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Tomorrow’s Edge: 10 Years of Science and Tech in the Home Team
How Science and Technology have given the Home Team the edge in law enforcement and counter-terrorism.

Dr Lee Fook Kay hasn’t lost his capacity for wonder – when we met for a chat in his office last week, he pointed excitedly to a news article he’d just read, on a novel turbine design by a Singaporean inventor – “It’s a fresh way of looking at things,” he exclaimed. 

As the Chief Science and Technology Officer at the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Dr Lee has sought to infuse a similar spirit to his work, bringing innovation and rigour to bear on challenges faced by the Home Team. 
Having established the Office of the Chief Science and Technology officer (OCSTO) in June 2008, Dr Lee shared how Science has sharpened the Home Team’s enforcement and counter-terrorism capabilities. 

MHA OCSTO 01 Dr Lee Fook Kay
The leading edge: Dr Lee and his team at the Home Team Investigation Laboratory at Police Cantonment Complex, which specialises in DNA analysis. PHOTO: Home Team News

Why did you choose science as a vocation? 
Well, I come from the generation when Engineering and Medicine were the streams that most students wanted to go into. So I did the same and took double Maths, Physics and Chemistry for my A Levels, and got a place at the National University of Singapore (NUS) to study Chemical Engineering. 

But along the way, I realised that my true interest was in Science, and that because what we know about Science today can be applied to the technology of tomorrow. 

Look at the LED (Light-Emitting Diode) for example. When I was studying semiconductors at NUS in the 1980s, LEDs were just an idea. But researchers found that when certain electrons flowed from one junction of a diode to another, light was produced. Now, 30 years later, LEDs are a common product in many homes; though their energy consumption is small, light output is substantial. 

That’s why I decided to study Chemistry, as one of the first research scholars at NUS. 

As I was about to complete my PhD, I started receiving offers from companies such as GlaxoSmithKline and Sumitomo Corporation. At the same time, I also had an offer from the Ministry of Defence to do chemical defence research. 

This was important work, and others had turned it down because of the hazards involved. But I felt that since I’d received so much from the country, it was time for me to give back. So I joined DSO National Laboratories in 1989 as a Research Scientist. 

How did you come to join the Home Team? 
At DSO, I held various portfolios that involved developing our capabilities in the areas of environmental protection, biomedical sciences and human performance. Over the years, I got the chance to work closely with Home Team officers due to major incidents such as the 1995 sarin incident in Tokyo, the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York and, closer to home, the 2003 SARS outbreak. 

Such incidents made us re-evaluate and strengthen how we could detect and deal with a range of unconventional threats. We realised that the Home Team needed organic capabilities in Science and Technology. That’s why I joined MHA in 2006 as a Special Technical Advisor, and was appointed the Chief Science and Technology Officer when OCSTO was formed in 2008. 

What were some of the early projects your team worked on? 
One of the first Home Team Departments that approached us was the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA). Because ICA officers screen passengers and check shipments every day, the agency wanted to know what sort of resources and equipment it needed to do this better and in a safer manner.

In checking shipments of chemicals, for example, we need to have good detection capabilities and also know how to manage chemical-related risks such as spillage or contamination. So we developed our first lab at Tuas Checkpoint for ICA in 2009, with facilities to analyse security-sensitive materials, and which also had protective capabilities. 

To raise the level of understanding of Science and Technology within the Home Team, we started the OCSTO Training School at the Home Team Academy in 2010. Our programmes have evolved over the years and have been well-received by Home Team officers. 

MHA OCSTO 02 Projects
Lab network: Working closely with the Home Team Departments, OCSTO has established a network of labs with advanced detection, analytical and research capabilities. PHOTOS: OCSTO, Home Team News

Take us through a typical day for you at work. 
In the Home Team, every day is different, and I’m constantly learning new things. We look at all aspects of Science and Technology – not just Chemistry or Biology, but also robotics, analytics, human performance and artificial intelligence. This keeps us alert.

When our scientists aren’t analysing samples at our labs, they’re doing research. So each week, I try to visit two or three of our facilities, to speak to the officers and check on their progress. 

We look for people with a strong background in Science and Technology, and who appreciate the Home Team’s mission very well. Our team members are very driven and motivated; if the threat level goes up and we have to increase our workload, they’ll gladly do it.

What are you most glad about in the 10 years since OCSTO was established? 
That the Home Team now has credible capabilities in dealing with Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive (CBRNE) materials, as well as in analysing narcotics and DNA, all under one roof. 

We’ve also been able to apply Human Factors Engineering to challenges faced by Home Team officers, who do important work in difficult conditions. We now have a good appreciation of the various Home Team vocations and what our officers go through in the field. This knowledge helps us to develop better tools to enhance their performance and sharpen their operational edge. 

We’ve also built a good Science and Technology network with partners in Europe, the United States and ASEAN. It’s very important to have such a network because it helps us with benchmarking and adopting best practices. 

Finally, we’ve made good progress in the fields of real-time facial recognition and artificial intelligence. And we’ve been able to do all of this by working hand in hand with the Home Team Departments.

MHA OCSTO 03B Formula
Back to basics: A note in Dr Lee’s office showing how to convert milligrams per cubic metre to parts per million. Detectors and other instruments for screening cargo give readings in parts per million, which often needs to be related to milligrams per cubic metre, for assessment purposes. PHOTOS: Home Team News

Share with us a surprising detail about the work of your team.
While the challenges we deal with are complex, we often go back to the very basics in Science, to solve a problem. 

I remember receiving a query from our lab at Tuas Checkpoint. A fertiliser consignment had been found to be very rich in ammonium nitrate. We held the shipment, sent a sample for further analysis and checked our findings against definitions listed under the Arms and Explosives Act, which regulates explosives. 

To convert the nitrate level detected to a percentage of nitrogen content, as specified by the Act, I referred to basic formulas derived from my secondary school Science textbook. We found that the consignment had exceeded the allowable nitrogen content, so we turned it back.

How are the Science and Technology challenges that the Home Team faces now different from those of 10 years ago? 
Over the past decade, the Home Team has moved to the forefront of Science and Technology. For example, at our newest facility, the Home Team Investigation Laboratory at Police Cantonment Complex, we’re doing very good work in DNA analysis. 

Now, we have to meet higher expectations, continue to ensure that our projects are effective and keep pace with the broader Smart Nation drive. 

One of my OCSTO colleagues reminded me that June 2018 was our 10th anniversary; I hadn’t noticed because we’ve been through so much together. But we still get excited when someone in the Home Team sends us an email to ask how Science and Technology can help them. I’m sure we can help, and together, bring the Home Team to the next level. 

About Dr Lee Fook Kay
Dr Lee began his career in 1989 as a Research Scientist at DSO National Laboratories. From 1993 to 2003, he headed the Centre for Chemical Defence at DSO before being appointed the Deputy Director of DSO’s Defence Medical and Environmental Institute. He was concurrently the Director of the Chemical, Biological and Radiological Programme at DSO. Dr Lee joined MHA in 2006.
For his pioneering efforts in building Singapore’s CBRNE capabilities, Dr Lee received the Defence Technology Prize (1996) and the Public Administration Silver Bar (2017).
© 2019 Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore. All Rights Reserved.

  1. by Mike Tan
  2. 12 June 2018
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