Digital defence may be sixth pillar of Total Defence: Ng Eng Hen

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said it is time to apply the concept of Total Defence to cyber threats.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said it is time to apply the concept of Total Defence to cyber threats.PHOTO: LIANHE WANBAO

SINGAPORE - To address the very real impact of cyber attacks, the Government is taking steps to reshape the Total Defence framework that may see Digital Defence added as a new sixth pillar, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

He said it is time to apply the concept of Total Defence to cyber threats and that the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) is now working through the details with other ministries.

"Total Defence has been around for more than three decades. It started in the last millennium; we're now in the new millennium. I think it's time to apply the concept of Total Defence to threats from the digital domain," said Dr Ng.

Total Defence began in 1984 to reflect the complexity and multi-dimensional nature of defence for a country. It comprises five pillars in the areas of social, psychological, military, civil and economic.

Speaking at the annual Total Defence Awards Dinner held at the Raffles City Convention Centre on Thursday (Oct 4), Dr Ng said Singapore is less prepared as a society against threats from the digital domain, compared to physical threats.

"And yet, the impact of some of these threats from the cyber area can be as devastating, if not more," he added.

Dr Ng cited some examples of cyberthreats, such as how the Cyber Security Agency last year had detected more than 2,000 Singapore-linked website defacements.

He also pointed out how just last week, Facebook reported its worst ever security breach where hackers accessed the accounts of some 50 million users, he said.

 
 
 

Dr Ng added that individuals, companies and Singapore itself can suffer from weak digital defences while Internet scams target the vulnerable to steal information and cheat individuals, revealing that he has also been a target of such attempts.

"Ever so often, someone or some organisation will attempt to 'spear-phish' me by sending to my e-mail inbox some innocuous looking e-mail, usually with a subject matter that I have struck some lottery or won a lot of money."

"But now they are more sophisticated and now it's luxury holidays with some familiar-looking name from my address book - they've become quite sophisticated," he said.

He added that the security agencies have taught him well and so he doesn't click on anything.

"So if I drop some of your e-mails, it's because I sent it to them to look at it, and if you don't get a reply, just send it again and I'll reply to you when I think it's safe," said Dr Ng.

"It's a common tactic, you would have experienced it, and in fact, it's the modus operandi for actors to infiltrate any organisation to plant malware. These attacks can be orchestrated, even state-sponsored, and can do real harm."

Also worrying is how false information spread online can have disastrous social consequences, and cyber attacks on critical infrastructure could disrupt lives and even lead to injury and death, said Dr Ng.

He cited how there were false claims spread online about the disruption of a Thaipusam procession by a police officer and a member of the Hindu Endowments Board this year, which garnered at least 3,000 shares on Facebook in less than three days.

"Given our multicultural make-up, this misinformation could have caused great division along racial or religious fault lines," he said.

Dr Ng gave out awards at the event, with the NS Advocate Awards presented to small and medium-sized enterprises, large companies, individuals and organisations.

The award is the highest accolade conferred on businesses, organisations and individuals in recognition of their exemplary support towards Total Defence and national service.