Oral Replies to Parliamentary Questions

Oral Reply to Parliamentary Questions on the Immigration Clearance System Disruption at ICA Checkpoints on 31 March 2023

Published: 21 April 2023


Dr Lim Wee Kiak: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs in light of the immigration clearance disruption due to a computer glitch at ICA checkpoints on 31 March 2023 (a) whether there is a backup system to automatically take over the operations under such circumstances; (b) what is the standard procedure for any work carried out on major IT systems to anticipate any glitches; (c) why is upgrading work not done during off-peak hours; and (d) how many travellers have missed their flights and whether they are compensated.

Mr Ang Wei Neng: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs (a) what are the main causes behind the major disruption to the immigration system at the ICA checkpoints on 31 March 2023; (b) how many people are affected by the disruption; and (c) what lessons can be learned from the disruption to prevent a future occurrence.

Mr Murali Pillai: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs (a) what is the estimated number of people who were affected by the 5-hour system disruption at the land and air checkpoints on 31 March 2023 arising from a scheduled system upgrade that caused a system overload; (b) why was the problem hitherto unanticipated; (c) what is the Ministry's assessment of the contingency plan activated to deal with the disruption; and (d) what steps will be taken to strengthen the plan.

Mr Alex Yam Ziming: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs (a) whether the Ministry is satisfied with how ICA handled the recent service outage on 31 March 2023; and (b) how future outages can be prevented.

Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs (a) what was the cause of the system breakdown which led to the long delays in clearance across all immigration checkpoints in Singapore on 31 March 2023; (b) how many people were affected by the delay; (c) whether the ICA has worked out a solution which will prevent similar breakdowns in the future or, if not, at least to ensure that the system will be restored in a much shorter time.


Assoc Prof Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, Minister of State, Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of National Development:

1.   Mr Speaker, Sir, may I have your permission to take together, Parliamentary Questions 5 to 9 in today’s Order Paper?

2.   Sir, my response will also cover the matters raised in the questions by Mr Desmond Choo, which are scheduled for a subsequent sitting. I invite the Member to seek clarifications today if need be. If the Member feels that his questions are addressed today, it may not be necessary for him to proceed with them during the next sitting.

3.   On 31st March 2023 at about 10.40am, the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) was conducting a pre-scheduled trial needed for an upgrade of the Multi-Modal Biometrics System (MMBS). The MMBS facilitates automated immigration clearance using travellers’ biometrics.

4.   Unfortunately, the trial caused a severe system overload. Automated clearance lanes at all the departure halls in Changi Airport and certain automated lanes at Woodlands and Tuas Checkpoints were impacted. The rest of the automated lanes, including those at the sea checkpoints, remained operational.

5.   Prior to the incident, ICA had been upgrading its systems progressively and cautiously, with 10 out of 12 systems enhanced. Only the MMBS and one other system had not yet been upgraded. For the MMBS, the system upgrade would involve replicating the large biometric database to an upgraded system. This has to be done continuously over a few days, and the MMBS has to remain operational during this period.

6.   Our standard procedure for any system upgrade is to conduct tests in the User Acceptance Test (UAT) environment before deployment. The UAT tests were successful. Subsequent trials in the production environment were also stable.

7.   Next, we had planned to conduct further controlled trials during different times of the day, to ascertain that the system upgrade would not disrupt operations during the wee hours, off-peak hours, and peak hours, before proceeding with the actual upgrade.

8.   The wee hours trial was conducted on 15 March 2023 from 1.30am to 3.30am. The trial was successful.

9.   The trial on 31 March 2023, when the incident happened, was the off-peak hours trial, to take place from 10am to 2pm. The vendors were on standby on-site, and the plan was to recover the system within 30 minutes if the trial did not go well.

10.   The trial caused the storage systems to overload at about 10.40am, and the process was aborted immediately. However, the extent of the overload was much more severe than anticipated, and the vendors who were on-site had to work with their global support team to diagnose and reboot the servers. In the end, the recovery process took about four and a half hours and the MMBS recovered around 3pm.

11.   ICA immediately activated its Business Continuity Plan (BCP) once the system went down. Off-duty officers were recalled to help man manual immigration counters and perform crowd control. Across all the checkpoints, the failover process kicked in, and all the manual counters, and certain automated lanes, switched to the backup systems. Not all the automated lanes have this failover capability, as different models were procured over the years.

12.   At the land checkpoints, travellers experienced delays of up to 30 minutes at the onset of the incident. At Woodlands Checkpoint, there was later another hour of delay for cars as the car arrival zone had to be converted to clear motorbikes manually. About 55,000 travellers passed through the two land checkpoints during the disruption.

13.   Immigration clearance at the Airport’s departure halls was significantly impacted. Travellers were re-directed to manual counters for immigration clearance. ICA immediately stepped-up manning of the manual counters through a combination of measures such as recalling off-duty officers, deploying administrative staff and retaining the officers from the outgoing shift.

14.   Changi Airport Group (CAG) assisted ICA by deploying additional Changi Youth Ambassadors and office staff, along with CAG’s Duty Terminal Managers and their Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Team. They helped identify travellers whose flights were departing soon so that their departure clearance could be prioritised. Public announcements were also made to appeal for such travellers to step forward.

15.   During the disruption, about 30,000 passengers on 113 departure flights and 111 arrival flights, cleared immigration.

16.   Despite the measures taken by ICA and CAG, 21 out of the 30,000 cleared passengers missed their flights at Terminal 4. These travellers were subsequently offered to re-book on alternative flights within a week at no extra cost.

17.   In light of the incident, ICA is reviewing the approach to the upgrade. The alternative approach that ICA was initially offered by the vendors was not tenable. It involved upgrading the system directly without replicating the database, but may require five days of system downtime.

18.   Even with the implementation of BCPs, degradation in service standards was inevitable given the volume of travellers, and especially at the onset of the incident. We apologise to affected travellers for the inconvenience caused and thank them for their understanding. I would also like to thank the ICA officers and CAG staff who had worked tirelessly, without complaint, to deal with the situation.   

19.   Going forward, ICA is in the process of implementing a multi-year plan, known as the New Clearance Concept (NCC), to transform immigration clearance across all the checkpoints. NCC will provide more seamless clearance and help ICA, with limited manpower resources, cope with the ever-rising traveller volume.  Under the NCC, all manual counters and automated lanes will be replaced in phases with the next generation Automated Border Clearance System (ABCS) gates, which will allow travellers to continue using automated clearance even when the MMBS is down. In the meantime, the resiliency of existing automated lanes that have yet to be replaced by the ABCS gates will also be enhanced in the second half of 2023.

20.   Sir, Singapore is one of the first countries in the world to implement NCC-type capabilities. Some of these capabilities will be implemented in a form and manner not used or tested elsewhere, as we customize them to suit our operational needs. As such, while we will work closely with all stakeholders to further minimize technical disruptions, and enhance system resiliency, the reality is, disruptions will still happen now and then. When they do, we will make sure we have robust contingency plans in place, and try to recover as fast as possible. I hope for the public and Members’ understanding. Thank you, Sir.