The United Kingdom commits to cyber capacity building in Southeast Asia

By Yogesh Hirdaramani

At this year’s Singapore International Cyber Week, the United Kingdom’s Cabinet Office Minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe DBE CMG announced key cyber investments made by the UK Government, signalling the country’s strengthened commitment to the region.

At the Singapore International Cyber Week, the United Kingdom’s Cabinet Office Minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe DBE CMG announced cyber cooperation packages with Southeast Asia. Image: Singapore International Cyber Week

In partnership with its Asia-Pacific counterparts, the United Kingdom has developed a £13 million programme (nearly US$16 million) to strengthen the cyber capacity of ASEAN member states, focusing on key matters such as threat detection, protecting critical national infrastructures, and building cyber skills. 


“This latest package of cyber cooperation that I am announcing in Singapore this week cements our commitment to the region, and to rooting out cyber threats wherever they appear. Skills and capacity building are at the heart of our joint endeavour,” said Cabinet Office Minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe DBE CMG in a press release.


GovInsider speaks to Baroness Neville-Rolfe and Juliette Wilcox CMG, Cyber Security Ambassador for UK Defence and Security Exports at the Department for Business and Trade, to learn more.

Deepening partnership with ASEAN member states


With this set of announcements, the United Kingdom is strengthening its commitment to the ASEAN region. 

Baroness Neville-Rolfe spoke to GovInsider on the sidelines of SICW about the UK's upcoming cyber packages with ASEAN. Image: Gov.UK

This comes in the wake of the country’s decision to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade agreement between 11 countries across Asia and the West, and signals the UK’s commitment to growing its network of trading partners outside of Europe.


“I'm very keen on the Indo-Pacific Tilt, which was part of our strategic refresh in 2021 to move more of our diplomatic effort and our security effort into this region partly because of threats but also because of the growth potential,” said Baroness Neville-Rolfe to GovInsider, pointing to priority areas for partnerships.


ASEAN is projected to be the world’s fourth largest economy by 2050 and the UK has deepened its relationship with the region since exiting the European Union, wrote The Diplomat. The country’s 2021 strategic refresh recommended the UK embrace an Indo-Pacific Tilt to strengthen economic and security partnerships within the region.


The Baroness highlighted that deepening cybersecurity partnerships can also help solidify global technical standards on matters such as Internet-of-Things devices and strengthen international cyber cooperation as cyber threats become increasingly borderless.


Singapore plays a crucial role in the UK’s goal to work more closely with Southeast Asia. The Singapore International Cyber Week, for one, brings together both regional and international players to discuss key matters of cyber cooperation annually and makes it easier for countries to collaborate, she said.


“We look to Singapore as our key partner in the way we can collectively think about how cyber security can be improved in this whole region,” said Wilcox. In September 2023, the UK and Singapore signed a strategic partnership to cooperate more closely on technology, climate, defence, and economic matters.

Spotlighting cyber skills


To address the cyber skills shortage, the UK has signed a joint statement with Singapore to strengthen the cyber workforces in both countries and increase participation of women within the cyber industry.


The countries aim to build up and align cyber security professional standards, open up the UK Cyber Security Council professional register to cyber professionals in Singapore, and facilitate a cyber skills dialogue between representatives from both countries.

“The UK has a long history of accreditation in the professional areas, leading historically in fields such as accountancy, legal professions,” said Baroness Neville-Rolfe. Accreditation and professionalisation can help fresh graduates enter the workforce quickly, she explained.

Non-profit CREST International is one such global cybersecurity accreditation body based in the UK.

To boost the participation of women in cyber, the UK will pilot a UK-South East Asia Women in Cyber Fellowship from January 2024. The fellowship will select two female candidates working in cyber from each Southeast Asian country to deliver cybersecurity projects with support from the UK Government and cybersecurity experts. 


“What’s important is to have women role models and you’ll find that they in turn will encourage more women to come forward,” said Baroness Neville-Rolfe. She shared that as a senior executive in Tesco from 1997 to 2013, she would proactively include senior women in leadership roles on work trips to nurture their careers.


“Women’s networks can be extremely powerful. I myself was inspired by Mrs [Margaret] Thatcher,” she said.


The fellowship will build on the success of a similar programme run in the Gulf.

Cyber diplomacy today


Finally, Wilcox shared with GovInsider on the role of cyber diplomacy in building trust in the new digital reality, a key theme of the SICW 2023 conference.

Juliette Wilcox CMG, Cyber Security Ambassador for UK Defence and Security Exports at the Department for Business and Trade, spoke with GovInsider about cyber diplomacy. Image: Department for Business and Trade

As digitalisation accelerates globally, all societies are increasingly vulnerable to cyber threats. Cyber diplomacy is critical for countries to come to a consensus on matters such as regulation, technical standards, and trade and investment in cybersecurity products and tools, she said.


“The more you can find people who can work together and agree, the more you can get advantages out of it too,” she said. The UK will be holding the world’s first global AI summit exploring the technology’s risks in November.


Partnerships between governments, industry, and academia are necessary too. When it comes to connected devices for instance, government agencies will need to develop incentives for industry players to design secure features for their products, and academic institutions may help to innovate devices that are secure-by-design.


“It’s a virtuous circle. If you pull one of the legs away, you’ll find that your plan is weak,” she explained.

Also read: The generative AI wave is inevitable – what should critical information infrastructure owners do?