Checkpoint breach: Poor responses, judgment

Woodlands Checkpoint is one of the world's busiest land checkpoints, with more than 300,000 people and 130,000 vehicles crossing it every day.

DEPUTY Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on Monday gave Parliament the first detailed account of missteps by Home Team officers that led to a Malaysian woman entering Singapore illegally through Woodlands Checkpoint and giving police the slip for three days.

On Jan 17, the woman, Nurul Ruhana Ishak, drove past an Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officer at Woodlands Checkpoint without going through the required checks, by tailgating a car in front of hers. She also failed to stop for a secondary check on the car boot.

The ICA officer took 2-1/2 minutes to sound the alarm. By then, it was too late for a lockdown that would have stopped the car from leaving. The auxiliary police officer in charge of secondary checks also failed to trigger the alarm.

Their poor responses were compounded by the "serious error of judgment" made by two ground commanders from the ICA and police. They decided to treat the intrusion as a less serious immigration offence, instead of a serious breach of border security, as required in the protocol.

As a result, the police did not trigger an alert to mount road blocks, circulate descriptions and particulars of Nurul and her car, and alert officers to be on the lookout for her.

"This was a major reason for the subsequent inadequate response which resulted in the vehicle and driver not being detected and arrested much earlier," said Mr Teo, who is also the Minister for Home Affairs.

Nurul was detained three days later when she tailgated another car into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs compound. She has been charged with criminal trespass.

The two ground commanders from ICA and police who made the error of judgment have been redeployed to non-operational posts pending disciplinary action.

Their supervisors and officers involved will also be disciplined. Mr Teo said he had also expressed his dissatisfaction to the commissioners of ICA and police. 

Both have investigated the matter, apologised for shortcomings and presented their recommendations for corrective action, which Mr Teo has accepted.

These include ICA and police working closely together to make sure such lapses do not recur, a thorough review of processes to ensure quick and effective action, and more frequent drills and exercises to maintain officers' vigilance and validate emergency response plans, Mr Teo said.

ICA will also employ more advanced technology as it becomes available, and improve infrastructural design "to depend less on the reaction of the officers on duty, and enhance the overall security of the checkpoint".

Such cases of attempted or inadvertent evasion of immigration checks are "not infrequent", said Mr Teo, and "occur once every couple of months".

In the past three years to December, there were 26 incidents at Woodlands. All but one were stopped immediately within the checkpoint upon the prompt activation of the alarm. In the remaining incident, the driver was detained within two hours, prosecuted and jailed for 12 weeks.

Mr Teo acknowledged the challenges officers at Woodlands Checkpoint face. It is one of the world's busiest land checkpoints, and sees over 300,000 people and 130,000 vehicles each day.

Still, the ministry holds its officers to high standards of professionalism and takes a serious view of the recent security lapse, he said.

Where they fall short, Mr Teo said he would hold them accountable and where warranted, discipline them.

He added: "Acknowledging mistakes allows our officers and organisations to learn and improve."

What went wrong

Nurul entered Singapore illegally on Jan 17.

•First ICA officer at passport check failed to sound alarm as soon as Malaysian Nurul Ruhana Ishak's car slipped past, doing so only 2-1/2 minutes later.

•Auxiliary police officer inspecting car boots failed to sound alarm. When checkpoint was locked down, she was gone.

•Ground commanders wrongly deemed the case "an immigration offence" rather than the more serious "border security breach", which would have led to road blocks being set up to search for the car. What's being done

•Officers involved redeployed; to face disciplinary action.

•Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and police chiefs have presented recommendations on corrective actions.

•ICA and police will work closely to improve coordination and responses.

•Procedures to be reviewed.

•Police to treat all breaches as high-level security threats and take all necessary steps to locate intruders.

•ICA will use more advanced technology.

•Design of checkpoint to be improved to reduce dependence on reaction of officers on duty.

hpeishan@sph.com.sg


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