Commentary

Defending the nation's digital assets

Besides the tech know-how, a good cyber soldier also needs leadership and other skills

Israel, with a population of only 8.6 million people, is the world's second-largest exporter of cyber-security products and services - second only to the United States.

Enviably, Israel's cyber-security exports are reportedly worth US$6 billion (S$8.5 billion) a year. It turns out that military experience is key to the small nation's progress in the digital space.

And now, Singapore is following in its footsteps in the hopes of securing the Republic's own digital future.

Last week, the 30-member Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) suggested using national service (NS) to train army personnel in cyber-security skills - to plug talent gaps for economic gains and defend the country against cyber attacks.

The Government has accepted the CFE's recommendation and will discuss ways to implement the idea during the Budget and Committee of Supply debates starting later this month.

National servicemen during an obstacle-course training session. They will soon be trained in cyber-security tactics as well.
National servicemen during an obstacle-course training session. They will soon be trained in cyber-security tactics as well. ST FILE PHOTO

Many experts agree that cyber-security training is "a natural extension" of NS to protect Singapore's assets. It is imperative that a smart nation - which Singapore is aspiring to be - has its own cyber defence force.

The job cannot be outsourced to third parties.

But it may take Singapore many years to get there.

Israel's headway today was seeded decades ago. An early success was found in Check Point Software Technologies, established in 1993. It is no coincidence that the company's three co-founders were in the Israeli army's elite intelligence unit before starting the company.

The two founders of another Israeli cyber-security firm, CyberArk, also had military intelligence experience before founding the company in 1999.

Both Check Point and CyberArk are among the world's top 20 hottest and most innovative security firms, according to the most recent CyberSecurity 500 list compiled every three months by United States-based market research firm Cybersecurity Ventures.

The list for the fourth quarter of last year, which was dominated by American companies, included 26 Israeli companies.

Incidentally, three Singapore companies were also in the list. At 50th position was 16-year-old digital-identity-management firm i-Sprint. Threat-monitoring services firm Banff Cyber Technologies was ranked 241st, while managed-security-services provider Quann was 320th.

Singapore may be playing catch-up on its cyber warfare training in the military. Thankfully, it is not starting from a zero base.

But cyber-security training is as much an art as it is a science.

A good cyber soldier does not just have to be good at technical exploits and know-how. Just as important are soft skills such as leadership, common sense, the ability to deal with people and a positive and flexible attitude.

Mr Clement Lee, security architect for Asia, Middle East and Africa at Check Point, said: "It is critical to have an extensive screening process to ascertain problem-solving skills, knowledge, character traits and aptitude in the candidates."

The idea is to put the important job of defending the nation's digital assets in the right hands, he added.

All eyes and ears will be on the upcoming Budget and Committee of Supply debates as Singapore decides on how it wants to shape its future.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2017, with the headline 'Defending the nation's digital assets'. Print Edition | Subscribe