Speech by Senior Minister of State for Defence, Dr Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman, at the Ministry of Defence Committee of Supply Debate 2019

Speech by Senior Minister of State for Defence, Dr Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman, at the Ministry of Defence Committee of Supply Debate 2019


Mr Chairman, Minister for Defence Dr Ng has spoken about the uncertain and volatile geopolitical environment that confronts us, and how a strong SAF is vital to help us navigate this landscape for Singapore. History has shown us that having a strong defence makes all the difference. This is why our long-term and sustained investment in the SAF and Total Defence is vital for Singapore's continued security and prosperity. 

Total Defence: Then and Now

When Total Defence was first introduced in 1984, it was in response to a threat landscape where warfare was very much conventional. However, even then, there was recognition that potential aggressors would target not just the military, but the entire population.

As threats evolve, Total Defence becomes even more critical. Take terrorism for example. The face of terrorism has changed, from kinetic attacks spearheaded by Al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah (JI) in the early 2000s, to ISIS' more insidious attempts to radicalise and recruit followers through the use of technology and social media, to deepen distrust between communities and sow discontent with the establishment. They even fund and instruct their members and sympathisers to launch terror attacks like suicide bombings in their own countries. ISIS may have lost ground in the Middle East, but links to our region remains alive. The return of foreign fighters exacerbates this threat. 

In this age of the internet and social media, resilience of Singaporeans will be tested through attacks from the digital front. This will be the new battlefront because of how connected we are, and how reliant we are on digital technology to communicate and to consume information. Singapore has one of the highest levels of internet penetration in the world, and according to a study done by media company "We Are Social" in 2018, people in Singapore spent an average of two hours daily on social media, with WhatsApp, YouTube, and Facebook being the top three most used platforms. Sir, our connectivity opens us up to threats from the digital domain, which will confront and define this generation. Many examples in Singapore and overseas illustrate the devastating impact that these threats can wreak. 

Digital Dangers and the Need for Strong Digital Defences

So for example, Estonia was one of the first countries in the world to experience this in April 2007 when a cyberattack caused online services of their banks, media outlets and government to be shut down. Citizens could not access cash machines and online banking services; news could not be printed or broadcasted. More than ten years on, cyberattacks in various forms remain a tool for those who would do harm to us. Another example, in July 2018, more recently, the Alaskan borough of Matanuska-Susitna ("Mat-su") was, as a BBC article describes, sent "back in time" by a malware attack which forced them offline, resulting in some borough staff having to bring out old typewriters just to keep services going. 

Another challenge is how quickly information, and disinformation, can spread over the digital domain. The recent riots that broke out at a Hindu temple in Subang Jaya, Malaysia showed how the spread of rumours and fake news via social media just overnight could fan the flames of racial tensions, and incite social unrest. As Ms Joan Pereira noted, it is important for us to keep our Social Defence strong, so we stay united against any attempts to divide us. All communities and faiths have worked hard to build our multicultural and multi-religious society today. We must not let falsehoods pit different social groups against one another. 

Many of these digital dangers show that complacency, ignorance or negligence on the part of individuals could pave the way for an attack with disastrous consequences. A January 2019 report by NATO's Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence outlined how their researchers managed to track and trick NATO troops using open source data primarily from social media. It was concerning how it was so easy for the researchers to identify troops, locate their battalions, persuade them to abandon their posts and reveal sensitive details about military manoeuvres. This example shows how much people take their online lives for granted, and are unaware about how the seemingly innocuous information they post about their lives can be used for harm – not just for themselves, but for the wider society.

Singapore is not spared. We know how hackers stole the information of 1.5 million SingHealth patients. We have also seen the spread of fake news on a wide range of matters for example, plastic rice or Halal pork, to more insidiously, false accounts of incidents that could inflame xenophobia, communalism, and puncture social harmony. 

Digital Defence: Countering Threats from the Digital Domain

This is why we have strengthened Total Defence with a new Digital Defence pillar. Ms Joan Pereira and Dr Teo Ho Pin asked about our Digital Defence efforts. We want to bring across the message that every individual is at the forefront of Digital Defence, and this is not a cliché. It is of great significance, and as articulated in an editorial in The Straits Times, "every citizen is a soldier in the digital war". Only if everyone plays a part – the Government, businesses, communities and individuals – can we make Digital Defence a part of Singapore's DNA, and keep our defence total. 

As a whole-of-nation effort, MINDEF has been working with various Government agencies to fortify Singapore and Singaporeans against digital threats. MCI and its agencies, the Cyber Security Agency (CSA), the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and the National Library Board (NLB), have in place various programmes to empower individuals, businesses and the wider community, so they can play a part by being secure, alert and responsible online. In MHA, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) has developed further its capabilities to deal with cybercrime, and educates the public on staying safe in cyberspace. As Dr Ng spoke about earlier, we have strengthened our defence sector networks through setting up the Defence Cyber Organisation (DCO), and ensuring that we have a strong core and pipeline of people with the right skills and expertise to do this work. 

We will also ensure that our Servicemen are prepared for threats from the digital domain. We are working with National Library Board (NLB) to have all recruits going through Basic Military Training (BMT) to attend an information literacy workshop to equip them to better recognise and deal with fake news and deliberate online falsehoods. For the rest of our personnel, MINDEF and the SAF will inoculate them against hostile information campaigns and fake news, as well as strengthen cybersecurity awareness through enhancing our existing curriculum and learning journeys. We hope that collectively, these efforts will help our servicemen better understand the role of fake news in modern warfare, the steps they can take in response, and strengthen cyber hygiene as a whole. 

For students, issues related to Digital Defence are already in MOE's curriculum, and will be reinforced through digital literacy and Cyber Wellness programmes. Ms Joan Pereira asked about how we are reaching out to our youths. We have refreshed the ‘Guardians of the City' (GOTC) card game this year to include threats from the digital domain. Students who have played the refreshed game felt it helped them better understand these threats and how they can play a part. For example, ITE College East student Deshaun Lau shared with us, "Playing the game helped me realise that when we face digital threats, we must stay together as a community, and remind each other to take steps to prevent these attacks."

Businesses too, are putting Digital Defence in action. A workplace design company, Space Matrix, has not only invested in cybersecurity systems, but also trained their staff to keep these threats at bay. Digital threats hit close to home when someone impersonated their CEO via email and asked staff for funds transfers. They did not fall victim thanks to the vigilance of their staff who recognised the false email identification. The company subsequently fine-tuned their systems to better protect themselves for the future. 

Keeping Singapore Strong Together 

While we step up efforts in Digital Defence, the multi-faceted threats of today mean that to keep Singapore strong, we need a collective effort where everyone plays a part and takes action across all six pillars of Total Defence. 

Mr Chairman, may I say a few words in Malay please? [Translated] Mr Chairman, the recent maritime and airspace disputes between Singapore and Malaysia have reinforced the importance of Total Defence for us. Our security agencies stand ready and vigilant to safeguard our sovereignty. Singaporeans also need to remain united and stand firm on our principles to protect our national interest. Therefore, it has been heartening to see how many Singaporeans have taken to social media to counter the false claims and show their support for Singapore's position. One example is a post by Mr John Lam, who encouraged fellow Singaporeans to remain calm and civil when these disputes became more tense. He used examples from Singapore's past to show how we, as one people, have overcome our constraints, and come out stronger. For example, when faced with the threats of water supplies being cut, we invested in water filtration and desalination technologies, and developed our own NEWater treatment plants. When faced with a sand import ban, we developed innovative and environmentally friendly ways of using less sand for reclamation.

[Translated] What Mr Lam and many others have done embody what Psychological Defence is about – that is, people staying united and resolving to stand up for Singapore. Members of this house like Ms Cheng Li Hui have also acknowledged the importance of this. The recent bilateral tensions between Singapore and Malaysia, the continued tensions, have helped Singaporeans better understand what we stand for, and why it is important for us to take these positions – that is to uphold our territorial sovereignty and operate within a rules-based international order. Our small size and the volatility of our region show how crucial it is for Singaporeans to remain committed to our own defence, and to have a strong SAF.]

I spoke earlier about how the terrorism threat is here to stay. Security agencies will do all we can to prevent an attack, but even if one takes place, it is important that every Singaporean knows what to do so that we can hold together, and bounce back quickly as a society. We commend ground-up initiatives that put Total Defence in action in this way, such as the example of the young Singaporeans who came together to develop the Bukit Panjang Emergency Preparedness Guide, with the support of Bukit Panjang Community Emergency and Engagement Committee (C2E), as Dr Teo Ho Pin had shared about. To build emergency preparedness, we have put in place the Community Response Module that equips MINDEF and SAF personnel to be active community responders by teaching them skills to better protect themselves and help those around them in the event of a terror attack. This complements MHA's SGSecure effort, which continues to build vigilance, cohesion and resilience in the community to deal with a terror attack. MINDEF's Total Defence partnerships with organisations such as the Singapore Red Cross and the Temasek Foundation Cares, also equip people with the knowledge and skills that they can apply in a crisis. For example, the Business Psychological Resilience Programme (B-PREP), part of Temasek Foundation Cares' ‘Stay Prepared' initiative, trains employees of companies in skills like psychological first aid. 

MINDEF has also been actively reaching out to our youths and the wider community on Total Defence, and it is heartening to see how they have rallied around Total Defence. One example is how five students from Temasek Polytechnic – Benedict, Gabriel, Jed, Martin and Shing Hao – developed a Total Defence mobile application game. Named "The Lion City", the game highlights how simple, everyday actions contribute towards building a strong and cohesive nation. The game's developers hope that by doing so, they can inspire their fellow youths to play their part and put Total Defence into action.


Sir, in conclusion, Singapore has enjoyed peace and prosperity as we have a strong SAF, a strong National Service system, and strong public support for defence and security. 35 years on and after the launch of Total Defence, we must continue to involve all communities and faiths to play their part. As we commemorate the Singapore Bicentennial this year, let us strengthen our resolve to safeguard our future for Singapore and Singaporeans. Thank you, Sir.

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