Friday, 18 May 2007

Questions for Oral Answer: 11 April 2007

Someone forwarded this Wired article to me quite some time ago. I had never heard of the RAHS before. So when another MP filed an OPQ about it, I grabbed the opportunity to ask about the privacy implications. Not a particularly conclusive answer (the DPM did allow the possibility that he was mistaken), but better than nothing.

A friend queried how the RAHS could avoid collecting personally identifiable information, if it was supposed to help predict/identify specific events, such as the outbreak of SARS from the travel patterns of infected persons. I suppose that lies in the fact that RAHS only shares metadata across agencies, and that presumably any personally identifiable information scanned does not leave the agency which held it in the first place.


Mdm Ho Geok Choo asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security whether he will provide an update on the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning system that was set up recently.

The Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security (Prof. S Jayakumar): Sir, the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS) system is meant to help analysts, for example those involved in strategic planning, to discern weak signals of potential major events on the horizon that can have an impact on Singapore. This will enable policy choices to be made, and pre-emptive and preventive steps to be taken where necessary. The system, however, is still in the development stage which we hope to have operational by the end of this year.

Developing such a capability is important in today’s complex, inter-connected and uncertain world. Asymmetric threats, like global terrorism and disease pandemics, are challenges for countries around the world, Singapore included. For such complex and non-traditional threats, models and approaches that are not purely based on recent history or past observations are needed to help analysts discern emerging patterns of potential and novel threats. It is with that aim that we initiated this Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning framework.

In practice, the RAHS system is a suite of software tools revolving around several key processes: building models; collecting data and organising information; detecting emerging trends and discovering anomalous patterns by matching data against models; as well as collaborating with other analysts across the world.

RAHS, let me stress, however, is not about predicting the future or specific events. Furthermore, while it is a highly sophisticated tool, it can never replace the well-trained and experienced analyst. It is meant to augment the analyst by helping automate some of the more tedious aspects of research work, so that the analyst can focus on the more important analytical tasks.

At present, the RAHS system is a research and development programme, and we expect to evolve the system further in the years ahead. To succeed, RAHS would need to work off a collaborative approach linking Ministries and agencies across Government. The system will be useful not just in the traditional security domain, but also to monitor emerging social and economic trends.

To improve on the RAHS tools and concepts, and to try out new applications, an Experimentation Centre will be set up in the second half of the year. Institutions, like the Swedish Defence Research Agency and the United States Joint Forces Command (US JFCOM), will be collaborating with the Experimentation Centre, and we intend to involve our own Ministries in Singapore and agencies in some projects.

Mdm Ho Geok Choo (West Coast): Sir, some time ago, the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned putting in place a whole-of-Government framework to think about a complex and uncertain future. I would just like to ask how will the RAHS Centre actually work with the various Government agencies and the public at large, especially the community, to embrace this whole-of-Government approach to horizon scanning.

My second question is that while this may be in place in Singapore, how do we actually work with our neighbouring countries? Considering the fact that we are so small, anything that happens nearby could actually affect us as well.

Prof. Jayakumar: Sir, the Member mentioned the whole-of-Government approach, which is important for major crises that we want to anticipate, whether it is in the area of terrorism or other crisis, such as disease pandemic.

The RAHS is a tool and it is not the entirety of the system. It is a tool which involves specialists working with the various concepts that I mentioned. It is one of the tools which we are going to develop in collaboration with other Ministries and, in fact, the two agencies that I mentioned.

The whole-of-Government approach involves more than this tool. It involves a collaborative approach where agencies do not view their role as purely compartmentalised. We must have a perspective that requires sharing of intelligence and information, and pooling of the resources.

Take terrorism, for example. 911 has shown to all countries that we cannot have what is referred to as "stove pipe" approach, where each organisation deals as if it was a silo. It is impossible. Those who have followed hurricane Katrina also know that that demonstrated and underlined the importance of agencies working closely. If that were so for larger countries, what more for smaller countries.

I am glad that the Member has reminded us of the whole-of-Government approach. RAHS is a tool that will aid the whole-of-Government approach.

With respect to collaborating with regional countries, yes. To deal with issues like terrorism and pandemics, it goes without saying that we have to obtain the cooperation and intelligence sharing of countries in the region. RAHS, however, is in its early stages of development. And, as we progress, we will consider how we can involve more countries in the region, because it requires considerable infrastructure and investment in such a project in other countries.

Mr Siew Kum Hong (Nominated Member): Sir, Wired magazine ran a story on the RAHS system, and I think the system was called the largest data mining exercise in the world. I would like to ask the Deputy Prime Minister whether the RAHS system collects personally identifiable information. And, if so, what safeguards are in place to ensure the privacy of the individuals in question?

Prof. Jayakumar: Sir, I stand to be corrected but the briefings that I have received on the RAHS system are that it does not collect specific information about individuals. But if it were to do that, then, of course, we will be mindful about the need to protect the privacy of the particular individual.

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