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Home Team Speeches

17 February 2014

Oral Reply to Parliamentary Questions on Breach at Woodlands Checkpoint by Mr Teo Chee Hean, Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister for Home Affairs

Questions:

  Mr Hri Kumar Nair: To ask the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs if he will give an update on the investigations by the immigration authorities as to how a breach at Woodlands Checkpoint on 17 January 2014 resulting in an illegal entry into Singapore could have occurred.

Ms Lee Li Lian: To ask the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs (a) what is the type of alert raised by the immigration authorities to the police and security forces upon finding out that a vehicle has illegally entered Singapore on 17 January 2014; (b) whether it is a high-priority warning and, if not, why not; and (c) what are the specific actions taken after such an alert is out.

Ms Lee Li Lian: To ask the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs (a) in the past three years, how many cases of attempted immigration checkpoint evasions occurred; (b) how long did the authorities take to solve these cases; (c) what are the penalties meted out to these perpetrators; (d) whether there are any new procedures introduced to prevent recurrences; and (d) whether the current number of immigration officers is enough to deal with the surge in travellers during peak seasons.

Assoc Prof Tan Kheng Boon Eugene: To ask the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs if he can provide an update on the investigation over the breach at Woodlands Checkpoint on 17 January 2014 and the subsequent inadequate response actions by ICA and the police; and (b) what immediate corrective measures have been taken to improve security at all checkpoints and improve coordination and response by the Home Team agencies to security breaches.

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: To ask the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs with regard to immigration and security functions at our checkpoints (a) what percentage of the work is outsourced to auxiliary police or private entities and for what types of job functions; (b) what percentage of the officers in charge of checkpoint clearances are outsourced personnel; (c) what training and supervision are given to outsourced staff to ensure compliance with checkpoint procedures; and (d) whether outsourced functions are being reviewed in light of the alleged security breach at the Woodlands Checkpoint on 17 January 2014.

Oral reply by Mr Teo Chee Hean, Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister for Home Affairs 

              
 Madam Speaker, with your permission, I will take questions 1 to 5 together.

2.             On 17 Jan 2014 at 1.58 pm, a woman arrived at Woodlands Checkpoint in her Malaysian car. She drove past the ICA officer without going through the mandatory checks by tailgating the car immediately in front of hers, and slipping past the drop-arm barrier. The ICA officer did not immediately trigger an alert.

3.             The car then proceeded to the secondary checking area for security checks to be carried out by an Auxiliary Police Officer (or APO). The car did not stop for the APO to carry out his checks and the APO also did not sound the alarm. 

4.          Madam Speaker, there are alarms installed at all immigration counters and also the secondary clearance area. The immediate activation of such alarms, as required in the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) at the checkpoints, is critical to stopping cars that evade immigration and security checks.

5.               If the ICA officer had sounded the alarm faster than the 2.5 minutes she took, it would have triggered a lock down which would have stopped the car from leaving the checkpoint. This was compounded by the APO not raising the alarm when the car did not stop for secondary security checks. Indeed, the prompt triggering of the alarm by the officer on duty was how similar previous attempts to evade immigration and security checks either intentionally or inadvertently, at the checkpoint have been stopped in the past.

6.             If, however, a vehicle does make an unauthorised exit from the checkpoint, there is a security protocol for Police and ICA to treat the incident as a breach of border security and issue a high-priority alert to all ground resources. In this case, however, the ICA and Police ground commanders did not follow the protocol. They made an error of judgment and classified the incident as a less serious one - as an immigration offence.  As a result, Police did not trigger an alert that would have immediately directed patrol cars to mount road blocks at possible travel routes of the car in major parts of Singapore. ICA and Police also did not issue a heightened and persistent alert, with the description of the car and driver, that would have alerted all ground forces to continue looking for them when they conducted vehicular searches, checks and screening.

7.              Three days later on 20 Jan 2014 at 1.32 pm, Police received a ‘999’ call from a taxi-driver who said that he was being followed by a Malaysian car. On Police’s advice, the taxi driver drove to a location outside the Police Cantonment Complex with the Malaysian car continuing to follow him.  When police officers tried to engage the female driver of the Malaysian car, she was unresponsive, and then drove off. The police officers decided not to pursue her and missed the opportunity to detain the driver for further checks. The officers showed weak situational awareness and exercised poor judgement.

8.               45 minutes later, at about 2.18 pm, the same driver and car intruded into the MFA compound by tailgating another car. MFA’s security officers stopped the car in the compound and arrested the driver for criminal trespass.

9.              Madam Speaker, when the driver and vehicle evaded the required checks, they should have been stopped within the checkpoint. This is a serious security breach. It is also unacceptable that the woman was only arrested three days later after she had intruded into the MFA compound.  On receiving the incident reports, I expressed my deep dissatisfaction to the Commissioners of ICA and Police at the way the incident was handled. I directed them to conduct a thorough investigation, report to me how this happened, and recommend corrective actions to prevent a recurrence.

10.             Madam Speaker, the Commissioners of ICA and the Police have presented to me their recommendations on the corrective actions. I have accepted the findings and recommendations and have directed ICA and Police to implement these measures.

11.             ICA and Police will work closely to improve their coordination and responses, and ensure that such lapses do not occur again. Existing SOPs will be thoroughly reviewed to ensure officers act quickly and effectively to deal with such security threats at the checkpoints.  Police will treat all checkpoint security breaches as high-level security threats and take all necessary steps to locate the intruder, until such time the threat no longer exists. Both departments will also conduct more frequent drills and joint exercises at the land checkpoints to maintain the officers’ vigilance and validate the emergency response plans.

12.             ICA will also use more advanced technology, as it becomes available, and improved infrastructural design to depend less on the reaction of the officers on duty, and enhance the overall security of the checkpoint.

13.             While the bulk of the critical immigration and security functions at the checkpoint are performed by officers from ICA and the other Home Team agencies, Auxiliary Police Officers (or APOs) are an integral part of checkpoint operations. They constitute about 20% of the officers deployed at Woodlands Checkpoint for immigration and security clearance functions. The APOs are trained and equipped to carry out specific security functions. ICA conducts regular drills, exercises and audits to maintain the vigilance of the APOs, and reviews the operational procedures and responses regularly. In light of this incident, ICA will also enhance the supervision and deployment of the APOs to ensure that they carry out their duties in accordance with established procedures. 

14.            In the past three years till the end of 2013, there have been 26 cases of attempted or inadvertent evasion of immigration checks at Woodlands Checkpoint. 25 of these cases were stopped immediately within the checkpoint upon the prompt activation of the alarm. The last such case before this incident occurred on 29 Dec 2013. The most recent case was on 14 February 2014, just last Friday, when an APO gestured to the driver to stop for checks but the driver drove on.  The APO then activated the alarm and the entire arrival car zone was locked down and the vehicle stopped within the checkpoint as per the SOP. The matter was investigated and it was determined that the driver had inadvertently driven on, with no malicious intent. The vehicle and driver were allowed to proceed after the investigation.

15.              Madam Speaker, every case is investigated thoroughly. Most of the 25 cases were found not to have malicious intent. In 4 cases the offence was committed without mitigating factors and the subjects involved were prosecuted. The maximum punishment is imprisonment of six months.

16.            The one previous case in the last three years, that ICA failed to stop within the checkpoint involved a subject who crashed through a security barrier and exited Woodlands Checkpoint through the staff access lane. The driver was detained within two hours, prosecuted and sentenced to 12 weeks’ imprisonment for offences under the Immigration Act, Penal Code and Road Traffic Act.

17.            Madam Speaker, the security breach at Woodlands Checkpoint on 17 January 2014, and the subsequent actions taken until her arrest on 20 Jan 2014, are not acceptable. I have described the measures – technical, infrastructural, procedural training and exercises that ICA and Police together, are taking to prevent a recurrence.

18.            Lapses can fall into 2 categories. The first is when there is some negligence on the part of one or more ground officers in carrying out their tasks. The second, and more serious situation is when there has been a serious error of judgement and this occurred in the current case.

19.           The ICA and Police ground commanders made a serious error of judgment in deciding to treat this intrusion as a less serious immigration offence, instead of a serious breach of border security, as required in the protocol.  This was a major reason for the subsequent inadequate response which resulted in the vehicle and driver not being detected and arrested much earlier. Both ground commanders have been redeployed to non-operational posts pending disciplinary action. Their supervising officers overseeing operations should also have realised this and acted to rectify the situation. They will be subject to the appropriate disciplinary action, along with other officers involved in the incident.

20.           Madam Speaker, as seen in this episode, the way that our officers and our commanders carry out their duties, their vigilance, diligence, sense of urgency, operational instincts and judgement are key to operational effectiveness.

21.           I do not under-estimate the challenges our officers face at Woodlands Checkpoint. It is one of the world’s busiest land checkpoints, with more than 300,000 people and 130,000 vehicles passing through each day. The security regime there is multi-agency and multi-level, involving various government agencies such as ICA, Police, Central Narcotics Bureau, Singapore Customs, and Land Transport Authority, as well as the Auxiliary Police Forces. This incident shows that the coordination between ICA and Police at the checkpoint needs to be further strengthened.

22.          It is important that Home Team departments work together closely in carrying out their duties. They must ensure that the concept of a Home Team is fully internalised and operationalised, both on the ground and by commanders at all levels, to tackle our security challenges as one united entity.

23.          Madam Speaker, the public expects us to do our job well and MHA holds our Home Team officers to a high standard of professionalism, and takes a very serious view of the security lapses that occurred during this episode.

24.         I have had a thorough discussion with the Commissioners of ICA and Police, and their senior leadership. They acknowledged and apologised for the shortcomings and are implementing the remedial measures. But apart from the physical and procedural measures, they recognise the need to set the tone from the leadership through to every ground unit, and every officer, that we have to remain vigilant and alert, and not let our guard down in the face of the serious threats that can arise. 

25.             Madam Speaker, I have worked closely with our Home Team officers for some three years. I have met and talked with many of our officers on the ground, to understand the work that they do, and what they need to carry out their duties better. I appreciate the good work of our officers. They have a good record in ensuring the safety and security of Singapore and Singaporeans. Our overall crime rate is at its lowest in 30 years. The number of immigration offenders arrested has been declining since 2001, and is less than half of what it was 5 years ago.

26.            I have made it clear to the Heads of all our Home Team agencies and departments that when officers perform well, I will recognise their good work and commend them publicly. If they act professionally and discharge their duties properly and to the best of their abilities, but the outcome does not turn out so good, I will speak for them and support them publicly – for this is the difficult and challenging nature of the job that our Home Team officers are called upon to do, and we all need to support and encourage them.

27.          However, if they have not discharged their duties properly and have fallen short of the required performance standards, as some officers have done in this episode, I will hold them accountable and where warranted, admonish and discipline them. Acknowledging mistakes allows our officers and our organisations to learn and improve.

28.           Madam Speaker, when Home Team officers report for duty, when they put on their uniforms, they carry a heavy responsibility. The duties they discharge, the decisions they make every day can have immediate and serious consequences on the safety and security of their fellow Singaporeans and Singapore. We all depend on them and place our trust in them to do their duty well. And this is a trust that has to be earned in all that our officers do, every day.

 

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