S'pore's first and last line of defence

S'pore's first and last line of defence

SINGAPORE - Woodlands Checkpoint commander Ong Choon Beng has 1,500 goalkeepers at his disposal. That is how he refers to his team of Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officers, who keep a clean sheet for Singapore the way world- class Dane Peter Schmeichel did at football giants Manchester United.

But one miss is enough to undermine years of vigilance. "You can be Peter Schmeichel and save 10,000 goals, but let one through and people say you're kayu (Malay word for 'wooden' meaning silly)," says Assistant Commissioner Ong.

That is why there is never any respite on Singapore's side of the Causeway - one of the world's busiest land immigration checkpoint. Each day, 350,000 travellers cross the checkpoint, more than at all other entry points to Singapore - land, sea and air - combined. That works out to the country's entire population, every 15 days.

Earlier last week, The Sunday Times got a chance to look behind the security curtain at what AC Ong calls the country's "first and last line of defence" - from the evening rush hour at 7pm to the morning squeeze at 7am.

7pm: Rush hour

Amid a sea of motorcycles, two officers stand out in fluorescent yellow vests at the checkpoint.

Shrugging off the heat from the asphalt and the cloying fumes, they keep the roaring waves of as many as 10,000 small motorcycles, or kup-kias, moving through the peak hours until about 9pm, when traffic returns to normal levels.

Two car lanes are converted to help clear the traffic, but many riders rather not use them as "they believe it is faster through the motor zone", says Superintendent Chia Hoi Mun, the checkpoint's deputy commander. "That's a false impression," he says, adding that checks prove otherwise.

Using barricades, the officers close off the motorcycle zone when the queue gets too long, redirecting the traffic into the two extra lanes - creating a ripple effect.

Cars are diverted to lorry lanes, while lorries are routed to the old Woodlands Checkpoint, shuttered in 2000 but reopened in 2008 to ease traffic. And all these mean tweaking operation, says senior assistant commander of ground operations Kent Goh.

Additional officers are posted to conduct face-to-face checks as those at the lorry counters are too high up to compare drivers' faces with their passports. And since cars are smaller and faster, more barricades are installed to deter anyone from trying to break through. "We did have some dash- through attempts, but we've always been able to apprehend the person," said AC Ong. "But sometimes at a cost."

He recalls how an officer was run over last June while trying to stop a dog smuggler from speeding through without being checked. But the officer, who ended up with a dislocated knee and deep gashes to his leg, has returned to duty.

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