The makeup and attitude of Singapore’s society is constantly changing. Singapore is an open, multi-racial and multi-religious society. We are open to the world, and welcome talent from abroad.1 With globalisation and enhanced connectivity, Singaporeans have ventured abroad for studies, work and leisure, contributing to changing perceptions and attitudes.
Singapore is among countries with the highest Internet penetration rate in the world. Singaporeans are also among the most active consumers of social media.2 We have easy access to news and information from all over the world and are able to conveniently create and share content.3
Such developments have shaped a more global outlook, and a keener awareness of global developments and Singapore’s place in the world.
At the same time, technological advancements have changed the way we communicate and consume information. The anonymity afforded by the Internet and social media allows users to be vocal in expressing incendiary and divisive views without facing consequences. Content with higher emotional connection tend to be more viral on social media4 and heighten the visibility of and amplify such views. 5
Foreign actors (individuals, entities or countries) are increasingly able to manipulate social media to undermine the will and resolve of citizens at very little expense. There have been cases of foreign interference in other countries, where disinformation and influence campaigns have been used to exploit sensitive issues and fault-lines to fracture social cohesion and undermine their sovereignty. Many countries have learnt hard lessons and are taking actions to deal with disinformation and influence campaigns.
Singapore is not immune to such threats. Our openness, small size, hyperconnectivity to the world, and diverse society make us vulnerable to efforts by foreign actors seeking to exploit our vulnerabilities and influence Singaporeans for their own interests.6 At the Second Reading of Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill on 4 October 2021, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law Mr K. Shanmugam said that while subversion, through foreign interference, remains one of the most serious threats that Singapore faces, our population is not really aware of this.7 Actors who wish to harm Singapore may try to influence segments of our population and exacerbate communal tensions, or undermine Singaporeans’ confidence in government policies and our cohesion.
Example: Singapore as a target for disinformation and influence campaigns
In 2018, there was a spike in online comments critical of Singapore when Singapore was having bilateral disputes with a country. 8 These anonymous accounts were also behind about 40 percent of the comments related to heavy traffic congestion at land checkpoints posted on the social media pages of alternative media outlets. While the identity of the account owners and whether foreign actors were coordinating them remain unclear, they sought to create an impression of opposition to Singapore’s position at a time of heightened bilateral difficulties.9
(Image: RSS Independence (left) watching over a Malaysian government vessel in Singapore waters off Tuas. (Credit: MINDEF))
During a period of tension with another country between 2016 and 2017, Singapore experienced a coordinated Hostile Information Campaign (HIC) that attempted to undermine our foreign policy position. Online commentaries and videos were uploaded by social media accounts which had been dormant for many years. Many of these were in Mandarin and targeted our Chinese-speaking population. The content was widely circulated via chat apps and aimed to influence sentiments amongst Singaporeans.10
Read more about disinformation and influence campaigns here.
Example: Reports of social media activity aimed to sway Singaporeans’ views on the Russia-Ukraine conflict
Singapore media reported in March 2022 that anonymous TikTok accounts attempted to sway Singaporeans’ opinions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The accounts sought to convey a misleading impression of local opposition to Singapore’s position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Credit: Mothership TikTok.
Read more about Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine here.
Read more about Singapore’s Principled Stand on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine here.
Watch Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s Ministerial Statement on Ukraine and its implications below:
The TikTok video posted by Mothership showing Ukraine’s United Nations Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya praising Singapore’s diplomatic position as “brave as a tiger”, garnered mostly comments critical of Singapore’s decision to implement sanctions on Russia.11
In written replies to two parliamentary questions, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, Mr K. Shanmugam said that while the government had not detected a coordinated hostile information campaign targeted specifically at Singapore, some social media accounts appeared to have been involved in local online discussions about the conflict and had characteristics that suggested that they might be inauthentic.12
The Ministry of Home Affairs advises Singaporeans to check the authenticity and credibility of information they come across and exercise discretion when deciding whether or not to share it.
For example, the flagged TikTok accounts usually lack personal information. They use a TikTok assigned username with a string of numbers, and have no followers yet follow a high number of accounts.
The public is also encouraged to rely on reputable sources for information and cross-check information we obtain against other credible sources.
For a small country like Singapore, our success is dependent on Singaporeans’ continued confidence in and support for our foreign policy, as well as Singapore’s continued resilience, unity and economic progress.13 Singaporeans need to be aware of possible attempts by foreign actors to influence our views and decisions. As the Internet and social media are prevalent, we need to become more discerning and vigilant when we come across news or comments about Singapore’s policies. Our politics and policies should only be for Singaporeans to decide and we must stand up for our own country’s interest.