Youths doing a group reflection during Cyber Youth Singapore Launch Camp 2019
Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic is the top priority these days, but there’s a simmering crisis that also needs our attention.
In January 2021, the World Economic Forum Global Risk Report named “cybersecurity challenges” as the fourth most pressing danger to the global economy. Given an increased adoption of technology during the pandemic, there is much cause for concern, especially if users cannot deal with cyberattacks and cybercrime.
National serviceman Ben Chua believes that youths can take the lead in protecting our digital spaces.
That’s why he started Cyber Youth Singapore (CYS) in 2019. This non-profit organisation aims to empower youths with a passion for technology to explore the field safely and responsibly. CYS works with public and private sector partners to expose young people to a wide range of domains from cloud computing to fintech. And there is one area that Ben believes is especially important for our digital future: cybersecurity.
Youths, he says, are just as likely to be exposed to cyber threats as seniors, despite them being the tech-savvy generation. However, if they are armed with the right information and cultivate good digital habits, they can fend off potential threats.
This motivated him to start CYS when he was a computing student at Singapore Polytechnic (SP).
His long-term goal was to create a buzzing community and educate youths about digital literacy and cyber wellness. CYS would also tackle issues such as internet addiction, preventing cyberbullying, ensuring data privacy, networking safely with strangers online and how to sieve out misinformation.
The first event he organised was a meet-up on SP’s campus in 2019. About 70 youths turned up. Now, three years on, the youth-led organisation has more than 1,000 members.
CYS has nine areas of focus such as engaging youths through boot camps and workshops to raise awareness about its cause and how to harness the power of technology. It also reaches out to vulnerable youths to equip them with relevant digital and cyber skills.
Youths competing in a Capture The Flag competition by CYS
Ben, who is CYS’ first president and chief executive, explains that he felt it was necessary to start the organisation as the tech landscape is changing. “Singapore is going digital, but no organisation had this value proposition for youths. We will be the ones inheriting the nation, and that’s why we must be prepared to carry this mindset into the future.”
He aspires to mould and encourage more youths to become “cyber defenders” in the cybersecurity industry – and not just the kind who appear in movies hacking computer systems.
“The ideal cyber defender comes in many forms, and there are many available roles. I’ve seen companies hire history and psychology majors because these people can understand tactics and protocols, and they can analyse how attackers behave and their modus operandi. Cybersecurity is not just about hacking and should be seen as the fifth domain of combat.”
Beyond attracting professionals to the industry, he says, youths can do their part in small ways to make the internet a safer place and not be complacent.
“Because they are digital natives and at the forefront of digitalisation, they think the security risk doesn’t affect them,” he explains. For example, he notes that many young people use the same password for different accounts or that they purchase items online without verifying the legitimacy of a seller.
Pointing to the work that CYS is doing among the youths, he adds, “That mindset is something that we want to change. It’s a collective effort in Singapore to stay secure and not put everyone at risk.”
Hearing Ben speak about his passion to use tech for good, it’s hard to believe that there was once a time when he was near clueless about how to navigate the digital world.
Ben Chua speaking at Guangzhou's Desheng International School about CYS
Unlike many of his peers who grew up with 24/7 access to information on fast-speed devices and smartphones, Ben only got a smartphone when he reached upper secondary and his own laptop when he started polytechnic. His parents were concerned that he and his siblings would overindulge in screen time, so they had to share a desktop for schoolwork. There was also a limit to how long they could watch television.
He decided to dive into the tech world on a whim, after attending a career talk by SP when he was in Sec 3. Pegged as a session to learn about cyberwar gaming, Ben was immediately captivated. “That’s a term you seldom see in school. Their ‘sales pitch’ was done well. It was pretty cool to a 15-year-old.”
He opted to do a diploma in Infocomm Security Management at SP despite being unfamiliar with computers and operating systems. He struggled at first, having to figure out things like “command line” and having a file system that belonged only to him.
But he worked hard to improve his skills, eventually levelling up to be able to hack a computer. He even learnt how to perform red teaming (a way of testing security by simulating a real-life attack) and penetration testing (manual testing that helps check the effectiveness of an organisation’s vulnerability management programme).
He was “in shock and awe” at the possibilities of what he could do with a computer, but another area soon piqued his interest. “I got more interested in the policy behind cybersecurity. That’s what anchors me to this profession,” says Ben, who hopes to get a degree in Computing and Law in the future.
He wanted to mirror his learning experience for other youth and decided to start CYS. He pitched the idea of how youths, through CYS, could lead the cybersecurity conversation to other organisations so he could get funding and support to hold more events and outreach activities.
However, all he got was a pat on the back for his efforts. “A lot of people said, ‘Good job and good luck.’ No one was willing to risk throwing in the first line of support to see if this works. What we were pitching was a utopic dream of a community that the Government can tap on.
“We’re still here today. We’ve shown industry leaders that we are capable of creating impact and that we’re here to stay.” Eventually, CYS got its first funding from a local cybersecurity company, which gave $11,000, and has since grown from strength to strength.
Cyber Youth Singapore Summit 2021 Organising Committee
Today, CYS receives support from the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore (CSA), Division Zero (Div0), the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and the National Youth Council (NYC). These organisations have supported CYS’ growth through outreach programmes and funding.
One of the notable community events that CYS has organised is its flagship programme, CYSummit. Pegged as the first cybersecurity event for youths, more than 500 secondary and tertiary students came together online over five days to showcase their tech skills and talents.
Pointing out the collaborative effort needed to get the summit going, Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State in the Ministry of Communications and Information, said in his opening address that this “ecosystem approach” was necessary.
He added, “This is the team spirit that we need in cybersecurity if we're going to get it right for each of our organisations, but more importantly, for Singapore, we need these deep and wide collaborations in order to continue to work together to safeguard cyberspace. All of us have a part to play and all of us will play our part.
Ben Chua showing a demonstration on how to deal with a cyber attack to the students at Guangzhou's Desheng International School
In another effort to raise the next generation of leaders, NYC has provided CYS’ key volunteers with developmental opportunities to hone their skills through leadership upskilling programmes. NYC, which is the coordinating body for youth affairs in Singapore, also directs volunteers and interns to CYS through its Youth Corps Internship Scheme and the YouthTech Programme.
CYS works with the interns to create and lead their own projects. There are two projects in the pipeline that target different demographics in Singapore.
The Surf Safe Campaign by Nadiah Ummairah and Olivia Xavier aims to reach 100,000 secondary school students over the next three years. They want to educate youths on the importance of digital wellness, media literacy and cybersecurity. Depending on what students at each school need, the team will curate the content for better engagement. Eight secondary schools will be part of the first launch
Meanwhile, Digitalise Singapore (DS) is a project that is looking for youth innovators and researchers to support and nurture. Helmed by Julia Lim and Elliot Ang, DS hopes to nurture the next generation of thinkers, innovators and doers. They have partnered with hosting provider Exabytes Network Singapore, which has sponsored $150,000 worth of digital services and solutions. DS aims to reach 1,000 youths for the pilot in 2021 and if successful, continue the programme over the next six years.
Empowering youths is a key tenet of CYS’ ethos, even if they are interns, says Ben. “The CYS team is there to supervise and provide guidance. If we keep coming up with the ideas and projects, we will have ideas that are reused and there’ll be no evolution. These interns bring new perspectives and challenge what we know.”
Looking back at the growth of CYS since the start, Ben is proud of what he and his team have achieved, not just with creating safer spaces online, but also with making real-life connections. He highlights the four-day camp CYS held at the Singapore Management University in late 2019. The whole programme, which was run by Ben and his team of volunteers, attracted some 100 youths who participated in workshops and discussions.
A group of youths presenting a hackathon idea to the judges
Ben was most excited at how the youths had bonded through the event. “The participants enjoyed the community vibe at the event. They could be potential co-workers in the cybersecurity sector in future and they are already networking. Friendships were also formed, and I’ve seen these relationships last till today.”
Ben has won numerous awards for his efforts in rallying his peers to navigate the tech realm safely and responsibly. In 2020, he was a recipient of the Lee Hsien Loong Interactive Digital Media Smart Nation Award and the Singapore Computer Society IT Youth of the Year.
Ben says his work is not complete. He and his CYS team are dreaming big. They plan to reach 100,000 youths and grow the organisation to 10,000 members in the next seven years.
The time to engage with youths is now, he says. “Technology has invaded our lives, whether we like it or not. Policymakers need to debate and discuss how best to tackle issues that arise, and youths should be a critical part of those conversations. CYS can serve as a hub to connect everyone.”
There are many ways you can get involved with CYS or get your own project going
- Here are a few ways you can get involved with CYS:
- Join the Cyber Youth Collective as a member at https://discord.com/invite/EtQaDkZDhM
- If you would like to volunteer with CYS, drop an e-mail to email@example.com
- Students or interest groups looking to collaborate on projects that engage youths can e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Looking to start a project that strives for a digitally inclusive society? We can help. Find out more at www.imda.gov.sg/for-community/digital-readiness/Digital-For-Life