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Edited Transcript of Minister's Opening Address at the 13th Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior National Security Officers (APPSNO)

08 April 2019

Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, let me first bid a very warm welcome to Singapore to those of you who have travelled far and near to get here.

The theme for this year’s programme, ‘National Security in the Age of Disruption’, is most apt and timely. But as Keng Yong had said – “disruption” is an overused, maybe abused word.

Technological Disruption

I just want to leave you with one idea, and then you can ignore the rest of the speech. To keep it simple: human nature has not changed. That’s the first point. The second point is: however, technology has changed. It has accelerated the speed with which ideas circulate, and because human nature has not changed, that inability to deal with the speed of the circulation of ideas, and the fact that everything now is interconnected in real time, it is this sense of dislocation – in the way human beings approach ideas, engage each other, organise our societies and mobilise ourselves – that brings us to these disruptive times that we live in. In other words, the key idea is that human nature has not changed; technology has. What we're watching now is the interaction of these two forces.

Now, in a sense, we've actually seen all this before. For example, during the Industrial Revolution – and we know the Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain, spread across Europe – it transformed the economies, but it also transformed societies.

One key point then was that it widened the gap between those who were able to master and to exploit the new means of production, and those who were not able. And those, in a sense, were left behind. This deepening divide between the owners of capital – people who control the means of production, versus the exploited working class – led domestically to increasing extremism; fascists on the right, communists on the left. This domestic foment in turn also disrupted the global order. We saw economic rivalry, political miscalculations, and in the last century, sowed the seeds for two World Wars. Scientific advances also led to new and sharper security threats and tools, new instruments – nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons – were also created.

Today, a new technological revolution is upon us, and we are seeing an exponential rise in pervasive computing, an explosion in big data, as well as breakthroughs in automation, robotics, new computational techniques, smart technologies. This in turn is leading to another cycle of social and political disruption, and it will have profound implications for national and global security.

I want to elaborate on three key – or what I think are three key security issues, which will concern many of us in this room. The three are polarisation, radicalisation, and cyber threats.

Polarisation

First, let's deal with polarisation.  I mentioned earlier in my introduction that whenever you saw the advent of a new technological breakthrough, there’s often an initial ‘Gilded Age’ that comes with these technological revolutions, because it takes time for the new tools of the means of production to be democratised. It takes time for a new middle class to rise. In a sense, we are now at another ‘Gilded Age’. This time it is a ‘Digital Gilded Age’. There are winners and there are losers. Now, it's the supranational tech companies – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple – which are growing exponentially in economic and political influence. There are also losers – those who have not been able to increase their skills, those who are losing their jobs, and others who are feeling wage stagnation.

We know that new jobs will be created. They are being created. But the problem is, because of the speed of change, there is a big disjunct between the demand for workers with relevant skills, and the structural employment from workers who are unable to scale up quickly enough. And so there is anxiety, there is insecurity taking root, and all over the world, if you examine domestic politics, there's this sense of an ‘anti-elite’, inward-looking, fractious mood that has permeated our politics everywhere. In some countries, people have taken to the streets or even into cyberspace, in an attempt to make their grievances and voices heard.

The overwhelming feeling is that the promised fruits of globalisation and technological progress have not been distributed quickly, evenly enough. So today, we are all feeling the political effect as the right and left drift even further apart, accompanied, more ominously, by a hollowing out of the political centre and the middle class. So you see the far right, demanding restrictions on immigration and free trade; while the far left demands radically increased subsidies and radical redistribution. Actually, both these extreme poles do not have the answer for the anxieties that people are feeling. Nevertheless, these extreme and simplistic positions have salience and are very easy to push when society is fractious and anxious. Digital media and the ideological echo chambers that it creates have pushed people even further, because now, no matter how mistaken or biased you are, you will always find someone else on the internet to affirm that misguided belief.

So we end up with a more fractious, more divided society. It gets harder and harder to bridge differences and to arrive at consensus, and to generate constructive solutions for societies. All over the world you see the risk of paralysis in political systems. You think about the results of referenda and elections over the last two to five years; you see clear symptoms of that. This breakdown in the domestic consensus has in turn led to a disruption in the international liberal rules-based world order, as we know it. Countries that are afraid of change, countries and societies that are afraid of competition, will raise valid political questions about the value of the liberal world order characterised by economic integration. And we should not therefore be surprised when we see countries increasingly resort to unilateral actions, oppose multilateral views in favour of bilateral views, repudiate multilateral approaches and institutions, and instead, find other sources of leverage.

Over time, what this will lead to is that our trade and economic integration will be constrained.  We will witness tit-for-tat actions on trade and other disputes, and our ability to respond to clear and present global challenges – radicalism, cybersecurity, climate change, pandemics – will be impaired. Given our unique circumstances in Singapore, for us, because we are so small, so open and multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-religious, we know that we cannot afford to stand still. We cannot afford to be paralysed by fear of the changes which are sweeping the world. We know, in the case of Singapore, we do not have the option of cutting ourselves off from the world; or to build walls and protectionist barriers. In fact, in Singapore, because we have no choice, we believe that we need to master the new technologies, face competition head-on; double down on interdependence, integration, openness, and seek win-win collaboration with everyone in all countries that are willing to do so.

Radicalisation

Let me now touch on radicalisation. This has gained increasing salience, because as I said earlier, the speed with which ideas circulate, \increased connectivity, and the surge in identity politics in turn leads to increased radicalism and raises the risk of terrorism. The return of ISIS fighters to Southeast Asia, and on the other side of the political spectrum, the Christchurch shootings – are stark reminders of our vulnerabilities. In a sense, such tragic developments can be viewed as an extreme and explosive outcome of identity politics and the social dislocation brought by increased globalisation. In enacting enhanced and stricter security measures, we address some of the symptoms. But it does not solve the root of the problem, which is the spread of extremist and violent ideology in the minds of young people everywhere.

The front line for this process of radicalisation which we are watching today is in fact, cyberspace; where terrorists and political opportunists spread propaganda, recruit followers, coordinate attacks. The proliferation of social media and the availability of tools, new tools such as live streaming, give terrorists unique opportunity to personally reach out to their target audience all over the world, and to grip the world's attention by broadcasting violence in real time. Discussions on cyberspace regulations are still in their nascent stage, and need to be accelerated. We need to catch up with the times. Until we find effective solutions, terrorists will continue to take advantage of this largely unregulated, vast space in order to spread their hateful extremist ideology.

Cyberspace and social media are in fact the ideal platform for malicious actors to pursue a range of objectives, including promoting terrorist ideologies. Even the less obviously dangerous falsehoods can, over time, have severe consequences for our social fabric. We have seen such examples around the world, including the apparent interference in the UK referendum on Brexit, with a coordinated campaign of falsehoods and false narratives on social media by apparently a foreign actor, seeking to divide society. We have seen this in the UK, the US, and Europe.

Singapore is small. We are open. We are easily overwhelmed by our adversaries if we were to lower our guard. Because we are diverse, multiracial and multi-religious, latent fault lines are always there, available to be exploited. In our case, we have also seen evidence of inauthentic online activity on issues affecting public interest. Let me give you a few examples. The use of inauthentic online accounts to spread a falsehood that Singapore was helping to launder 1MDB money in return for favourable agreements with Malaysia. Another example, a spike in online comments from inauthentic accounts critical of Singapore's position during our bilateral difficulties with Malaysia over the last couple of months. There have also been online falsehoods designed to inflame sentiments against migrants and foreign workers in Singapore. These are awkward, difficult issues but we have to confront them and come up with ways to deal with it.

Cyber Threats

Which brings me to my third issue, cyber threats. Governments everywhere are stepping up their efforts to enhance cyber security, but the threats are increasingly sophisticated and asymmetric in nature. In the past year, several countries, including Singapore, have experienced cyber incidents. Such incidents do not merely cause the loss of billions of dollars. In fact, they also have a debilitating effect on our interconnected critical infrastructure. They affect our economic activity and have corrosive effects on our justice system. They erode public trust in government. Besides cyber-attacks, advances in information technology have also increased our vulnerabilities, cyber espionage and the spread of fake news and ideas which can affect our social cohesion. Our population is increasingly media-savvy, and exposed to the entire spectrum, the crowded marketplace of competing ideas, viewpoints and disinformation. So we need to be aware of the risk of foreign entities seeking to influence domestic politics through an open cyberspace.

Singapore’s Approach

So what are we going to do about these challenges? I would like to share three key principles which Singapore has adopted in our approach to dealing with these challenges head-on.

First, we have to address the social disruption brought about by the technological revolution. And that means investing in our people, investing in our social security system, in order to give people the confidence and verve to face the future, that society will stand collectively together with them through this anxious time, and at the same time do this without eroding that sense of self-reliance. In Singapore, we are encouraging our schools to tap on technology, and to cultivate a generation of digital natives who are equipped with the ability to adapt quickly to labour market shifts in response to the demand for new skills, for new jobs. We have also developed schemes such as SkillsFuture, to enable Singaporeans to retrain and upscale in order to master technology, regardless of age.

However, we are also cognisant of the limits of education as the great equalizer, and therefore, we must still focus even more on protecting the most vulnerable in our society. In the case of Singapore, it's not just a matter of social safety nets; it's also a matter of creating a social security trampoline, which enables people to bounce back up and therefore, to keep up with the challenges of the future. This requires not just politics, not just policies, but it requires effective networks on the ground – peer networks, systems of support – to help people make the right choices. There is a need for strong collaboration between public and private sectors, and for people to use this trampoline, to get back on their own two feet, and to know that the society will stand with them. The purpose in this, again I want to reiterate, is to give people confidence and verve, to face the future collectively in a cohesive society.

Now, if we succeed in building confidence domestically, then that gives us the ability to counter the spread of radical ideas, hateful ideologies, and instead to focus on promoting social unity, and to stem the danger of increased polarisation that we are witnessing all over the world. Singapore believes in doubling down on our efforts to promote interfaith dialogue, and to enact laws and to educate our public on fake news and online manipulation. In December last year, Singapore hosted ‘Faithfully ASEAN’, an inaugural regional interfaith exchange program that was attended by 40 interfaith practitioners and activists from around the region. Later this year, we will host our first International Conference on Social Cohesion and Interfaith Harmony. The conference will seek to foster mutual understanding and generate ideas to counter divisive narratives and extremist ideologies.

Last Monday, 1 April 2019, we introduced a bill in Parliament, which would allow the Government to act decisively against online falsehoods created and propagated and disseminated by malicious actors. If this bill is passed, Singapore will become one of the first few countries in the world to legislate against this increasingly clear and present danger. Extensive evidence-gathering and public consultations were held, and the Select Committee appointed by Parliament to study the issue recommended a multi-pronged, a whole-of-society approach. The Government has been in close conversation with all the major tech companies whose platforms have often allowed the spread of online falsehoods and foreign interference. Now, whilst legislation is essential, the most crucial line of defence in order to counter the scourge of fake news, actually is by having well-informed and discerning citizens who can distinguish between real and fake information. In this regard, Singapore believes that public education is absolutely critical. The Government is expanding the school curriculum, we have launched campaigns to encourage good cyber habits among Singaporeans young and old, and we will work with our businesses and community groups to raise awareness on digital information and media literacy. The key attitude is one of scepticism. Read something, analyse it, identify the source, the motivations, the implications of the recommendations that any piece of news, comment, opinion, or ‘fact’ is trying to advance.

Third, given the complex and trans-boundary nature of cyber threats, Singapore will continue to take a multi-pronged and multi-sectoral approach to tackling this issue. At the domestic level, that means fostering close collaboration between government, businesses, community organizations, and individuals. At the international level, we believe that it is imperative for all of us to come together to forge a unified effort to address cyber threats, and to set the norms that govern cyber space. Singapore supports the reconvening of the United Nations Group of Government Experts and the continuation of its work on developing the norms for state behaviour in cyberspace. ASEAN demonstrated our leadership on this issue, when all ten ASEAN member states last year agreed to subscribe in-principle to the 11 norms contained in the UNGGE 2015 report during the third ASEAN Ministerial Conference on Cyber Security in Singapore last September. The ASEAN-Singapore Cyber Security Centre of Excellence is scheduled to be launched in October this year. We believe it will contribute by conducting research and training in areas such as cyber norms and cyber policy issues, as well as to facilitate the exchange of information and best practices.

Conclusion

So let me conclude by thanking all of you for coming together, for addressing security issues in this digital age that requires not just national but multinational efforts. As past technological disruptions have shown, these challenges are complex; they will pervade both domestic and international politics. None of us can address these challenges alone. Platforms like APPSNO are helpful for us to pool our ideas together, to share experiences, and to build networks that will hopefully foster closer collaboration and more effective collective action between our countries and our regions.

I wish you all the most fruitful program ahead, and thank you all once again for being part of this session. Thank you very much.

 

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