Is Singapore a shrimp or whale?

OCTOBER 17 — The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill (FICA) was passed in Singapore’s parliament recently. 

The Bill gives the government very broad powers to investigate and prosecute anyone suspected of colluding with foreign countries to interfere in Singapore’s politics. The wording of the Bill has left many journalists, workers for non-governmental organisations, even academics who receive foreign grant funding wondering if they might become targets.

Most importantly, individuals targeted by FICA do not have recourse to the courts but have to appeal to the Home Ministry — the very ministry in charge of implementing FICA — leading to questions about fair oversight.

However, in a piece critiquing FICA, prominent historian and activist PJ Thum appears to have taken it a step further by questioning the very basis of the Bill —  the government’s fundamental moral authority to issue FICA orders.

In a long piece on the New Naratif portal, Thum examines Singapore’s long history of interference in other nations. Particularly  regional Asean nations and alleges that Singapore collaborated  with the US to interfere in the affairs of Vietnam and Cambodia during the Cold War  He also mentions that Singapore has continued to aid the US with campaigns of interference in nations like Iraq and Afghanistan.  

On this basis he argues that FICA is fundamentally hypocritical — with the Singapore government attempting to prevent what it deems foreign political interference at home while frequently interfering in the politics of our neighbours.

The question it raises is: We interfere in the affairs of other nations doesn’t mean we don’t need a foreign interference prevention act of our own. 

However, in this instance, I don’t think the focus should be on our interference — rather it should focus on how this legislation will be used and what it means for our civil society. After all, a certain disagreement of hypocrisy is  common to all states.  But while I am not sure about his points as an argument against FICA, I think they do highlight something else that is important.

Singapore’s role in our region is often not as benign as we are told.  Our nation’s founding father did say “in a world where the big fish eat small fish and the small fish eat shrimps, Singapore must become a poisonous shrimp.” 

And while he was talking about power asymmetry and survival for small states in a competitive world, the truth is as Singapore has survived and thrived it may have become a little bit more poisonous than we realise.

Individuals targeted by FICA do not have recourse to the courts but have to appeal to the Home Ministry, leading to questions about fair oversight. ― Reuters pic
Individuals targeted by FICA do not have recourse to the courts but have to appeal to the Home Ministry, leading to questions about fair oversight. ― Reuters pic

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Singapore collaborated with the US in Vietnam and Cambodia because the government felt our interests were more aligned with the US than the government of Vietnam/ North Vietnam and its communist backers. 

This was probably a correct assessment but it came at a heavy cost to the people in Vietnam and Cambodia. And because we are small — our ability to align as we will is limited. Singapore’s actions across a range of regional events could probably do with some examining.  

An exploration of Singapore’s dealings with the brutal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia would, I think, be quite telling and so many years later it would hopefully be instructive without damaging our core interests.  

Thum also points out that Singapore has continued to engage heavily with the governments of Cambodia and Myanmar on a business and government to government level. Lots of money has flowed between Myanmar, Cambodia and Singapore.

Singapore has certainly benefitted from these flows but it might be time we start thinking about this. 

We don’t need to get into morality policing in the disastrous hypocritical style attempted by many Western powers but perhaps applying more pressure on Myanmar over its treatment of Rohingyas or examining corruption practices in Cambodia more closely could be beneficial for all of us in the region?

So whether it’s relevant to  FICA or not, it might be time to examine the legacy and future of our own foreign policies — or to put it another way, how can we better shrimp? 

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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