Guarding against Chinese influence operations in Singapore

The Chinese Communist Party seeks to shape public opinion and national identity in Singapore. The city-state’s citizens represent the strongest line of defence.

By Maegan Liew

A recent report published by the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research institute, identified the existence of Chinese influence operations working to sway public opinion and policy in Singapore.   

Authored by Mr Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute, the report found that Beijing is using cultural organisations, business associations, youth programmes and Chinese-language media outlets to push Singapore into alignment with the interests of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  

The Chinese Embassy in Singapore dismissed the allegations as “groundless” and “absurd”.

The report comes after the US Department of Defence (DoD) identified CCP influence operations abroad as a key aspect of Beijing’s foreign policy strategy. In its annual report on Chinese military and security developments, the DoD described how the CCP is using influence operations to appeal to ethnic overseas Chinese citizens in the hope of establishing power brokers within foreign governments to promote favourable policies.

Singapore has always sought to protect itself against foreign political influence

Two years ago, Singapore expelled Huang Jing, a prominent academic from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, for working with foreign intelligence agents to influence Singapore’s foreign policy and public discourse. Identified as “an agent of influence” of an unnamed foreign power (widely believed to be China), the China-born American professor was permanently banned from Singapore.

The expulsion was only the second time Singapore had expelled a noncitizen, the previous occasion being the 1988 expulsion of American diplomat Hank Hendrickson who had allegedly attempted to influence the 1988 general election.

Safeguards to protect against the threat of direct foreign political interference have since been implemented. The Political Donations Act (PDA) of 2001 prohibits foreign donations to political candidates and associations. In 2017, the Republic also moved to amend the Public Order Act to allow for the refusal of permits for public assembly organised by or involving non-Singaporean organisation or citizens.

Beijing seeks to shape policy through culture

Overseas influence operations are not unique to China. Many states seek to shape public opinion overseas in an attempt to garner foreign support.

However, there are aspects of China operations that make them unique. Last year, retired Singaporean diplomat, Bilahari Kausikan, warned Singaporeans of Beijing’s subversive activities in his keynote speech at a conference on Chinese public diplomacy.

Kausikan asserted that China’s influence operations stand out from that those of other countries in three ways: its rejection of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states; its use of both legitimate and covert diplomacy; and its aim to not only direct but to condition behaviour.

In Singapore, the CCP is using identity politics to promote loyalty to the Chinese state. 76.2% of Singaporean citizens are ethnic Chinese. In promoting a Greater China narrative, the CCP calls on citizens of Chinese descent, irrespective of nationality, to show affinity and loyalty to the Chinese state.

By imposing a Chinese identity on Singapore, the CCP believes it can erode support for the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling against China in the South China Sea and bring Singapore further in alignment with China. This is particularly valuable as tensions between the US and China worsen and global economies are facing increasing pressures to choose a side.  

Protecting against foreign interference rests on a strong sense of self-awareness and identity

As a young nation mostly comprised of immigrants, identity for Singapore has been an existential issue. The Republic has strived to establish a multiracial society from its founding. Nation-building has forged an overarching Singaporean identity that is characterised by the meeting of a diverse array of racial identities and culture. The CCP’s influence operations to convert cultural affinities among Chinese Singaporeans risk disrupting the delicately harmonised balance in Singapore.

Decorations hang in Singapore’s Chinatown.
Photo: Fabio Achilli

The island nation’s greatest asset has traditionally been its people – and in safeguarding the Republic against influence operations, an informed public may be Singapore’s strongest line of defence.

Singaporeans must be aware of the island nation’s regional position – and the security threats it faces. A greater public understanding of the ways and means Beijing is attempting to shape Singaporean culture and identity will prevent influence operations from swaying public opinion and national policy.

As the National Day celebrations get underway this week, Singaporean national pride and identity will be on full display. This is what will engineer social and political resilience against foreign influence.

About the Author

Maegan Liew
Maegan studies Political Science at the National University of Singapore. She enjoys discussing international relations and seeks to better understand the world through writing.