After decades touting openness, Singapore sees foreign meddling threat

City-state’s invocation of foreign interference law highlights challenges of maintaining a highly globalised economy.

Singapore is one of the world’s most open and globalised economies [File: Yong Teck Lim/AP Photo]By Toh Ee MingPublished On 27 Feb 202427 Feb 2024

Singapore – For decades, Singapore marketed itself as one of the world’s most open and globalised economies to compensate for its diminutive territory and lack of natural resources.

Now the Southeast Asian city-state is confronting a new challenge: retaining the magic ingredients of its success while guarding against foreign interference that such openness could invite.

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On Monday, Singapore invoked its foreign interference law for the first time by designating Chan Man Ping Philip, a 59-year-old naturalised citizen, as a “politically significant person”, weeks after authorities flagged their intention to designate the businessman.

Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs said that Chan, who was born in Hong Kong, had shown “susceptibility to be influenced by foreign actors, and willingness to advance their interests”.

Under the designation, Chan is required to disclose annually political donations of 10,000 Singapore dollars (around $7,400) or more that he receives, foreign affiliations and migration benefits.

While the government did not say which country’s interests Chan allegedly tried to advance in Singapore, the businessman and real estate developer is well-known for advocating China’s perspective.

“It is our duty as overseas Chinese to tell China’s story well, and to both spread and pass on the marvellous traditional Chinese culture while we are abroad,” Chan was quoted as saying by a Chinese media outlet last year while attending China’s Two Sessions parliamentary meetings.

Chan, who founded China Link Education Consultancy and headed the Hong Kong Singapore Business Association and the Kowloon Club, has also written prolifically for Chinese-language news outlet Lianhe Zaobao.

In 2019, he was issued a warning by police for facilitating a discussion on a controversial bill in Hong Kong without a permit in violation of Singapore’s strict curbs on public assemblies.

Chan told local media that he had no comment regarding the designation and a request for comment made by Al Jazeera through his former association went unanswered.

Singapore passed the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, or FICA, in 2021 amid heavy criticism from opposition politicians and activists who warned the legislation could be used to stifle legitimate dissent.

Other countries, such as Australia and the UK, have passed legislation aimed at preventing foreign interference.

But for Singapore, the task of balancing an open economy and national security is especially delicate.

A tiny island city-state with few natural resources, Singapore relies heavily on the free flow of goods and people.

Trade accounts for over 300 percent of gross domestic product(GDP) – the highest ratio of any country – and non-permanent immigrants make up about 30 percent of the country’s 5.92 million residents.

Singapore has the highest trade-to-GDP ratio of any country [File: Wong Maye-E/AP]

For authorities, there is a growing realisation that this openness can be a double-edged sword.

“For Singapore, there has always been a perennial concern of foreign influence and this is not specific to only China as we are an open economy and highly digitised as well,” Dylan Loh, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), told Al Jazeera.

“We cannot afford to put up barriers to people, information, ideas, capital in the way that others have done.”

Loh said Singapore is especially concerned about “insidious forms of influence” that go beyond typical economic and cultural exchanges.

“As a Chinese-majority country, it is quite natural that we are seen as a fertile site for cultivation and influence,” Loh said.

“For Singapore, I think this means that we have had to update our tools including our regulations to better deter and also respond appropriately when we detect such activities and this incident is precisely why FICA was needed,” he added, referring to Chan’s case.

Local media have highlighted how ethnic Chinese Singaporeans, who make up about three-quarters of the population, are increasingly sympathetic to China.

In a Pew Research Center survey of residents in 19 countries carried out in 2022, Singapore was one of only two countries – along with Malaysia – where a majority of residents expressed a favourable view of China.

Chong Ja Ian, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said there is concern in Singapore about the Chinese Communist Party mobilising the Chinese diaspora and exploiting commercial relationships to further its interests.

“That Singapore has in the past skirted around more serious and substantive discussions about race, ethnicity, citizenship, and their meaning means that Singapore society is less equipped to deal with challenges that pull at, challenge and perhaps seek to redefine these concepts of identity,” Chong told Al Jazeera.

Like many Asian peers, Singapore has also been reluctant to be drawn into taking sides in the increasingly heated rivalry between the United States and China, instead adopting the mantra of being a “friend to all and an enemy to none”.

Singapore is in a challenging position because its foreign policy calls for building a network of partners based on the principles of mutual respect, sovereignty and the equality of states, regardless of size, said Ben Chester Cheong, a law lecturer at Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).

“Everything that is happening around us must be understood considering Singapore’s foreign policy fundamentals. As a small and open economy, it is inevitable that Singapore needs to work closely with various countries across different sectors, including technology, society and academia,” Cheong told Al Jazeera.

Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has cited a number of instances of foreign entities allegedly mounting hostile influence campaigns as justification for FICA.

In one of the most high-profile cases of alleged foreign interference, authorities in 2017 expelled Chinese-American academic Huang Jing after deeming him to be an “agent of influence of a foreign country”.

Huang, a professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, had his permanent residency revoked for allegedly working with intelligence agencies to influence government policy and public opinion.

Huang denied being a foreign agent at the time, describing the claims as “nonsense”.

FICA, which passed parliament after a 10-hour debate, attracted controversy over its immunity from judicial review and the scope of its powers, including provisions allowing authorities to direct internet service providers and social media platforms to provide user information, block content and remove applications used to spread content they deem hostile.

In an open letter before the FICA’s passage, 11 rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, said the legislation’s provisions “contravene international legal and human rights principles” and would “further curtail civic space, both online and offline”.

Singapore has one of the world’s most open economies [File: Edgar Su/Reuters]

Singapore’s business community has been muted on the legislation, both before and since its passage.

Several Singapore-China business associations declined to comment when approached by Al Jazeera.

SUSS’s Cheong said he did not believe the use of FICA against Chan would scare investors or businesses away, given that he had not been charged with a criminal offence and his case appeared to be isolated.

Investors and businesses are lured to Singapore because it has one of the world’s best business environments, which remains the main consideration, Cheong said.

“A good majority of investors and businesses are neither politically significant nor do they have any desire to be politically active,” he said.

“Hence, for most investors and businesses who are politically inert, the likelihood that FICA will ever apply to them is negligible.”

Althaf Marsoof, an assistant professor at Nanyang Business School at Nanyang Technological University, said the law may actually boost business confidence as national security and public order are “fundamental prerequisites for a stable and secure business environment”.

“FICA enhances Singapore’s reputation as a safe and reliable place for economic activities, fundamental to sustaining and attracting investment and fostering business growth,” Marsoof told Al Jazeera.

Marsoof said the law has so far been applied in a “targeted manner” and the government was keen to maintain a “stable and balanced international standing”.

“This measured approach ensures that legitimate business operations and investments are not adversely affected, reinforcing Singapore’s commitment to maintaining a secure and predictable operational environment vital for business confidence and investment decisions,” he said.

NUS’ Chong said that Singaporean society should have more open discussions about issues around identity and foreign meddling and not only rely on the law.

“Other actors will sometimes try to make use of Singapore and Singaporeans for their purposes,” he said.

“That cannot be helped. What can be helped is how Singapore and Singaporeans address these challenges. Having laws like FICA without broader discussions and without greater transparency may not be sufficient.”

Source: Al Jazeera