Skip to content

What can Singaporeans do about the information war?

This week: Confusion and arguments between Singaporeans over the war in Ukraine, some bad news for death row prisoners, and lawyers taking on late-stage capital cases face eye-watering costs.

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
7 min read

Happy Saturday, folks! Earlier this week, I sent a special issue out to Milo Peng Funders on accountability and checks and balances in Singapore. A version of this piece, with more background on the Committee of Privileges and Workers' Party saga, was published by The News Lens International. Basically, the TNLI version was edited for people who haven't been following what's been going on in Singapore, whereas the WTC special assumes that there's already some level of familiarity, so gets to the point more quickly and brings up a few more cases.

I'm trying to work out the new streamlined Covid regulations. Does this mean small events are okay again? Can I restart in-person democracy classrooms for us to come together to talk about big issues? If so — does anyone know of good venues where someone who has no budget can host such an event? Asking for a friend who looks and sounds exactly like me.

This week's issue is going the be mainly focused on Singaporean reactions to the war on Ukraine, but I'm splitting different points into sections in the hopes of making things more readable.


What do Singaporeans think about the war in Ukraine?

Last week, I noticed quite a lot of misinformation and skewed narratives on social media about the war in Ukraine, which prompted me to publish this special issue. Some people were confused and sharing things while unsure if they were true or not, but there are also Singaporeans who are uncritically, even confidently, sharing Russian propaganda talking points. Some of them are getting this from very questionable sources. In this paywalled story, The Straits Times spoke to people who have shunned "Western" media as the "fake news media" and turned to Telegram and YouTube. (Not gonna lie, every time I hear someone say "I don't trust the media, I just watch YouTube", a very tiny, high-pitched voice starts screaming in my head. Not that there are no credible voices on that platform — I watch YouTube too! — but there is so much junk that it's dangerous if that's pretty much your only, uncorroborated source.)

The government is pressing on with its firm stand against the invasion, and Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan has called on China to try to talk some sense into Putin. As the ST story points out, there are also Singaporeans who disagree with how strongly the government came out against Russia. I haven't seen any publicly available opinion polling of local reactions, but between my own observations, conversations with friends, and Academia.sg's great webinar on Thursday evening, the sense is that most Singaporeans are supportive of the government's position.

Among those who disagree, there are different motivations and reasons (some of which overlap, intertwine, or stem from the same root concerns):

  • Why did we have to go and piss off a country as big as Russia? See lah, now we're on their "unfriendly countries" list.
  • Sanctions don't even work anyway... what could Singapore's sanctions achieve? (Which tends to take us back to "why piss off the big country?")
  • Ukraine is ultimately not going to hold out against Russia's military and firepower (and nuclear power some more), so is Singapore really picking the right side here? (Very often, this is just another way of saying "why piss off the big country?")
  • We're a tiny country, surely it would be safer for us to just remain neutral? (Because why piss off the big country?)
  • Sanctions will affect ordinary Russians, and Singaporeans too.
  • Singapore shouldn't be going along with the "Western" narrative on the war; the "truth" is that Russia was provoked into this and this is a new proxy/cold war and Singapore should stay out of it.
  • Russia's actions are actually justified because the Ukrainian state is run by Nazis, there are biological weapons labs in Ukraine, etc. etc.

When I asked people on Instagram if they or their family members have been receiving misinformation about the war, I even had young Singaporeans reach out to share that older relatives had received messages or seen social media posts claiming that the Ukrainians were staging photos of the conflict and that the dead bodies in the photos were just actors. 😰😰😰


A World Divided: International Conflicts and Contending Loyalties in Singapore

As discussed during Academia.sg's webinar (which you can watch below), disagreement with the Singapore government's position doesn't necessarily mean people are pro-Russia, or even pro-China, as much as they are buying into "anti-West" narratives. There is valid frustration that can be tapped on, because countries like the United States and United Kingdom have displayed great hypocrisy, racism, and violence over the years, but instead of recognising the complexity of the situation where multiple actors can act in a variety of ways, this gets distilled into a very narrow, binary thinking where it just becomes "US = bad, therefore anyone who opposes US = good". And it doesn't help that our own government has, whether intentionally or not, helped provide fertile ground for "anti-West" Russian or Chinese propaganda to take root with their own attacks on activists as "importing Western ideas" at odds with our "Asian values". The speakers on Academia.sg's panel urged everyone to drop such binary thinking, to challenge grossly generalised labels like "the West" or "Asian values", and to treat being critically-minded as an ongoing practice.

Another point that was made during the panel: speakers drew a line between the "why piss off the big country?" sentiment among some Singaporeans and the way we have become used to following power and authority. We're used to recognising whoever is the Biggest/Most Powerful and just going along with them; after all, that's how things work domestically with the PAP. For many people, this obedience to authority is seen as common sense or "pragmatism". This is what can happen if we, as a people, aren't bound by a sense of shared values and first principles. If we don't talk about what we believe in and what we really want to stand for as a people, then we become more vulnerable to being led by the nose by whoever has the most might.

If you don't have time to watch the whole thing, I also live-tweeted the event:

Also worth reading are pieces by Cherian George and Linda Lim, written before the webinar.


So how?

One thing I've been thinking about a lot this past week (and was also raised during the Academia.sg panel), is what to do about the Chinese state propaganda talking points that are spreading around Singapore social media.

I've been frustated, not just because it's distressing to see elders and people I've really respected spread conspiracy theories about Nazis in the Ukrainian government and the "genocide" of Russian speakers in Ukraine, but because the foreign state-sponsored misinformation campaigns they're parroting are precisely the sort of thing our government pointed to when they argued that laws like POFMA and FICA (which is not yet in force) were urgently necessary, yet we're not seeing any action now.

This is not to say that I want to see action, because I think both POFMA and FICA are deeply problematic. I also know that POFMA-ing someone who's spreading Chinese state propaganda while angry with both "the Western fake news media" and the PAP's following in line with "the West" isn't going to convince or correct misperceptions, only make them dig in further (just see how POFMA went down with the anti-vaxxers). But the lack of action on the POFMA front just demonstrates how inadequate our measures are to deal with misinformation and influence operations.

It might not (yet) be a major problem affecting most of the population, but Singapore is not somewhere where we have space to debate and evaluate diverse perspectives, or where we are used to having to deal with complexity and contradiction and conflict. We don't have independent civil society and media groups doing the important work of reporting on national issues and keeping an eye on those in power. So many of our informational eggs have been put in the one government-influenced mainstream media basket, depriving us of diversity of opinion and thought. We aren't used to exercising our critical-thinking muscles. This leaves us poorly prepared for a world where the flood of information is always rising, and confusion over many competing perspectives and motivations is an inevitable fact of life. We have to start working on these things now, as much as we can in the environment that we live in.


Is there a story or issue that you would like to write about? Apply for the Kaya Toast Mini-Mentorship Initiative, now open on a rolling basis!


Death penalty updates and lawyering woes

The High Court has dismissed the applications of Roslan bin Bakar, Pausi bin Jefridin and Rosman bin Abdullah. Roslan and Rosman are still involved in another application involving a number of other death row prisoners, but unless this recent decision is challenged at the Court of Appeal, this might be the end of the road for Pausi.

Lawyers taking on these late-stage applications have also been accused of abusing the court process, and threatened with cost orders. This puts other lawyers off from picking up such cases, which leaves death row inmates in the lurch.

It's a very difficult situation, but we continue to do what we can. Last week, groups of Singaporeans walked to the Istana to submit personal letters appealing for clemency for Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam. Please watch and share this video!


Meeting in the Middle

A shout-out for a panel organised by Ethos Books! Meeting in the Middle is an annual women-led conversation that they host as part. This year's panel is Doing & Being: Intersections of Community Organising, with great speakers: Constance Singam, Dana Lam, Mysara Aljaru, Rachel Tey, and moderator Jolene Tan. They'll be talking about participation in civil society through different mediums and roles. Tickets are $7 before GST, and you can get yours here.

$5 concessionary tickets are also available upon request — write in to letters@ethosbooks.com.sg to inquire!


Thanks for reading! Help me get the word out about this newsletter and share it around.

Weekly Wraps

Kirsten Han Twitter

A Singaporean independent journalist, activist, and cat slave.


Related Posts

Members Public

Shanmugam’s War on Drugs campaign

This week: Shanmugam’s media campaign to defend the War on Drugs, a survey on workplace discrimination, and bad news about workplace fatalities.

Members Public

Singapore’s government considers cancelling “cancel culture”

This week: the government considers legislating against “cancel culture”, police get powers to collect DNA from more people, and Shanmugam continues to double down on Singapore’s drug policy.

Members Public

15 days in prison for a 15-second photo

This week: Jolovan heads to prison again for the most outrageous reason, a chatbot fails to help teachers, and "heightened safety" measures brought in at worksites.