Opening Ceremony of the Asian Conference of Criminal and Operations Psychology (ACCOP) 2019 - Speech by Mrs Josephine Teo, Ministry For Manpower and Second Minister For Home Affairs

Published: 10 July 2019



1. Good morning and thank you for inviting me.


2. This is the fourth edition of the Asian Conference of Criminal and Operations Psychology (ACCOP) organised by psychologists of the Singapore Home Team. I would first like to thank the Society of Police and Criminal Psychology (SPCP)[1], for your friendship and tremendous support for well over a dozen years. Senior members of the SPCP had travelled long distances to attend past ACCOP conferences, and we are most pleased to welcome you back. To all our overseas guests - we have about 13 countries represented at this conference - as always, Singapore offers a very warm welcome.




3. Why are we here today? In essence, to become better at crime-fighting through deeper understanding of human psychology - both of criminals, as well as of victims. No one has all the answers. So it makes sense to learn from one another.


4. ACCOP therefore started as a platform to promote scientific research and learning in psychology that is applied to safety and security. It also serves as a bridge between practitioners and your counterparts in academia. This year’s ACCOP throws the spotlight on behavioural sciences. What pressing problems do we hope to apply the insights to?


Evolving Threats


5. For Singapore, there are at least three - drug abuse, cybercrime, and terrorism.


6. Let me deal first with drug abuse. You know already that they create problems for society. Of particular concern is their adverse impact on young people and children. Research has linked drug abuse at an early age to a higher risk of drug dependency [2], delinquent behaviours in later years [3] and being lured into committing organised criminal.


7. In May this year, the National Crime Agency in the UK reported that the police arrested over 500 suspects in a national crackdown called the “County Line Gangs”. They belonged to a group of organised crime networks which recruited young children and vulnerable adults to move illegal drugs from urban cities, such as London, to rural areas within the UK. Hundreds of children had been recruited, with several of them becoming victims of human trafficking, slavery, and knife crimes. These are heinous crimes. And yet, at the same time that these heinous crimes continue to confront us, attitudes towards drug use are softening, even in conservative societies.


8. Take Singapore, for example. Independent research conducted by the Ministry of Home Affairs and our Home Team psychologists found undergraduate participants to be more accepting toward the use of drugs and drug users. Specifically, they were more tolerant towards experimental and recreational drug users, regardless of the type of drugs they used.


9. Among other things, social media is awash with news about the legalization of cannabis in other countries. Then there is the deliberate effort to confuse through dubious claims about “medical cannabis”. Their combined effect is to make young people think cannabis can’t be that bad, even if the scientific evidence is clear on the harms of cannabis use. By extension, perhaps other drugs are not that bad too.


10. What is not well known is that these kinds of messages are deliberately peddled by parties who stand to benefit commercially from more drug use. These shifts in attitudes should make us sit up. Drug-free societies are not a given unless we push back with resolve and intelligence.


11. Apart from drugs, a second concern is cyber-crime, the proliferation of which poses new challenges to crime-fighters around the world. In Singapore, overall crime had been falling and reached an all-time low of 582 cases per 100,000 population in 2017. Then in 2018, the trend started to reverse due to cyber-related crimes, such as e-commerce scams, credit-for-sex scams, Internet love scams, and impersonation scams. Take for example, an official impersonation scam [4]. A woman was tricked into surrendering over S$5 million to the offenders all within one week. Somehow, the victim was persuaded to believe she was helping in the investigation of a money laundering case.


12. Successful business persons or professionals can also fall victim to scams. Research has identified a variety of social influence techniques that scammers use to induce trust, for example by painting a professional or legitimate façade, pretending to be persons of authority.


13. Although scams are not new, the Internet and mobile phones have changed the landscape. Scammers can now reach many more victims at very low cost - nearly negligible - just at the press of a button, and they pre-program it to reach out to more potential victims. When the returns of investments are potentially higher, so too will more bad hats be induced to take the risk. Our attitude cannot be to discourage the use of technologies. But we must also become smarter in preventing technology from being mis-used.


14. The third issue of concern is terrorism. Singapore will do all that is necessary to prevent an attack on our shores. But as we have always said, it may not be a matter of if, but when. What happens when an attack strikes, like the one in New Zealand in March this year?


15. “1-7-3-7” is the number of New Zealand’s national mental health and addictions helpline. In the aftermath of the attack, the helpline received more than 10,000 calls. The Ministry of Health also got organised to advise parents on how they could talk to their children about terrorism and related trauma [5].


16. In the Sri Lanka terror incident of April, local psychologists noted that many people suffered from anxiety, fear, immense grief, and a lack of hope about their future. Victims of the attacks were concerned about how they would rebuild their lives once they were discharged from the hospitals [6].


17. Our takeaway from these observations is that it isn’t enough to have just the capabilities to end an attack. It is crucial also to prepare the community for psychological recovery following a terror attack. If and when an attack happens, the loss of lives and property will be shocking. But it is the loss of hope and faith that is truly disastrous. How do we build up the community’s resilience for such a time?


Applying Psychology and Behavioural Sciences


18. Drug abuse, scams, and terrorism - how can we use psychology and the behavioural sciences to tackle these threats more effectively? Let me outline Singapore’s approach.


19. First, our drug policies are framed using evidence-based scientific approaches. Preventive Drug Education (PDE) [7] is one of our first lines of defence. We place strong emphasis on educating youths on the dangers of drug abuse and engaging community partners and the public to reaffirm the national consensus for a drug-free Singapore. Our Home Team psychologists in the Singapore Prison Service apply evidence-based rehabilitation approaches to their work with incarcerated drug offenders. We develop psychology-based criminogenic programmes to motivate drug offenders, change and challenge their drug offending attitudes, and help them acquire pro-social skills that will promote their reintegration into mainstream society.


20. Second, on cyber-crime, using a “psychological lens” helps us unravel the offenders’ modus operandi, for example, how a scam victim is groomed. It allows us to better appreciate the offenders’ intent or motivation, the victim profile and how we might prevent and deter offenders.


21. One example is the anti-scam campaign [8] launched in March by the Singapore Police Force. At a large shopping mall, shoppers were told they could purchase “any upmarket brand of any size” for S$30.Several shoppers believed and readily parted with their cash, or took out their credit cards. Then, they were led to a room where they were shown videos on scam prevention. A bit sneaky, but the message gets through. This campaign seeks to create awareness among shoppers by targeting their optimism bias - a belief that scams would never happen to them. By putting individuals through the experiential exercise, we hope they realise they are more vulnerable than they think.


22. Thirdly, on terrorism. I’ve earlier talked about raising the psychological preparedness and resilience of the community. In Singapore, we do so as part of the national SGSecure movement. The Home Team psychologists have played a very significant role in raising our national psychological preparedness. They have adopted the World Health Organisation’s psychological first aid (PFA) framework, and more than 1,000 grassroots leaders and volunteers have been trained on this framework.


23. Second, HEART teams have been created for a coordinated psychological first aid response in the community. “HEART” is an acronym for Human Emergency Assistance and Response Team, which comprises mental health practitioners from the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Social and Family Development and also Institute of Mental Health. We are delighted that some members of the Social Work Association and the Singapore Psychological Society are also a part of HEART.


24. And today, we are launching the HEART Network. The HEART Network will involve many more medical and health agencies than we do today, such as hospitals and polyclinics. The broader HEART Network will allow for more cross-learning and collaboration between public service agencies for crisis response.


25. I would like to thank mental health professionals from the hospitals and polyclinics for coming forward, and I look forward to strengthening our partnership.




26. Let me conclude. Beyond the areas I identified, there are many others where psychology has been put to good use. These are reflected in the rich range of topics in the conference programme. I am confident you will enjoy the process of learning, sharing and networking at ACCOP.


27. Thank you once again for being here.

[1] SPCP is one of the two largest organisations/entities of law enforcement and police psychologists in the United States. All previous runs of ACCOP have received strong support and participation from the SPCP executive committee and members.

[2] Gateway Foundation - A renowned evidence-based treatment center for substance abuse and addiction. It provides substance use treatment, addiction treatment programs and addiction therapy services as its core services. URL: Click HERE

[3] A research paper titled “Substance use and the adolescent brain: A toxic combination?” published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, by Dan Lubman, Mural Yucel and Wayne Hall.

[4] Woman scammed of S$5.4 million, one suspect arrested. URL: Click HERE

[5] Big increase in calls to mental health support service by Cate Broughton. URL: Click HERE

[6] Coping after a crisis by Renushi Ubeyratne.  URL: Click HERE

[7] Singapore’s Preventive Drug Education Approach by CNB. URL: Click HERE

[8] Branded shoes for $30? Police “scam” shoppers at Jurong Point to raise anti-scam awareness. URL: Click HERE


Managing Security Threats