Commentary: New solutions are needed to address the threats of irredentist claims targeting Singapore

On May 16, Indonesian preacher Abdul Somad Batubara was banned from entering Singapore due to a history of extremist and segregationist teachings, causing an outcry among his supporters.

Following his refusal of entry, the social media accounts of several Singaporean politicians and government agencies were spammed by Mr Somad’s supporters. Calls for cyberattacks have also been made against the Singapore government’s social media accounts on Indonesian public chat groups.

Asked later about his denial of entry, Mr Somad said he would not give up trying to enter Singapore, referring to the Republic as part of his land as it was once part of the Malay Kingdom of Temasek.

He also later claimed that the people of Riau consider Singapore part of their land as it was once part of the aforementioned kingdom, expressing his confusion as to why he was denied entry into the country.

In alluding to such historical accounts, Mr. Somad uses the ideas of “Greater Indonesia”, arguing for irredentism where a territorial claim is based on a national, ethnic or historical basis, believing that his recent attempt to visit Singapore was intended to get his wife and children to “know his ancestry”.

Given that Russia, prior to its invasion of Ukraine, used similar rhetoric to conceptualize Ukraine as having always been part of Russian civilizational space, it is clear that such views have the potential to create attacks. against the sovereignty of other countries, encouraging segregationism and nationalism. .

LESSONS FROM THE RUSSIAN-UKRAINIAN CONFLICT

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s May Day speech spoke of the far-reaching impact of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, especially for equally small countries facing much larger ones.

Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s essay “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, which denied the existence of Ukraine as an independent nation, serves as a warning to residents of small states , illustrating the potential damage that can be caused by malignant attacks. historical stories.

A recent survey we conducted on future trust in Singapore showed that many Singaporeans are, however, unaware of the significant impacts of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

While respondents generally supported (57%) Singapore’s sanctions against Russia, there remains a large proportion who are ambivalent or do not support them.

Ukraine’s counter-disinformation strategy has relied heavily on limiting the availability of Russian media, particularly due to the manipulation of Russian media playing an important role in its broader military and political strategy.

However, non-Russian social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have taken over as vehicles for Russian disinformation efforts in the wake of this ban.

The inconsistent approach of social media platforms in enforcing their content policies suggests that they are likely to remain potent sources of misinformation in the future, and outside of an outright ban on all media platforms. social media, there is little that can be done to limit misinformation from these channels. .

In countries like Singapore, where national security concerns must be more carefully weighed against demands for media freedom, greater discretion may need to be exercised before imposing such strict media controls.

Authorities have instead focused their efforts on developing a legislative framework to combat disinformation, for example through the Protection Against Lies and Online Manipulation Act and the Foreign Interference Act. [Countermeasures] Law.

Judicious application of these legal tools can help protect the fragile information environment for Singaporeans.

A GLOBAL APPROACH

However, the threat of irredentist claims against Singapore has given rise to new challenges that require new solutions.

High rates of internet penetration and digital device ownership in Singapore mean that media controls and legislation can only act as part of the solution, and a global regulatory approach to reforming social media still seems a long way off. , if it ever emerges.

Governments that communicate effectively and honestly and work proactively to counter misinformation will have an advantage in protecting their citizens, but it is inevitable that their message will not reach those sections of society that are closed off or lack confidence in their leaders.

With today’s disinformation having evolved beyond its conventional forms, building a resilient and informed population is the most powerful resource a country can have to combat this vast threat, and as such, a whole-of-society approach is essential.

Initiatives such as the National Library Board’s SURE campaign to equip the general public with tools to improve information literacy are welcome. However, the government cannot fight the spread of disinformation alone.

While government action against disinformation is often the most important, the sheer volume of fake news we are exposed to daily makes it impossible for governments to address the most pressing cases.

Fortunately, the example of Ukraine offers possible solutions to meet this critical need without spending excessive resources.

The Ukrainian government stepped up by updating its information security doctrine in 2017, a step that formally established the specific threats facing the country, and also harmonized and strengthened the efforts of state institutions in the fight against misinformation.

Furthermore, Kyiv combined this with a whole-of-society approach by working with civil society organizations, especially in areas where it lacked expertise.

Some of the most prominent players in the fight against disinformation in Ukraine, such as the non-governmental organization Ukraine Crisis Media Center (UCMC), were born out of civic initiatives that predated the new government policy before the two joined forces. associate later.

Thanks to this inclusion of civil society organizations, Ukraine was able to revamp its approach to disinformation by strengthening institutions that were more nimble and better prepared to meet the challenge.

RESILIENCE FROM THE GROUND UP

Learning from Ukraine, the involvement of private sectors and individuals should be seen as necessary in implementing a “whole of society” approach to countering disinformation.

Having a robust fact-checking system in place, aided by high rates of information literacy among the general public and supported by the legislative framework in place to combat lies, helps build a line of defense resilient against targeted information operations, which are a growing threat in the digital age.

The establishment of the Asian Fact-Checkers Network (AFCN), a collaboration bringing together fact-checking organizations from across Asia to share best practices and exchange expertise to collectively counter disinformation in the region, was enlightened by this “entire society” to approach.

By working with other fact-checkers in the region who have experience dealing with widespread disinformation stories, we can learn about potential threats before they reach our shores and actively deny them.

For example, an Indonesian activist, Mr. Anton Permana, was also banned from entering Singapore shortly after Mr. Somad on 18 June. Like Mr. Somad, Mr. Permana had been accused of encouraging divisive speech, having been accused of using hate speech against the Chinese people.

After consulting with other fact-checkers in Indonesia, it was deemed unlikely that Mr Permana would cause further outcry after his refusal to enter Singapore, as he is not a public or religious figure. well known in his country of origin.

This and other information is useful in anticipating or dealing with such threats in the future.

Alerting other countries to issues that could have a bilateral impact on our respective countries could also be a way to stay one step ahead in terms of other future issues or challenges that may develop in the region.

Ukraine’s existential fight against disinformation has brought to light lessons on the best way forward, and it is now up to other societies to carry the torch before our freedoms are also threatened.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Joel Skadiang and Omar Farook are researchers at Black Dot Research, a market and social research agency that operates a fact-checking platform and led the formation of the Asian fact-checkers network in 2021.

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