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Thread: Reflecting on foreign influence operations, FICA, and what to do

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
6 min read

The following is a compilation of this Twitter thread.

I've been thinking about this: what should we do, or what needs to be done, about foreign influence operations in #Singapore? A thread 🧵 taking in issues of misinformation, freedom of expression, public trust, literacy, and shared values.

I recently tweeted about my own observations of Singaporeans imbibing and amplifying Russian/Chinese state media propaganda. It's also something @JustinOngS at @straits_times has been reporting on recently.

Some of the things that some SGeans say — about their distrust of the media (especially "Western media"), how they prefer to get news/information from platforms like YouTube, Telegram and WhatsApp, the conspiracy theories and misinformation that they share — are really troubling.

But that doesn't mean that everyone who's sharing such content is a brainwashed China shill, or that they are knowing participants in a foreign influence operation. As @JustinOngS has said, we shouldn't dismiss people as wumao just 'cos they might express a pro-China view.

There are a variety of reasons why people might express certain views. Sure, some might be actual wumao-types, in the employ of propaganda machines to spread misinformation/skew narratives. But many are ordinary folk who are responding based on their own experiences and beliefs.

Figuring out how to deal foreign influence operations in this messy, noisy world is complex. You want to be able to take action against the former (actual wumao) while not crushing the freedom of expression of the latter (ordinary folk).

This requires a variety of actions and responses from different actors. No one should be the sole arbiter of what to do, because when we put all the power and authority in one basket, we end up with a brittle and precarious system than instead of a robust one.

This is why many civil society friends and I opposed Singapore's Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) before it was passed in Parliament last year. We argued that it was overly broad, concentrated power in one place, and was open to abuse to suppress dissent.

Importantly, it was also pointed out that we're getting a crap trade-off with FICA: while its wide definitions could catch legitimate activity, it doesn't respond to how influence operations actually work. Please read @ChongJaIan's piece on elite capture:

Addressing Foreign Interference in Singapore: Looking in the Right Places? - Academia | SG
CHONG JA IAN argues that FICA does not do enough by way of restrictions and oversight on key officials, leaving Singapore open to elite capture by malign foreign actors.

This past week, I've been occupying the space between (1) worrying about the amount of Russian/PRC propaganda talking points I've seen SGeans spout on social media, and (2) worrying about FICA and what might happen when it comes into force (whenever that is).

I know the SG govt will say that FICA is the answer to influence operations like the ones Russia and China are known to carry out. But I doubt it. POFMA was meant to be able to address foreign state-sponsored online misinformation campaigns and it's doing sweet FA right now.

When people already think they're being lied to by "fake news media" and that govts are engaged in cover-ups, POFMA executive orders aren't convincing anyone. POFMA is handy if you want to harass activists but useless if you want to correct anti-vaxxers/pro-Russian propaganda.

So how? This is where I am right now. I'm thinking not so much about what the government needs to do, but where we are as a society and what we really need to move forward into this messy, noisy world.

As discussed at @acadsingapore's webinar, Singapore is fertile ground for pro-China/anti-"West" rhetoric to spread. For instance, successive PAP govts have sown suspicion of "the West" to dismiss arguments related to democracy and human rights.

It isn't difficult for anti-"West" sentiment about US hypocrisy to spread because (1) the US *is* often hypocritical, and (2) SGeans have been primed for this for years. It's a small jump to develop that into whataboutism to muddy the waters and excuse severe human rights abuses.

As a society, we're not used to navigating diverse and complex positions. Things get presented as binaries or false equivalences. If US imperialism = bad, then China = good. If China did a bad thing, well, US has done bad things too. Nuance? What's that?

I know this isn't unique to Singapore. But I feel like we are very vulnerable to this sort of thinking in Singapore 'cos the lack of press freedom and suppression of civil liberties means that we as a people don't have a lot of practice navigating conflict and dissent.

It also means we don't have enough of a robust and vibrant civil society that can organise and counter influence operations (domestic or foreign). We are in the situation I mentioned earlier, when too much power/authority is concentrated in one basket.

While the govt has a lot of power, I worry that as a people we are not well prepared to deal with the deluge of information and how to protect ourselves and our society from influence operations. If the govt's measures don't work, we are not in a good place to fend for ourselves.

I think this point here is really important and fundamental to everything. What values and first principles hold us together as Singaporeans? What do we believe strongly in? What are we collectively willing to fight for?

Singapore exceptionalism is a myth that many Singaporeans believe in, but it's not a value to live by. "We're special and we do things better than others" is not a principled position. It's a smug superiority that can very quickly count for nothing when shit hits the fan.

If Singaporeans had values and principles that we believe in, we would be better at collectively evaluating situations according to those principles, instead of seeing situations as zero-sum games where you pick a team and fight that corner.

If we believed in, say, the importance of freedom of expression, freedom from exploitation and the right of every person to live with dignity, then we would be horrified by abuses perpetrated by the US *and* China *and* Russia, and everywhere else they occur (including at home).

If we held on to first principles instead of seeing the world as Team US or Team China, we would evaluate actions and behaviours, instead of personalities and what often ends up boiling down into weird and highly problematic cases of Geopolitical Fandom.

What I'm talking about here isn't a magic bullet, of course. And it's not easy to build this sort of collective belief in principles and values, especially since so many of our spaces are so top-down or PAP dominated that we struggle to have such open conversations.

Ultimately, I can't offer a comprehensive solution to dealing with foreign influence operations. But the more I think about this, the more I think the hollowness of our Singaporean political identity is a fundamental issue that *must* be part of the solution.

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Kirsten Han Twitter

A Singaporean independent journalist, activist, and cat slave.