He faced off against terrorists, triads

He faced off against terrorists, triads
Mr Tee Tua Ba, who is chairman of the Singapore Red Cross Society, served in the police force for 30 years. He credited the founding government led by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and pioneer officers across the Home Team for Singapore’s low crime rate today.

They had just set off bombs on Pulau Bukom, and were armed with more explosives.

Four terrorists - two from the militant Japanese Red Army and another duo from Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - then hijacked a ferry, holding the Singaporean crew hostage. In hot pursuit was then Marine Police officer-in-charge Tee Tua Ba.

Speaking to The Straits Times ahead of an event on Thursday to recognise the contributions of Home Team Pioneers, Mr Tee, now 72, recalled the 1974 incident that was Singapore's first brush with international terrorism.

He remembers the chilling warnings from the terrorists, during the seven days of negotiations to get the crew released safely.

"My boat approached the ferry they were on, and they said 'Remember Munich... sunset time is blowing-up time'," said Mr Tee.

The terrorists were referring to 11 Israeli athletes who were held hostage and eventually killed by the Palestinian group Black September during the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Undeterred, Mr Tee initiated plans to guarantee the attackers' safe passage out of Singapore and back to Kuwait, in exchange for handing over their explosives, as well as the ferry crew.

The terrorists agreed to all conditions, but insisted on keeping their firearms as they were escorted by Mr Tee and his team to Paya Lebar Airport.

But he was under instructions to disarm the terrorists before they boarded the plane.

So Mr Tee decided to put himself within the terrorist leader's crosshairs, if the rest would drop their weapons.

"I was prepared to do that to show goodwill," he said.

Thankfully, the leader told Mr Tee that he trusted the Singapore officials to be as good as their word, and complied with the order to drop their arms before boarding.

The incident was one of many harrowing episodes in Mr Tee's three-decade-long career with the Ministry of Home Affairs, during which he took on several leading roles, including being the head of prisons, director of the Central Narcotics Bureau, and eventually Commissioner of Police.

A trained lawyer, he was called to the Bar in 1966 but gave up his legal career a year later because he had always dreamed of becoming a police officer.

"When I was growing up, Singapore was a different world. I witnessed rioting, offices set on fire, curfews... I had seen the bad side of secret societies... and also the bad side of policing," he said.

"In school, when they asked us to write down our ambition, I wrote 'police officer', that was it, it was what I wanted to be."

His soon-to-be wife then did not approve.

"I didn't like the idea of him joining the police force... I didn't know what to expect from someone who is a police officer. But he said it was his purpose," recalled Mrs Adelene Tee, 68.

Adjusting to a police officer's long days proved tough, and Mrs Tee spent hours waiting for her husband to get off work, sometimes sitting by herself in his station, at other times standing on the street straining to catch sight of him.

Mr Tee's days were filled with violent gangsters, and triad and secret-society members who would throw acid bombs and glass in gang fights, often leaving the police to pick up bodies frothing from the mouth.

Barely a year into the job, he took part in an operation involving 300 officers to apprehend notorious kidnapper Loh Ngut Fong and his gang from a house off Yio Chu Kang Road.

Mr Tee hid in a drain opposite the house as he awaited orders. But the crooks panicked, resulting in a shoot-out that ended with Loh's death.

"That's what we used to deal with back in those days," he said.

"When was the last time we had an armed robbery in Singapore? It's so different now."

Gone, too, are the "opium farms" and opium dens of the past, he noted.

Much credit has to go to the founding government led by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and pioneer officers across the Home Team, added Mr Tee.

Effective policy changes included the introduction of criminal detention without trial, he said. "It was the law that broke the backbone of secret societies and triads."

On his end, Mr Tee tried to build trust between the people and police officers, introducing community policing, and also improving officers' interactions with the public, from making sure 999 emergency calls were received more politely, to better supervision and assessment of front-line officers.

It wasn't easy to change officers' habits, he admitted. "It starts with the small little things, you have got to push like hell."

Mr Tee hung up his police uniform in 1997, when he retired as commissioner from the force, and entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He became Singapore's high commissioner to Brunei, and held several other posts around the world till 2007, after which he took on non-resident ambassadorship.

Since 2008, he has been chairman of the Singapore Red Cross Society (SRC), where he has carried over some leadership traits from his civil service years.

SRC secretary-general Benjamin William called Mr Tee a "straightforward man... of integrity and honesty".

"He always emphasises the need to maintain the trust of the people, he constantly reminds us that we should never lose the trust of the public who have entrusted their donations to us."

Mr Tee said the worst part of his career was losing out on family time. Mrs Tee gave up her job promoting loans in a bank to accompany her husband abroad, and throughout his working years the couple's two sons saw little of him. "My work was everything," said Mr Tee, who is now non-resident ambassador to Switzerland.

Neither son has followed in his footsteps. Older son Ve-Yin, 40, is a university assistant professor in Japan, and second son Ve-Chen, 39, works in the food and beverage industry.

"After they'd seen what their father had done in the police force... I don't think they want to join," said Mr Tee with a chuckle.

"It's been a tough life, but I have no regrets."

His wife, perhaps, sums it up best: "Singapore has been very kind to us... If I were in another nation would I enjoy the same life? You give up a little but the country has also given you a lot of things - freedom to work as you want, live as you want, safety... so it's okay to give up a little, we do what we can."


This article was first published on May 25, 2015.
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