Concerns raised about Home Team resources

Concerns raised about Home Team resources
(L) Mr Edwin Tong (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam of the Workers’ Party.

Concerns over whether the Home Team has the resources it needs to tackle growing security challenges, from terrorism and cybercrime to border control, were raised by several MPs yesterday.

The use of technology can increase capabilities, but it is no replacement for boots on the ground, said Mr Arthur Fong (West Coast GRC), one of six MPs who spoke as the debate on the Ministry of Home Affairs' (MHA) budget kicked off.

While Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) and several other MPs praised Home Team officers for doing an excellent job despite the manpower crunch, they asked if MHA is taking measures to boost recruitment and retention of officers, particularly more experienced ones.

"The experience of a senior front-line officer is something that cannot be replicated nor automated," said Dr Janil. "No amount of productivity initiatives will be a substitute for an experienced, well-trained officer."

Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) said Singaporeans will continue to expect "low crime rates, safe and secure communities, speedy clearances at immigration and fuss-free travel, quick and effective response by the police, civil defence and ambulances when things go wrong".

"How is the Home Team going to stay ahead of the curve?" he asked. "Apart from increasing our headcount, we need to make sure that our officers are equipped with the right training and skills."

He raised the growing worry of cybercrime. "Given the increase of crime online, we need our investigative officers to be equipped with the requisite expertise and technological know-how," he said.

Cheating cases involving e-commerce more than tripled from 510 cases in 2013 to 1,659 last year, he noted.

Mr Edwin Tong (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) cited other worrying figures, adding that cybercrimes not just target individuals, but are also premeditated attacks which threaten national and financial security in Singapore.

He asked if there was "a shortage of cyber security experts" even as attempts are made to set up agencies devoted to fighting cybercrime in Singapore and the region.

Mr Tong also highlighted the need to keep Singapore's borders secure against foreign terrorists and the smuggling of drugs by international syndicates in the light of an increasingly globalised environment. "We can only expect volumes of travellers and cargo handled at our land, air and sea checkpoints, which have been increasing over the past few years, to continue to do so," he said.

He asked if the Home Team has the resources to handle the increasing volumes at checkpoints - not just for passengers but also container cargo and parcels.

Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) also brought up border security issues, and asked if a ministry-level review committee formed in April last year in the wake of checkpoint breaches at Woodlands had made any decisions on boosting security at checkpoints.

She also warned about officers becoming "de-skilled" by an over-reliance on technology, especially social media, in combating crime. "Instead of police working on the ground and developing skills and experience in searching for information, they manage by 'remote control', blindly following information drawn from systems," she said.

With the growing prevalence of CCTV cameras being used in policing, Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam from the Workers' Party also asked if safeguards were in place to ensure surveillance was being done only for legitimate purposes and is not intruding on people's privacy.

The Minister for Home Affairs will reply to MPs' concerns today.

Mr Edwin Tong (Moulmein-Kallang GRC), asking how Singapore plans to tackle the growing threat of cybercrime:Singaporean cybercrime victims (are reported) as having the highest average per capita losses worldwide in 2013. That's about US$1,158 (S$1,580). This is four times the global average of US$287.

Direct financial losses in Singapore due to cybercrime have grown from US$944 million in 2012 to about US$1 billion in 2013. Asia has increasingly become targeted for cyber attacks as people here have become more affluent and technologically advanced...

Apart from enhancing enforcement capabilities, what steps are being taken to promote public education and awareness, which are often the first lines of defence against cybercrime, to facilitate better detection, deterrence and investigation?

Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam of the Workers' Party, on the level of government surveillance on citizens: What safeguards are in place to ensure that surveillance on individuals, particularly Singaporeans, is done only for legitimate purposes, like security operations and criminal investigations?

How are the data and intelligence protected to ensure that it is not misused or leaked by those who have access to it?

Which of our laws authorise surveillance of individuals who are not targets of security operations or criminal investigations?

And lastly, what independent oversight, like the courts or parliamentary committees, are in place to guard against abuse?

This article was first published on Mar 6, 2015.
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