On the banks of the Thames river stands — the headquarters of the United Kingdom’s foreign intelligence agency, MI6. Built in 1994, the glass and aluminium clad mammoth quickly became synonymous with British espionage and spies. So much so, that it featured in several James Bond films. In fact, when a special premiere of Skyfall was held at Vauxhall Cross for MI6 staff, they cheered when their headquarters were destroyed in the film.
Back home in Singapore however, things are a bit different. Somewhere in the maze that is the Ministry Of Defence’s Bukit Gombak camp, stands an inconspicuous white building. Nothing, apart from the four layers of security protection, tells of its importance.
Welcome to Singapore’s best kept secret: The Security and Intelligence Department (SID). The Little Red Dot’s very own spy agency. From tapping undersea fibre optic telecommunications cables to spying on the Malaysian and Australian governments, the SID allegedly has a fascinating and rich history. One that might even warrant a movie treatment of its own.
The Security and Intelligence Division is virtually non-existent to the public. This means no websites, no points of contact and no addresses. It’s so secretive that most of its personnel are known only to Singapore’s highest ranking government officials. Even the organisation’s current director is unknown and a secret. This is because SID officers are rarely given public recognition 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 made public.
The little that we do know about the organisation comes from a 2001 Straits Times interview with a former SID agent. According to the article, the agency specialises in three things. One, collecting information and knowledge on our neighbouring countries – through human agents or technology. Two, analysing information and providing the government with policy briefings. And three, forming informal diplomatic channels with friendly counties.
While the organisation has not publicly accepted responsibility for any operation, alleged stories about the agency have seeped through the wall of secrecy. These stories take us around the world, to different continents and eras.
The Soviet Union
Moscow, May 1979.
The Arbat district comes alive as the day draws to an end. The streets start buzzing with activity as shops, cafes and artists spring up for business. This particular evening, a peculiar couple is seen entering the Labrinth – a restaurant reserved usually for the well-to-do. The Chinese man is thin and lanky, wearing thick rounded spectacles typical of the eighties. The woman is white, good looking, probably beyond the man’s league.
He looks a bit hesitant – a wife and daughter await at home. But soon, he starts warming up. They leave the restaurant and head to a nearby bar – where they drink and dance till 1:30 in the morning. One thing leads to another and the pair have sex at the woman’s one bedroom apartment. And just like that, a sophisticated Soviet spy trap had been set in motion, completely unbeknownst to the unsuspecting victim.
Alan Wee Kheng Soon was a cypher officer working at the Singapore embassy in Moscow. Alan’s job involved deciphering coded messages sent to the embassy’s cypher machine by friendly countries and the government back home. He would have done this with the aid of a cypher machine. Operating these machines made Alan a high-value target. He knew the codes to crack the secret messages and came across confidential information on a daily basis. This is probably why the Russians targeted Alan with the use of a swallow – an agent trained to extract information from targets using sex and romantic relationships.
It started off slow. At first, Luba – as the agent called herself – started asking Alan about his work. Things seemed normal until she told Alan to “cooperate” or she would make their affair public. She even threatened to hurt his wife and daughter. The cypher codes were her target and it wouldn’t be long till she got them.
It is unknown if the SID had any role to play in this affair – whether it screened Alan Wee before his subsequent hiring, or whether it helped uncover details about the scandal. However, the Alan Wee controversy must have reinforced the need for Singapore’s espionage capabilities, which at this point, was in its infancy.
Sydney, August 2001
It’s a cold Wednesday evening in Sydney. Australians from all walks of life are returning home after a long day at work. Dinner and chores over for the day, some tune in to watch the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Lateline. The famous late night news show had almost become an Australian staple by this point. A decade old, the show was credited with almost certainly creating “headlines in the next day’s newspapers”. On tonight’s show? Damning allegations about the Singaporean government activities on Australian soil.
Two weeks before the show’s airing, reports emerged that the Australian government had given assurances to concerned executives that it supports the proposed takeover bid of Australia’s second largest telco, Optus, by SingTel. This was in response to deep concern in some sections of Australia’s intelligence community about the security implications of the takeover.
According to some intelligence experts, the Singaporean government had a track record of spying on Australia and its military. Des Ball of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre even remarks that Singapore “is more actively engaged in intelligence collection activities in this part of the world than any other South-East Asian country”.
The story starts in 1993, when the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) was allowed to conduct flight training operations at the Pearce Air Base near Perth. Lateline alleges that the RSAF then used a modified C-130 Hercules filled with electronic monitoring equipment to spy on the Australian military’s capabilities.
Around the same time, there were fears among employees at an Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) base, that the facility had been penetrated by Singaporean intelligence authorities. In other words, they were worried that the Singaporean government had managed to recruit someone at that listening station. These fears were made worse when it was discovered that someone had been passing highly confidential material on to a senior Singaporean naval officer. Obviously, this was a cause for concern for Australia considering that the ASD “is the most secret, the most sensitive and, undoubtedly, the most productive of all the Australian intelligence organisations”.
Given the close links between Singtel and the Singaporean government, many of the experts featured in the show urged the public and the government to the reject Singtel’s takeover of Optus. This was because the deal included the ownership of Australia’s main defence satellite – through which many of Australia’s sensitive secrets and documents are sent.
Unfortunately for these experts, in October of the same year, Singtel completed its acquisition of Optus, changing its name to Singtel Optus Pty Limited. Today, Optus still remains in Singtel’s portfolio of foreign investments.
Kuala Lumpur, December 2010
Ex-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim stands agitated, on an improvised outdoor stage. The man who was once poised to be Malaysia’s next prime minister has now fallen out of grace after being accused of sodomy. He maintains that these allegations are completely fabricated by the government to discredit him and prevent him from running in elections against the UNMO government.
This evening, approximately a thousand people have come down to see him speak, despite the harsh tropical heat. They are clapping, cheering for him, laughing at his jokes – he seems to be able to completely control them. Halfway through his rather passionate speech, he says:
Lee Kuan Yew said I committed an act of sodomy. Maybe he wants to go to court as a witness, then we shall fight in court.
What’s the context to all of this? Well, a few days before Anwar’s speech, a US state department document detailing his sodomy case was leaked by WikiLeaks. The document alleged that Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew told the Australian government that Anwar “did indeed commit the acts for which he is currently indicted”. It further goes onto say that both the Singapore and Australian government agreed that “it was a set-up job and he probably knew that, but walked into it anyway”.
According to the report, Singapore reached this conclusion through “technical intelligence,” which in this case probably refers to intercepted communications and documents. Since this type of external intelligence gathering falls in the SID’s domain, it is very possible that the agency was involved.
8 years have passed and the controversy has died down. Anwar is now next in line to be Malaysia’s Prime Minister again after his coalition won the 2018 General Elections.
The Straits of Singapore
Tuas, August 2013
He has been called a hero and a patriot by some. A traitor and narcissist by others. Edward Snowden, a former employee of the United States government’s National Security Agency, copies and leaks classified information regarding numerous global surveillance programs.
One of these surveillance programs is called Tempora, a British government initiative to collect as much data from the internet as possible, for later processing. This was done through the interception of undersea fibre-optic cables and involves the harvesting all data, emails sent, messages, passwords, and more entering and exiting Britain via undersea fibre-optic cables. Surprisingly, more than 15 of these cables pass through or land in Singapore. Some are even partially owned or managed by Singtel.
This is where the SID comes in. According to the leaks, the SID, cooperating with intelligence agencies from Australia, Britain and America, taps one such major cable – the SEA-ME-WE 3. A Sydney Morning Herald article even alleges that the SID does this with the aid of government-linked Singtel. It further goes onto say that Singapore “probably (has) the most advanced” signals intelligence capabilities in South East Asia.
Unlike the storm that was stirred up in the west, reactions to the leaks in Singapore were extremely mellow, likely because it wasn’t reported by any mainstream news outlet.
Reading these stories, we have to ask ourselves: why does Singapore, which is smaller than the five boroughs of New York, need spying capacities that are usually set aside for superpowers? Well, the answer lies in the question itself. Being such a small country, Singapore experiences strategic
vulnerabilities. For example, it might not have the manpower or the resources to win a conventional war against its bigger neighbours. That’s why diplomacy and intelligence are so important to Singapore.
Intelligence gathered by the SID allows diplomats to look at situations more holistically, and make better decisions. It allows the government to look at motives for actions and analyse, predict potential threats to Singapore’s interests. In other words, it’s easier to play a game of cards when you know your opponent’s hand.
The Security and Intelligence Department is hence an instrument of Singaporean diplomacy, and will always be of importance to the country.
It’s just a shame that we hear so little about these unsung heroes.