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What to look out for in 2020.

Issue 87

Happy New Year, everyone. I woke up this morning to the news that the US has assassinated Qassem Soleimani via drone strike, which is going to be considered by Iran as an act of war.

Since we’re only three days into 2020, there isn’t a huge amount of news to sum up this week, so I’m going to focus on one issue, and then do a little bit a look ahead to what I think we should watch this year.

Also, I wrote an overview of civil liberties (or lack thereof) in Singapore in April last year. I’ve since updated it and published it on my website. I’m planning to revise it periodically so it can remain a timely backgrounder as things develop—I hope it’ll be useful for providing context for those who might not already be familiar.

Data, privacy and surveillance in Singapore

On the last day of 2019 there was a story looking at the operations of US intelligence agencies and how they’ve had to evolve and change in the digital age, which included an interesting little anecdote about Singapore:

Singapore was one example, recall three former intelligence officials. By the early 2000s, the agency ceased running certain types of operations in the Southeast Asian city-state, because of the sweeping digital surveillance there. The Singaporeans had developed a database that incorporated real-time flight, customs, hotel and taxicab data. If it took too long for a traveler to get from the airport to a hotel in a taxi, the anomaly would trigger an alert in Singaporean security systems. “If there was a gap, they’d go to the hotel, they could flip on the TVs and phones and monitor what was going on” in the room of the suspicious traveler, says the same former senior intelligence official. “They had everything so wired.”

It’s a chilling paragraph about Singaporean capabilities even in the early 2000s. I’m not entirely convinced that the authorities are actively tracking the amount of time it takes someone to get from the airport to the hotel—after all, there are many legitimate instances in which people might not go straight to a hotel right after arrival—but I don’t have trouble believing that we have that capability, should we want to use it to track a person.

For instance, Singapore is leaning into using biometrics. It can make things much faster and more convenient for people, but also has great potential for surveillance and tracking. And there’s not much clarity about where all the data collected by the authorities ends up, how they’re used, and what sort of oversight exists to make sure that the use is restricted, restrained, and responsible.

The collection (and possible centralisation) of lots and lots of data also raises the risk of security breaches, of which we’ve already seen multiple examples of in recent years. Last month, it was reported that the personal data of over 2,400 Ministry of Defence and Singapore Armed Forces personnel might have been leaked via email phishing activities.

Looking forward

Now that we’re into 2020, here are some of the things that I’ll be looking out for:

The general elections, of course, will have to top the list. While it needs to be called before April 2021, which gives Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong some leeway to play with, the elections are widely expected to be called in the first half of this year. Some of the guesses that I’m hearing put it around March or April. I’m looking forward to finding out more about candidates from all parties, and how the horse-trading between opposition parties is going to go—who’s going to get what turf?

We can also be expecting more POFMA drama, perhaps with more groups and individuals getting subject to orders. The Singapore Democratic Party has released a fuller response to the correction direction ordered against them by Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo: they’re demanding that she retract the order and apologise. Meanwhile, Singapore’s diplomats have been mobilised to defend POFMA by rebutting reporting on POFMA in the US, UK, and Hong Kong.

I’m also holding my breath for the anti-foreign interference law that the PAP has made clear that they would like to pass. We still haven’t seen a bill yet, so it’s unclear what the details of that are going to be and how they are planning to regulate “foreign interference” (or even how they are going to define that term). But since I and New Naratif have already been name-checked in the context of this discussion, I can’t help but think I’m going to feel the impact of this law pretty directly. 😰There’s no mention of this in the order paper for the next sitting of Parliament on Monday, but I’m not hopeful that it means they’ve dropped the idea.