Friday, 21 April 2017

Woodleigh MRT security incident: Local running group Seletar Hash House Harriers apologises for causing security scare

Running group apologises for MRT station scare
Members had used flour to mark trail through Woodleigh station as it was 'safest route'
By Ng Huiwen, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2017

Running group Seletar Hash House Harriers yesterday apologised for the alarm and inconvenience it caused when three of its members used flour to mark a running route through Woodleigh MRT station.

Their actions set off a security scare and the station was closed for three hours on Tuesday.

The group, in a statement, said three of its members were marking a trail for its Tuesday evening run from Bidadari to Woodleigh Close.

The trio, who chose a route that ran through the station, left a little flour at three to four points in the MRT station to mark out the trail, as "this provided the safest route to cross Upper Serangoon Road".

One of its members, a 69-year-old man, was later arrested for causing public alarm. He is believed to be out on bail. The other two members, aged 53 and 70, are helping the police with investigations.

The station was closed after SBS Transit staff found a suspicious white substance and alerted the police. The Singapore Civil Defence Force's hazardous materials team was also deployed.

"In retrospect, they should not have placed any markings in the station, and instead, should have used directional signs outside the station," the statement said.

It added that the three members "stepped forward immediately to identify themselves and have cooperated fully with the authorities", after learning of the security scare.

"They are sorry that their actions caused public alarm and inconvenience," it said, noting that the incident emphasised the seriousness of the security threat in Singapore.

The group was set up in 1980 and now has around 100 members.

The members of the running group were following guidelines used around the world in marking a hash run, which is a mix of cross-country running and a treasure hunt. Flour or chalk is used to mark trails as they are organic, non-polluting substances that can be washed away easily, the statement said. In nature reserves and parks, only paper can be used but it must be cleared within 24 hours.

There are currently about nine registered hash running groups in Singapore, which is said to be home to the second-oldest hash movement in the world after Malaysia.

Runs are held almost every day of the week and members gather for food and drinks after the run.

Mr Ken Ong, who heads Hash House Harriers Singapore, said hash running started as "an underground sort of activity and attracted mainly colonial Englishmen through word of mouth".

Since then, it has expanded to include women-only and children's groups, as well as one involving dogs and their owners.

Mr Ong, whose group was founded in 1962 and is the oldest in the country, said hash running groups here will have to rethink using flour markings after Tuesday's incident. They may even decide to avoid places like MRT stations, major roads, shopping malls and pedestrian walkways during their runs.

Mr Charles Corrigan, a Singapore Sunday Hash House Harriers committee member, said while his group usually runs in forested areas, they are sometimes forced to run along roads or in public places. "Sometimes, there is just not enough forest left, and we will have to run on the street to connect up," he said.

His group, which organises runs that take place every fortnight on Sunday evenings, sees about 25 to 40 runners each time. They range from those in their 20s to those in their 60s. He said: "We have run past MRT stations before, without much trouble. It was unfortunate that this happened."

NParks advises on hash runs
By Lydia Lam, The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2017

The National Parks Board (NParks) said it has been working with Hash House Harriers to reduce the practice of marking out running routes, even before a group left flour at Woodleigh MRT Station on Tuesday and sparked a security scare.

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, Mr Wong Tuan Wah, group director of conservation at NParks, said: "NParks regularly meets Hash House Harriers to advise on the rules regarding 'hash' running in our managed areas."

Hares, or runners who set the trail, mark it out using flour, chalk or toilet paper so that the other runners can pick up the "clues" and follow the route.

One man was arrested and two others are assisting with police investigations after flour left at Woodleigh MRT Station led to the station being closed for more than three hours and police and Singapore Civil Defence force officers being deployed.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, the Seletar Hash House Harriers apologised to the public and the authorities for the alarm and inconvenience caused.

Mr Wong said that chalk and flour are prohibited in NParks-managed areas as these are more "difficult to clean up, might seep into and cause damage to the environment". If consumed, these substances might also have detrimental effects on wildlife, he added.

"Only toilet or tissue paper are allowed to be used as markings, and they must be cleaned up immediately after the event," he said. "If they are not cleaned up, enforcement action could be taken."

Man arrested for causing alarm at MRT station
69-year-old left flour to mark running trail, forcing 3-hour closure of Woodleigh station
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2017

A 69-year-old man who used flour to mark a trail for a running route was arrested for causing public alarm yesterday, when the substance was found at several spots in Woodleigh MRT station.

The station was closed for around three hours, reopening at 4.20pm, after the authorities ensured the white powder was not dangerous.

Two other men aged 53 and 70, are assisting with investigations. The Straits Times understands that the trio are part of the Seletar Hash House Harriers, a running club set up in 1980, with 82 members on its Facebook page.

In hashing, runners usually set a course by marking out a trail through the jungle, Housing Board estates and even in the city, using white flour, toilet paper or chalk marks. The groups are most common in former British colonies. In 2007, a hash group sparked a bioterrorism scare in the United States when two people sprinkled flour in a carpark for their run.

Yesterday's security incident was the second such occurrence this month. Hougang MRT station was closed for 20 minutes on April 2 after staff found an unattended bag. A 39-year-old man who left it was arrested for causing a public nuisance.

In yesterday's incident, a cleaner found the powder and an SBS Transit station manager alerted the police. The Singapore Civil Defence Force's hazardous materials team was also deployed. The public was advised to avoid the area and free buses operated between Serangoon and Potong Pasir stations.

Experts said that in view of the heightened security threat, the authorities' response was appropriate.

"We do know that train stations are targeted," said Dr Kumar Ramakrishna, head of policy studies and coordinator of the national security studies programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. "It is due diligence on their part," he said, adding that baking flour could be a reminder of anthrax scares in the past.

Dr Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, said that chemical and biological agents have been used in the past in this region, such as by North Korean agents in Malaysia recently.

"Every security incident should be investigated," he said.

Professor David Chan, director of the Behavioural Sciences Institute at Singapore Management University, said such incidents are likely to occur again and people "should not be complacent nor be afraid to report any suspicious item or behaviour".

While the Woodleigh case caused some confusion among commuters, they said they had confidence in the authorities' ability to deal with such situations. Commuter James Lee, 38, who was at the station when it reopened, said he believes the authorities are prepared to deal with security incidents speedily.

Meanwhile, Potong Pasir MP Sitoh Yih Pin stressed that it had not been an over-reaction to close the station, as Singapore must not take chances in situations like this.

Security scares the new normal, say experts
Singaporeans should be prepared and take such incidents in their stride
By Tan Tam Mei, The Sunday Times, 23 Apr 2017

First, a bag. Then baking flour.

Within three short weeks, Singapore was hit by two "security incidents", at Hougang and Woodleigh MRT stations.

And Singaporeans can expect more to come, said security experts, calling such terror scares "the new normal" in a time of heightened security.

They were weighing in, as people debate whether the authorities were overly paranoid in reacting to the Hougang and Woodleigh incidents.

The two stations were closed - for 20 minutes and three hours respectively - while police officers swooped in and commuters found themselves having to divert their routes.

Train operator SBS Transit was unable to say how many commuters were affected. But an estimate puts them in the thousands.

In the end, the items were found to be innocuous: a bag containing only household items left unattended while the owner ran an errand; and smidges of flour left on the ground by a runners' group to mark their trail.

That the Woodleigh incident last Tuesday came hard on the heels of the Hougang one on April 2 inevitably raised questions as to whether the authorities overreacted.

Mr Tan Cheng San, 77, a musician who frequents Woodleigh MRT station, said: "I wasn't around (during the incident), but it looked like they were making a mountain out of a molehill. Nobody got hurt."

But security experts said Singaporeans should take it in their stride - and in fact, be prepared for more of such incidents to come.

"It's the new normal," said S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies senior fellow Yang Razali Kassim. "The recent scares are as close as we can get to the real thing.

"They are not drills or exercises, but real-life scares - except there were no lives lost, injuries or damage to property."

Singapore has been "lucky" to have avoided a real threat so far, said Associate Professor Andrew Tan from Macquarie University's Department of Security Studies and Criminology. He said the authorities' decision in both cases to evacuate and close stations was "absolutely warranted".

Similarly, MP Vikram Nair said inconveniences caused by security threats will become a way of life. "Of course people are annoyed... but better the authorities take precautions and ensure it's a false alarm. I would be worried if they didn't react," said the chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Defence and Foreign Affairs.

Explaining the authorities' actions, Parlimentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin told The Sunday Times: "When making operational decisions, our top-most priority is to ensure the public's safety and security. Our decisions may inconvenience the public, but that is inevitable."

He added: "My sense is that the majority of Singaporeans understood that we needed to do this."

Both instances saw the authorities and SBS Transit utilise social media to alert the public about the station closures, alternative routes and the activation of free buses.

Nanyang Technological University Centre of Excellence for National Security senior analyst Juhi Ahuja said the power of social media to keep people updated is underscored. "With social media and the SG Secure app, anyone with a smartphone and data can be meaningfully involved in their own safety. They can also provide feedback so others avoid the area," she said.

Just as key: the message to would-be terrorists, said Prof Tan.

The prompt steps taken highlight Singapore's resilience, he said, adding: "This sends a message to potential terrorists that what they might be planning would be futile as the impact would not be great. It also gives confidence to the public that life can go on seamlessly despite terrorism threats and fears."

Madam Kamala Veni, 37, a housewife whose Primary 3 daughter had to take a different route home from school during the Woodleigh MRT closure, said she felt the situation, while thankfully a scare, was handled well. "I kept checking for updates and my daughter managed to take a bus home instead of the train," she said.

"It might be an inconvenience, but it gives me confidence in the case of a real emergency."

Incidents around the world
The Sunday Times, 23 Apr 2017


A man sprinkling white powder at the 9/11 Memorial in New York city on Tuesday evening caused a 30-minute shutdown of the museum as the authorities investigated the suspicious powder. The substance was later determined to be salt, according to police.


A suspicious package discovered on Monday near the National Library and Wisma Bernama in Kuala Lumpur prompted the authorities to cordon off the area for over two hours.

A police bomb disposal unit set off a small explosion to destroy the package, which turned out to be a cloth-covered bottle filled with cooking oil.


The alarm was raised when two phones in a clear plastic container and connected by cable to a power bank were found abandoned at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport in June last year.

Roads were closed and bomb disposal experts and sniffer dogs pored over the package and area for about half an hour.

Airport security officials later said the phones were believed to have been left by an Uber driver trying to evade the authorities as such services are illegal in the country.

* Man gets maximum $1,000 fine for leaving white flour at Woodleigh MRT station

He admits to causing annoyance to the public, is given maximum fine of $1,000
By Elena Chong, Court Correspondent, The Straits Times, 30 Nov 2017

A 69-year-old man who used flour to mark a trail for a running route, which included Woodleigh MRT station, and caused a security scare was given the maximum fine of $1,000 yesterday for public nuisance.

Tay Yong Kwang admitted to causing annoyance to the public by leaving mounds of white flour at multiple locations in and around the station in Upper Serangoon Road between noon and 1pm on April 18.

More than 100 security staff were deployed to deal with the security scare.

The station was closed for slightly over three hours, affecting more than 1,000 commuters, said Deputy Public Prosecutor Tang Shangjun.

He pushed for the maximum fine, saying this was one of the worst cases of public nuisance thus far.

"He left white powder around the public transport facility. It is reasonable to conclude that members of the public, station staff and security personnel would be fearful that there is something more sinister to it than just being flour alone," he said.

The DPP said there has been constant publicity in the local media on the need for the public to be on the lookout for suspicious substances or items, and how to identify them. White powder clearly falls in the category of suspicious substances, he added.

A strong message must be sent to the public that they should not leave items unattended, or items viewed as suspicious or hazardous around public transport networks or other public places where there is a high flow of human traffic, he said.

The court heard that Tay was a member of a running club called the "Seletar Hash House Harriers'', which organises runs every Tuesday for about 30 people over an 8km route.

Each week, the run route would change, and is decided by someone who is assigned the "Hare'' for the week. The "Hare'' has the task of planning the running route and marking it out using materials such as paper, chalk and flour.

Assigned as the "Hare'' that day, Tay, together with two club members, put a small pile of flour on the ground for every 10m to 15m.

Woodleigh MRT station was a landmark along the route as the runners were supposed to use the underpass leading through the station to avoid running on the main road, said DPP Tang.

While District Judge Chay Yuen Fatt agreed that this was one of the worst cases in terms of resources used and the inconvenience caused to the public, he accepted defence lawyer Harjeet Singh's mitigation plea that Tay did not intentionally seek to cause those consequences.

"In that sense, it is not the worst case," said the district judge.

But he said that even if Tay did not mean to create a public scare, he should have known better and not do what he did.

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