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How can Singapore guard against the dark forces of technology?

How does a small country like Singapore ensure the freedom to work and play and decide on the shape of our society without being manipulated by dark and not so dark external forces?

The author addresses how Singapore, a small yet technology intensive country, can safeguard against powerful tech corporations enforcing arbitrary rules on social media and state actors manipulating digital technology platforms.

The author addresses how Singapore, a small yet technology intensive country, can safeguard against powerful tech corporations enforcing arbitrary rules on social media and state actors manipulating digital technology platforms.

How does a small country like Singapore ensure the freedom to work and play and decide on the shape of our society without being manipulated by dark and not so dark external forces?

In early January 2021, Twitter and Facebook suspended or shut down the accounts of former United States President Donald Trump after the sacking of the US Capitol building in Washington DC. 

The president of the supposedly most powerful country in the world was, for all intents and purposes, no longer able to communicate with his 88 million Twitter and 35 million Facebook followers. 

Soon after, it was announced that more than 10,000 members of Trumpist right wing groups lost their Twitter and Facebook accounts too.

Closer to home, again in January 2021, Facebook threatened to shut down its operations in Australia, a sovereign country of 30 million persons, over a dispute with the Australian government on taxes and royalties.

FRAGILITY OF SMALL COUNTRIES

The aforementioned events seem fairly removed from our little island nation, but in fact, small Singapore became just a little more fragile because of those events.

One more tool has been added to the arsenal of weapons used to intimidate, influence, and even impoverish small countries to bend them to the will of powerful business interests or powerful countries. 

The threats are two fold: The first is manipulation for private profit and the second is for political and strategic benefit.

Singapore is a technology intensive city. WhatsApp, Twitter, Signal, Telegram, Skype, FaceTime, Zoom and a long list of other services connect Singaporeans to Singaporeans, and Singaporeans with the rest of the world. 

It helps us punch above our weight. Technology, especially of the communications variety, makes us an exceptional city.

All these services are controlled largely by US-based, unregulated private enterprises, with their hands on the master switch to switch on or off services to individuals or classes of individuals or entire countries.

We have already seen Twitter and other social media platforms being used to manipulate political debates, to influence outcomes in the US elections and the United Kingdom Brexit vote.

The question is whether private companies can arrogate to themselves the right to decide on a community’s values (for example freedom of speech) outside the prevailing law of the land. 

Should we allow the exercise of such arbitrary power without any due process of law or an independent body to ensure checks and balances and transparent appeal processes?

This is not a hypothetical or theoretical musing. What if tomorrow Twitter cuts off the accounts of one or another political party in Singapore because it does not approve of their politics, much like it did in the US?

So how do we protect ourselves from this arbitrary power to manipulate and influence public debate in Singapore?

There are those who argue that given time antitrust rules will defang the digital behemoths. I am less sanguine.

Governments never fully tame the multinational companies (MNCs) of yesterday like oil and mining companies. 

The US Congress is flooded with well-funded business lobbyists of powerful MNCs who successfully amend rules, laws, and create loopholes to benefit their paymasters’ businesses.

STATE SPONSORED TECH WARS

So far, we have only touched on private companies acting as judge and jury. What if powerful states decide to play the same game to achieve their strategic purposes?

Small countries such as Singapore have no inherent value or right to exist in the world and many nation states have not survived beyond 100 to 200 years.

The traditional arsenal of weapons of the powerful to subjugate the weak consisted of gunboats and bombs.

Bombs and guns are, however, messy and murderous whereas digital technology is a clean weapon.

Strong states could simply direct private corporations to cut services to a target country. The clash of Titans between the US and China is instructive. 

To pressure China, the US, inter alia, simply banned the exports of US-made high performance chips to Chinese companies.

In the face of such powerful countries, how does a small country like Singapore ensure the freedom to work and play and decide the shape of our society without being manipulated by dark and not so dark external forces?

THE CHINESE AND RUSSIAN MODELS

In order to preserve their independence and to control their own social media, both Russia and China have developed their own social media and networking applications to serve their respective domestic populations successfully, like VK and WeChat. 

Both have populations with sufficient critical mass to ensure commercial viability of their platforms.

The Europeans have built an independent Global Positioning System (GPS) called Galileo.

The Chinese and Russians have also launched their own GPS systems — BeiDou and Glonass. 

The main driver for these three alternative systems was, again, freedom from the US-controlled GPS system, which dominates the world in everything — from helping the pizza delivery boy locate our homes to guiding precision missiles to their targets.

DIVERSIFICATION OR SELF RELIANCE?

Singapore does not have the option nor desire to become a hermit kingdom like North Korea. This is not a viable option for Singapore as our food, water, and just about everything else we need is imported.

The communication platforms that are solely in Singapore’s exclusive control are the old faithfuls: Broadcast media (radio and television), print media (newspapers and books) and the domestic telephone services.

For the rest of our needs, we are dependent on the world, which more often than not means the US. 

We have excellent relations with the US but absolutely no assurance that this will continue into infinity because amongst nation states there are no permanent friends or enemies — only permanent interests.

Arguably, advancing technological systems will allow Singapore to build private communication networks that we can fully ring-fence and also patch into the global networks, but the question of its take-up rate and commercial viability remains to be seen. 

Why reinvent the proverbial wheel?

Still, while waiting for technology to surge ahead, we should also consider building regional social media network infrastructure with like-minded countries that are, too, fearful of being held hostage by global monopolies.

We should also enthusiastically support healthy competition. When customers and countries have choices, we are less likely to be held hostage by monopolistic companies or countries that control them.

At the individual level we can contribute by using products made in different countries. We all love our Apple products but we should diversify into Huawei or Samsung or Sony products. 

WhatsApp and Instagram are not the only social networking apps in town. A dozen other good options are available today — in the region, Naver, Line and Kakao come to mind.

The greater the diversity in Singapore on all key domains, the more likely that we will get there intact as an independent and sovereign state, and defy the dismal history of small states.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

T Jasudasen is chairman of ZICO Holdings, a Catalist-listed corporate and financial services company. He previously served 37 years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including various stints as ambassador. This piece first appeared in The Birthday Book: Are We There Yet?, a collection of 56 essays that tackle this question pertaining to Singapore.

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