He dismantles viruses to develop the vaccines

The Economic Development Board has been nurturing key industries that are driving Singapore's economy and will take it into the future with attractive employment prospects for people here. Arti Mulchand profiles computer security professionals in the information and communications technology sector.

It is Saturday in the Chong household. On the living room floor are Mr Chong Rong Hwa and his two-year-old, Hongtai. In front of them is a toy car in four separate pieces.

"I am teaching him to break his toys, and then put them back together. It's reverse engineering," says the 33-year-old staff malware researcher with global network security company FireEye.

Clearly, Daddy's dream is for these baby steps to some day lead the tot into the important - and growing - world of cyber security, where he deploys reverse engineering to uncover the workings of some of the world's most sophisticated cyber attacks.

Drawing on his hacking skillset, the computer engineering graduate from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) investigates software designed with malicious intent, or malware, that could allow attackers to manipulate the machines they infect.

But finding the malware and dismantling it is only the first step. More important is identifying the "cyber-baddies" who put it in the system.

"We're fighting the humans behind such operations. We have to examine the threat from many different perspectives, including the attacker's habits, to understand the context. And that is a process that can't be automated," he says.

The invisible enemy could be anywhere, and strike just about anyone, anytime, he adds.

He says: "Advanced malware is getting smarter and harder to discern, and can run on systems believed to be secure."

Each time the defence bar against attacks is raised, adversaries find new ways of overcoming it, taking advantage of previously unknown bugs, he adds. Such "zero day vulnerabilities" are so called because until they surface, they are unknown; so even a fully patched system could fall victim.

The threat is especially acute in a highly networked country like Singapore, raising the urgency to draw talent into the industry.

He says: "While Singapore has escaped natural disasters like typhoons and earthquakes, being highly networked is its Achilles heel. It is prone to cyber attacks."

He adds that the recent attacks on government websites were wake-up calls. The attacks could have been much worse, he says. The compromised sites could have been used to host "drive-by malware", which would have infected all visitors to the site.

He says: "Their impact could have been much greater than just a few days of embarrassment. It could have resulted in half of the nation becoming a botnet."

A botnet is a network of private computers infected with malware and which can be controlled without their owners' knowledge.

Mr Chong's passion for cyber security belies the fact that he had scant exposure to IT growing up - his family never had a computer.

This led him to opt for business administration at Nanyang Polytechnic, where he discovered that he had a knack for programming.

He switched to IT after his first year and then moved on to NTU, focusing on low-level programming, operating systems, cryptography and mathematics.

After graduating, he landed a position in the Incident Response Team of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore's Infocomm Security Division.

There, he dismantled malware like backdoor worms and viruses, as well as malicious documents and websites to understand their intention, custom encryptions and communication protocols.

He also conducted penetration testing, wearing his hacker hat to break into networks and expose security flaws.

Today, besides working at FireEye, he is also involved in the Singapore chapter of the Honeynet Project, an international organisation dedicated to investigating cyber attacks, developing open source security tools and learning how malicious hackers behave.

He also sits on a panel that, under the National Infocomm Competency Framework, helps plan for the industry's resource needs.

While it is an exciting life, he admits there can be a downside to being a cyber warrior. Incidents always happen when you least want them to, like over Chinese New Year or the weekend. He says: "It is not unlike being a fireman. You don't know when the fire is going to happen, but you have to be there. It's your job."

This article was first published on May 5, 2014