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STS : Examining the world's second-oldest profession

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  • Yap Yok Foo
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , May 19, 2001
      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
      spy satellites.

      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
      its being.

      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
      domestic-security counterpart.

      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
      methodological way.

      'Intelligence gives us the ability to create more transparency, so
      things are not misread. It gives the Government the ability to make
      good decisions.'

      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
      resistance forces.

      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
      ever publicised.'

      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**************
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