Foreign Influence: Ideas vs. Subversion


The notion of ‘foreign influence’ is often thrown around by all sides of the political spectrum to deride contrary opinions as though the mere fact that the idea is foreign is a good enough criticism.

Let’s take an example from a submission to the Straits Times forum, “In surrogacy debate, who should compassion be shown to?“. The writer started his letter with a criticism of an earlier piece:

“I am disappointed that Mr Martin Piper’s letter uses the concept of the compassionate society to push for the implementation of American policies in Singapore.”

However, the question is: what is wrong with ‘American policies’? Of course, the bigger irony is that Mr. Wee went on to cite the testimonials that were presented on behalf of Governor Rick Perry of Texas and his successor Greg Abbot in court to defend his decision as Governor to not permit same-sex marriage in his state. These testimonies were used to back the ideology of ‘responsible procreation‘ by the American conservative right.

What is clear here is that both Mr. Piper and Mr. Wee were bringing up foreign ideas which they subscribed to, whether they are aware of it or not. While Mr. Piper borrowed from left-wing progressivism in the USA, Mr. Wee appeared to unknowingly drink from the fountain of right-wing conservatism. The point is, being foreign does not inherently mean that something it is not good. Whether their ideas are valid or not depends on their application to Singaporean society, not on their origins.

This mentality of foreign ideas vs. local ones damages the quality of public discussions in Singapore, and stems from two fundamental misunderstandings:

  1. Conflating ‘foreign ideas’, and ‘foreign subversion’; and
  2. Pretending that ideas have borders.

If we can get past these misunderstandings, we can hope to have better conversations about the many pressing problems of the day.

A Case of  Mistaken Identity – Foreign Ideas vs. Foreign Subversion

The problem arises when we cannot differentiate the legitimate work of preventing foreign subversion, and the natural importation of foreign ideas simply because we exists in a deeply interconnected world.

There appears to be a conflation of the actual legitimate work of our government to prevent foreign subversion and the natural movement of ideas around the world.

An example of foreign subversion occurred last August, when NUS professor Huang Jing was expelled from Singapore due to his attempts at swaying prominent and influential Singaporeans about an undisclosed ‘foreign country’, allegedly doing so in collaboration with foreign intelligence agents. This is a case where a foreign government attempts to hijack our political processes to further their own agenda.

The government is right to guard against such instances. As the Prime Minister puts it,  “we must never inadvertently fall under foreign control or influence”. However, we need to bear in mind that this refers to dealings between states and governments.

In the same year, the government introduced legislation that prevented foreign companies from funding political events such as protests in Singapore. While this occurred much to the disappointment of the organisers of Pink Dot, it was ultimately a step in the right direction to allow Singaporeans to resolve our own political questions.

The problem arises when we cannot differentiate the legitimate work of preventing foreign subversion, and the natural importation of foreign ideas simply because we exists in a deeply interconnected world. Take for example, should the USA attempt to influence our political process, like they tried in the 1960s, that is foreign subversion of our systems. However, if a Singaporean looks to the US model of free speech and say that he or she would like it here – that is merely borrowing an idea.

To conflate the two meant that we cannot start to have meaningful discussions about what we would like to learn from the rest of the world, and whether they are relevant. It is damaging to healthy public discourse over major issues and would only do more harm than good.

Ideas have no borders

Underscoring that is the second misconception that ideas can somehow be restricted to the nations and regions they originated from. However, we share common languages with multiple countries in the world, and as a result, share a common media space with them. The political debates and issues of these countries would inevitably filter across the pond to us – and we are participants in these discussions whether we like it or not.

Therefore, rather than dismiss an idea as foreign, and portray it to be another threat to Singapore, it would do us more good to interrogate these ideas, and ask whether they are relevant to Singapore, and if they are, how best to we borrow them? After all, there are no ‘local’ or ‘foreign’ ideas, only good or bad ones.

For instance, when looking for a way to house the nation, the government of the 1960s did not look inwards. They learnt from, borrowed judiciously from housing programmes in Europe and Latin America. The notions of ‘New Towns’ and ‘Commuter Towns’ were already common in European policy thinking in the 1950s. While slum clearance is already underway in many parts of London.

Even today, we look forward to the future, we continue to borrow the language and ideas generated in other societies to describe and solve our problems – issues of race, religion, and class are not unique to Singapore. Our heightened awareness of various racial privileges and class consciousness are relevant ideas borrowed from abroad and applied to a local context as well.

At a personal level, most of the faiths and religions we believe in are from abroad – often originating in the heartlands of many ancient civilizations. Yet today, we not only practice these faiths, but we also keep an open-mind to the religious interpretations that foreign preachers have to say even though they come from a different society, with different make-up and concerns from ours. This is because we believe that what they have to say are good ideas, and there is something worth learning from their interpretation of certain holy texts.

Similarly, Devan Nair proudly titled his book on Singapore’s social policies as Socialism that Works the Singapore Way, and at the core of it was the manner Singapore learnt and borrowed from the best in the world in order to make socialism work in Singapore. These sentiments were also echoed by Kishore Mahbubani’s book Can Singapore Survive?

Rather than declare something as foreign and have people steer clear of it, we would be doing ourselves a bigger favour by equipping our citizenry with the necessary skills to comprehend, dissect, and make up their own minds about all these ‘foreign ideas’ flowing in and out of Singapore. It is only by doing so, can we continue to judiciously learn from the best, and not engage in reductionist public discussions.


We should bear in mind these two common misunderstandings when it comes to talking about foreign ideas in Singapore, and let us work together to have better conversations. There is a difference between taking in ideas from abroad and foreign subversion. Let us not be over-zealous in our healthy desire to protect our political systems and snuff out the legitimate and inevitable movement of ideas. Rather, we should be more discerning as a people to engage in intelligent discussions and differentiate for ourselves what is a good and a bad idea.


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