On the sidelines of the recently concluded Special ASEAN-India Foreign Minister’s meeting, Singapore and India agreed on the need to give their relationship a new impetus. The two countries have a robust political and defence partnership with regular engagements. For India, Singapore has been the top source of Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs), and India’s FDI in Singapore has observed an uptick in recent years. The relations between India and Singapore are based on shared values, economic interests, and convergence of perspectives on key strategic issues. Since last year, both have sought to consolidate relations through increased collaboration in information technology and cybersecurity. In February 2022, the two signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for deepening cooperation in science, technology, and innovation.
As a global data hub, Singapore has a high stake in the cyber domain. It has paid close attention to efforts for maintaining its reputation in cybersecurity and has worked towards a comprehensive national cybersecurity strategy. As a city-state, Singapore has sought to utilize diplomacy as deterrence to ensure its interests in the cyber domain. Today, Singapore is considered a cyber diplomacy pioneer among the ASEAN countries. It plays an active role in discussions on cyber in the United Nations and other platforms. Singapore has put emphasis on becoming the ‘conversation starter’ for acceptable behaviour in cyberspace and has taken a lead in the war against cybercrime. To this end, the city-state has taken steps to build regional and global alliances for cooperation and experience sharing and has emphasized regular cyber exercises for staying ahead of the emerging cyber threats curve.
According to International Telecommunications Union’s Global Cyber Security Index report, Singapore has focused heavily on national cyber defence and has not taken recourse to any known disruptive actions. This highlights Singapore’s commitment to peaceful cyberspace and projecting its image as a law-abiding nation. For enabling safe and secure cyberspace, Singapore has focused on building resilient infrastructure. It seeks to utilize research and development in the cyber domain as a source of ‘competitive advantage’, with the possibility of turning Singapore into an international hub for cybersecurity innovation.
In recent years, Singapore’s cyber insurance market has created a space of its own in Asia. The global cyber insurance market is estimated to exceed USD 20 billion, by 2025, with the Asia-Pacific market expected to witness almost 35 per cent Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) between 2019 and 2025. It has been argued that the cyber insurance industry stands to witness exponential growth in the emerging climate of record ransomware attacks and cyber incidents.
Singapore updated its cyber security strategy in 2021, which goes beyond critical sectors and seeks a more proactive stance toward cyber threats. While focusing on cyber resilience and capability development for detecting and analysing malicious cyber activities, the plan looks at developing a ‘Made in Singapore’ solution for creating Singapore’s cybersecurity ecosystem. Further, the strategy also underlines the need for addressing ‘dilemmas of digitalization’, such as geopolitical tensions in cyberspace.
Notwithstanding Singapore’s military capabilities, Singapore (like its ASEAN counterparts) believes that escalating cyber incidents might not be beneficial for small states [PDF], as they would want to avoid cyberspace conflicts spilling over beyond the virtual domain. However, while the ASEAN seeks neutrality in the emerging tech rivalry between the US and China, Singapore’s emphasis on ‘ASEAN centrality’ is far from elementary.
Singapore is referred to as the anchor of the US naval presence in Southeast Asia and enjoys long-standing defence ties with the Quad countries. In August 2021, Singapore inked an MoU with the US for expanding information sharing and training to combat cyber threats. However, along with a deep partnership with the US, Singapore balances strong ties with China. While the US remains vital for regional security dynamics, especially in the shadow of increasingly aggressive Chinese maritime manoeuvres, Beijing stands as Singapore’s most important trade partner.
Thus, for Singapore, any partnership which falls outside the ambit of the great power rivalry will have a central role in its strategic thinking. As an emerging tech powerhouse, India possesses natural viability for strategic partnership with Singapore.
For India, there are several dimensions where Singaporean experiences are valuable. The delay in finalising a National Cyber Security Strategy has regularly highlighted New Delhi’s difficulty in opting for the best available policy options in cyberspace. It is arguedthat India needs to review its cyber-defence policies and should give equal attention to building cyber-offensive capabilities for deterrence. New Delhi’s narrow focus on cyber threats from Pakistan and China, has also been pointed out by some as a constrained approach.
Like Singapore, India has balanced the Western and the Eastern views on cyber diplomacy tables. India seeks to safeguard its strategic autonomy and cyber sovereignty while adopting a multi-stakeholder approach. However, the recent laws like the mandate on the Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) for storing customer metadata, highlight the increasing significance of keeping unrestricted and undesired cyber activities in check. It has been reported that as the tech sector grows in India, cyber incidents like ransomware attacks, which affected a staggeringly high 68 per cent of India’s organizations in 2021, will necessitate a mature cyber insurance market for organisations and businesses at all levels.
The tech neutrality sought by the ASEAN countries has been visible on the 5G issue. While the US has sought to influence countries across the globe to avoid Chinese firms like Huawei over security and espionage-related concerns, governments in Southeast Asia have voiced their discomfort in choosing between the two sides.
The Singaporean PM had downplayed the security concerns over Huawei, saying that it is not ‘a black and white issue’, and that Singapore will carefully study the impact of 5G technology to decide. Unlike most Southeast Asian countries, India has decided to go ahead with indigenous alternatives. For India, a successful 5G experience can consolidate its tech leadership credentials further.
As a global tech war accelerates and a digital divide between the two super cyber powers and the rest of the world emerges, middle powers will be compelled to seek convergence for safeguarding their national interests. As leaders in tech and innovation, India and Singapore stand as natural partners in the Indo-Pacific, as well as beyond.