reinforced under new Foreign Policy Framework announced just a few days ago.
Of course today, remembering that the maritime dispute continued until April this year, it sounds rather dishonest. But perhaps the strategy is to make Malaysia appear more civilized in the hope of appearing more trustworthy to foreign investors.
Evidence? Only Circumstantial
Naturally, it's hard to definitively accuse any of the aforementioned parties of deliberate interference on behalf of a foreign country. Intentions and potential threats can only be inferred by observation. In many cases the source of a dangerous behavior may be in ignorance or recklessness. But gullibility is also a threat because it is easily used by foreign actors to manipulate people into doing what they want them to do.
The need to plant and finance agents of influence in a foreign country is increasingly smaller. Thanks to widespread access to online media, almost anybody can attempt to influence the masses to think in a certain way. At the same time, existing influencers may become targets of a propaganda campaign exploiting their own prejudices to prod them into voicing support or opposition of a desired cause.
Because of that it is often nearly impossible to protect the country from or trace all attempts at external interference in its affairs. One way to address this is to educate the public to treat everything they read and see with considerable suspicion, looking beyond catchy headlines or emotionally charged statements - especially coming from those who profess to serve some greater causes.
What, I hope, I have managed to contribute to here.