Stability does not come naturally to Singapore. We are peculiarly vulnerable. If our balance of security and stability is shattered It is doubtful if we on our own can ever put Singapore together again. Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (1987)
Our mission is to keep Singapore safe and sovereign for all Singaporeans. To do so, we collect accurate intelligence, make impartial assessments and take timely action to counter security threats. We do this, without fear or favour, because we passionately believe that Singapore belongs to all its citizens regardless of colour or creed, and that for a small, multi-racial city state, our collective survival hinges on continued stability and security.
As ISD officers we cherish the character qualities of Integrity, Courage, Loyalty, and Self-Sacrifice, for ours must always be a cause greater than our self.
Our mission is to keep Singapore safe and sovereign for all Singaporeans. To do so, we collect accurate intelligence, make impartial assessments and take timely action to counter security threats to Singapore’s internal stability and sovereignty. We do this, without fear or favour, because we passionately believe that Singapore belongs to all its citizens regardless of colour or creed and that for a small, multi-racial city state, our collective survival hinges on continued stability and security.
In pursuing the critical role we play to safeguard Singapore’s survival, we constantly strive to attain professional excellence in our craft and shall not yield to contented mediocrity. We recognise the value of each individual but we value the Team above him for we know that our strength and resilience and therefore, our success, must ultimately stem from the unity and synergy of the Team.
Above all, therefore, we cherish the character qualities of Integrity, Courage, Loyalty, and Self-Sacrifice, for ours must always be a cause greater than our self.
ISD confronts and addresses threats to Singapore’s internal security and stability. For over 70 years, ISD and its predecessor organisations have played a central role in countering threats such as those posed by foreign subversive elements, spies,
racial and religious extremists, and terrorists.
At the heart of our work are the collection of intelligence that enables us to size up the threats to Singapore’s internal security, and taking the executive actions necessary to overcome those threats. Every day, we collect and analyse intelligence, make impartial assessments, and take decisive action to counter the threats to Singapore’s internal security and stability, and sovereignty.
“ISD’s vigilance and interventions have kept Singapore safe and secure, and allowed our nation to develop and grow.”
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (2008)
ISD’s history is inextricably intertwined with Singapore’s security history. We trace our roots to the Criminal Intelligence Department (CID) of the colonial police service, which was set up in 1918 in the wake of what was named the Sepoy Mutiny of 1915. The CID was renamed Special Branch in 1933 to reflect its responsibility in dealing with a range of pre-war threats posed by communists, seditionists and spies.
In February 1915, a mutiny by sepoys (Indian soldiers) of the Fifth Light Infantry in Singapore caught the British colonial authorities by surprise. Influenced by seditious propaganda and radical anti-colonial sentiment, the mutineers targeted English civilians and troops as they fanned out across Singapore. By the time the mutiny was quelled, at least 40 European civilians and soldiers had been killed. A Court of Inquiry attributed the mutiny to several factors including dissension within the regiment as well as the spread of seditious ideas and the influence of the German prisoners-of-war whom the sepoys were guarding. These developments highlighted the pressing need for a specialised intelligence organisation in colonial Singapore, spurring the creation of the Criminal Intelligence Department within the Straits Settlements Police in 1918 to deal with sedition, espionage and subversion.
Early pioneer officers such as (from left to right) Director of CID Rene Onraet, Chief Inspector Prithvi Chand, Chief Inspector Balwant Singh and Senior Asiatic Inspector Wong Chin Yoke were involved in the fight against seditionists, spies and
subversives during the pre-war period.
During Singapore’s tumultuous road to independence after World War II, the Singapore Special Branch dealt with internal security threats arising from communal (racial and/or religious) tensions, communist subversion and foreign operatives looking to wreak havoc here during the period known as Konfrontasi.
Vehicles were set on fire and damaged during the Maria Hertogh Riots.
On 17 February 1966, after Separation from Malaysia, the Singapore Special Branch was renamed the Internal Security Department (ISD). ISD had to grapple with serious security challenges confronting a fledgling nation. With the Cold War in full swing, the Communist Party of Malaya continued to pose a serious threat to national security with its campaign of violence. Foreign countries, even friendly ones, attempted to influence our domestic politics. Terrorism also reared its ugly head as Singapore became a target for hostile actors and extremist militant groups.
In June 1948, the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) launched an armed insurrection to overthrow the government through violent revolution and establish a communist state in Malaya, including Singapore. A state of Emergency was declared in Malaya and extended to Singapore. During the 12-year conflict, the CPM carried out numerous acts of violence, including assassinations and grenade, arson and acid attacks, resulting in the deaths or injury of over 8,000 civilians and security personnel.
In the 1950s, faced with declining support and having suffered heavy losses during its armed insurgency, the CPM stepped up its united front activities, which involved the infiltration and subversion of political parties, trade unions, student groups and cultural organisations in Singapore. This led to rising labour and student unrest, strikes, protests, boycotts and riots, resulting in the deaths of innocent Singaporeans and security personnel.
In 1954, the CPM succeeded in instigating Chinese middle school students to oppose the introduction of the National Service Ordinance. A violent demonstration held in front of the Government House (Istana) led to clashes between the police and students. The following year, a communist-instigated strike by workers of the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company erupted into violent riots. Two policemen, a foreign correspondent and a Chinese student died in the incidents. More riots followed in 1956 involving workers and students. Joined by pro-communist workers, student protests and sit-in demonstrations culminated in riots which spread across the island, leaving 13 people dead and more than 100 injured.
Two communist agents were killed when a home-made bomb they were carrying in their car exploded prematurely.
(Source: Ministry of Home Affairs)
The Special Branch took prompt action to stop communist leaders and agitators from destabilising the country. By the mid-1960s, a series of security operations mounted by the Special Branch and its successor ISD had significantly crippled the communist underground in Singapore – many of its leading members had been arrested or fled the country. But the CPM renewed its armed struggle in 1968, re-establishing guerrilla units in the Malaysian jungles and inspiring the emergence of underground groups which perpetrated acts of violence and subversion in Singapore. The most active and militant group was the Malayan National Liberation Front (MNLF); it provided the CPM with manpower, funds, supplies and equipment (including ammunition and military equipment), and was also behind a spate of arson attacks and bombing incidents in Singapore in the 1970s. In one incident in 1970, a young girl was killed by a booby-trapped bomb planted by MNLF elements. In June 1974, a senior MNLF cadre sent to Singapore to take over its operations and form an armed unit here was caught with a pistol, bullets, explosives and detonators. That same year, two members of another communist underground group, the Malayan National Liberation League, were killed when a home-made bomb they were carrying in their car exploded prematurely at the junction of East Coast Road and Still Road. ISD intensified its efforts against the resurgent communist violence and subversive activities into the 1980s, and succeeded in eradicating the communist threat in Singapore.
By the late 1980s, communism was on the wane. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe had eroded the credibility and appeal of communism. The CPM signed the Haadyai Peace Agreements with Malaysia and Thailand in December 1989 to lay down arms and cease hostilities, marking the end of the communist insurgency in Malaysia.
Read more about the communist threat to Singapore; resources available at bookstores or the National Library:
ISD has safeguarded Singapore’s internal security, stability and sovereignty for decades. We continue to do so, as the longstanding security threats of terrorism, communal extremism, foreign subversion and interference, and espionage, persist and evolve while new threats emerge in an increasingly complex world.