Singapore has not been spared China's covert "influence operations", and Singaporeans should be aware of when Beijing is trying to manipulate them, retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan said yesterday.

These influence operations are aimed at swaying leaders and people abroad to China's positions, thereby advancing its interests and promoting its influence, said the former permanent secretary for foreign affairs.

First, China explicitly rejects the norm of not interfering in another state's domestic affairs and believes its interests should be promoted wherever they may be.

Second, China uses a range of tactics - from legitimate diplomacy to more covert and often illegal deployment of agents of influence and operations - to sway decision makers or public opinion leaders.

As countries want to keep diplomatic relations with Beijing on an even keel, they can end up overlooking or downplaying the subtler manipulation, he said.

Third, the aim of its influence operations is not just to direct behaviour, but to condition behaviour.

He said: "China doesn't just want you to comply with its wishes, it wants you to... do what it wants without being told."

A key tactic is to present target countries with oversimplified narratives, "forcing false choices on you and making you choose between them", he said.

Narratives used against Singapore include "Singapore has no claim in the South China Sea, so why is the Singapore Government taking sides against China?"

But Mr Kausikan said that once people are aware of influence operations being conducted on them, they are much less likely to fall for the manipulation. "When the Chinese try to impose a Chinese identity on Singapore, we must resist, because modern Singapore is based on the idea of being a multiracial country."

He added: "It is not going to be a smooth ride. China will always enjoy significant influence in this region, but significant influence is not dominant or exclusive.