STS : Examining the world's second-oldest profession
- From Straits Times of Singapore
19th May 2001
Examining the world's second-oldest profession
Say 'intelligence' and you think of spy planes, secret tapes and
hidden cameras. But the reality behind the cloak-and-dagger game is
more prosaic - it helps to lessen surprises, prevent blow-ups and keep
the peace between nations. Our Political Correspondent discusses the
role of intelligence-gathering and takes a peek at the work of
Singapore's Security and Intelligence Division
By Yap Chuin Wei
SOMEWHERE above the clouds, there are spy planes that make regular
flights, take pictures and collect a vast array of sensitive
information on the military activities of countries under observation.
People might have been shocked by the collision between a US spy plane
and a Chinese fighter on April 1, but few would have been surprised by
what the spy plane was up to.
The US EP-3E Aries II surveillance aircraft was intercepting Chinese
radio and electronic communications to gather data on China's warship
and submarine technology, and monitoring Chinese military activity in
the Taiwan Straits.
It was filling in the blanks on any information not picked up by US
Even as the war of words rages on over the political fallout in
Sino-US ties, the business of spying is hardly at stake. It goes on
and on and on.
After all, it is big business. For example, the Russian annual budget
for technical and scientific intelligence alone is US$300 million
(S$540 million). Britain spends US$1.5 billion on intelligence, and
the US, a whopping US$30 billion.
Some have wryly dubbed it the world's second oldest profession.
One diplomatic skirmish, or three, is not going to wipe it out.
US-based British journalist Alistair Cooke alluded to this when he
remarked of the April incident, in the BBC programme, Letter to
America, on May 6:
'The sticking point was reached when the (US) administration decided
that in our language, even our comparatively genteel meaning of
apologising was too far to go. It would imply that the spying mission
- the whole practice - was wrong, illegal and would not be repeated.'
In other words, the show must go on.
THERE is good reason for institutionalised intelligence operations -
the knowledge they place in the hands of the intelligence owners
creates a deterrent for potential aggressors.
Writing for The Straits Times last month, University of California at
Los Angeles professor Tom Plate put the issue in its context: 'It
would be nice to believe that America has learned that other people do
not like being spied on any more than we do.
'But spying does take place, and to the extent it reduces surprises,
the practice ought to.'
The April incident underscores a reality about intelligence work: It
helps inter-state relations, lessening unpleasant surprises and giving
early warning of potential blow-ups.
Although intelligence work has, at times, sparked off bilateral spats,
few wars have broken out over the act of spying alone.
Just about every country has its own intelligence agency.
And increasingly, these agencies, previously cloaked in the most
impenetrable of security fogs, are coming in from the cold.
The biggest of them all, the Central Intelligence Agency, is working
with American broadcaster CBS on The Agency, a television series
scheduled to be screened later this year. It will not only showcase
some of the CIA's work, but also film its opening sequence right on
the secretive grounds of the agency's headquarters in Virginia.
You can glean fairly substantial information on the set-up and methods
of operation of several other agencies on websites such as
At least one has an official website: the Australian Secret
Intelligence Service, at www.asis.gov.au
BUT at home, the fog over intelligence work is thicker.
Somewhere in the sprawling compound of the Ministry of Defence complex
at Bukit Gombak stands an innocuous white building which houses
Singapore's intelligence agency.
Nothing, apart from the four sets of barely noticeable security
personnel layered before it, exists to tell anyone the importance of
The Security and Intelligence Division (SID) is one of the best-kept
secrets in Singapore's formidable array of defence agencies - not to
be confused with the Internal Security Department, its better-known
The division has never been in the public eye, apart from occasional
references in connection with its former chiefs who have moved on to
more prominent public-service positions, such as the current Permanent
Secretary in the Prime Minister's Office, Mr Eddie Teo.
Its current director is Brigadier-General (NS) Choi Shing Kwok.
The agency does not have a public website, so even the nature of its
work, in the imagination of the public, is unclear.
But one former staff officer, speaking on condition of anonymity,
describes the agency's work this way:
'We are surrounded by countries and people not of the same mind as
ourselves. But we have the maturity to realise that we are all
different countries with different interests, and we don't have to be
disagreeable about it.
'There is a great need to understand and interpret them in a
'Intelligence gives us the ability to create more transparency, so
things are not misread. It gives the Government the ability to make
In his book Defending The Lion City: The Armed Forces Of Singapore, Dr
Tim Huxley describes the division as 'highly efficient and effective'.
The director of Hull University's Centre for South-east Asian Studies
reveals that the agency is usually headed by a senior civil servant or
one-star Singapore Armed Forces officer, and has approximately 500
According to Dr Huxley, the SID is 'Singapore's interlocuter with the
secret intelligence agencies of friendly countries', carries out human
intelligence, and manages and analyses satellite imagery and signals
intelligence, said to be among the most advanced in the world.
But the book tells little of how the division has helped to shape
actual events in Singapore's national-security interests.
The former staff officer says the agency works in three main ways.
Collection of information: This means collection by human agents - the
sort of activity glamourised in the popular imagination by James Bond
- as well as technical collection, which was what the US EP-3E
aircraft was doing, although Singapore is not known to own such
Analysis of information: This means an evaluation of the data
collected, to provide policy pointers for the Government.
Informal diplomacy: This means building relationships between
countries outside normal diplomatic channels.
Behind the scenes, the division has played a pivotal role as the
nation's eyes and ears overseas.
There is a passing, almost unnoticeable, reference to the role played
by the agency in Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew's memoirs From Third
World To First, when he describes how Singapore's intelligence, during
the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979, determined the extent of
the occupying army's positions.
The former SID staff member says its discreet intelligence channels
were instrumental in helping to build and train the non-communist
This, he says, was how Singapore contributed to the anti-communist war
effort there, by providing the AK-47 automatic rifles, hand grenades,
ammunition and radio communications, and training mentioned in the
Senior Minister's memoirs.
Other incidents in which the division played a major role, he says,
included the Laju hijacking incident of 1974, and the rebuilding of
relations with Indonesia after the cessation of Confrontation in 1966.
WHEN it comes to the reality of the division's work, anyone with a
mental image of debonair men circulating on the cocktail circuit and
fighting villains with sophisticated gadgetry is sadly mistaken.
But what this reality is has never been set out officially.
The former SID officer says: 'SID officers are rarely given public
recognition or honours because of security and political concerns.
'A set of intelligence medals, the covert equivalent of National Day
medals, are awarded to SID officers and operatives, but no names are
So much about the agency remains a mystery, with no official
acknowledgment of the role it has played in Singapore, and how
effective it has been as a broker of inter-state peace and stability.
That may be a pity, especially with intelligence agencies in other
parts of the world coming in from the cold.
Those in countries like India and Indonesia even have well-publicised
contacts with the media, and provide media briefings on issues such as
bilateral tension or structural changes within the agency.
A clearer signal from the SID, or the Ministry of Defence, that it is
willing to let on more about the extent and effectiveness of
Singapore's external intelligence-gathering would remove the pretence
that in public terms, the agency does not exist.
It would also give credit to much of the unseen, unknown and unsung
work the SID does.
And that would certainly be a story worth telling.
I spy: Intelligence agencies in the neighbourhood
INTELLIGENCE agencies exist in virtually every country, keeping a
watchful eye on security in their regions and around the world.
There is no shortage of public websites with a dizzying array of
information on these agencies, collected in one-stop virtual
Examples are the US Federation of American Scientists at
www.fas.org/irp/world, and former Central Intelligence Agency
operative Robert Steele's website, which creates intelligence out of
freely-available information, at www.oss.net
Here is a rundown of agencies in the region, based on information from
the Federation of American Scientists website.
China: Foreign-intelligence work is concentrated in the Ministry of
State Security, which uses Chinese diplomats, students, visiting
delegations and other people in its operations.
The People's Liberation Army General Staff Department also runs its
own intelligence arm, the Second Department, which collects military
Indonesia: The State Intelligence Agency (Baden Intelijen Negara, or
Bin) is the successor to what used to be the State Intelligence
Coordinating Agency. The agency studies both domestic and foreign
intelligence, and reports to the President.
India: The innocuously-named Research and Analysis Wing is India's
powerful intelligence agency. It is said to have played a key role in
India's conflicts with Pakistan and neighbouring countries. It reports
directly to the Prime Minister.
Australia: The Australian Secret Intelligence Service or Asis began
life in 1942 as the Allied Intelligence Bureau as a Second World War
anti-Japan effort together with the Americans.
Today, it is Australia's foreign-intelligence collection agency, under
the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
**************From Uncle Yap**************
Berita Malaysia - The Malaysian News & Discussion Group
Archives/manage subscription: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/beritamalaysia
To subscribe by e-mail, send empty e-mail to:
To unsubscribe by e-mail, send empty e-mail to:
bmalaysia - Just The Malaysian News
Archives/manage subscription: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bmalaysia
To subscribe by e-mail, send empty e-mail to:
To unsubscribe by e-mail, send empty e-mail to: