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Safeguarding Our Borders with Science (Part 2)
A glimpse inside a lab that serves our sea domain and which can screen for a range of security-sensitive materials – including potential radiological and nuclear threats.

Look out from the roof of the Protective, Analytical and Assessment Facility (PAAF) at Pasir Panjang and it’s easy to see why Singapore is one of the busiest ports in the world. To the south, container cranes work non-stop to unload shipping containers from ships and to stack these into tidy rows. Meanwhile, a steady stream of container trucks line up to enter the PAAF, in order to undergo the necessary checks before being allowed entry into Singapore. 

Making sure these containers are properly screened is a team of scientists with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) led by Ms Ngoh Li Ee, Principal Laboratory Manager with the Office of the Chief Science and Technology Officer (OCSTO) at PAAF. She explains the unique capabilities of the facility and how it helps to keep Singapore safe and secure. 

MHA OCSTO PAAF 01 Ngoh Li Ee 02
Serving our sea domain: Ms Ngoh Li Ee at PAAF. PHOTO: Home Team News

How did you become a scientist with the MHA?
It was a natural progression. I studied Chemistry at the National University of Singapore and, after I graduated, I really wanted to apply my knowledge of science to real, everyday problems. So I joined the National Environment Agency (NEA) and worked at monitoring flue gas emissions at an incineration plant in Tuas. 

My duties included “gearing up” with a helmet and breathing apparatus to check that emissions at the plant were within stipulated limits. We worked in an environment that had temperatures of almost 40 degrees, so it was like going into a sauna every day! But I enjoyed the work very much. 

After seven years with the NEA, I taught for a year at the Institute of Technical Education before deciding to return to a lab environment. That’s why I joined the MHA in 2009. 

What did your work at MHA involve? 
I was the laboratory manager at Tuas for about three years before being assigned to help set up the PAAF from scratch. We literally had to build everything from the ground up, including our building design requirements and supporting the construction phase before finally going operational in 2013. 

PAAF has six labs and is the largest analytical facility under OCSTO. Like our sister-labs at Tuas Checkpoint and Woodlands Checkpoint, we have facilities that can analyse chemical, biological, radiological and explosive materials. PAAF’s strength lies with the capability to conduct in-depth analysis on radiological and nuclear samples. 

MHA OCSTO PAAF 01 Pasir Panjang and labs
PAAF has six labs that can conduct real-time analysis of security-sensitive materials and threats. PHOTO: Home Team News

Share with us an example of how your team prevented unsafe radioactive materials from entering Singapore. 
When we first began operations, we encountered a container carrying charcoal pillows and other health products. The consignment was found to be emitting radiation levels that were unusually high. From our analysis, we found out that the charcoal pillows contained a naturally occurring radioactive material known as Thorium. The consignment was later barred from entering Singapore. If these charcoal pillows had been distributed for sale and people had bought them, they could have fallen sick. 

We’ve also detected higher than normal radiation levels from shipments of construction materials. For such cases, we’ll consult with the relevant authorities on the right course of action. 

MHA OCSTO PAAF 01 Facilities
Nuclear-safe: The radiological and nuclear lab at PAAF has customised glove-boxes fitted with lead as a shield against radiation. PHOTO: Home Team News

What’s a typical day like for your team of scientists? 
Our goal is to help the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) conduct checks on cargo without impeding the flow of goods into Singapore. PAAF is located at the ICA’s Pasir Panjang Scanning Station, which has an inspection bay that can accommodate container trucks. Here, we work closely with trained ICA officers to scan cargo, process samples and conduct investigations. 

We also support the Singapore Police Force, the Singapore Civil Defence Force and the Central Narcotics Bureau in analysing samples. As part of our work, we conduct trials of scientific equipment used by Home Team Departments, to make sure that they work properly under local conditions. 

That’s why we have to be very proactive and inquisitive as scientists. Technology is ever-changing and we need to stay abreast of what’s going on, so that we can properly advise the Home Team Departments. 

What do you love about your work as a scientist? 
That we’re able to contribute to the entire Home Team. That’s the beauty of our work; it isn’t confined only to OCSTO, or MHA. Our borders are our first line of defence against threats, and we work behind the scenes to keep Singapore safe and secure.

  1. by Mike Tan
  2. 23 May 2018
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