THE incident in January when a Malaysian woman entered Singapore illegally through the Woodlands Checkpoint and gave the police the slip for three days is an instance of everything that could go wrong going wrong.
In particular, the woman might have been apprehended earlier had the intrusion been classified as a serious breach of border security, as the protocol would require, instead of as an immigration offence. That misjudgment compounded an earlier mistake of waiting too long before sounding the alarm.
However, the way in which the lapse was openly and frankly discussed in Parliament will reassure Singaporeans that the Government is serious in acknowledging the gravity of the incident and ensuring that front-line officers and others learn from it.
Mistakes might crop up now and then, but learning from them in an atmosphere of accountability and transparency makes them less likely in future. The disciplinary action against the errant officers should act as a warning of the need to stay alert and react quickly.
The review of procedures should help institutionalise the lessons of the January breach.
Troubling as it was, the lapse needs to be kept in perspective. The Woodlands complex is a vital international artery for Singapore. It is one of the busiest land checkpoints in the world, used by 300,000 people and 130,000 vehicles every day.
This volume places a strain on the Home Team officers manning it. Despite the dense traffic, attempted or inadvertent evasion of immigration checks have been almost always stopped immediately within the checkpoint over the past three years to December.
This testifies to the generally high level of competence with which officers carry out their duties. Home Team officers are trained not only in the execution of their duties but also in understanding the importance of their job. They are expected to live up to their calling.
Border security impinges on the everyday lives of citizens. Obviously, there is a need to keep out terrorists and others who could cause irreparable harm. As is well known, the authorities can succeed 99 times out of 100, but terrorists have to succeed just once to destroy the peace and public confidence built up painstakingly over decades.
But tight perimeter security touches on life in other ways as well.
For example, it makes it possible for citizens to enjoy greater freedom of movement within Singapore. Thus, the ease with which people can go about their business and motorists can drive into key facilities and buildings, without onerous security checks, is possible because of secure borders.
For the many routine comforts that Singaporeans take for granted to continue, border checks must remain rigorous and recovery procedures must be robust.
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