SINGAPORE: In the opening scenes of an episode of The Blacklist, a female Chinese agent is murdered. She is said to be an agent of the Singapore Security and Intelligence Department (SID), which is mentioned in the American crime thriller alongside other better-known acronyms – the KGB, CIA, MI6.
While the Russian state security apparatus KGB, the US Central Intelligence Agency and the British Secret Intelligence Service (or Military Intelligence 6) feature frequently in the popular media, Singapore’s SID is rarely mentioned, even in the country.
What does SID do and how does reality match fiction?
There are scattered anecdotes of previous officers who have retired or left the service, but for the first time on Friday (July 16), active officers from the agency spoke to the media to take a closer look at their activities.
During a virtual interview, the faces of the two agents were not shown and they used pseudonyms as the identities of SID employees are kept secret for security.
Michael, a senior executive who has worked there for 20 years, told reporters that the Blacklist episode was “overdramatized” and that SID would not call itself a “spy agency.”
“We’re very discreet and… we’ll get information when we need it, we have all kinds of sources. But I wouldn’t call ourselves a spy agency,” he said.
“We’ve been picking up things on social media about SID and … (what we do) is nowhere near what people say we do.”
SINGAPOREANS RECRUITING FROM VARIOUS BACKGROUNDS
The misconceptions come as no surprise, as SID didn’t launch a website until Monday — 55 years after the agency was founded in 1966.
Officially, SID is known as Singapore’s external intelligence agency under the Ministry of Defense (MINDEF).
It provides intelligence and assessments to Singaporean government agencies, supports deliberations on international and strategic issues and analyzes global developments that may affect Singapore’s security and national interests.
Unlike the Internal Security Agency (ISD), which deals with domestic threats, SID focuses on external threats in areas such as geopolitics, foreign relations, and transnational threats such as terrorism and cybersecurity.
It is now stepping out of the shadows to recruit more Singaporeans from diverse backgrounds, even as many of its operations remain classified for national security reasons.
Michael shared that other intelligence agencies have recruited talent from websites and social media and have been successful.
“With a public website, greater reach for Singaporeans, and at the same time using the website to explain our mission – what we do, what we can do, publicly – we hope we will be able to feature in more applications. “, he says.
The reason for this audience reach is that the agency’s missions have expanded and it is seeking a “much broader spectrum of talents” from more diverse backgrounds.
When it started in the 1960s, SID focused on geopolitical developments in the region.
The division’s remit has expanded to any event in the world that affects Singapore and for a time turned its attention to terrorism because it posed an “immediate threat” to Singapore, Michael said.
“As time went on, the threats got a little more complex in the sense that you didn’t know where they came from,” says Michael, who listed cyberthreats and information warfare as examples of evolving security threats.
SID is also looking at climate change and the changes it will bring, as well as future pandemics and other potential threats, he added.
“We actually learned from SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) … It was only a matter of time before some kind of pandemic would hit us. We just didn’t know the form and we didn’t know when,” he said.
“Things like climate change … and what the effects of climate change would be is something that would threaten Singapore’s national security because climate change could affect the food supply.”
In the past, the agency largely recruited recent graduates, but it has expanded its pool of mid-career newcomers, including economists, lawyers and even a “banker” who helped them understand financial systems, he said.
BE DISCREET ABOUT WHERE THEY WORK
Sophie, a senior analyst who has been with the agency for eight years, told reporters how she was recruited, which she said was “typical.”
“I was invited to a SID tea session in my third year of university. At the time, I thought that the people who were speaking during the tea session were really passionate about their work,” said the history major who now works in the research department of SID.
“Personally, I was interested in international affairs and so I thought…this might be for me.”
Sophie, who speaks four languages (but couldn’t tell reporters which four), said she’s had many opportunities to train and learn in the service, including picking up additional languages and using data analytics technology.
When people asked her where she works, she said she works at MINDEF and her work is “sensitive,” she said.
But Sophie said the need for discretion was not a problem for her, as her friends and family understood the sensitivity of her work.
“There are clear sacrifices we have to make and we accept them,” she said. “But there are also a lot of benefits… a lot of people are joining us because they want to serve Singapore.
“It’s also a very vibrant work environment… And I think people who are quite cerebral, quite intellectual and also quite adventurous will find a lot of job satisfaction.”
When asked to go into more detail about what they do, the answer was that “it’s very sensitive”. But Sophie said she and her team had to prepare intelligence assessments of political incidents that quickly evolved for policymakers to “make the best decisions for Singapore”.
Michael, who spent ten years in operations before moving into corporate roles such as strategic planning, human resources and training, said he was involved in multi-agency operations to capture Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists who fled Singapore in the early 2000s.
“The success of those operations was when we were able to alert partners, or even alert the Singapore government to the heightened terrorism threat that could have hit us,” he said.
At the time, a plot to bomb several embassies in Singapore, military bases and the Yishun MRT station was foiled by Singapore’s security forces.
The press release mentioned other key operations, such as helping to form the then Joint Counter Terrorism Center, which in 2004 became part of the National Security Research Center, under the National Security Coordination Secretariat.
SID also supported efforts to disrupt a terror group’s plan to launch an attack on the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort in 2016, it said.
But given the sensitivity of their work, would open recruiting lead to vulnerabilities?
Michael said SID is rigorously screening applicants and will take necessary “restrictive measures”.
Job seekers may want to keep in mind that the application process takes longer than other jobs, with a security clearance process that can take anywhere from three to six months.
And while the agency will need to take additional steps to screen a potential wave of applicants, Michael said it’s “something worth doing” to build its capabilities.
“You need people with different perspectives. I think you need people to challenge the norms of what current thinking is, because if you don’t, you go into groupthink,” he said.
“We foster that sense of tension within our organization, that creative tension that … is likely to drive us to better assessments, but you can only get that if you bring in people who have very different perspectives than you.”