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Guardians of Our Home: Six Qualities of an ISD Officer

Research Analyst “Anna Tan” explains what it takes to become an ISD officer.

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PHOTO: Dayana Yakob

A Research Analyst with the Internal Security Department (ISD), “Anna Tan” (not her real name) works to suss out potential security threats to Singapore via sensemaking. She shares six qualities that an ISD officer should possess.

1. Have an open mind
Anna’s journey with ISD began six years ago after she graduated from the National University of Singapore, where she majored in Geography and History. She quickly came to understand the importance of ISD’s mission. “Because of what I’d studied, I always thought that I’d end up working in a museum,” she said. “But as fate would have it, I was interviewed for a position with the ISD Heritage Centre.” 

The ISD Heritage Centre was opened in 2002 with the goal of educating the community about the vital work of the Department and the various security threats Singapore faces. As a public education officer, Anna came to know a number of ISD officers who were involved in various operations detailed in the ISD Heritage Centre. 

“It was an eye-opening experience,” she recalled. “I got to work alongside several veteran officers, and through their stories, I learnt why it’s extremely important to keep Singapore safe, secure and sovereign. This resonated strongly with my personal aspiration to serve and make a difference.”

2. Be willing to take up new challenges 
As part of her work at the ISD Heritage Centre, Anna was tasked with designing and operationalising ISD’s outreach efforts to raise public awareness of the internal security threats that Singapore faces.

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Anna sharing with a visitor at the ISD Heritage Centre about how operatives of the Communist Party of Malaya had concealed secret messages in common household items. PHOTOS: Joash Tan

Besides leading tours and learning journeys, Anna’s team also curated new exhibits and visited schools and community centres to conduct mobile exhibitions. 

“It was a pretty challenging role as we had to design content that was engaging and relatable to members of the public,” said Anna. “But it was also extremely meaningful. The modus operandi of threat actors are constantly evolving – for example, in the past, secret messages were passed using concealed rice paper rolls and other physical means; now, it’s largely through encrypted online platforms. That’s why public awareness is important – ISD cannot work alone in this increasingly complex security environment. Vigilant and well-informed members of the community are essential partners of ISD.”

3. Being a good team player is essential
In 2018, Anna was posted to another division within ISD as a counter-terrorism Research Analyst. Her responsibilities require her to work closely with civilian and uniformed officers from other Home Team Departments and public agencies. As Anna quickly learnt, intelligence work isn’t a one-man show: “During my time with ISD, I’ve come to realise that effective intelligence work is highly collaborative, especially when it comes to counter-terrorism.”

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Together as one: As a Research Analyst, Anna takes on a variety of tasks that require her to collaborate with other Home Team Departments and public agencies. PHOTO: Joash Tan

Her most memorable case? The 2019 investigation of three foreign domestic workers in Singapore who were radicalised after viewing extremist materials online, with two even intending to travel to Syria to join ISIS. Working closely with her Operations counterparts, Anna and her fellow analysts had to synthesise disparate bits of information from multiple sources to piece the case together. 

“My colleagues and I worked together to review the intelligence leads gathered and surface any discrepancies and information gaps we found,” shared Anna. “These were then conveyed to our Operations counterparts, who followed-up with further investigations and checks. In all, it was a highly iterative process. That’s why being a good team player is important. I’m glad to know that by working together, we’re able to contribute directly towards keeping Singapore safe.”

4. It’s also about being meticulous and objective
Besides working with her colleagues to detect and neutralise domestic threats, Anna also keeps a close watch on terrorism-related developments in the region and further afield. In fact, a core part of Anna’s work as a Research Analyst is intelligence analysis and sensemaking: processing large amounts of information from various sources in order to develop insights into potential threats on the horizon.

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In recent years, ISD has leveraged on technology to strengthen its sensemaking capabilities. PHOTO: Dayana Yakob

“To assess how regional and global developments can affect Singapore, we need to ensure that the leads we receive are dealt with methodically and objectively,” said Anna. “This helps us to make accurate and timely assessments and propose effective recommendations.” 

Doing so is no mean feat. One way in which Anna’s team reviews large volumes of data for actionable insights is by tapping on technology. “For example,” said Anna, “over the years, we’ve strengthened our sensemaking capabilities by tapping on data analytics.”

5. Have a desire to learn
According to Anna, ISD offers an array of development opportunities for officers who are keen to hone their skills. This has allowed Anna to take ownership of her own professional development and, since joining ISD, she has participated in a range of courses to strengthen her analytical skills and understanding of policy matters.

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A thirst for knowledge: Anna has received a number of opportunities to sharpen her professional skills. PHOTO: Joash Tan

Anna has also been given the opportunity to attend seminars, fora and dialogue sessions organised by various think-tanks. “This allows us to broaden our domain knowledge and understand different perspectives,” said Anna, “which is especially important given the cross-cutting nature of the security threats we face.” 

6. Determination and a passion for keeping Singapore safe
In 2021, Anna was part of the team that helped to produce ISD’s report on the 20th anniversary of the Department’s operations against the Singapore Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) group. The assignment helped her to gain a fresh perspective on ISD’s work and mission, and deepened her respect for  the officers who worked hard to thwart this threat.

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Their mission: ISD officers are dedicated to keeping Singapore safe and sovereign. PHOTO: Joash Tan

“As part of my assignment for the report, I had the chance to speak to a veteran Research Analyst,” recalled Anna. “She described how working on the case in 2001 was like being on an emotional roller coaster, especially as some JI members had tried to frustrate the investigations by giving false information.” 

Carrying the officers through the long days of the investigation was their commitment to keeping Singapore safe. By painstakingly reviewing mountains of recovered papers, photographs and other materials, the team managed to surface important leads like the code-names of JI members and bomb-making instructions. 

“What kept them going was their determination and sense of camaraderie,” said Anna. “The team found simple ways to encourage one another, doing little acts of kindness such as buying breakfast for team members and celebrating small wins together. This still holds true today!”

Guardians of Our Home
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- Science and Technology Career Track: Exploring Leading-edge Vehicle Platforms

Want to find out more about ISD’s work? Read Six Things You Should Know About ISD’s Operation Against JI in Singapore

MHA Civilian Scholarship
The MHA Civilian Scholarship is awarded to outstanding individuals who are passionate about strengthening Singapore’s security and public safety. Recipients of the MHA Civilian Scholarship may choose from a variety of exciting and rewarding Home Team careers according to their interests and aspirations. This civilian scholarship offers six career tracks: a Generalist track and five Specialist tracks: Intelligence; Psychology; Commercial Affairs; Science and Technology; and Internal Security. Applications are now open! Learn more about the MHA Civilian Scholarships!

Written by

Elaine Lee


26 January 2022

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