DPM Heng Swee Keat in support of the Parliamentary Motion — Commemorating 200 Years of the Singapore Police Force

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 3 August 2021

Transcript of speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat in support of the Parliamentary Motion — Commemorating 200 Years of the Singapore Police Force, on 3 August 2021.

It is a story of growth and transformation that has enabled the police to contribute to nation building, and keep Singapore one of the safest cities in the world. Mr Murali recounted acts of bravery of officers — DSI Low and DSI Lim Shiong — and paid tribute to 125 officers who were killed in the line of duty, as well as their families. And Mr MelvinYong highlighted the important roles that many different officers played.

I rise to speak in support of this motion and to add a personal perspective as someone who has served in the Singapore Police Force for 17 years, including five when I was on course or seconded to the Ministry of Education. Listening to Mr. Patrick Tay recounting how his pager sounded when he was in the cinema with his then-girlfriend, reminded me of how my own dates with my girlfriend were also interrupted very often that way. But I'm sure that many officers today will be interrupted by more than just a pager. I was telling my children about these pager stories and they said “Dad, what is a pager?”.

I joined the SPF 15 years after our independence. The old problems of street crimes, rioting and secret society activities had been brought under control, thanks to the excellent work of many of our veteran officers, including many with us here today. They were really rough and tumble in those early years, when things were very difficult. Back in 1980, the problems of street crimes, because of society activities, were still there. But new problems like commercial crimes were on the rise as our economy took off. Our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew had tasked Dr Goh Keng Swee to review our policing approach to keep up with the times.

The result was one of the most significant changes in policing strategy — when we adopted the Neighbourhood Police Post system, modelled after the Japanese Koban system.

I was very excited to be part of this effort to implement this new way in my second year of service. I will share why. As a fresh officer, our first assignment was to do investigations. I was posted to the Central Police Division at that time. On duty one day, I was deeply disturbed to attend to a case of a badly decomposing body. The old lady had been dead for several days in a rented cubicle in Chinatown, but no one knew, until the stench was unbearable, as she was living all alone.

As part of the investigation, I uncovered a sum of cash and gold jewelry that she had saved up. I tried to trace the next-of-kin to return these valuables. What was very sad — was that several ‘relatives’ turned up to make the claim, but in order to verify this, I had to take statements from them but none could say what he had done with her, or for her.

It taught me that when members of a society are isolated, and if relationships were not built over time, we would run into long-term problems. And when people do not care for people around them, the Police would have a hard time trying to maintain law and order.

Just the year before this, I had spent some time in Tokyo with Mr Heng Chee How, a fellow police officer, to study the Koban system, as Dr Goh Keng Swee has decided to adopt this community policing system. We were in our second year of service. After we finished our investigation stint, we were part of this effort to set up Neighbourhood Police Posts (NPPs) all over the island, one in each constituency.

NPP officers conducted house visits, checked on the well-being of citizens, gave crime prevention advice and encouraged neighbours to form Neighbourhood Watch Groups, to look out for strangers and report suspicious activities. 

Special efforts were made to nurture the community spirit. In the kampungs, people knew each other well. But when they relocated to HDB flats, they needed time to get to know one another, and to adjust to a new way of life. It was critical to build that community spirit among neighbours, to look out for one another, to look out for criminals on the prowl. Besides their own efforts, the NPP officers also worked closely with grassroots advisors and volunteers, joining them to give crime prevention advice and helping to build the community spirit.

For many officers, especially detectives, it was a huge cultural change. Police officers were traditionally seen as macho gun-touting officers. The friendly police officer out to make friends with the public was seen as a step backward. And in fact, the NPP system was derided by some as ‘No Power Police’. NPP = No Power Police. I see many of our seniors here smiling as that was the term we used all the time. But the Police Commissioner then, Goh Yong Hong, persisted.

At the same time, the Government was also enhancing punishment for some crimes. We had strict minimum sentences, and death penalty for offences like trafficking of drugs above a certain quantity, robbery with firearms and kidnapping. The message was simple — in Singapore, crime does not pay.

I was later interviewed by an American professor when applying for my postgraduate studies. His question was simple — you have low crime rates in Singapore, because of harsh punishment? I took some time to explain to him that the Singapore Police had a holistic approach in dealing with law and order issues.

First, everyone is a potential victim of crime — so police officers spend a great deal of effort encouraging everyone to take prevention seriously. Prevention is better than cure. And the Police worked with agencies to optimize the design of public spaces, especially with the HDB to provide protection for the most vulnerable.

Second, it is not the punishment alone, but the probability of being caught. So it depends critically on whether you can solve a crime. Again, after several years of the NPP system, the Police have built up enough trust and confidence for the public to come forward, to do their part. Each of us is a potential witness.

Third, it is how our criminal justice system is organised to ensure fairness and justice. We have due processes, and a public who supports taking action. And later on as the system evolved, the different agencies, first within the Ministry of Home Affairs — the Home Team worked closely with Central Narcotics Bureau, the prisons and SCDF. In fact, Mr Tee Tua Ba, the Commissioner, whom I served under, was the Director of Prisons. He was a policeman seconded to become the Director of Prisons and when he came back, he came back with new perspectives about how we can help to reform those criminals who can be reformed.

I was glad that the professor agreed with me, and told me years later when we met again that he learnt a lot about our policing approach and not to take just a broad brush approach and come to conclusions.

In fact, the main insight of our NPP system, which is part of the broader community policing approach, is this: 99% or more of the public are law abiding. In many communities unfortunately, the Police treated most members of the public or segments of them as potential criminals. This sets up an antagonistic relationship — the exact opposite of what the Police needs — to rally the 99% against the 1% or less.

We made the right choices in adopting the ‘soft’ policing approach of building the community to partner one another, and take action to protect one another, so as to deal with potential criminals. And this ‘soft’ approach is complemented by investing in cutting edge capabilities in intelligence, dealing with extreme stresses and hardened criminals.

So while we speak of policing approaches, the heart of it is in the trust and confidence of the public in the police. And this trust and confidence rest critically on the values and attributes of our officers.

Over the years, we have selected and developed officers with integrity, and to keep out corruption. The Commissioner I first served under, Mr Goh Yong Hong, had stories of him arresting those who tried to bribe him. And implementing community policing was a big change in culture, for a policeman who grew up in the 60s, and he gave full support to this very major change.

When I was serving as Commander of a Police Division, the then-Commissioner Tee Tua Ba initiated an empowerment movement. He saw that as the situations that officers had to handle were becoming more complex — and that was over 20 years ago, they could not just rely on “PGO” — the Police General Order. The Police General Order sets out what you could or could not do. But Mr Tee felt that every situation is different and you cannot just rely on instructions. Rather, they had to know the ambit of the law, assess each situation on the ground that he or she encountered, and exercise discretion to take the right course of action. This was another huge cultural change, built on the earlier changes to community policing.

Personally, I have learnt much over the years, and particularly enjoyed my final stint in the Police as Commander of Jurong Police Division. The camaraderie among officers was strong, and the level of dedication was outstanding. And the public, and MPs and grassroots leaders in the Jurong area were most supportive.  Every few weeks, I had the pleasure of presenting a pewter plaque to thank members of the public for their acts of bravery in helping us arrest criminals — including snatch thieves and molesters. In fact, about 30% of our crimes were solved with the help of the public then. Today, I am glad that this ratio remains high, between 20-30%, even as our policing capabilities have risen.

So Christopher De Souza’s recount of the journey of the Police over the 200 years has one key element — that we must constantly adapt and innovate.

I am glad that Minister Shanmugam has set up the HTX — the Home Team Science and Technology Agency, to invest in building new capabilities, especially in the digital area; while Commissioner Hoong Wee Teck is building the frontline capabilities of officers, to tackle new and complex crimes, including those in cyberspace. 

Above all, it is critical that we continue to invest in our officers — the values that underpin their work, integrity, fairness, discipline, dedication — as crimes become more cross border and sophisticated. Our officers need to be even more skilled.

Let me take this opportunity to thank the officers who have served over the years, including many in this House. Officers who were regulars, men and women, NSmen, volunteers, as well as civilians supporting our officers. And I especially thank those who served together with me in the Police.

I am confident that the Singapore Police Force will continue to scale new heights, and to keep Singapore safe and secure.

So let us, as members of the public, support our frontline officers, and as members of this House, support legislation to strengthen the capabilities of the Police and our law enforcement agencies. Thank you.