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, Straits Times, 19 May 2001

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

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 housesSingapore’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 staff.

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 aircraft.

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 libraries.

Examples are the US Federation of American Scientists at, and former Central Intelligence Agency operative Robert Steele’s website, which creates intelligence out of freely-available information, at

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 information.

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.

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