Checkpoint breach raises vital questions

It has been almost two weeks since the revelation that a Malaysian woman drove her car illegally past the Woodlands Immigration Checkpoint and went undetected for three days.

There are too many questions about how such a security breach could have occurred, raising concerns regarding the competence and alertness of the officers involved.

These queries need to be answered quickly to reassure Singaporeans that the authorities are on top of their game.

Questions: How did the woman drive past immigration control in such a brazen manner without being detected?

It was reported that she tailed the car in front of her and went past the vehicle barrier without stopping for the usual immigration checks. Why did the officer manning the booth not notice her car when it went past? When did he notice and at which point was the alarm raised? If it took a full two minutes for the alarm to be raised, as was reported, why did it take so long?

After clearing immigration, vehicles proceed to the Customs checkpoint where officers check for contraband.

This is some distance away, and if the officers there had been alerted in time, the offender might have been apprehended there. Were they alerted, and when exactly? What is the procedure for such alerts to be passed from the immigration to the Customs checkpoint?

It is cold comfort to know that the woman had apparently sailed through Malaysian immigration checks as well, as her passport was not found on her when she was arrested.

There are other troubling questions about how she was able to go undetected for three days.

Questions: What exactly was the nature of the alert raised by the immigration department to the police and security forces in Singapore after she left Woodlands?

What is the procedure when such an alert is raised?

For example, is every police officer asked to be on the lookout for the driver and the vehicle? This question is pertinent because, on the third day of her illegal stay here, the woman tailed a taxi and the cabby called the police to report her suspicious behaviour.

He was told to drive to the police complex in Cantonment Road, which he did, with the Malaysian driver on his heels.

You would have thought that was the perfect trap to lay. Mission accomplished?

Alas, when they reached the station, she was apparently questioned, but she drove away after refusing to answer.

Did the police officer questioning her know she was a wanted immigration offender? If not, why?

When so many lapses take place one after another, involving the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and the police, it calls into question not just the competence of individual officers involved, but also the integrity of the system as a whole.

Indeed, the Government knows the seriousness of this breach. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean has expressed his "deep dissatisfaction" to the Commissioner of ICA and the Commissioner of Police.

"This case should have been prevented and dealt with more urgently and decisively, as it could have resulted in more serious consequences than what occurred," he said.

His anger wasn't unexpected because this wasn't a case of someone sneaking in stealthily in the dead of night, but in broad daylight and under the noses of officers responsible for preventing such incidents.

If the offender had been, say, a terrorist out to create mischief, and not someone with alleged mental problems, the consequences could have been very serious.

After the attack on the United States in 2001, and when Jemaah Islamiah terrorist cells were discovered here, the public was assured that the authorities were doing everything in their power to prevent an attack here.

Singaporeans slept peacefully knowing the country's security forces appeared on top of the situation.

But the Woodlands breach shows how true the old adage is, that the system is only as strong as its weakest link.

Is the weakness, though, with the foot soldiers manning the booths at Woodlands and the police station at Cantonment? Or are there wider issues that need to be addressed by senior management?

For example, are officers trained to respond to these incidents? What has been done to make sure their attention levels do not suffer as a result of long hours of repetitive work?

Are the standard operating procedures on disseminating information islandwide adequate and effective?

These issues are relevant especially after the Little India riot, when questions were also raised over whether the police responded fast enough to contain the situation.

After the Woodlands fiasco, security was apparently tightened at the Causeway, making it a nightmare for motorists driving into Singapore.

Hopefully, this isn't the only way to do the checks properly.

There must be better, more effective methods that do not create so much trouble for the public.

Whatever the reasons behind the extraordinary breach at Woodlands, the authorities need to react and respond fast.

Singapore's security depends on it.

This article by The Sunday Times was published in MyPaper,  a free, bilingual newspaper published by Singapore Press Holdings.

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