Why Singapore’s top secret intelligence agency now has a website

By Sean Nolan

Digital times call for digital (recruitment) measures.

James Bond might be the first thing many of us think about when we hear “intelligence agency”. But intelligence officers from Singapore’s Security and Intelligence Division (SID) say spy movies are “overdramatised” and wouldn’t classify themselves as an espionage agency.

SID has kept under the radar since its inception in 1966. That is until they needed to hire more staff. Earlier this year, the agency launched its first website to share what it does, in the hopes that it would attract Singaporean talent from diverse backgrounds.

Two intelligence officers from SID, Michael a Senior Director, and Sophie a Senior Analyst (not their real names), share what the organisation can offer to recruits. The agency’s change in recruitment policy is just one example of the public sector’s new ways of finding talent.

Recruiting diverse talent 

SID is Singapore's external intelligence agency under the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), focusing on foreign relations and international threats such as terrorism and cybersecurity. Among their efforts, the agency disrupted a plot to attack Marina Bay Sands in 2016, according to its website.

“Because our missions have expanded, we have essentially needed to recruit a wider range of people,” explained Michael. The team has broadened its mandate to address climate change, as its impact on food supplies may threaten Singapore’s national security, he continued.

As the agency’s focus expands, it cannot rely solely on present talent, Michael shared. People with different perspectives, who can challenge the set norms and avoid “groupthink”, will help the agency's ability to advise and support policymakers, he said.

The agency has also changed its recruitment policy to hire mid-career professionals, said Michael. This will be done in addition to the established system of hiring university graduates, most of whom studied humanities or technology.

Recruiting staff experienced in other fields has given great value to the team. Economists contributed in-depth knowledge on micro and macro economics, and the skills to assess the direction and trajectories of foreign economies, while an ex-banker brought a “much better understanding of the financial system”, said Michael.

New methods of recruitment 

“This is the first time since its creation in 1966 that it has invited publicity,” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a Facebook post discussing SID’s new website. The website is a new approach to hiring, rather than “the traditional way of recruiting people”, Michael shared.

“Fundamentally we put up the website because we want to improve on recruiting Singaporean talent,” he explained. Although the organisation can rarely receive credit for its work, the website aims to expand outreach and improve the public’s understanding of the agency’s mission.

Before the website was launched, Sophie shared that she could only tell friends and family that she worked at MINDEF, and not name the individual division. The website is a turning point, as the discreet organisation now assesses the possibility of even joining social media.

We will “try with the website first and see what the success rates” are, said Michael. After that, “we will eventually go into other social media platforms” such as Facebook.

SID is not the only organisation to find innovative new ways of recruiting talent. The Asian Development Bank built an AI chatbot that asks candidates questions about their qualifications, filling out their form automatically and saving time in the application process.

AI Singapore decided to try something new by posting recruitment ads without any specific degree requirements. They could not compete in the talent war against private tech firms but ended up finding productive workers from a range of disciplines due to their innovative strategy.

The benefits of working in intelligence 

Intelligence officers face unique challenges in their work. On top of keeping long hours, they can’t offload much of the stress from work with loved ones, due to the discreet nature of the agency.

But the opportunity to serve the country and find a higher purpose often attracts new recruits, said Michael.

Staff are also given the opportunity to gain new skills and knowledge at the agency. Starting off in a research role, Sophie was moved to a more tech-focused role when she expressed curiosity. From there she learned to harness technology “to make sense of data”, she said.

She also became fluent in multiple languages while working at the agency. This was only possible the organisation was “very generous to equip me with the time and the resources to learn”, she shared.

Intelligence organisations might be seen differently due to the dramatisation of the work in the media. But their new recruitment methods are another example of the public sector’s innovative search for talent, one that is increasingly looking for diverse applicants with fresh perspectives.