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Government set

to curb foreign influence

on universities

Singapore is looking at possible legislative measures to curb foreign influence on organisations including universities, its minister of home affairs said after parliamentarians raised concerns about foreign influence operations and foreign intelligence recruitment from the city-state’s universities in the wake of espionage cases involving academics.

While the government did not specify countries of concern, academics have warned in recent years about China reaching out to ethnic Chinese in Singapore. In a parliamentary question, MPs noted concern over foreign influence operations and foreign intelligence recruitment, “particularly those that play on cultural affinity”.

Singapore’s Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam said in a written reply to a parliamentary question on 6 July that the ministry was studying the approaches of other countries with the possibility of putting forward new “legislative levers to prevent and counter foreign interference“ in Singapore’s domestic policies.

Shanmugam noted the ministry would “move on the proposals” when ready.

A number of countries have strict new rules in place on foreign influence on universities and research security, including Australia, with others such as Japan, Germany and the European Union currently in the process of drawing up similar rules.

“Foreign interference operations are increasingly sophisticated and well-disguised. The affordances of the internet have increased the potential of online hostile information campaigns, but covert attempts to exercise control or influence over organisations and individuals are just as insidious. As the threats evolve, we need to continue to build up our capabilities to detect and disrupt such activities,” Shanmugam said.

According to Shanmugam, universities and institutions in Singapore “have processes and protocols to maintain oversight over academic collaborations and partnerships, both local and overseas, and take measures to instil awareness among their staff on the risks of foreign interference”.

“Organisations and individuals who are more vulnerable to foreign interference, whether by virtue of the activities or issues they are involved in, will need to be even more aware of these risks,” he noted.

“Through our security agencies’ engagement and outreach to constituencies within the public service and beyond, the government will continue to raise awareness of the real risks and modus operandi of foreign actors, whether it takes the form of an online or offline influence operation aimed at shaping public opinion or policy-making, or a foreign intelligence recruitment operation,” he added.

However, he noted: “For national security reasons, the government does not publicise the actions taken in dealing with foreign states involved in influence operations and recruitment attempts in Singapore. Such actions must necessarily take place out of the public eye.”

Concerns after spy case

The concerns arise as Singapore’s Internal Security Department disclosed more details publicly last month on Singaporean academic Dickson Yeo, also known as Jun Wei Yeo.

Yeo was arrested on 30 December 2020 after he returned to Singapore from the United States where he had been sentenced to a 14-month prison term by a US Court in October 2020. He had already spent 11 months behind bars in the US before the sentencing. His sentence was seen as relatively lenient, in part because he had agreed to cooperate with US authorities.

Singapore’s Internal Security Department said in a statement on 15 June that Yeo had been kept in detention in Singapore while the department investigated “the full extent” of his activities, to establish if he had also engaged in activities prejudicial to Singapore’s security.

The Internal Security Act gives the home affairs minister the power to detain individuals without trial for two years and that can be renewed at the minister’s discretion.

Yeo was recruited by Chinese intelligence operatives while studying for a PhD at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2015, according to US court documents. He began to work on behalf of China after he visited Beijing to give a presentation on politics.

Yeo’s PhD candidature was terminated by NUS last year after the US charges were brought. Yeo had been on a leave of absence from the programme.

Yeo admitted in the US court to having worked for Chinese intelligence for monetary rewards. He also revealed to US investigators that his previous intelligence work had targeted other states apart from the US.

Yeo carried out intelligence activities against Singapore from 2016 until his arrest in the US in 2019, Singapore’s Internal Security Department said in its June statement. He was tasked to source for information and provide reports on issues of interest to his foreign handlers.

Yeo admitted that he paid American citizens to write reports that he then sent to the Chinese government without the writers’ knowledge.

China has denied recruiting him as a spy and accused the US of having reached “a state of extreme suspicion”.

Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singapore diplomat, said Yeo’s PhD supervisor at NUS was Huang Jing, a Chinese national residing in Singapore, who was identified as a spy in 2017 and expelled from Singapore as an “agent of influence for a foreign country”. Huang has denied recruiting Yeo.

The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS said after Yeo’s detention by Singaporean authorities that it had strengthened “oversight and risk-awareness procedures” in relation to its education and research.

“We maintain an enhanced oversight on academic collaborations and partnerships, both local and overseas, and will also continue to keep a heightened awareness among all our staff and students on the risks of foreign interference,” it said, adding that it would “not tolerate any acts or activities of foreign interference that threaten the country’s national security or interests”.

“Our staff and students are expected to conduct themselves fully in accordance with the laws of Singapore at all times,” it said.