Parliamentary Speeches

Committee of Supply Debate 2021 on “Keeping Singapore Safe in the Evolving Security Environment” – Speech by Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Home Affairs

Overview of Safety and Security Situation

Published: 01 March 2021

Singapore remains one of the safest places in the world

1.    Chairman, Singapore remains one of the safest places in the world. The 2020 Gallup Global Law and Order Report ranked Singapore first, for the seventh year running. Singapore was also ranked first in the 2020 World Justice Project Rule of Law Index in the area of “Order and Security”.


2.    Police have kept traditional crimes - that is, all crimes except scams - well in check and on the decline over the years.


3.    The drug situation in Singapore remains under control and our fire fatality rate remains one of the lowest in the world.


4.    Public confidence in the Home Team remains high. In the most recent survey, 9 in 10 Singapore residents agreed that the Home Team has done well and trust our officers to serve them with integrity.


Three challenges

5.    Notwithstanding these successes, there are a few key challenges we are paying particular attention to. I will speak about three of them. They are terrorism, foreign interference and harmful online content.


The Threat of Terrorism

6.    Terrorism remains a serious threat. The Home Team has been vigilant, but the terrorists only need to get through once, to cause us serious damage.


7.    Mr Christopher De Souza asked about our detection abilities and rehabilitation of terrorist detainees.


8.    Our threat is trans-national in nature. We have strong working relationships with foreign security agencies, to share intelligence and disrupt plots. For example, ISD worked closely with the Indonesian authorities to disrupt the plot by a Batam-based pro-ISIS cell targeting Marina Bay Sands.


9.    Local threats are more difficult to detect, as individuals may be self-radicalised. Under the SGSecure movement, the Home Team and our partners make efforts to educate the community on preventing and responding to terror attacks, including spotting the signs of radicalisation.


10.    On terrorist detainees, the best way to neutralise their threat is to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society. We have refined our approach based on our own experiences, learning from international best practices, and in response to the changing profile of detainees.


Safeguarding against Foreign Interference in Our Domestic Politics

11.    Mr Christopher de Souza also asked what MHA would do to deter foreign interference in our domestic affairs. He believes we should ensure that Singapore politics remains the domain of Singaporeans only. We cannot agree more.


12.    We have previously articulated the need to safeguard Singapore against foreign interference in our domestic politics. The threat has always been present. But in recent times, it has risen in potential and severity because of the increasing ease to carry out such operations. Since time immemorial, states have sought to subvert others to achieve their own objectives. This can take various forms, such as hostile information campaigns and subversion operations to manipulate domestic political discourse, and to influence politically significant organisations and persons. There is also value to polarizing views and turning people against each other. Doing so can weaken a country’s resolve and strengthen the attacker’s bargaining position.


13.    Singapore needs to be open to the world to make a living. But our diversity and openness also present opportunities for foreign actors.


14.    In the 1970s, we were the target of two interference operations involving our newspapers – The Eastern Sun and the Singapore Herald. The newspapers received funding from foreign sources, and ran articles to undermine our nation-building efforts.


15.    In 2018 and 2019, when we were facing bilateral issues with our immediate neighbour, there was a curious spike in online comments critical of Singapore. Many of these comments came from anonymous accounts, which sought to give an artificial impression that there were significant and fundamental objections to Singapore's position.


16.    In recent years, we have seen concerning developments overseas. Globally, cases of cyber-enabled foreign interference in elections increased from 7 between 2011 and 2015, to 41 between 2016 and 2020. So you compare the two time periods - a sixfold increase. We have also seen reports from Australia and other countries, that foreign powers and their agents attempted to influence their politics by buying off political parties and politicians.


17.    At the same time, social media platforms have not dealt, and have little interest to deal with these threats. For instance, political observers have attributed the storming of the US Capitol to the failure of social media platforms to take timely and firm action against election misinformation and calls for violent resistance.


18.    Fortunately for us, 2020’s Parliamentary Elections went peacefully. However, looking at other countries, there is reason for more robust preventive measures.


19.    Many countries have taken steps to mitigate this risk. Some have introduced legislation to address the threat of foreign interference. For instance, Australia has made it compulsory for those who undertake activities on behalf of foreign principals to make public disclosures, to deter covert influence attempts to influence.


20.    To address the threat of foreign interference in our domestic politics, we must in the first place, build up Singaporeans’ ability to discern legitimate and artificial online discourse, and respond appropriately. However, as interference operations are increasingly sophisticated and well disguised, it is not enough to have a discerning public.


21.    We are therefore studying other countries’ approaches. Legislative levers may be needed, for example to obtain necessary information to investigate hostile information campaigns, to determine if they are of foreign provenance or artificial; to break the virality of such campaigns if they are indeed conducted by foreign actors to subvert our domestic politics; and to carry counter-messaging to alert Singaporeans to these ongoing hostile information campaigns.


22.    Given the recent experiences of other countries, we need to consider further measures to guard against foreign subversion of politically significant individuals and entities. For example, what levels of transparency in funding, support, and leadership is appropriate, for whom?


23.    The public has a big part in this, to shape proposals and to give the eventual safeguards their strongest support. It is the only way we can effectively deter bad foreign actors from exploiting our vulnerabilities.


Safeguarding against Online Harms

24.    Mr Derrick Goh asked about achieving effective justice for those affected by online harassment and doxxing. This will be addressed by the Ministry of Law.


25.    Mr Zhulkarnain asked about the steps to protect our society from harmful online content. Indeed, the Internet has made dissemination of harmful content quick and easy, in ways previously not possible.


26.    Such harmful content includes violent extremist propaganda, such as the livestreaming of the 2019 shootings in Christchurch, and the shooter’s manifesto, which radicalised the 16-year-old detained last year.


27.    Another example would be the dissemination of voyeuristic materials and intimate images without consent, through platforms such as Telegram.


Need for intervention

28.    Some platforms do put in effort to deal with harmful content. But not every platform puts society’s interests first. This is to be expected – platforms are driven by their own values and commercial interests.


29.    Many countries therefore see the need for regulation. For example, Germany has passed legislation requiring platforms to respond to user complaints about unlawful content.


30.    Many tech companies have acknowledged the need for regulation, even if they disagree with governments on the ‘how’.


31.    MHA has been working with MCI to review our options. This may include new regulatory levers.


Maintaining Public Trust and Confidence in the Home Team

32.    To effectively carry out these many streams of work, public trust in the Home Team is critical. We do not take this trust for granted.


Home Team’s Efforts to Maintain Public Trust

33.    The Home Team will continue to uphold the highest level of integrity and conduct. Where there are allegations of improper discharge of duties by Home Team officers, we will investigate thoroughly. If the allegations are substantiated, firm action is taken against the officers. Where we have slipped up as an organisation, we have acknowledged unreservedly, and tightened up.


Efforts to De-legitimise the Home Team

34.    Sadly, there have been efforts by some to de-legitimise our Police and other law enforcement agencies by circulating false allegations through social media.


35.    These irresponsible social media posts seek to weaken public trust in the Home Team, and weaken our ability to maintain law and order. We need the public’s help to be responsible, and refrain from spreading false allegations.


Continuing Efforts to Better Serve the Public

36.    We will continue to improve our processes to better serve the public.


37.    Mr Leong Mun Wai asked about the implementation of video recording of interviews (VRI) and increasing the pool of foreign language interpreters for police interviews.


38.    We have gradually expanded VRI since introducing it in 2018. Where it was initially only used for investigation of rape offences, it now covers other offences, such as child abuse. VRI requires substantial investment in technology, infrastructure, and most important of all, training. We will gradually expand the types of offences to be covered by VRI. There are budgetary constraints as we move on this.


39.    The Police currently engages the services of interpreters for foreign languages. If a person requires interpretation, Police will engage an interpreter and record the statement only when the interpreter is available.


40.    Madam, let me sum up. Our safety and security landscape is getting more challenging. We have been doing quite well, and will invest more resources to tackle emerging threats. We will continue to do what it takes to uphold the trust of Singaporeans through our capabilities, integrity, and impartiality. We will need the strong support of fellow Singaporeans, and must be able to count on this.