The Straits Times
Monday, Oct 14, 2013

Officers at Woodlands Checkpoint know one miss can undermine years of vigilance

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.

10pm: Contraband

After passports are cleared, drivers who use the Green channels as they have nothing to declare to Customs, are greeted by a giant LCD panel with rows of changing numbers.

Seemingly random, they actually indicate a car’s plate number, country of registration and number of passengers onboard – helping officers with their checks and making life difficult for border jumpers.

There was a total of 2,580 immigration offenders arrested across Singapore last year, a 12-year low and 20 per cent drop from 2011.

This area is also where officers spot the contraband that passengers try to bring in.

Deputy Superintendent Tang Fook Yuen, a 42-year Customs veteran, says officers are mainly on the lookout for “security items” – explosives and weapons.

But other items are seized practically every day. Behind a nondescript blue door in the Cargo Permit Clearance Office, there is a smorgasbord of contraband – potted plants, pornographic discs, 100kg of cooking oil, a handful of electronic cigarettes and even a stash of Viagra pills. Cigarettes and drugs are also a constant find. For instance, more than 1,500 cartons of cigarettes were seized over a 72-hour period last week.

11pm: Inspection pits

Just the night before, DSP Tang’s Woodlands Anti-Smuggling and Profiling (Wasp) team snared 100 cigarette cartons stashed in a Peugeot’s modified fuel tank and spare tyre compartment. Four hours later, a Lexus with 140 cartons of cigarettes in its rear bumper and back rests was caught. The evaded tax bill for both suspects: $21,730.

“They try to outsmart our profiling techniques by using expensive cars,” says DSP Tang, recalling how a string of eight Mercedes-Benzes carrying cigarettes were stopped by his team earlier this year. “But it doesn’t matter what you drive, as long as you fit our telltale indicators.”

Together with their police and narcotics counterparts, the Wasp team conducts random checks through the night, picking out suspicious drivers for more checks at one of four inspection pits. The equipment they use include the IonScan 500DT, a high-tech swab that can detect trace amounts of explosives or narcotics. Introduced last year, it has already caught dozens of drug abusers. “We have our suspicions, but the machine confirms them,” says DSP Tang.

2am: Graveyard shift, morning cargo peaks

Tour buses from as far as Thailand still arrive at these hours, says an ICA spokesman, but traffic has slowed to a trickle. The break however does not last long, with the morning cargo peak typically starting at 4am.

Lorries begin to roll in from Johor Baru, carrying all manner of cargo, from pineapples to pastries.

The first stop is to scan their manifest list before driving through a powerful gamma-ray portal which images the cargo. The lorries also pass through a very sensitive radiation monitor. “We’ve had a few false alarms, such as bananas and cancer patients under medication, but luckily no radioactive material yet,” says Sergeant Muhammad Farhan.

Within seconds, data from both scans show up at the Image Analysis Centre, for officers such as Sergeant Salehah Zailani to analyse.

“Smugglers often hide contraband in between the cargo, which is hard to see”, along with other places such as in the roof or in the truck chassis, says the image analyst. “But we’ve done it enough times to see through all these tricks.”

If the cargo is suspect, it goes to the Cargo Clearance Centre, for colleagues to unearth the contraband.

4.30am: Illegal cargo

Corporal Mohamed Mahmud’s uniform of a black polo tee is often soaked in sweat – little wonder since his job is to thoroughly search the flagged trucks for illicit goods. “We check for illegal modifications: you will be surprised, but there can be many secret compartments in a lorry,” he says.

But he has help. As a lorry pulls in, an excitable, white cocker spaniel from the police K9 unit sniffs a shipment of cocktail napkins for explosives, while a black labrador checks for drugs. Senior Staff Sergeant Hoon Yean Heat of the K9 unit says the police keep several dog teams permanently at Woodlands to assist the ICA. With the dogs satisfied there are no explosives or drugs, the lorry is sent on.

5.30am: Morning rush

Along with the sun come the blue and yellow buses from Johor, packed with workers and schoolkids.

To cater to this steady stream of foot traffic – some 2,000 Malaysian students travel here every day – ICA officers bring up the shutters of a reserve hall of 12 counters.

But vigilance remains high, with officers looking for those “telltale indicators”. Suspects are singled out for a puffer-portal check. The walk-through machine, introduced last year, uses puffs of air to detect minute drug particles on a person.

Meanwhile, automated clearance systems let the schoolkids breeze through, while a biometric system, which was improved in 2010, allows registered motorcyclists and their pillions to pass through faster.

Such use of technology is why the 15-year-old checkpoint, originally designed to handle just 35 million vehicles, was able to clear over 50 million last year, says AC Ong.

The number is expected to grow. With manpower “a challenge”, the ICA will continue to look at new technology “to make sure the bona fide travellers get cleared quickly”, he adds.

“That allows us to focus the rest of our resources towards those who may be sources of threat to us.”

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