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Winning ‘hackers’ might be among first batch of NS cyber defenders

SINGAPORE — Since he was enlisted six months ago, Mr Velusamy Sathiakumar Ragul Balaji has been serving in the Military Police. But after coming up tops in a cyber security camp organised by the Defence Science and Technology Agency yesterday, the 18-year-old could be among the first cohort of a new National Service vocation of “cyber defenders” in the Singapore Armed Forces.

Winning ‘hackers’ might be among first batch of NS cyber defenders

Recent high profile cyber-attacks on Singapore universities have led to the drafting of a comprehensive Cybersecurity Bill by the Cyber Security Agency (CSA). Reuters file photo

SINGAPORE — Since he was enlisted six months ago, Mr Velusamy Sathiakumar Ragul Balaji has been serving in the Military Police. But after coming up tops in a cyber security camp organised by the Defence Science and Technology Agency on Thursday, the 18-year-old could be among the first cohort of a new National Service vocation of “cyber defenders” in the Singapore Armed Forces.

His four-member team was among a handful out of 300 in total to have successfully hacked a smart home by gaining full administrative privileges at the end of the first day. Within two hours the next day, they managed to gain access to loads of hidden data and to switch off lights wirelessly.

Apart from the cash prizes they took home, they were invited by Second Defence Minister Ong Ye Kung to undergo the selection process to join the cyber defence vocation. “This means that if you are selected for full-time National Service, you serve by defending Singapore’s cyberspace,” said Mr Ong, at the awards ceremony for the Cyber Defenders Discovery Camp. This was the first cyber security camp organised after the new vocation was announced during the Committee of Supply debate on the Ministry of Defence’s budget in March.

At that time, Mr Ong said these servicemen would be entering a “very selective and demanding vocation”, with a stringent selection process — sieving out those with special skill sets — akin to how commandos or naval divers are chosen. He also added that those chosen could include employees from the cyber security industry, or be identified from activities such as local cyber competitions and camps, and through rigorous selection tests. Much of the selection is expected to happen in educational institutions, from the Institute of Technical Education to junior colleges, Mr Ong had said.

On Thursday, he reiterated that the Ministry of Defence will work with educational institutions to identify potential cyber defenders. “The best way to do so will be through nationwide cyber competitions,” he said.

Mr Ong added: “The critical success factor in building up cyber defence in Singapore is really the availability of people and talent ... We should learn from our elite combat forces, to develop our cyber defence force also as an elite force comprising people with exceptional talent. Hence, recruitment must be highly selective, and the demands on the vocation will be exact, will be intense.”

Speaking to TODAY, Mr Ragul described being able to change his vocation and being part of the pioneer batch of cyber defenders as the “best thing ever”, as he could turn his hobby into an occupation. He first picked up coding skills from his father, a systems analyst, when he was in Primary 4. He became serious about cyber security when he attended Hwa Chong Institution. With his junior-college friends, he would explore cyber security by “just learning to prevent friends from breaking my code”, he said.

For now, Mr Ragul, who has been offered a Singapore University of Technology and Design scholarship, does not have plans to sign on as a regular, but he said: “Maybe that may change if I get selected into the cyber defenders programme.” 

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