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SPF200: From Frontier Town to Safest City
A remarkable exhibition showcases SPF’s 200-year history and tradition of excellence, enriched by the recollections of former officers.

Home Team News SPF 200 Exhibition cover 01
PHOTOS: Tiffany Tan

The sense of safety and security that we enjoy can easily be taken for granted. It comes in the form of peace of mind when we walk home alone at night, and our trust in seeing our children off to school on their own. Yet, none of these things came easy for Singapore, as a striking new exhibition from the Singapore Police Force (SPF) reminds us.

The SPF200 Exhibition – Frontier Town to Safest City – officially opened in February 2020 at the National Museum of Singapore. Upon entering, visitors are greeted by a dimly lit space that speaks of the challenging beginnings of the Police Force. This interplay of light and darkness is present throughout the exhibition, complementing the story told by the displays.
 Home Team News SPF200 Exhibition 1

Through a collection of videos, archival photographs and artefacts, visitors are taken on a journey through time to witness how Police officers brought criminals to justice, demonstrated bravery in the face of danger and put duty above all.

The Police Force has come a long way since it first started as a team of 12 men in 1820. Visitors can learn about the Force’s early struggles, when a lack of funds and government support limited how it could curb crime and enforce the law.

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For much of the 1800s, officers were often overworked and underpaid. The lowest-ranking police officer received only $5.50 a month, when one set of the police uniform cost $3 – more than half a month’s salary at that time.

Another challenge was the growing presence of secret societies, in addition to riots, murders, piracy and robberies. But just when conditions were beginning to improve for the Police Force, the onset of World War II set reforms back again. 

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The exhibition also pays homage to Police officer Halford Boudewyn, who was selfless in his fight against the Japanese. Boudewyn joined an Allied spy ring during the Occupation and, under the guise of a vegetable seller, smuggled handwritten copies of Japanese military plans, contributing to the Allied defence of India. He also monitored news from foreign radio stations and secretly spread word of Allied victories.

Home Team News SPF 200 Exhibition 01

The years after the Second World War were dedicated to rebuilding the Police Force, which was left impoverished and in low morale from the conflict. In the words of Colonel RE Foulger, the Inspector-General of Police, in 1946: “… the Force was understaffed, ill-equipped and had lost the confidence of the public; as against this, the underworld was well-armed and the opportunities for looting throughout the whole of the island were immense.”

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The post-war years were a tumultuous time in Singapore, marked by the resurgence of secret societies. But the Police Force rose to overcome this challenge. During the 1950s and 1960s, Police divisions were also reorganised and expanded, and Police officers began to work with various communities to fight crime, establishing the Vigilante Corps – made up of volunteers – in 1964. Three years later, Police National Service was introduced.

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Such stories from the past are brought to life through guided tours conducted by retired Police officers who are eager to share their experiences. Mr Nasir Said is one of the many enthusiastic guides at the SPF200 exhibition. Having served with the Traffic Police mobile squad, Mr Said was deployed to tackle hell-riding, which was a persistent problem in the 1970s and 1980s. Hell-riders were motorcycle groups who organised races and illegal betting. Their reckless actions often endangered other road users and disrupted public order.

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For Mr Chan Soo Wah, who served with SPF for 34 years, one experience that he can’t forget is the near-fatal encounter he had while on duty in 1969.

It happened at the site of a suspected bomb threat. Mr Chan arrived at the scene, but upon seeing what he thought was a shoebox, the impulsive young officer wanted to kick it, out of frustration. Luckily, he was stopped by another officer who was at the scene.

When it was later confirmed that the shoebox contained an explosive device, Mr Chan realised that he had narrowly escaped death – all thanks to his fellow officer.

Despite such risks, Mr Chan shared that he never regretted becoming a Police officer. “I’d do it again if I had the chance,” he said without hesitation.

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Besides hearing personal stories from former Police officers, visitors can try their hand at being Investigation Officers themselves. A mock crime scene allows visitors to play detective and solve the infamous “One-Eyed Dragon” murder case that shook Singapore in February 2006. Following an international manhunt for gang leader Tan Chor Jin, who shot a nightclub owner to death, the Police swiftly caught their man.

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But the exhibition doesn’t only speak of the past; it also demonstrates how SPF has embraced technology and developed new capabilities in fighting crime, even as the threats to our security have evolved.

For instance, the installation of Police Cameras across the island has helped to strengthen crime detection efforts. Now, officers can also use Police-issued smartphones to receive real-time information and access case reports. 

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Today, Singapore is one of the safest cities in the world. This would not be possible without the blood, sweat and tears of generations of Police officers who dedicated their lives to keeping Singapore safe. Carrying on this legacy are the men and women of SPF today – now 15,000-strong – who continue to serve so that we can live, work and play with peace of mind.

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In presenting the history of Policing in Singapore, one theme that emerges from the exhibition is that it’s essential for the Police to have the community’s support and trust. Before leaving the exhibition, visitors can pen their thanks and appreciation for the Police.

At this part of the exhibition, bright lights and colours illuminate the walls, signifying both our thriving present and a promising future for Singapore and SPF.

Visitors have much to learn from this exhibition about the challenges of maintaining law and order in Singapore, but the most important takeaway for me was a heart filled with gratitude.

SPF200: The Police Bicentennial
The Police Bicentennial (SPF200) commemorates 200 years of history with SPF. SPF200 was officially launched by President Halimah Yacob at the OCBC Square at Singapore Sports Hub on 11 January 2020, and a series of commemorative events are set to take place throughout the year. Find out more here!

The “Frontier Town to Safest City” exhibition will run until 17 May at the National Museum of Singapore. Admission is free. 

Do also visit the SPF200 Roving Exhibition, which will run from 7 March to 31 December at public spaces. Click here to find out the locations.
© 2019 Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore. All Rights Reserved.

  1. by Tiffany Tan
  2. 03 March 2020
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