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Vital to have a capable and vigilant Internal Security Department to protect Singapore: PM Lee

SINGAPORE: It is vital to have a capable and vigilant Internal Security Department (ISD) to protect Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday (Oct 24) as the agency marked its 75th anniversary.

It is “not by chance” that Singapore has succeeded in mitigating threats to domestic security and sovereignty, Mr Lee said, even as he highlighted three security issues that Singapore faces – the threat of terrorism, the dangers posed by foreign influence operations, as well as domestic vulnerabilities.

With the diversity of races and religions in Singapore, the country will always have inherent faultlines, Mr Lee noted in his speech at the ISD’s 75th-anniversary gala dinner at the Ritz Carlton.

Domestic vulnerabilities are thus a preoccupation for ISD.

Citing the example of US-China tensions, Mr Lee said Chinese Singaporeans, especially the older ones, tend to have different views from other Singaporeans. 

And when violence flares up in the Middle East, it stirs strong reactions in Southeast Asia and beyond.

“The ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict is an especially emotive issue for Muslim Singaporeans, who empathise strongly with the plight of the Palestinian population, just like Muslim communities worldwide. And on the other side, certain segments of our Jewish and Christian communities get worked up too,” Mr Lee said.

“All these differences are a reality that we must recognise and accept. They remind us to continue watching racial and religious relations carefully because misunderstandings and frictions can still arise, and cause serious problems if not properly handled.”

Besides race and religion, there are emerging social divisions, such as simmering tensions between citizens and non-Singaporeans living and working here. Various groups champion different causes, adopting strident advocacy and pressure group tactics learnt from elsewhere, dividing people for and against their cause, said Mr Lee.

“This is where ISD plays a crucial role behind the scenes, providing timely information and insightful assessments to the government, beyond what is in the public domain or on social media,” he added.

“You are our eyes and ears on the ground, keeping in touch with all these various groups. You watch the trends vigilantly, and when problems threaten to grow serious, nip them in the bud before they can get out of hand.”

ISD’s informed advice enables the government to take action or adjust policies to address these concerns, Mr Lee told past and present ISD officers, adding: “In essence, you protect the public space for the proper and successful functioning of Singapore’s democratic process.”

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TERRORISM

On the issue of terrorism, Mr Lee said the threat from transnational militant groups has evolved but remains persistent, 22 years after 9/11.

“Dangerous groups continue to operate in our neighbourhood, including in Indonesia, the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia,” said Mr Lee.

“They have adopted new strategies for recruitment and fundraising, and developed novel tactics for their attack operations.”

Lone wolf and small group attacks using easily available weapons have become more frequent. At the same time, new forms of extremist ideologies are emerging, such as far-right extremism.

In late 2020, Singapore had its first far-right radicalisation case – a 16-year-old boy who was inspired by the Christchurch attacker and planned to attack Muslims at two local mosques in Singapore.

“We take this danger seriously because a single act of terror could tear apart the racial and religious harmony and trust that we have painstakingly built over the decades. We have seen this happen too often in other countries,” said Mr Lee.

“This is where ISD comes in – to make sure our people do not get captured by some extreme ideology, or caught up in quarrels which are not ours, to sow chaos within our own community.”

He said that ISD’s vigilance has “repeatedly pre-empted and disrupted terrorist plots” against Singapore.

ISD not only countered the threats but has also worked with the Religious Rehabilitation Group and the Inter-Agency Aftercare Group to rehabilitate many radicalised individuals.

Since 2002, 137 Singaporeans have been issued detention orders under the Internal Security Act (ISA). Nearly 90 per cent have made good progress in rehabilitation and have been successfully reintegrated into society, said Mr Lee.

Related:

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FOREIGN INFLUENCE AND ESPIONAGE

The third threat Mr Lee highlighted is foreign influence and espionage, which he described as “insidious threats that lurk in the shadows”.

“ISD deals with foreign actors who seek to subvert us, mount influence operations to manipulate us, or conduct espionage to compromise our most precious secrets,” said Mr Lee.

“We do not talk about these covert activities much, for good reasons, but there is no shortage of such threats in the world.”

He noted that espionage operations have also become increasingly sophisticated, moving into the cyber realm.

“We have to remain vigilant against such influence and espionage operations. Our adversaries are well-resourced and determined. ISD is our first line of defence and must be equally capable and shrewd when deciding how best to deal with these threats,” Mr Lee added.

He said the ISD needs up-to-date capabilities to keep a few steps ahead of the threats in a constantly evolving environment.

“ISD is no longer just operating in the deep shadows. It is also now coming out to the half-shadows, telling the story of ISD’s contributions in a museum display, using the ISD name proudly in job fairs, attracting interest and enquiries, and getting a new generation of bright, idealistic and public-spirited young people to join the team,” he said.

“These are all forward-looking moves that will help ISD to be the first-class intelligence agency that Singapore needs, for a long time to come.”

“SILENT HEROES”

The ISD was first established by the British colonial government as the Singapore Special Branch 75 years ago. It was renamed in 1966 after Singapore’s separation from Malaysia.

The agency’s strongest assets are its people, Mr Lee said as he commended two ISD officers for their contributions.

Saraj Din was a pioneer ISD officer who answered the call for volunteers during the Laju ferry hijacking in 1974, when armed men attacked the Shell refinery on Pulau Bukom and seized a ferry.

He was among a team of government officials, including five ISD officers, who escorted the hijackers on the flight to Kuwait.

Mr Saraj was also a member of the police team that negotiated with the hijackers of SQ117 in 1991.

“His knowledge of Urdu proved crucial in ending the hostage-taking. When he spoke in Urdu, all four Pakistani hijackers ran to the cockpit, thinking that their demands were being met. This gave the SAF commandos the opportunity to storm the plane and neutralise the threat,” said Mr Lee.

The second officer, known as “Tiger Lily” for operational reasons, was one of the few female operations officers when she joined ISD in the 1980s.

She was instrumental in the investigations into the Singapore Jemaah Islamiyah network and developed relationships with the JI Muslimah – wives of JI members – which her male colleagues could not possibly have done.

“Tiger Lily” also managed to get the wives to persuade their husbands to come clean on their JI involvement and cooperate with ISD investigations.

“This was risky business, sometimes dangerous, but driven by courage and a strong sense of purpose, she persevered and succeeded,” said Mr Lee.

“Saraj and Tiger Lily are just two out of many dedicated and outstanding ISD officers. There are many more of you out there doing good work behind the scenes. Please know that you are all our silent heroes.”

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