ISD Pioneer Generation Dinner - Speech by Mr Teo Chee Hean, Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister for Home Affairs

Published: 06 August 2015

Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah,

Director ISD,

Distinguished Guests and Ladies and Gentlemen,




        Good Evening. I come from a generation which has benefitted very directly from the hard work of our pioneers because we were born in an era in which strife and turmoil were present every day.  We were too young to understand what was going on.  We only felt it through the anxieties of our parents, their worried pacing up and down when things were tense and the hushed voices when they talked among themselves.  And then, from time to time, we didn't get to go to school because something had happened. But we never really understood that there were men and women who were working hard, step by step, to address these issues and to bring peace and stability to Singapore.  They also put their lives on the line, making Singapore a safe place for all of us.  In three days, we celebrate Singapore's 50th National Day. Singapore's road to independence and our early years were fraught with such dangers.  The dedication and perseverance of our pioneer ISD officers, who played a key, if often unseen, role in overcoming these dangers, helped provide the peace and stability for Singapore's progress and for people like myself to grow up in safety and security.  This evening, it is our privilege to come together to honour the contributions of our ISD pioneers.


Threats to Early Singapore

Communism Threat


2     In our early days of nation-hood, communism was the major threat to Singapore's security. The Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) waged a relentless campaign of armed violence and united front subversion in Singapore and Malaya. During the 12-year Emergency from 1948 to 1960, some 8,000 civilians and security personnel across Malaya were killed or injured. Throughout the 1950s in Singapore, CPM assassination squads struck fear among the people. And the targets were often ISD officers and senior officers in the government service. The CPM also instigated massive social unrest to try to de-stabilise the country and, in the process, take over the government.  In 1955 alone, 946,000 man-days were lost due to strikes.  That is something like an average of more than 3000 people on strike every day. To counter the communist threat, our pioneer officers in the then-Special Branch carried out a series of arrests in the 1950s against communist operatives. 


3     When the CPM failed to achieve its aims through mass agitation, it attempted essentially a political coup to capture the PAP and the government in July 1961. The communists wanted to control Singapore and use it as a base to ultimately extend communist rule over the whole of Malaya.  The threat of communist subversion was heightened in the wake of the Azahari Revolt in Brunei in December 1962 and Indonesia's declaration of Konfrontasi in January 1963.  In February 1963, the Internal Security Council chaired by then-UK Commissioner to Singapore Lord Selkirk and comprising representatives of the governments of the United Kingdom, Singapore and the Federation of Malaya decided to take action against the Communists.  Our pioneer officers mounted Operation Coldstore in February 1963 which dealt a blow to the communist network in Singapore.[1]


4     In spite of this, the CPM revived their campaign of violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, carrying out numerous arson and bombing attacks.  Our officers worked tirelessly to stem this violent threat from the CPM.  Between 1970 and the early 1980s, the CPM's underground network actively recruited members amongst blue collar workers, students and leftist organisations.  Communism was on the march worldwide.  They had taken over South Vietnam in 1979. They were going into Afghanistan.   ISD was instrumental in dismantling these new groups which attempted to subvert Singapore. Several Malaysians and Singaporeans whose pro-Communist groups had been disrupted left to join the CPM radio station, Voice of Malayan Revolution, which broadcast from Changsha in China.  In the 1980s, persons linked to these groups made use of student and religious groups to advance the communist cause, requiring ISD to take action in 1987 to disrupt this plot. 


5     The threat to Singapore from communism lasted for more than four decades until the CPM finally laid down its arms on 2 Dec 1989. It was no coincidence that this was just less than a month after the Berlin Wall came down on 9 Nov 1989, signifying the disillusionment with Soviet era communism. Many who were with the CPM have come to accept that if we had followed the communist path, Singapore would have been led down a deep and dark hole, and we would not have achieved the peace, progress, harmony and prosperity that Singapore has enjoyed in the past 50 years. So it was a decisive battle. If we had not prevailed through the hard work, perseverance and determination of ISD officers, we would have gone down a different path in history.  And we would not be celebrating SG50 today.




6     Besides communism, Singapore also faced a serious threat from communalism.  After joining the Federation of Malaysia, we were caught up in their racial problems and politics.  Communal tensions in Singapore were stoked up.  The deadly 1964 race riots showed us how volatile inter-communal relationships can be, if they are exploited and allowed to be made use of.  Since then, we have learnt important lessons.  We have steadily fostered inter-communal understanding to build trust and social harmony, never ever taking it for granted.  Our pioneer officers and subsequent generations of ISD officers worked behind the scenes to resolve disputes and to strengthen ties between different racial groups.  Your hard work has contributed significantly to the social harmony which Singapore enjoys today.  




7     Today, Singapore faces an additional threat to our national security – and that is jihadi terrorism.  The bloody and extreme violence of this threat was vividly demonstrated in the 11 Sep 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City. Just months later in Singapore, ISD foiled the plots by the Al-Qaeda-linked "Jemaah Islamiyah" group, to bomb embassies and other key installations in Singapore.  Since 2001, ISD has had to detain more than 60 persons who subscribed to violent extremism and posed a threat to our security.  ISD's work extends beyond detention, to rehabilitation. And most of these detainees have since been rehabilitated and released after they were assessed to be not currently a threat.


8     But the threat of jihadi terrorism takes on new forms.  The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has attracted more than 20,000 foreigners to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS in armed violence.[2]  And these radicalised individuals are likely to spread ISIS's violent agenda after they leave Syria and Iraq.  And some of them will come home to this part of the world.  They already radicalise and recruit their countrymen to join ISIS.  They could also carry out attacks or form new networks in their home countries, to extend ISIS's agenda of establishing an Islamic state through violent conflict.  They have produced Bahasa Indonesia recruitment videos to recruit people from our part of the world to join ISIS.


9     There are also the lone-wolves, people who act on their own.  They become radicalised on-line, plan attacks and can strike at any time, which makes it very difficult for ISD and our other security agencies to detect and prevent.  ISD has, nonetheless, been able to detect and act against several of them.  What we need now is for the community itself to remain vigilant, and support ISD's efforts to protect us all from both organised and lone-wolf threats.  Our objective is to save these people, who may otherwise do themselves and others harm.  And to try to bring them back to the correct path.  


Drawing Lessons for Now, and the Future


10     As we remember and honour the work of our ISD pioneers, let me draw three lessons that will help us tackle current threats, and inspire future generations of ISD officers, those who come after you and follow in your footsteps.


(I)     Defeating the Ideologically-Driven Jihadi Terrorsim Threat Requires Perseverance, and a Security Approach as well as a Viable Governance Model


11     First, we need perseverance to overcome ideologically-driven threats.   The battle against communism wasn't over in a day or two, or a year or two. It lasted more than four decades.  Counting from the 11 Sep 2001 World Trade Centre attack, the threat of jihadi terrorism is already into its second decade, and is likely to be with us for the foreseeable future.  Returnee fighters will pose a threat for decades to come.  And even if the authorities are able to detect, disrupt and detain individuals who are a threat, there will be others who may be misled and drawn down the path of violence.  Extremist terrorist ideology is not just secular like communism.  It is a more complex challenge as it is based on distorted interpretations of an established religion which has a global community of believers. So the challenge is not just a security issue, but it is a broader one. And Muslim polities need to evolve and offer their people an appropriate and effective governance model that offers significantly better and fairer outcomes than presently available to them. This will go a long way to reduce the pent up tensions so easily exploited in these societies.


(II)    Working with Stakeholders, Building Community Support


12     Second, we need to work with key stakeholders and build community support in tackling security threats.  In 1961, Mr Lee Kuan Yew gave twelve radio talks in three languages to rally the people in the life-and-death struggle against the communists.  The determination and fighting spirit of Mr Lee and his compatriots, backed by support from Singaporeans, set Singapore on the path which has brought us here today to an SG50 which we can celebrate with quiet pride. 


13     In multi-racial Singapore, all communities have to tackle the threat of extremist violence and terrorism together because one of the objectives of terrorists today is to split and divide societies, and thereby have more opportunities to destabilise countries and take them over.  We have been working together with our Islamic religious leaders to help protect our Muslim community, especially our youths, from being taken in by the violent jihadi ideology.  All of us can play a part to help save our loved ones from going down the wrong path, and prevent them from harming themselves and others. Family members and friends should contact the authorities or the Religious Rehabilitation Group if they think that their loved ones are becoming radicalised.  And this is our message to the community. We are on your side. We are working with you to help you save your young people from being radicalised and doing harm to themselves and others. 


14     We must do everything we can to prevent a terrorist incident, but we cannot cover every angle and every possibility.  So we must prepare ourselves. We must prepare ourselves to deal with the aftermath should such an attack occur.  We must continue to strengthen trust and unity among the various communities in Singapore.  The Government will continue to work with key stakeholders such as our Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs), and tap on our National Community Engagement Programme, to strengthen our social resilience.


(III)      "For Ours Must Always be a Cause Greater Than Our Self"


15     Third lesson, and the most important one, is that we are serving a cause greater than ourselves. This is a phrase that comes to mind often when I listen to the accounts of the officers of ISD.  You knew that you were serving a cause greater than yourself.  You often had to perform your duties in the face of danger to your personal safety.  This was best exemplified during the Laju hijack incident when several ISD officers selflessly offered themselves as hostages to the armed terrorists to guarantee safe passage for the terrorists to Kuwait in order to restore the security and safety of Singapore and Singaporeans.  The bravery and self-sacrifice of our pioneer officers have kept Singapore safe and sovereign.  I call on all current and future ISD officers to emulate the spirit of the pioneer officers.  Because of our pioneer officers, Singaporeans enjoy multi-racial harmony and social stability, free from inter-communal strife; the integrity of the Government is free from subversion and espionage; and because of the work of our officers, Singaporeans can walk through our streets any time of day or night, free from the threats of extremist and terrorist violence; and our country, Singapore, is free.  Free to chart our own future.  And that is the gift that our pioneer officers have given to all of us.




16     As Mr Lee Kuan Yew said shortly after Singapore's independence, "This is our house.  Although it is small, it is our property. It is the right of the people of Singapore to manage Singapore as the people of Singapore want it to be."[3]  Please join me to express our deep gratitude to all pioneer ISD officers.  Thank you for keeping our house safe.  Majulah Singapura!

Photograph of Voice of Malayan Revolution.pdf


[1] In his memoir Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History, the late Chin Peng, former CPM Secretary-General, said that "Operation Cold Store (sic) shattered our underground network throughout the island.  Those who escaped the police net went into hiding.  Many fled to Indonesia."

[2] "20,000 foreign fighters flock to Syria, Iraq to join terrorists," CBS News, February 10, 2015.

[3] Press Conference of then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew with Malay journalists at the Studios of Television Singapore on 11 Aug 1965.