Singapore takes formal step towards setting up cyber defence unit

Country passes amendments to Act that will see a new digital intelligence unit--including a digital chief--formally established as part of the armed forces, a step the government says is necessary as "cyber intrusions" intensify and threaten critical systems.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Singapore has passed amendments to two Bills that will clear the way for a new digital intelligence unit to be established as part of the country's armed forces. The government has described the move as necessary amidst intensifying "cyber intrusions" that threaten critical systems. 

First mooted in March, the new digital and intelligence service (DIS) unit would be set up as a fourth service under the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and responsible for combating online attacks. The DIS team would work alongside the three other services--Army, Navy, and Air Force--to enable the country's defence systems to work as a collective group. 

Expected to be operational by year-end, the new unit would be headed by a chief of digital and intelligence service (CDI), joining the other three service heads. 

The CDI also would be a member of the Armed Forces Council and hold legal powers, discharging their duties and authority to lead the DIS in times of conflict, said Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen in parliament. 

Noting that the "battleground" had extended into the cyber realm, Ng said the DIS needed to be a "fully-fledged military service arm" to safeguard Singapore's critical infrastructures. "The digital domain--just like air, land, and sea--has become a battle terrain which, if left unguarded, can impact the security and sovereignty of any country," he said. 

He added that both state- and non-state actors recognised they could use the digital domain to achieve their objectives, particularly, terrorist cells. "Whether to recruit vulnerable inductees, spread false propaganda, supply funds, procure weapons, sabotage, or bypass state security systems, these areas have become standard fare for terrorist networks," the defence minister said. 

As digital threats continued to scale, occurring in the millions each day, they could have real physical impact on countries that were unprepared, he said. Pointing to ransomware attacks that brought down crucial services such as the US Colonial Pipeline, which cut off gas supplies, he noted that cyber intrusions could affect critical systems including water systems, hospitals, air traffic, and financial systems. 

Ng said attacks that had the most "pernicious" intent and aimed to undermine Singapore's sovereignty or security had to be differentiated, stressing the need for a dedicated unit to build, train, and maintain "cyber troops" and capabilities to defend the country's digital borders.

"The DIS will ensure Singapore is defended against the full spectrum of threats against potential aggressors," he said. "The digital environment is more porous than the physical one, but the DIS will be responsible to guard against these aggressors in that domain."

The amendments to the SAF Act passed in parliament this week set the path for the DIS to be formally established, along with changes to other Acts to ensure the new service--and its "soldiers"--would be officially recognised as a part of the military. The Constitution also was amended to grant discretionary power to Singapore's president in appointing the CDI.


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