Published: 18 September 2023
1. Mr Speaker, I thank the Members for their thoughtful comments and strong support of the Bill. Please allow me to address their questions in turn.
Digitalising and Automating Immigration Clearance
2. Where digitalisation and automated immigration clearance is concerned, there are three broad buckets of concerns. The first has to do with cyber readiness and resilience, the second on data security, and the third, how we deal with impersonations.
3. Mr Derrick Goh, Mr Desmond Choo, Mr Gan Thiam Poh, Mr Gerald Giam, Mr Shawn Huang, Mr Vikram Nair and Mr Yip Hon Weng asked many good questions. Ms Poh Li San knows the issues particularly well, being deeply involved in airport management.
Cyber Readiness and Resilience
4. Singapore will be one of the first few countries in the world to introduce automated, passport-free immigration clearance. Besides Dubai, which already offers passport-free clearance for certain enrolled travellers, we do not know exactly which other countries have similar plans. MHA and ICA will certainly seek to enable more convenient travel for our people, but it is likely that physical passports will still be required for many countries outside of Singapore.
5. To prepare for this New Clearance Concept, or NCC, ICA has been training its officers since 2020. Mr Choo will be glad to know that as a result, around 4,000 ICA officers are able to take on higher value jobs in assessment and investigation, using newly acquired skills such as investigative interviewing and profiling.
6. Besides levelling up staff capabilities, the key to a successful implementation of the NCC is universal coverage of all travellers. This requires a willingness to phase out traditional methods of identifying and authenticating travellers. The alternative of running two systems in parallel is not only costly but also cumbersome.
7. To assist seniors who may not be able to provide certain biometrics or who may not be digitally savvy, I assure Mr Gan, Mr Giam and Mr Yip that immigration officers will be on hand to help. The officers can also conduct manual clearance by exception.
8. As immigration clearance becomes more digitalised, ICA is fully aware of its responsibility in ensuring the availability and resilience of its systems. It therefore works closely with the Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) and GovTech to meet reliability and security requirements in upstream design.
9. For example, the next generation Automated Border Clearance System (ABCS) will allow travellers to continue using automated clearance gates if there are any outages. This is possible because they will be equipped with failover capabilities such as UPS or uninterruptible power supply, and can still function if the supporting systems, such as the online biometrics database, is down.
10. Nonetheless, some of the NCC capabilities are novel and highly customised to Singapore’s context. Despite our best efforts, disruptions may still happen. Our business continuity plans will then be promptly activated through a combination of measures such as recalling off-duty officers and prioritising traveller clearance according to departure times. This should help minimise service degradation. This is also the careful approach as we undertake the ongoing upgrade of the Multi-Modal Biometrics System (MMBS), which Mr Giam asked about.
11. In addition, ICA also monitors systems performance to ensure benchmarks are met. With large systems, external vendors may be involved. ICA and HTX can and will pursue liquidated damages from a vendor if the systems fail to meet the required standards.
12. To Ms Poh’s query, only Singapore-registered companies can undertake IT projects related to ICA. All employees of vendors undergo a compulsory security screening exercise and must be cleared before they are allowed to work on the project. They are bound by a non-disclosure agreement and may be held criminally liable for any wrongful or unauthorised communication, possession or use of information under the relevant laws, such as the Public Sector (Governance) Act.
13. To uphold high standards of cybersecurity, HTX also carries out independent Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing exercises prior to commissioning and annually thereafter. This complements the regular audits by ICA to identify and address vulnerabilities.
14. I hope Mr Vikram will be reassured to know that ICA will also deploy more advanced scanning technologies and sensors to automate security checks for vehicles. Additionally, AI will also be used to strengthen detection capabilities for cargo.
15. These assurances are relevant for both cyber and data security.
16. The Minister’s approval is required for access to and disclosure of data, and must satisfy the purposes specified in the Act, such as for the enforcement of criminal law, failing which an offence can be made out. In addition, the data will be encrypted and go through secured data exchange gateways.
17. Specific to the biometric-enabled departure journey at Changi Airport that Mr Goh asked about, the Changi Airport Group (CAG) will be bound by the terms of a data sharing agreement with ICA. It puts the onus on CAG to take all reasonable measures to ensure that the data is protected against unauthorised access, use, disclosure, modification or misuse. This includes setting up relevant access controls such as ‘Two-Factor Authentication’. ICA will audit CAG’s compliance and conduct regular checks on CAG’s system.
18. As for the question Mr Giam and Mr Vikram raised, whether such data will be shared with other governments or foreign airport operators so as to facilitate immigration clearance for Singaporeans abroad, for security reasons this is not yet on the cards.
19. Members will be reassured to know that ICA itself must also comply with data protection provisions set out in the Public Sector (Governance) Act and the Instruction Manual 8 (IM8). It will retain traveller data only for the period necessary for immigration processing, analytics or investigation. Once these tasks are completed and ICA no longer needs the data, it will be de-personalised and properly deleted.
20. In the unlikely event of a data breach, ICA and HTX will immediately conduct investigations to stop the breach, trace the extent of the breach, and prevent further breaches through remediation measures. On top of that, system vendors are obliged to adhere to data protection, cybersecurity and breach procedures as part of their contractual obligations to ICA, and must extend full cooperation and assistance to ICA at no additional cost.
21. Whether with analogue or digital systems, a determined criminal may still try to breach immigration controls.
22. ICA will deploy monitoring tools to constantly check on its systems. They are equipped with the capability to detect impersonation and forged or tampered passports presented for clearance. Mr Gan will be glad to know that the more recent use of multi-modal biometric clearance systems has in fact resulted in better detection of individuals seeking to impersonate others.
23. For manual clearance, immigration officers are trained to conduct facial checks to ensure that the person is the rightful holder of the passport. For those undeterred and caught, we will deal with them firmly. Between 2020 and 2022, there were 38 cases prosecuted in court involving the use of false passports or travel documents.
24. The risk of entry approvals being wrongly granted, which Mr Huang asked about, is no higher with the NCC than the current system. Moreover, ICA and HTX will conduct thorough end-to-end testing for any system changes before deployment.
Allow Digital Versions of Permits and Passes to Be Used to Verify Immigration Status
25. Mr Yip asked about the impact of ICA’s shift to the use of digital permits and passes to verify immigration status.
26. Since February 2023, ICA only issues digital Long-Term Passes (LTPs). Individuals no longer need to visit ICA to collect the physical card, nor run the risk of losing or damaging it. ICA will not issue new physical cards for LTPs but previously issued cards will remain valid until they expire or are cancelled. ICA will digitalise other pass types in due course.
27. If an individual does not have a smart electronic device to display his digital permit or pass, he can enlist the help of family members to access the digital documents from ICA’s e-Services and print a copy to be used at our checkpoints. As such, we do not expect the digitalisation of passes to cause congestion.
Future-Proofing Against New and Evolving Challenges
Advance Passenger Information and No-Boarding Directives
28. Next, I will go on to ICA’s future-proofing initiatives.
29. Mr Goh asked about the root cause of non-compliance by airlines in submitting advance passenger information. From ICA’s experience, it usually boils down to tardiness. Without being able to screen incoming travellers before their arrival, immigration clearance will be slower. A composition framework is therefore necessary, and is already practised in established jurisdictions like the US, the UK and New Zealand.
30. On the provisions for buses to also collect advance passenger information, let me assure Mr Choo, Mr Goh, Ms Poh and Mr Yip that no timeline has been fixed. ICA has been engaging bus operators since July 2022, and will continue to do so before firming up any plans to collect such information.
31. Similarly for the No-Boarding Directives, or NBDs, raised by Mr Choo and Mr Yip, we will continue discussions with the operators to find a practicable way forward before proceeding.
32. It is premature to go into details but in the event of non-compliance, ICA intends to make a holistic assessment of the facts of the case before deciding whether to prosecute. The offence of failing to comply with NBDs will likely be compoundable; this can be provided for in subsidiary legislation.
33. Mr Murali Pillai and Mr Yip asked about public transport operators such as SBS Transit. The Bill specifically excludes public bus operators from the submission of advance passenger information or to comply with the NBDs. This is because tickets are not being sold in advance, and advance passenger information thus cannot be collected for ICA’s screening.
34. Mr Choo also asked for data on undesirable travellers transiting through our checkpoints. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a monthly average of 110 undesirable travellers denied entry into Singapore. With an NBD regime, we could keep such undesirable travelers from even coming to Singapore, especially those who pose a high security risk. Transport operators such as the airlines could also save resources from having to repatriate the travellers.
35. As a final point on NBDs, let me assure Mr Choo and Mr Yip that ICA will provide adequate transition periods for the respective domains, and will do so in close consultation with the industry. For example, with the airlines, ICA intends to run trials from end-2024.
Making or Providing False Statements
36. Now let me deal with the issue of false statements. Mr Yip asked how ICA plans to monitor and validate the accuracy of such statements.
37. ICA will review the historical records of a person’s self-declarations and conduct further checks when there are inconsistencies across records. ICA will also cross-check with other available sources. For persons who are suspected to have made false statements or provided false information, ICA will commence investigations.
38. In the event passengers fail to declare symptoms of a contagious disease, whether deliberately or otherwise, ICA will work with relevant stakeholders to ensure there are other means to identify them. This includes engaging the transport operators’ help to flag them prior to boarding.
39. During a pandemic situation, travellers may also be required to conduct pre-arrival health checks or tests. If, unfortunately, such passengers still manage to arrive at our checkpoints, ICA will work with MOH to implement necessary measures to identify them promptly, such as through temperature screening or visual checks.
40. In terms of enforcement measures, ICA will maintain a firm and strict posture. Travellers deemed to have made false statements will have their entry into Singapore denied. With the proposed amendment at Clause 57, it will be a strict liability offence for anyone who gives false or misleading information, or omits anything so as to mislead.
Prohibit Arrival and Entry of Non-citizens on Grounds of Public Health
41. Mr Goh asked for factors of assessment before the exercise of powers to prohibit the entry or transit of foreigners. As I have mentioned earlier, we will only use such powers when the situation warrants it. The key consideration is whether such a restriction is proportionate to the severity of the situation. We have seen how in times of a pandemic, travel restrictions may have to be put in place at very short notice.
Strengthening Border Controls
Expand ICA’s Powers to Retrieve Funds From All Categories of Persons Removed From Singapore for Repatriation Purposes
42. I shall move on to the proposals to strengthen our border controls.
43. Mr Goh asked for the number of cases and the costs unrecovered from repatriated persons over the past five years. From 2018 to 2022, there were 74 cases and more than $53,000 of Government-aided funds used for repatriation expenses. Most of the involved offenders genuinely could not pay their way; the rest were able to.
Introduce Fines in Lieu of Caning for Offenders Exempted From or Found Medically Unfit for Caning
44. Mr Murali asked two questions on the proposed amendments to introduce fines in lieu of caning, for offenders exempted from or found medically unfit for caning.
45. First, he asked why our amendment applies to offenders convicted of employing five or more immigration offenders, since they are likely to be Singaporeans.
46. To clarify, the law today requires offenders convicted of this offence to be caned. But for offenders who cannot be caned because of their age or sex, the current law also requires the court to impose fines in lieu of caning. This is under Section 57(1B), which we are not changing.
47. Our amendment does nothing more than extend this provision to males who are sentenced to caning for this offence but are subsequently found medically unfit for caning. This allows for the deterrent effect of the penalty to still be met without unduly expending our prison resources while the penalty is held in a suspended state. Such a move also ensures consistent treatment in offences where fines are imposed in lieu of caning.
48. Second, Mr Murali asked why there is no provision in the Bill to limit the length of the imprisonment term that the court can impose on an offender who cannot be caned but defaults on the fine imposed in lieu.
49. We agree with him that, in such cases, it would be ironic if the imprisonment for defaulting on a fine is longer than the prison term that could have been imposed in lieu of caning. Nevertheless, we have decided that this should be left to the court’s discretion, looking at all the factors in each case. If the court considers that an in-default imprisonment term is appropriate, it can also calibrate the length of the imprisonment. Section 319 only sets out the upper limit of the imprisonment terms that can be imposed and do not prevent the court from imposing a shorter term.
Providing Immigration Officers With Ancillary Powers When Acting on Restraining Orders Concerning Children
50. I thank Mr Murali for the suggestion to digitalise the process of notification of Court orders and lodgement of written consent from the parent for a child to leave Singapore.
51. Currently, parties who wish to inform ICA of any Restraining Orders or provide their written consent can do so by simply emailing ICA at a stipulated email address. This is the process we have agreed with the Family Justice Courts and it is set out in the Family Justice Practice Directions. We will continuously explore new ways to make the process more efficient.
52. Mr Louis Ng asked if the facilities in ICA’s authorised area are appropriate for keeping a child.
53. The new Section 5AA seeks to give ICA ancillary powers to keep the child temporarily, while preventing the child from being brought out of Singapore by any person without the consent of the parent or guardian. While ICA facilities are not specifically designed for a child, it will make all reasonable efforts to ensure the child’s safety and well-being.
54. Whenever possible, immigration officers will ask that the travelling companion stays with the child until the child’s parent or guardian arrives. If a child is abandoned at the checkpoints, and the parent or guardian is uncontactable, ICA will hand over the child to the Police. Child Protection Services will also be involved if necessary.
Enhancing Administration of Passes and Permits
Removal of Statutory Appeals
55. Mr Murali spoke about the issue of fairness in dealing with foreigners, and asked why there is a need to remove statutory appeals. Let me explain in greater detail.
56. As is the case in most countries, foreigners do not have the right to enter or remain in Singapore. It follows then that they should not be entitled to challenge the terms of their entry or stay under the law.
57. This position is reflected in our legal provisions regarding the issuance and cancellation of long-term passes and application for citizenship. There has never been a right of statutory appeal for such immigration facilities and this has also not prevented us from according the affected foreigners fair and reasonable treatment and protection from harm under prevailing laws.
58. The provision of statutory appeals for entry permit holders who are PRs is found in the Immigration Act 1959, an old piece of legislation dating back to the start of self-government. We are now simply updating and rationalising our laws so that the position for entry permit holders who are PRs is aligned with that of applicants for long-term passes and citizenship.
59. Let me also assure Mr Murali that we do not make immigration decisions in a cavalier manner. Like him, we are particularly sympathetic to foreigners with close family ties to Singaporeans.
60. Immigration decisions take into consideration a wide range of factors; in some cases, this includes sensitive intelligence information. As I mentioned earlier, each decision is also based on a polycentric evaluation of factors relating to our policies and security needs. While we understand the desire for explicit reasons to be provided, a blanket provision will be too blunt.
61. Instead, we will continue to allow foreigners affected by an immigration decision to make representations and to provide explanations to the authorities. As Mr Giam suggested, for certain decisions, ICA does advise affected persons in broad terms why a decision was made – for example, that his PR status was revoked because of his criminal offences.
62. Foreigners can continue to seek ICA’s reconsideration of the matter, and ICA will escalate the matter for the Minister’s determination if appropriate. This approach strikes a better balance between the need to safeguard the public interest and our national security on the one hand, and fairness to foreigners affected by immigration decisions on the other.
63. Mr Ng and Mr Giam asked how affected persons can submit appeals. They can do so via a general feedback form on ICA’s website, and it will be directed to the relevant immigration officers. In any case, I can assure them that even without Members’ representation, appeals are attended to.
64. Mr Giam asked about the administration of the Pre-Marriage LTVP Assessment (PMLA) . This is outside the scope of this Bill, but we like to assure the Member that the Registry of Marriages and Registry of Muslim Marriages do provide to couples in person, advice to complete the PMLA before marriage.
Loss of PR
65. Mr Goh and Mr Giam asked if immigration criteria can be made more transparent including the assessment criteria for the renewal of the Re-Entry Permit (REP).Mr Vikram asked if we can give assurance to law-abiding PRs of their stay in Singapore.
66. As Members know, we do not disclose our detailed immigration criteria. The reasons are well known and not new. There are also not focus of today’s Bill. Nonetheless, I should point out that the comparison with COMPASS neglects important considerations and also important differences. I was the Manpower Minister when COMPASS was conceived. Its considerations are that Employment Pass holders mainly impact the workforce, and Employment Pass holders are also mostly transient. But for Permanent Residents and Singapore Citizens, the applicants must be considered differently because PRs and Singapore citizens are not transient, and they impact the wider fabric of society. Therefore, the considerations must be more holistic, and sensitive to long-term impact. We must also recognise the stronger incentives to game the system if the criteria were fully disclosed. Be that as it may, we have shared the broad criteria that ICA considers, such as whether a PR is gainfully employed, contributing to Singapore or has family roots here. PRs who have conducted themselves well and continue to be a resident in Singapore should not have much difficulty with REP renewal. I can assure the Members that the vast majority of applications for REP renewal are approved.
67. To Mr Vikram’s question, on average 7,900 or less than 2% of the total PR population each year lose their PR status by being outside of Singapore without a valid REP. Of those who appealed, the majority were successful as they had valid reasons for not renewing their REP in time.
Simplifying Process for Varying Immigration Permit and Pass Conditions
68. On the powers of the Controller to publish changes to permit and pass conditions on a prescribed website or by Gazette, Mr Ng asked when such situations would arise.
69. There are many instances where ICA may impose conditions on permit and pass holders. For example, if an individual committed a minor offence or displayed adverse behaviour, ICA would notify the person individually that it will impose a condition that he shall not engage in such activities further, or risk having his permit or pass cancelled.
70. However, there may also be situations where ICA is required to impose conditions en masse, for instance during a pandemic. Given the large number of PRs and pass holders, it would not be practicable to contact each and every one to notify them individually. The Controller will then publish the changes on a prescribed website or by Gazette.
71. Mr Ng rightly pointed out that many individuals may not know how to access a prescribed website or the Gazette. Hence, ICA will explore suitable avenues to reach out to as many affected persons as possible, for example, through media platforms.
72. Finally, in his concluding remarks, Mr Yip asked how congestion at the Woodlands and Tuas checkpoints can be improved. This is not the focus of the Bill today, and I would draw the Member’s attention to ICA’s various announcements over the past months on its efforts. Nevertheless, I shall share broadly four key initiatives.
73. One, since January 2023, ICA has implemented the Automated Clearance Initiative to allow eligible foreign visitors to use the automated lanes for immigration clearance, without prior enrolment of their biometrics.
74. Two, ICA will progressively implement automated clearance for cars at the two checkpoints in addition to motorcycles, thereby reducing overall time taken to clear immigration.
75. Three, progressively from 2024, Singaporeans and departing visitors will no longer need to present their passports for immigration clearance, and will instead verify their identity through biometrics, reducing clearance time in bus halls by up to 40%.
76. Four, over the longer term, ICA will redevelop Woodlands Checkpoint to enhance clearance for all types of vehicular traffic and reduce travel times, especially during peak periods.
77. Mr Speaker, to conclude, the Immigration (Amendment) Bill will facilitate the implementation of more digitalised and automated services for the benefit of all travellers, as well as enhance our immigration processes so that they are more robust, effective and efficient.
78. Once again, I thank Members for supporting the Bill. Mr Speaker, I beg to move.