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Govt admits SPF is stretched but what has been done so far? Andrew Loh.

Singapore Police Force – stretched and fatigued

Andrew Loh

Government admits Home Team is stretched but what has been done so far?

The Singapore Police Force (SPF) has its work cut out for it, looking at the way things are going. While Singapore’s crime rate remains low, at 684 cases per 100,000 population in 2008, there are reasons to be concerned.

“[The] fundamental question which MHA is exploring is whether we can continue to operate with the current level of resources,” Law Minister and Second Minister for Home Affairs, Mr K Shanmugam, told Parliament in 2008. “Our Home Team officers at the front line are stretched and strained over a high alert that started since end 2001.  The total number of overtime hours ICA ground officers at the checkpoints have to put in every month to cope with the volume of work varies between 23,000 and 28,000 overtime hours.”

The MHA then commissioned a “Human Factors” study on operational fatigue on the officers of the Home Team.

Workers’ Party chairman, Ms Sylvia Lim, again highlighted the issue in May this year in Parliament. Without counting the added demands of having the casinos, she said, “this study confirmed work overload and understaffing in several areas, even before the casinos are functional.”

According to Mr Shanmugam, “the volume and scope of work have greatly expanded, with increased population, tourist arrivals and more international events which require higher security coverage.” (Parliament, 2008.)

In a speech to the New York State Bar Association Rule of Law Plenary Session in October 2009, he said Singapore had 247 police officers per 100,000 people. In New York it was 420 per 100,000. But Singapore had a lower crime rate than New York – 684 per 100,000 population to New York’s 2,400. “Low crime rate is achieved with a leaner police force,” Mr Shanmugam said.

While the minister may be correct in saying that we have a leaner police force, he should be concerned about the toll this may take on the individual police officer as the workload increases. Indeed, in his 2008 parliamentary speech, Mr Shanmugam recognized this. “In general, the growths in population and traffic at the checkpoints have outstripped manpower growth in the Home Team.” he said. “Apart from the sheer volume increase, the Home Team has also had to deal with new areas, such as in casino regulation and counter terrorism. Terminal 3 and the Budget Terminal have added to the demands. Security coverage for major events, such as the IMF/ World Bank Annual Meeting in 2006 and the ASEAN Summit in 2007 has also been very taxing.”

With the opening of the two Integrated Resorts (IRs) and the new International Cruise Terminal at Marina South, the Singapore Tourism Board has forecast 17 million visitors to the island by 2015, a substantial increase from the projected 9 to 9.5 million in 2009. Singapore hosts the Youth Olympics Games next year and the yearly Formula One Race. Add to the list the annual National Day Parade, the year-end holiday seasons, large scale events like the recent Apec meeting, along with the presence of almost two million foreigners currently working in Singapore, the SPF faces significant manpower challenges going forward.

The police also have to deal with social problems such as the significant rise in the number of loansharks cases this year (13,771 from Jan to Sept 2009, more than the previous three years), Internet crimes, transnational criminal syndicates, one of the highest prison population in the world (Singapore ranked 73 out of 218 countries - 12, 349 as at mid-2008) - and the ever-present threat of terrorist activities.

The upcoming opening of the casinos at the two IRs alone “will demand tremendous resources towards meeting criminal activity of an unprecedented nature in Singapore,” Ms Lim said. “It is foreseeable that police would need to have heavy presence both inside and outside the casinos, both in uniform and plainclothes, to battle the problems caused by foreign gangs, prostitution, illegal money-lending, money-laundering, casino fraud, robberies and thefts, among others.”

To this end, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has set up the Casino Investigation Branch and is beefing up the Marina Neighbourhood Police Centre to specifically deal with criminal activities in the Marina area.  All these require manpower and not just leveraging on the latest technological advancements to develop operational capabilities. Thus one of the main challenges faced by the SPF is that of recruitment. Ironically, the better the economy, the more police officers resign from the Home Team.

“Another pressure on manpower in the Home Team,” the Law Minister said, “is that in recent years, there have been more resignations, due to the economic boom.” He ascribed this to better pay packages in the private sector. In November 2008, the SPF went on a recruitment drive to attract 1,000 officers for its five departments - Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA), the Singapore Police Force (SPF), the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), the Singapore Prisons Service (SPS) and the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB). But with the recession “effectively” ending, according to a recent statement by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, will the SPF face a similar situation of attrition in the new year as the economy picks up?

Also of concern is the potential corruption among police officers. Mr Shanmugam, according to a Channelnewsasia report, said he expected “an increase in corruption cases when [the] two casinos open here in 2010”. However, he is confident that the authorities will be able to deal with these. "[As] a system, as a police force, they're very highly regarded and I believe systems are in place to ensure they'll continue to be so,” he said.

Still, it is left to be seen how all these challenges will affect the morale of the individuals who keep our streets safe. At the moment, the minister should look into the fatigue factor of individual officers and address this.

The Ministry of Home Affairs was given a budget of S$3 billion for 2009. With the numerous challenges it will face in the new year and beyond, perhaps it is prudent to see if this is sufficient. Having a lean police force and a low crime rate may be something to crow about to others but we should not be complacent or arrogant when it comes to the safety and security of our citizens and our nation.

“We can expect a greater degree of complexity and uncertainty in maintaining social cohesion and preserving safety and security in Singapore in the years to come,” said Police Commissioner Koh Boon Hui in 2008. “We shall be a police force that will be nothing less than A Force for the Nation, One that Inspires the World.” (SPF website)

A police force that is stretched and fatigued is no inspiration to anyone – much less a force for the nation.

Perhaps Mr Shanmugam should update Singaporeans on what has been done to improve officers' well-being on the job since his speech in Parliament in 2008 - besides having commissioned a study to look into it.

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Picture from Nation Master.

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