Our gatekeepers: Front-line ICA officers tell all

Our gatekeepers: Front-line ICA officers tell all
Staff Sergeant Tan Chuan Teck
PHOTO: The New Paper

Woodlands and Tuas checkpoints are among the world's busiest, clearing up to 400,000 travellers daily. This shot up to 430,000 over the festive period and year-end school holidays. The New Paper speaks to front-line ICA officers.

INSPECTION OFFICER 

He's been called names by irate travellers and admits that some of them hurt his feelings - but it's all part of the job.

Staff Sergeant Tan Chuan Teck, 36, targeting and detection specialist at Tuas Checkpoint, said: "We have to stomach it and keep our cool, but people need to know that officers have feelings too."

He is part of a five-member team whose job is to flag, and conduct thorough checks, on suspicious vehicles at the "100 per cent inspection pit".

Staff Sgt Tan, who has been with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) for five years, said that simple questions like, "Where are you going?" and "Who will you be meeting?" can reveal telling signs about the traveller's intentions.

"We profile vehicles with our gut feel and experience. We look out for driver behaviour, like the lack of eye contact, if they are nervous or overly friendly."

Staff Sgt Tan, who is married and works seven-to-10-hour shifts five times a week, said: "We try to get inside the head of syndicate members to understand how they conceal smuggled goods and what kinds of methods a terrorist would use."

Besides getting the training to update officers on the latest methods used by the groups, Staff Sgt Tan added that he also watches Hong Kong dramas and documentaries about border security in other countries to learn about concealment methods.

Before he joined the ICA, he thought working with the agency meant "just stamping passports". But he soon learnt that it was much more than that.

"Every day is a new day, with different people and different challenges," he said. "People think we are fierce but we are just firm because there's a protocol we need to follow."

PASSPORT CLEARANCE OFFICER

The dash to the counter is on. And if you think there are discounts being offered, you're wrong.

We are talking about the ICA counter at the Woodlands Checkpoint.

Corporal Nur Adilla Ramli, 23, said the funniest travellers are those who are stuck in a jam, but get out of their cars and run towards the counter because they need to use the toilet.

"It happens every day. We have to get someone to escort them to the toilet because you can't just walk around at the checkpoint," she added with a laugh.

But her lightheartedness belies the more serious aspects of her job in passport clearance.

Travellers have tried all sorts of methods to hoodwink them, but all officers are trained to spot the tricks, she said.

"We just know what to look out for. We use the knowledge and skills taught to us."

Cpl Adilla, who has been with the ICA for three years, belongs to the team that is deployed to help passport clearance in all sectors - motor, car and bus - depending on the traffic situation.

Like most ICA specialists, she works shifts that last seven to 10 hours, but she works extra hours during the festive season when the traveller count picks up.

Cpl Adilla has encountered travellers who have tried to cross the border with their siblings' passports. There was also once a busload of 12 people who handed over only 11 passports at the checkpoint.

"They insisted that they had only 11 people, but I clearly counted 12. In the end, that one person said that he forgot to give me his passport," she related.

IMAGE ANALYST

Sergeant Mohammad Shafiq Iskandar works at one of the world's busiest land checkpoints - and he's proud of it.

Despite the odd and long hours spent working at the Woodlands Checkpoint, Sgt Shafiq said that it's an honour to be trusted with keeping Singapore's borders safe.

The 28-year-old, who is married and whose wife is four months' pregnant, is an image analyst with the Z Backscatter Van, a white van equipped with X-ray capability to scan vehicles for abnormalities such as hidden contraband or people.

Sgt Shafiq, who has been with the ICA for three years, said his job exposes him to radiation but he feels it's a risk worth taking.

He explained: "We wear a tag that keeps track of the level of radiation we are exposed to and it gets checked every three months. If it's over the limit, we have to rest for two months, but that hasn't happened to me yet.

"It's a risk worth taking, to protect my home and my loved ones."

OPERATIONS OFFICER

She gets a bird's eye view of the entire area.

Sergeant Hazel Wong, 23, is stationed in the Tuas Checkpoint operations room.

One glance at the multiple screens surrounding the room shows her the real-time happenings in every nook and cranny of the checkpoint.

She said: "We're mostly looking out for abnormalities or for heavy traffic so we can redeploy manpower to where it's needed most.

"You never know what to expect."

She said she decided to join ICA because she wants to give back to the country that has made her feel "safe and secure" all her life.

Sgt Wong has been with the ICA for more than a year and works a seven-hour morning or a 10-hour night shift.

She said daily challenges range from handling medical emergencies when they have to call in ambulances, to instances where there's a build-up of traffic and they have to redeploy officers to ease the congestion.

"It's exciting. Some days it's a never-ending stream of people," said Sgt Wong.

"You have to trust yourself to gauge where help is needed and you have to think on your feet.


This article was first published on Jan 1, 2016.
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