On Assignment
Lifting the Lid: Immigration Clearance at Sea? Here’s What it’s Like
Riding through choppy waters and operating in near darkness; what it takes to keep our borders safe and secure.

All I could smell was fish.

Jurong Fishery Port is probably the last place anyone would expect to find an immigration facility – I missed it at first, but nestled right next to the fish market is a small, nondescript office belonging to the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority’s (ICA) Coastal Command.

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Situated behind Jurong Fishery Port is a small ICA office. GIF: Tan Ming Hui

There, I meet Checkpoint Inspector (CI) (1) Aidi bin Amran, one of the officers I’ll be shadowing that night.

CI (1) Aidi conducts onboard immigration clearances as part of the Sudong Checkpoint Clearance Team. His area of operations at Sudong Anchorage is a 20-minute boat ride from Jurong Fishery Port.

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CI (1) Aidi outside his office at Jurong Fishery Port. PHOTO: Tan Ming Hui

It’s a job that he does with little fanfare, but, as I’ll soon find out, it’s one like no other.

“My friends and family are surprised that this posting exists in ICA,” shared CI (1) Aidi. “Even some younger ICA officers don’t know what the Clearance Team does. We’re often approached by them during roadshows because of our different uniforms.”

Running a Tight Ship
A typical day for CI (1) Aidi starts with officers checking their assignments for the day, carrying out administrative duties and gearing up before going for their shifts.

Inside the office, I trade my sneakers for a pair of bulky safety boots and don a brightly coloured life vest.

Before setting out for duty, CI (1) Aidi and his colleague ensure that they’ve packed everything they need – from necessary clearance-related documents to seemingly insignificant but necessary office supplies such as extra pens and staplers.

This attention to detail is crucial as CI (1) Aidi will be at sea, and self-reliance is paramount.
 
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The backpacks carried by the officers are see-through to ensure that transactions on-board are, in every sense of the word, transparent – what they carry on-board is what they’ll leave with; no more, no less. PHOTO: Tan Ming Hui

At Sudong Anchorage, CI (1) Aidi and his colleague will be attending to various vessels such as gigantic tankers carrying crude oil or liquefied petroleum gas. 

Normally, vessels coming in to and out of Singapore waters make crew/passenger declarations online so that necessary screening and risk assessments are done. But due to security reasons, certain ships have to go through onboard checks by ICA.

Sailing Close to the Wind
We set off from the base at 6:30pm with a small crew of seven passengers, a steersman and his assistant. By the time we arrived at the Anchorage, the sun had set and the sky had faded to black.
 
At the Anchorage, vessels requiring onboard immigration clearance have to display the appropriate signal – at night, ships need to turn on two green lights vertically. In the daytime, flags are used instead. Radio devices are also used by the masters of these vessels to communicate with Clearance Team officers to seek immigration clearance when arriving or departing from Singapore.

CI (1) Aidi remarks that his job is “rather simple” – climb onboard, conduct face-to-face checks of the crew and complete the necessary paperwork; but the work of a Checkpoint Clearance Team officer is anything but simple.

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To board certain vessels, CI (1) Aidi may have to climb as high as five stories. PHOTO: Muhamad Khair

First, climbing up several stories on the side of a large seaborne vessel is dangerous and requires specialised training. Even with the right skills and knowledge, environmental factors such as bad weather make it risky, even for seasoned officers.

“The weather out at sea is very unpredictable – pitch-black conditions, strong winds, heavy rain and choppy waters,” explained CI (1) Aidi. “It’s essential for us to be alert because something can go wrong at any stage – from our journey to the vessels, to when we transition onto ships.”

Additionally, officers such as CI (1) Aidi cannot suffer from sea sickness or a fear of heights since the job requires them to be at sea for extended periods and climb up gigantic vessels.

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CI (1) Aidi’s colleague conducting in-depth checks using ICA’s Mobile Automated Verification and Identification System, which allows for on-site fingerprint and facial screening. PHOTO: Tan Ming Hui

I climbed onto one of the smaller boats and can confirm that it wasn’t easy, especially with the currents which made the boat rock from side to side. Lugging camera equipment and with heavy boots on, I made the climb with a combination of coordination and caution – one wrong step and I’d be taking a dip into the waters below.
 
All Hands on Deck
On a typical shift, CI (1) Aidi usually clears around five vessels. Given the demands of the job, what allows him to run a smooth operation is the support of his team; something he ironically learnt while alone on-duty.
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CI (1) Aidi carrying out face-to-face immigration checks on-board a vessel. PHOTO: Tan Ming Hui

“Once, a pipe-laying vessel was due to arrive in Singapore during my shift, with approximately 300 crew members and 200 passengers onboard,” shared CI (1) Aidi. “In comparison, a tanker typically has 20 to 30 crew members.”

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CI (1) Aidi conducting on-board checks. PHOTO: Tan Ming Hui

By the time he returned to base and completed all the necessary paperwork, it was 12:30am – two hours later than when he was supposed to end his shift. 

Such occurrences, though rare, are also the reason why CI (1) Aidi enjoys his work.

“It’s the little moments that make work exciting,” he said. “Each new day is different from the one before. I never get the Monday Blues!”

More from the Lifting the Lid Series:
What a Crackdown on Immigration Offenders Looks Like
Behind the Lens of a Fire Evidence Specialist
Getting Tough on Unlicensed Massage Operators
 

  1. by Muhamad Khair
  2. 18 March 2019
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