National security is just as much about social cohesion as it is about firewalls and malware detection, believes Dr Shashi Jayakumar, Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“This is not security by design in the technical sense”, but polarisations “reveal a great deal about the true nature, character and makeup of Singapore,” he said at GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation earlier this year. “We must assume that adversaries and friends are watching with interest about what these polarisations reveal.”

Nations need to watch out for social fault lines that can quickly turn into exploitable vulnerabilities in cyberspace. Jayakumar shared the threats misinformation poses to Singapore’s resilience, and how nations can build social resilience.

Threats to Singapore’s social stability

Jayakumar raised three threats to Singapore’s social stability over the past months. First, the nation saw a rise in false rumours about “hyper local concerns” as Covid-19 spread, he said.

For instance, in the early days of the pandemic, there was a false announcement circulating about how citizens would not be able to travel outside of the region they lived, and that soldiers would be deployed to enforce this, Jayakumar noted. Many such rumours were shared on Whatsapp chats between friends and families, which authorities had no reach into.

Government agencies have actively shut down these rumours with official notices, but these haven’t been completely effective in stopping fake news. Some citizens thought there were too many government digital platforms, leading to “a somewhat confusing and frustrating user experience”, preliminary findings from Jayakumar’s research found.

Internal threats extend beyond Covid-19 concerns as well. These require a slightly different approach to resilience as opposed to external threats such as terrorism, he said. “It’s within ourselves that I suggest we have manyfold polarisations which are taking place.”

In particular, racial tensions are a marked threat, he noted. While racism may not play out overtly in mass protests, such as the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, microaggressions have been amplified by social media and are increasingly being discussed online, explained Jayakumar.

These tensions can be played out at a more extreme level with hate spin, a strategy that exploits group identity to mobilise supporters. These can be used in the context of class, inequality or to turn locals against foreigners. “We have a lot to learn from other parts of Asia, which are beginning to suffer from identity politics polarisation and other kinds of ethno-religious nationalism,” he said.

How to build social resilience

With these threats in mind, how can nations build a resilient society? Jayakumar points to the importance of building ‘heritage skills’. These enable communities to share stories in a way that will enable “intergroup contact and discourse that is the hallmark of all genuinely cohesive and tolerant societies”, he wrote in a RSIS commentary.

This could mean sharing overlooked stories from the past. For instance, “it is generally known in Singapore that during the race riots in the 1960s, people came together to offer shelter to others of different races, or else united across communal lines to safeguard their kampungs,” Jayakumar wrote. This narrative was rarely highlighted, but could help different racial groups understand their shared past.

Studies have also shown that hardcopy forms of media encourage critical thinking more than digital versions, he pointed out. Any technology-driven nation will also need people who can understand complex issues, and empathise with one another, he explained.

Heritage skills will be crucial for reducing anxieties between groups in a diverse society, he explained. “A smart nation actually has very very little to do with digital. It’s actually more in terms of rediscovering some of what has been lost,” he said.

Next, ground up coalitions can be helpful for combating fake news. For instance, a Ukrainian journalism school set up StopFake in 2014 to debunk rumours and refute Russian propaganda, Jayakumar shared.

Branding or social media consultancies can be useful to governments for understanding citizens’ real sentiments and concerns. “They do not always give policymakers the type of answers which are readily digestible,” he noted. “But I think this is important for governments and possibly security services to work out how we’re going to live in a compromised and degraded security information environment.”

Jayakumar also warned against “illiberal” policies in the name of building resilient internet infrastructure. He noted that some ASEAN countries have released “hard hitting” fake news laws in the last few years. These are sometimes parked under cyber laws that allow governments to question and prosecute anything which goes against the state, he explained.

“Sometimes in an attempt to stave off adversaries who are themselves illiberal, you start to take moves which are rather illiberal in themselves to protect yourself and your people. I think we need to be very careful about that,” he said.

A nation’s cyber defense goes beyond effective cyber controls, competent security teams and a well-educated population. Governments will need to salve the fault lines in society in order to build a truly secure smart nation.