COMMENTARY: “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.”
T Jasudasen is a retired diplomat who served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 37 years in various ambassadorial positions including in France, Myanmar, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom.
From 2015 to 2021, he was Singapore’s Non-Resident Ambassador to the African Union and the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, and in July 2021 he was appointed Singapore’s Non-Resident Ambassador to the Republic of Peru.
In his 2021 essay “Whose Technology To Get There?”, Jasudasen writes about Singapore’s position as a small country with “no inherent value or right to exist in the world” and the importance of maintaining diversity in key domains like technology, in order to maintain independence and sovereignty.
Jasudasen’s essay was first published in The Birthday Book: Are We There Yet? Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2021 edition of The Birthday Book.
The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 56 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the narratives of their lives that define them, as well as Singapore’s collective future.
By T Jasudasen
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?
Wielding the power of technology
In early January 2021, Twitter and Facebook suspended or shut down the accounts of President Trump after the sacking of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington DC.
The president of the supposedly most powerful country in the world was, for all intents, 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.
The Australian treasurer (finance minister) shot back, “We won’t be bullied, no matter how big the international company is, no matter how powerful they are, no matter how valuable they are”.
Brave words indeed. A rich middle power with a strong economy and resource base coupled with strong global alliances could utter those words and mean it.
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 twofold: the first is manipulation for private profit and the second is for political and strategic benefit.
Importance of technology to Singapore
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 U.S.-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 U.S. elections and UK Brexit vote. We may have heaved a sigh of collective relief that militant U.S. right wing groups were temporarily beheaded or temporarily hogtied but we have also walked into dangerous territory.
The question is whether private companies can arrogate to themselves the right to decide on a community’s values (e.g. 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? Have we, in cheering the Twitter decision to cut 10,000 accounts, inadvertently surrendered longer-term public good for a quick solution to a bad situation?
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 U.S.?
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 MNCs of yesterday like oil and mining companies. The U.S. Congress is flooded with well-funded business lobbyists of powerful MNCs who successfully amend rules, laws, and create loopholes to benefit their paymasters’ businesses.
Technology as a “clean weapon”
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 like 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. President Bush Jr. threatened to bomb Pakistan back to the “Stone Age” if it did not cooperate in hunting down 9/11 terrorists. Pakistan, a small nuclear power, buckled under U.S. pressure.
In 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea.
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 current clash of Titans, namely the U.S.-China trade war and the Huawei episode, is instructive. To pressure China, the U.S., inter alia, simply banned the exports of U.S.-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?
China and Russia have created alternative systems
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, though NATO allies of the U.S., have built an independent GPS system 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 U.S.-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.
Tech in Singapore: diversification or self-reliance?
We do 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 U.S. We have excellent relations with the U.S. 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.
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Top photo via Unsplash/NASA.