Opening Ceremony of the 12th Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior National Security Officers (APPSNO) - Speech by Mrs. Josephine Teo, Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Home Affairs

Published: 07 May 2018

Executive Deputy Chairman, RSIS, Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, Head of Civil Service Mr Leo Yip,

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen

1.     Good morning and thank you for inviting me to join you for the opening ceremony of the 12th Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior National Security Officers, or APPSNO. To our guests who have joined us from abroad, a very warm welcome to Singapore.

2.     Since its inception in 2007, APPSNO has been a key forum for officials from around the world to network and share perspectives on the latest developments in national security.

3.     This year, we have speakers and participants from more than 30 countries, who are the leading experts in homeland security, terrorism and cybersecurity. I am confident that the diversity of your knowledge and experience will contribute to the collective learning of all participants.

“Boundaries of National Security”

4.     This year’s theme for APPSNO is “Boundaries of National Security”.

5.     National security has traditionally been focused on military and homeland security, to ensure the safety and security of citizens as well as a country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. But the definition of national security has evolved. We can no longer view national security independent of other dimensions such as economic and energy security.

6.     Our world has never been more interconnected. What happens in one country can have significant implications for the security of another country. What happens on the virtual, online world, can spill over to the physical world. What started as a social issue may have profound, long-lasting impact on security.

7.     We are therefore confronted by new questions. In particular, how do we respond to the blurring boundaries of national security?

8.     One thing seems clear: if we define national security too narrowly, we risk responding sub-optimally, able to deal with the symptoms but unable to tackle the underlying causes. Increasingly, security agencies must think beyond traditional boundaries and partner others to identify and tackle security challenges.

9.     At the same time, we need to be conscious not to cast all issues in national security terms. For example, greater polarisation in society, such as along socio-economic or political lines, raises the risk of physical violence and conflict between parties. But at the core, the underlying causes, and hence the solutions, are not security in nature.

Major Security Challenges

10.     With that in mind, let me share some perspectives on the key national security challenges today:

     a.     First, terrorism;
     b.     Second, threats from Cyberspace; and
     c.     Third, deliberate online falsehoods.

11.     Each is a major challenge on its own. But they are also inter-dependent – with one phenomenon feeding into another. I will share how Singapore is dealing with them.

A.     Terrorism

12.     First, terrorism. The threat of terrorism remains a foremost challenge for all of us.

Global and regional situation

13.     While ISIS has lost much of its territory in the Middle East, it continues to be a global threat. ISIS has managed to inspire new recruits and direct attacks abroad. In the wake of its territorial losses, the exodus of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria will aggravate the terrorist threat in other regions.

14.     Within South-East Asia, while there were fewer ISIS-linked attacks in 2017 as compared with 2016, there are indications that the terrorists are growing more sophisticated. Foiled plots in 2017 involved Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices and even radioactive dirty bombs . Although the plots did not succeed, they served as reminders that ISIS operatives in the region have grown in ambition.

15.     The Marawi siege in the Philippines that lasted from May to October 2017 highlighted the threat from transnational jihadi networks, as funding from ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria was channelled through Southeast Asia to the southern Philippines. The participation of foreign fighters from other parts in Southeast Asia and further afield attests to the trans-national nature of the threat in our neighbourhood.


16.     Singapore is not immune to the threat of terrorism. We have been declared as a target by terrorists. The number of self-radicalised individuals arrested in Singapore has also increased sharply, and somewhat alarmingly, I may add, in the last two years.

17.     Therefore, Singapore is taking this threat very seriously. We have enhanced our laws to deter possible attacks by strengthening infrastructure protection as well as event security. We host many events in Singapore, with many visitors from abroad, and they are potentially prime targets for terrorist attacks. We have also enhanced our security forces’ responses to any potential attacks. The Police have set up new Emergency Response Teams and In-Situ Reaction Teams.

18.     But, we are well aware that the efforts of security agencies alone are not sufficient to tackle the threat of terrorism. We have to reach out to engage our stakeholders in the community. We have to go upstream to prevent radicalisation in the first place.

19.     We made it clear that we cannot allow religious teachings that lead to social segregation and extremism. This is a very hard line to hold, but we must hold it. We launched SGSecure, a national movement to enhance community vigilance, preparedness and unity.

B.     Threats from Cyberspace

20.     The fight against terrorism is also taking place in cyberspace. This is the second area of focus I want to talk about. There are two main threats from cyberspace – cyberattacks and online self-radicalisation.


21.     Cyberattacks and cybercrime can be used to support and finance unlawful activities, including terrorism. As our societies become more dependent on internet and technology, every country has become more vulnerable to such threats.

22.     Recent cyberattacks have caused significant disruptions to countries and companies worldwide. For example, in May 2017, the WannaCry ransomware attack affected hundreds of thousands of computers in more than 150 countries, including computers and medical devices at 16 hospitals in the UK, disrupting hospital operations and treatments. Some patients had to be turned away as a result.

23.     Recognising the importance of cybersecurity, Singapore formed the Cyber Security Agency, or CSA, in 2015. The CSA has taken significant steps in bolstering and strengthening cybersecurity in Singapore. It launched the Singapore Cybersecurity Strategy, and passed a Cybersecurity Bill in Parliament early this year to strengthen protection of computer systems.

24.     However, cybersecurity is not something that Governments alone can ensure. We need a vibrant cybersecurity ecosystem, and this requires strong collaboration with the industry.

25.     There is a shortage of cybersecurity professionals worldwide, including in Singapore. To address this gap, CSA introduced the Cybersecurity Associates and Technologists (CSAT) scheme, to partner private companies to grow the pipeline of cybersecurity professionals. To strengthen international partnerships, CSA organises the Singapore International Cyber Week (SICW), an annual event that brings together international and regional policy makers, thought leaders and industry experts.

26.     Closely related to cybersecurity is cybercrime. The World Economic Forum estimates that cybercrime costs the global economy US$445 billion a year. These range from hacking of bank accounts to defacement of websites – and can bankroll a significant part of the world’s underground economy, including terrorism.

Online Self-Radicalisation

27.     Threats in the cyber sphere are however not necessarily confined to disabling critical information infrastructure, or making money through ransomware. The cyber threats can also manifest as psychological attacks on people’s minds, beliefs, and perceptions – in order to influence their actions.

28.     Cyberspace can be an echo chamber – people look for content that reinforce their beliefs and interests and this in turn results in such content being pushed to them. Terrorist groups have therefore also turned to social media and the Internet to mobilise new supporters. The use of online propaganda and social media have been credited for the terrorist group’s initial recruiting success.

29.     Singapore too has had our fair share of self-radicalised individuals. We too have to find ways to counter the propaganda – and correct misguided views on religion, as well as to rehabilitate such individuals.

30.     However, it is very difficult for the authorities to detect someone who has been self-radicalised, to peer into their minds and know what they are thinking of. In fact, it is far more likely the people around the self-radicalised individual would first notice something is amiss and not quite right.

31.     Therefore, we have sought to raise awareness amongst the wider community, and reiterate the role that family, friends, and colleagues can play to alert the authorities so that timely intervention and rehabilitation measures can be taken.

C.     Deliberate Online Falsehoods

32.     This brings me to the third security challenge - of deliberate online falsehoods and misinformation, also known as “fake news”.

33.     In the same way that cyberspace has made it so much easier for terrorist organisations to spread their message, deliberate falsehoods or fake news, especially by actors with ill intent, can be sensationalised and go viral very easily.

34.     Online falsehoods can have national security implications when they transcend the boundaries and gain traction in the physical world. Already, there have been so many examples of how individuals or groups have spread falsehoods and hate speech deliberately to exploit racial and religious fault-lines in societies, which we are particularly vulnerable to in this part of the world.

35.     The situation in Sri Lanka is a case in point. The New York Times ran an article in mid-April, detailing how false rumours and hate speech circulated via social media ignited the recent violent clashes between Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka.

     a.     A false rumour first circulated on Facebook and Whatsapp that the Sri Lankan Police had seized 23,000 sterilisation pills from a Muslim pharmacist. That was what started it all. These pills     were supposedly intended to sterilise the Sinhalese Buddhist community.

     b.     A video of a so-called confession of a Muslim chef of having added sterilisation pills to the food served to a group of Sinhalese Buddhists customers then went viral. The reality was that the     chef simply did not have a good enough understanding of the Sinhalese language when he was interviewed, and he thought his customers were asking about a lump of flour in the food.

     c.     This video then became the basis of a claim by an influential Sinhalese Buddhist group, that the Muslims were plotting to take over Sri Lanka. You see how that grew from the lump of flour. Violent riots promptly followed in the country. A state of emergency was declared.

36.     At the height of the riots, and after failing to get Facebook to stop the spread of videos and rumours, the Sri Lankan Government had to shut down access to Facebook and Whatsapp. The state of emergency was lifted after 13 days. But by that time, two persons were already killed in the riots, and hundreds of Muslim-owned properties and more than 20 mosques were damaged.

37.     Unsurprisingly, countries including Singapore, have been studying the best way of tackling deliberate online falsehoods.

38.     For example, Germany introduced the “Network Enforcement Act”, to fight the perpetuation of fake news and other racist content. This new law, which kicked in at the start of 2018, requires social networks and media sites with members in excess of 2 million to take down posts that are “obviously illegal”. Failure to do so could result in fines of up to 50 million euros – nothing to scoff at.

39.     In January this year, the Singapore Parliament set up a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods to discuss this matter. The Select Committee, over a series of public hearings held in March, heard testimonies from a wide range of people – individuals, including some teenagers, academics, social media companies and mainstream media representatives. It is clear that online falsehoods cannot be left unfettered, and should be removed if the content is manifestly wrong.

40.     Deliberate online falsehoods can cause rifts in the social fabric of nations, and turn groups of individuals on one another. Trust is eroded. In its place, we have mutual suspicion, which then becomes fertile ground for extremist ideologies to spread and take root.

Conclusion - Partnerships

41.     In conclusion, the challenges to national security today are more interdependent and complex than ever. A point which Ambassador Ong made clear right at the start.

42.     The boundaries to national security are blurring and evolving.

43.     The solutions to security challenges are not always solely security in nature.

44.     Increasingly, good outcomes can only be achieved by collaborating with partners outside the security sector. The community has a role to play, to enlarge the common social space, and foster mutual understanding and trust. The business community and the technology companies have a role to play, to strengthen cybersecurity, and prevent the spread of falsehoods and hate speech.

45.     As every country grapples with these challenges, we must also form partnerships with each other, to learn from each other’s experiences and to exchange notes. On this note, I hope APPSNO participants will forge strong bonds and friendships, and exchange best practices and ideas in the course of the week.

46.     I wish everyone a fruitful conference ahead.

Thank you.


Managing Security Threats