Singapore must tool up to fight information warfare: Security expert

Shanmugam and security experts warn about the threat of disinformation

Singapore's close neighbours may already be seeing disinformation tactics being deployed internally - and these could well be turned on Singapore if relations were to fray, a security expert warned yesterday.

Information warfare has become an accepted part of military doctrine, noted Dr Shashi Jayakumar of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies on the second day of public hearings by the Select Committee studying ways to thwart deliberate online falsehoods.

Some state actors have a full suite of tools, including "kinetic", or conventional, warfare, cyber attacks and propaganda to influence minorities, he said.

While Singapore's relations with its close neighbours are excellent now, it is not a stretch to think that a breakdown in diplomatic ties may see them use disinformation to sow discord in Singapore.

"It would be a mistake to assume the means and plotting against us would be merely kinetic," he said, adding: "Without meaning to cast allegations or smears, the means and tools are actually there, because you have these hired guns... which have a presence (in these countries)."

One such "hired gun" is Cambridge Analytica, a data company accused of helping Russia spread disinformation during the 2016 United States presidential election.

Dr Shashi said that it now has a presence in polls-bound Malaysia, where it is thought to be hired "by people involved in the coming election".

Meanwhile, the organised spreading of fake news and smears has become commonplace in Indonesia, where outfits such as Saracen have targeted political figures like President Joko Widodo and former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama with inflammatory rumours that tap into pressure points such as race and religion.

The warning that disinformation campaigns aimed at Singapore can be waged by countries near and far came at the start of yesterday's hearing, which was dominated by speakers from foreign organisations who detailed the propaganda efforts of far-away Russia.

It would be a mistake to assume that such efforts are not already under way in Singapore, said Dr Shashi, adding: "You deploy them long in advance, before you actually need to use them."

In fact, countries such as Singapore - which are polyglot, multiracial, data-rich and aiming to become a Smart Nation - present tempting targets for those looking to undermine societies, he said.

Dr Shashi and Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, a member of the committee, said that Singapore could be a "sandbox for subversion", with social media and disinformation used to tap into deeply ingrained historical and cultural issues, and turn groups against the Government or each other.

Mr Shanmugam said: "We are a sandbox because we have the in-built potential for being divided along racial lines, along religious lines, along some nationalistic lines."

Dr Shashi said that just as efforts to deradicalise victims of radical ideology take place both online and offline, there must be some human interaction involved to complement online counter-measures.

Open, face-to-face dialogue where a diversity of opinions can be aired could be crucial.

"I wonder whether we need more real-world interventions," he said.