Edwin Tong: “Curious” rise in online critiques during last year’s M’sia-S’pore tensions shows country’s vulnerability

Photo: Facebook screengrab/ Edwin Tong

In Parliament on Tuesday, February 12, Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong said that the number of comments critical of Singapore rose during the time when Singapore and Malaysia were at loggerheads over maritime and airspace issues late last year.

He called the increase “curious.”

Moreover, many of these posts were made using accounts that were anonymous.

One example Tong gave were comments concerning traffic congestion at checkpoints. Forty percent of the comments on this issue on alternative media’s social media pages came from “avatar accounts”, which have profile pictures that do not show the account holder’s face.

Tong explained that this is one example of how foreign interference can penetrate and influence the nation’s politics via misinformation and online campaigns.

He added, though, that later in the year laws will be updated so that steps can be made to fight these threats.

Regarding the “curious” spike in critical comments when bilateral tensions arose, Tong said, “We do not know who these suspicious accounts belong to. Nor do we know if they are being coordinated by foreign actors. But it is clear that these accounts have sought to give and create an artificial impression to netizens of the opposition to Singapore’s position, at a time of heightened bilateral difficulties.”

Tong said this in answer to a question from Cheng Li Hui, Member of Parliament for Tampines GRC, who had inquired whether there has been foreign interference in the country.

Tong pointed out the state-linked cyberattackers who were able to gain access to the information of 1.5 million Singaporeans, including that of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He said, ”Cyber hackings are often deployed in concert with hostile information campaigns to search for information that can be weaponised.”

Tong also mentioned that other countries such as France and the United States have also had to ward off foreign interference. “No country is immune. This is asymmetric information warfare, fought in a theatre and an era with no distinction between war and peace.”

He underlined Singapore’s vulnerability in this area. “In this battlefield, Singapore, an open, democratic, digitally connected and diverse country, is especially vulnerable. We are a young country with sensitive fault-lines that foreign actors can exploit to foment distrust and ill-will among our various communities.”