Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Heightened security during holiday season necessary, says ICA

Holdups are also due to a "very volatile and very dynamic situation" at land checkpoints, says Commander at Tuas Checkpoint Chua Sze How.
By Melissa Zhu, Channel NewsAsia, 21 Dec 2015

The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) is stepping up security checks during the holiday season, it said at a media briefing on Monday (Dec 21).

"Our top priority is to ensure the safety and security of Singaporeans," AC Alan Koo, Commander at Woodlands Checkpoint said.

ICA said that between January and October this year, it caught 622 cases of Singaporeans attempting to exit the country without the appropriate travel documents. Examples of such cases include those traveling with passports that do not belong to them, expired or invalid travel documents, or no travel documents at all. There were 690 of such cases for the whole of last year.

In addition, there were 3,500 cases of foreigners attempting to enter Singapore without appropriate travel documents in the same period this year, despite having already passed the Malaysian checkpoints. This surpasses the 3,400 cases recorded for the whole of last year.

Mr Koo said ICA takes such cases very seriously to ensure there is no "malicious intent", as terrorists may make use of false identities to enter the country. ICA said it checks every car entering Singapore for potential risks.

He added that it was important to investigate any security risk, drawing parallels between the tactics used by smugglers carrying contraband goods and terrorists carrying explosives, and as there are many similarities in the modus operandi of the two groups relating to their concealment of goods or explosives within vehicles or clothing, it was crucial not to take any risk lightly.

Mr Koo also said that there were significant risks detected during the December peak period.

This comes after reports in Malaysian media which claimed that the ICA had started checking every single car since two weeks ago. ICA refuted the reports, saying they have always checked every car for risks, although the checks are now more thorough after the Paris attacks in November.

To prevent security slip-ups due to tailgating, ICA has been using double drop-arm barriers at the entry and exit points of checkpoints on a trial basis in Woodlands and Tuas since Dec 1 and Sep 21 respectively. As the systems are new, Mr Koo added that it would take some time to "shape the behaviour of travellers" and ease any additional congestion caused.

An ICA spokesperson added that the purpose of conducting security checks before customs was to raise alarms for any risks as soon as possible, so as to "isolate the risk as soon as possible before it enters the heart of the checkpoint." While there were limits to how much ICA could change the infrastructure of the checkpoints, they could change the process to push risks to the front of the immigration process and prevent them from proceeding further, she said.


Checkpoints also see increased traffic during the holiday season, further exacerbating the traffic situation and resulting in what AC Chua Sze How, Commander at Tuas Checkpoint, termed a "very volatile and very dynamic" situation, with steep spikes in traffic around midnight. He said that on a normal day, about 400,000 travellers pass through the checkpoints, but this number climbs to 430,000 during the year-end school holiday period. Surges are also observed during other times of the year, such as during the June school holidays and around Chinese New Year.

Bottlenecks, or "ballooning" were in particular common on the Malaysia side during morning hours when lane use according to vehicle type was not strictly enforced. For example, in the morning dedicated motorcycle lanes coming from Malaysia are often full, and riders have a tendency to fan out to try to enter car or lorry lanes instead.

Mr Koo said that officers are stationed along the international boundaries to enforce proper lane use once the cars cross into Singapore, but ICA has no control over the situation on the Malaysia side although it has reached out to its Malaysian counterparts regarding the issue. He suggested that traffic may ease significantly if Malaysian traffic police stemmed the problem of "ballooning" on their side.

Mr Chua said the authorities were taking a "multi-pronged" approach to ease traffic on the causeway.

This includes monitoring the traffic situation in real-time, "cross-deploying" officers to different locations based on traffic demands, as well as ICA flexibly making use of its infrastructure to best meet traffic needs. Mr Chua said that when there is a high surge of motorcycles, for example, they may decide to open some car lanes to motorcycles to ease overall traffic flow.

Manpower planning for the year end peak season started months before, an ICA spokesperson said. Mr Chua added that more than 100 ICA officers are working overtime in top of their regular eight to ten hour shifts daily during this period.

However, there was also a need to balance traffic and manpower considerations, said Mr Chua: "Our officers are working in a high-tension, high volume environment which can cause fatigue. We need to ensure we are not over-straining (them), which would affect their vigilance."

To reduce holdups of traffic, Mr Koo suggested that travellers be reminded to take their passports and refrain from attempting to bring prohibited items through checkpoints.


Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam said that ICA officers have been working very hard over the festive period.

He made these remarks earlier on Saturday morning, when he visited Woodlands Checkpoint at a peak period between 8.30am and 9.45am. There, he also met with officers who had just completed the night shift.

"Our officers are working very very hard, they are working round the clock," he said. "I told them that Singaporeans appreciate the challenges and sacrifices our ICA officers are making during this festive period to keep Singapore safe, Singaporeans safe."

ICA said that the purpose of the visit was to give support and encouragement to officers, as well as to understand sentiment from motorists at the checkpoint.

"People understand that, as a result of what has happened in Paris and the heightened terrorism threats worldwide, ensuring the safety of Singapore and Singaporeans is ICA’s foremost priority," Mr Shanmugam said.

He also responded to some accounts by travellers of car counters being closed.

"At some specific points in time when you see the counters closed, it may be because there was a changing of shift for a few minutes, or the officer had gone to the restroom, or had been re-deployed to a busier zone including the Old Woodlands Checkpoint where new lanes have been opened to spread the traffic," he said.

He added that ICA records suggest waiting time on the Singapore side of the causeway are under three hours, so waiting times of four to five hours reported in the media are likely to include time spent on the Malaysia side: "I spoke with a dozen passengers and drivers, more than a dozen in fact. Based on what they shared, their average waiting time was between one to 1.5 hours. This was a weekend morning. And for some travellers, it was less than an hour on our side."

"Earlier this week, there was a bigger crush but it is unlikely that it was four to five hours on the Singapore side," he added. It is likely to include waiting time on the Malaysian side as well. Our own records suggest that on our side, at most it will be two hours-plus, under three hours. We actively monitor the queue."

Minister for Home Affairs Mr K Shanmugam, Senior Minister of State (SMS) Mr Desmond Lee and Parliamentary Secretary Mr...
Posted by Home Team News (Singapore) on Wednesday, December 23, 2015

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