Tribute to Home Team Pioneers - Speech by Mr Teo Chee Hean, Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister for Home Affairs

Published: 28 May 2015

 Home Team Pioneers


Ladies and Gentlemen

This year celebrates the 50th year of our independence. The Home Team joins in marking 50 years of nation building by paying tribute to you, our Home Team Pioneers.

2.     You may have noticed that today's event is being held in the Harmony Hall in our Home Team Academy. Indeed, the harmony, order and stability that we all enjoy today would not be possible without our Pioneers' contributions and sacrifices. You did your duty, without fear or favour. You helped to make Singapore a safe and secure home for all of us. Today, Singaporeans are able to go about their daily lives, raise a family, carry on their business – freely, free from the constant worry for their safety and security. This is a mission that Home Team officers continue to uphold, to this day, every day. 


3.     In the early years of our nation-building, Singapore faced many safety and security challenges, including social unrest rampant crime and civil emergencies. Our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew together with his Cabinet colleagues firmly believed that the rule of law was a fundamental prerequisite for a country to succeed. They enacted robust laws, carried through with effective enforcement through the steadfast work of our Home Team Pioneers.  

4.     Let me speak about four key public safety and security challenges which we faced and had to overcome in those critical early days: communism, terrorism, drugs, and civil emergencies. 


5.     First, the threat from the Communist Party of Malaya. Strikes and riots incited by the Communists were rampant in the 1950s. In 1955 alone, 946,000 man-days, nearly a million man-days, were lost due to strikes, mainly Communist-inspired, to destabilise Singapore. The Hock Lee Bus riot in May 1955, with more than 2,000 strikers fighting with the police at one point, was an example of this.


6.     A number of Home Team officers made the ultimate sacrifice. Two Voluntary Special Constabulary officers were killed during the Hock Lee Bus riot. At least another 9 police officers and security personnel were assassinated by communist killer squads between 1950 and 1956 in Singapore. At least another 74 police officers and security personnel were injured. Our Pioneer Police and security officers put themselves at grave personal risk during this tumultuous period, to protect Singaporeans from violence and danger. This set Singapore on the path to peace and stability, which has been the foundation of the better life we were able to build. 


7.     Second, terrorism, which threatened our sovereignty and security. From 1963 to 1966, Singapore and Malaysia faced a campaign of subversion, terror and sabotage during Konfrontasi. There were at least 42 bombing attempts, of which 37 bombs exploded, claiming 7 lives and injuring at least 50 others. Most of the other bombing attempts have faded into memory.  The one that remains most poignant in mind as the worst attack was the one on MacDonald House on 10 March 1965, 50 years ago, which killed 3 and injured 33 more.  Our only two regular army units were deployed elsewhere, outside of Singapore, in Malaysia. Our Police and Special Branch were stretched, and hard pressed to provide security. The call went out for volunteers. The Vigilante Corps was established in 1964 to mobilise Singaporeans to protect our vital installations and defend our nation. Within 2 months, more than 10,000 people had volunteered.


8.     Through their vigilance, our Pioneer officers foiled attempts at sabotage, neutralised bombs that were discovered, and arrested more than 200 saboteurs. In 1964, the Special Branch arrested three saboteurs, and recovered 47 blocks of TNT slabs, four sten guns, two pistols, and 687 rounds of 9mm ammunition[1] - one of the biggest arms caches recovered during Konfrontasi. 


9.     On 31 January 1974, Singapore experienced its first brush with international terrorism. Four men armed with automatic pistols and explosives attacked the Shell Refinery on Pulau Bukom. They hijacked the ferry, Laju, and held five crew members hostage. Our Pioneer officers reacted swiftly to contain the situation and prevent an escalation and the hostages from being harmed. Some of you took part in that operation and are here with us today. After a seven-day standoff, 13 Singapore Government officials, including ISD and Police officers guaranteed safe passage for the hijackers out of the country. 


10.     The Laju incident demonstrated the need to have a sufficient reserve of trained Police officers to supplement the regulars during a security crisis. This led to the introduction of Police National Service in 1975. 


11.     Third, drugs. Opium addiction was a problem in our early colonial days when there was legalised opium, and legalised opium dens which were taxed by the colonial government. The use of opium slowly declined after opium smoking was made illegal in 1946.However, in the late 1960s, new drug threats, such as heroin, MX and ganja emerged. To tackle the worrying situation, the Government formed the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) in 1971. 


12.     In the first half of 1974, only 9 of the drug abusers arrested had consumed heroin. Just a year later, in the first half of 1975, 1,007 drug abusers were caught abusing heroin. I'm sure this is a function of both an increase in the number of drug abusers, as well as the increase in enforcement. To deter would-be drug traffickers, the mandatory death penalty was introduced in December 1975.  


13.     On April 1, 1977, CNB and Police jointly conducted "Operation Ferret", the first major nationwide action against drug offenders. Within four days, more than 900 drug traffickers and addicts were arrested. The Operation continued at a high tempo for several months. Between April 1977 and February 1978, less than one year, CNB and SPF officers made 26,376 arrests of persons suspected of drug consumption. 7,348 persons who tested positive for drug consumption were sent to the Drug Rehabilitation Centres (DRCs) for treatment and rehabilitation. New DRCs were set up by the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) as a result of Operation Ferret and this expanded the roles and responsibilities of the SPS.

14.     Importantly, Operation Ferret marked the beginning of tough laws and focused enforcement to reduce drug consumption and drug-related crimes. Through the efforts of our Pioneer officers, Singapore is one of the few countries in the world which is relatively drug-free today.

15.     Fourth, civil emergencies such as major fires that resulted in loss of lives and serious property damage. Up until the 1960s, when we started our public housing programme, Singaporeans mostly lived in kampongs and squatter settlements, packed together with shophouses. These were cramped housing conditions. Many of the kampongs were constructed with flammable material, such as attap roofs and wooden walls. There were only basic building regulations, and fire safety practices were poor. Any fire spread quickly. The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire claimed four lives, razed an area of 0.4 square kilometres and left nearly 16,000 people homeless. Our Pioneer fire fighters fought the fire courageously. In the aftermath of the Robinsons fire in Raffles Place in 1972 which killed nine people, the Fire Code for buildings was enacted. Rigorous checks and enforcement of the Fire Code, as well as enhanced firefighting capabilities and public education, sharply reduced Singapore's fire fatality rate. Today, this rate of 0.15 per 100,000 population per year is low, one of the lowest in the world, compared to cities such as New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong.[2] 

16.     These are but four major challenges during those times which I have mentioned,but we have many other challenges to our safety and security that we faced and overcame, with the same sense of determination and the same sense of 'need to do and can do'.

17.     The successful fight against secret societies and rampant crime, including kidnapping and armed robberies, allowed us to establish safety, security and order. Singaporeans, their families, the elderly, their children, can now walk alone along the streets freely and safely at any time of the day or night. This is a very cherished freedom in any city in the world. Our crime situation has also improved because of better rehabilitation efforts


18.     The prison riot on Pulau Senang in July 1963, prompted a revamp of our penal system and the move towards an austere, but fair and well-run prison system. The Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (SCORE) was set up in 1976 to equip prisoners with work skills and help them to reintegrate back to society. Today, our Prison Service has moved beyond secure incarceration and rehabilitation inside the prisons to aftercare and reintegration even after the prisoner is released. 


19.     Re-structuring and mergers in the Home Team resulted in the Home Team Departments that we have today. We have a proud tradition. The Hotel New World collapse in March 1986 in which 33 people died witnessed a coordinated response by officers from different agencies – the Singapore Civil Defence Force, the Singapore Fire Service, which itself has a long history, the Singapore Armed Forces and the Mass Rapid Transit Corporation. This incident served as a catalyst for improvements in multi-agency rescue operations, including the merger of the Singapore Civil Defence Force and the Singapore Fire Service. Over the years, the SCDF has improved its training and equipment and carried out complex rescue operations locally and overseas. Today, it has become a sought-after partner for other countries to train their heavy rescue teams for UN certification. 


20.     The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority too, has evolved over time. The separate National Registration and Immigration departments from the colonial era merged to form Singapore Immigration and Registration in 1998. Following the need to strengthen border controls after the 9/11 incident in 2001, the SIR and the checkpoint control function of another colonial era agency, the Customs & Excise Department, merged in 2003, to form ICA as we know it today. 


21.     In Mr Lee Kuan Yew's address to Home Team Leaders during the Dining-In organised in his honour at the Senior Police Officers' Mess in November 2011, he reminded Home Team officers that "Your job is to keep Singapore safe, secure and the public protected.  As our population matures, we must never forget the fundamentals: Integrity, a sense of mission, a sense of purpose, to make Singapore a home for all our people."


22.     Indeed, the best tribute that today's generation of Home Team officers can pay to the late Mr Lee and to our Home Team Pioneers, is to work hard to make Singapore an even safer and more secure home for our people, well into the future. 


23.     To the family members of our Home Team Pioneers, let me extend my heartfelt appreciation to you for your support and understanding. You stood by our Home Team pioneers, as they stood up to fight for law and order, and safety and security for Singaporeans. 


24.     As we celebrate SG50, this is an opportune time for the Home Team to re-dedicate ourselves to making Singapore safer and more secure. Working with the community, the Home Team plays an important role to help ensure that Singaporeans enjoy communal harmony and social stability, free from inter-communal strife; that our sovereignty is protected, free from subversion and espionage; that ordinary Singaporeans and our families can walk through our streets day or night, free from the fear of crime; that our children can go to school, free from the temptation of drugs; and that our country, Singapore, is free to chart our own future. That is the freedom that you, our Pioneers, have given to us.


25.     Together, we can look forward to celebrating SG100 with even greater pride and joy. Majulah Singapura!                                                                             


[1] Article  

[2] 2004 statistics.


Managing Security Threats
Civil Defence and Emergency Preparedness