Lack of police resources – how Sylvia Lim tried to sound the alarm for 8 years

Lack of police resources – how Sylvia Lim tried to sound the alarm for 8 years
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You would be forgiven if you, like many others, are surprised or shocked by the revelation that the Singapore Police Force (SPF) is experiencing a shortage of manpower.

After all, it is a matter which not many had paid attention to, and also when raised, Singaporeans are assured that things are a-ok.

Just barely three years ago, in fact, the then Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs, Ho Peng Kee, gave this assurance to Parliament about the human resource question regarding the SPF:

“Sir, the overall manning situation in the Police Force is healthy.”

But as the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the Little India riot has revealed, all in fact is not healthy.

This, however, is nothing new.

One MP, above others, has been raising the flag about potential problems in the SPF resulting from its manpower shortage.

In her maiden parliamentary speech in 2006 as a Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP), Workers’ Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim raised concerns about the demands on the Singapore Police Force from “a more crowded Singapore.”

She was speaking on the government’s immigration and population plans then.

“[The] prospect of a more crowded Singapore should be carefully planned,” she told the House.  “Every new person fights for resources, takes up space and disposes of waste.  The demands on healthcare services, public transport and the police will increase.”

Eight years on, and also in Parliament, Ms Lim once again raised her concerns on the shortage of police manpower and resources in the January sitting of the House. This time, however, her speech was focused on the concern “about many Home Team uniformed services turning to outsourcing as a response to increasing demand for services and manpower shortages.”

From 2006 to 2014, Ms Lim has been consistent in flagging the manpower shortage in the Singapore Police Force (SPF). She has spoken on almost every one of those years about the issue.

Ms Lim, who is a lawyer, had spent three years as a police inspector with the force in the 1990s. She was stationed at the Central Police Division Headquarters, and later posted to be a staff officer under the Director of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). [Read more about her background here.]

Consistent questioning

2007:

In 2007, Ms Lim observed in Parliament that “there seems to be a shortage of police officers.”

“It was reported that Budget constraints prevented the Police from hiring more officers, forcing the change in NPP operations,” she said then, referring to the conversion from the Neighbourhood Police Post (NPP) system to the Neighbourhood Police Centre (NPC) one.

She also raised concerns about the police outsourcing some of its services due to the manpower shortage, an issue which she raised recently as well in January.

“How far will such outsourcing go and what are the downsides?” she wondered.

She asked the minister if there are sufficient resources to attend to cases, citing accounts in the press where police were late in attending to cases when notified by the public.

“Sir, are the above indications of a resource shortage and is there a compromise of the public interest?” Ms Lim asked.

2008:

Following the escape of the number one terrorist suspect, Mas Selamat Kastari, in February 2008, Ms Lim asked if the lapses by the officers at the Whitley Road Detention Centre (WHDC) pointed to a sign of fatigue or work overload.

“I am aware of how heavily deployed the Home Team has been in recent years,” Ms Lim said in Parliament. “Ever since 911, many Home Team officers have been deployed for counter-terrorism activities.  While we seek to promote Singapore as a centre for meetings, conventions and exhibitions, every IMF meeting, every F1 Night Race is an added strain.”

She observed that Singapore’s population then had “expanded to 4.7 million and is expected to breach the six-million mark.”

“This will surely strain our social services, including those under the Home Team,” Ms Lim warned.

She then asked a key question which has been raised at the COI – whether the demand on the SPF is followed by a parallel increase in its manpower.

“We need more police officers, more firefighters, more immigration officers.  What has been done to ensure that recruitment is keeping pace with the increased population?”

2010:

Two years later, Ms Lim once again zeroed in on the manpower shortage issue in the SPF. In Parliament that year, she asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs to “provide an update on the Home Team’s manpower situation and workload” and how the Ministry has attended to the findings of the Human Factors Study into the SPF which was conducted in 2008.

Probing further after the minister had responded, Ms Lim asked if there was actually an optimum number of officers recommended by the study and, despite the manpower increase, “have we actually reached that number?”

Even the police patrols in the public transport system didn’t go unnoticed by Ms Lim.

She observed that the Public Transport Security Command (TransCom) comprised 400 officers, mainly full-time NSmen.

“I am wondering whether that indicates that there is a shortage of full-time officers as compared to NSmen to go into the unit…” she asked.

And as in 2008, she asked if the many big ticket events being held in Singapore has placed impossible demands on the SPF. She pointed to the then ongoing Youth Olympic Games being held in Singapore.

“I understand that for the YOG, for example, right now, there is a force-wide leave freeze on officers during this period,” Ms Lim said. “My question is:  how many times in a year would be reasonable for us to have that kind of deployment order to be fair to the Home Team?”

She added:

“Does the Government actually moderate the number of major events that are held in Singapore every year to ensure that we can actually cope with the demands?”

2011:

In 2011, Ms Lim brought up the issue of a possible brain drain from the force, with officers lured away into corporate security positions in establishment such as the Integrated Resorts.

“I understand that quite a number of Police officers have resigned to take up jobs in the IRs, lured by significantly higher monthly pay.  Has Police management been tracking this phenomenon?  Can the Ministry give an indication of the numbers and experience of those who left?  Is there a concern that we are losing valuable experience in our state Police?  Has there been any response from Police management or the Ministry to confront this issue?”

In reply to Ms Lim’s queries, the then Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs, Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee, said:

“Sir, the overall manning situation in the Police Force is healthy.”

2012:

In 2012, Ms Lim questioned the government on the change of its community policing model – from the NPP to NPC to the new COPs. She asked if the change meant that the original goal of having “dedicated resources for pro-active policing” has not been achieved. Does this mean the SPF “is not able to actually marshal the resources to handle community problems, which it was originally intended to do”?

In his reply, the Second Minister for Home Affairs and Second Minister for Trade and Industry, Mr S Iswaran, said “the net impact is, there will be more resources required on the ground for this and that is something that the Police and the Ministry of Home Affairs are working on to staff up.”

He added:

“But that in itself is not a comment that previously they were under-resourced.”

Two months later, in March 2012, Ms Lim once again bit into the issue of manpower shortage in the Police Force. This time, she took a wider view of things – raising questions about the SPF itself, the auxiliary police and the unarmed private security industry.

It is worth reading Ms Lim’s questions about the SPF and the auxiliary police in full, in light of what have been revealed at the COI in recent weeks.

Ms Lim asked:

Chairman, Sir, I will touch on the Police, auxiliary police and private security industry in turn. First, the Police. In 2008 the Ministry embarked on a human factor study which showed that certain areas of Police work were especially taxed.

MHA has been assuring us that they are expanding.

The latest Parliamentary answer on 17 February says that it has added 2,000 officers since 2008 and will be adding another 1,400 this year.

We all know that the demands on SPF have also increased. We need new neighbourhood police centres, specialists to investigate casino crime, better security for public transport and so on. The New Generation Frontline Policing model just announced was explained to require more resources. So the questions remain: Is it a case of back to square one despite the additional officers? How many of the additional officers are NS men rather than regulars, which will affect their deployment responsibilities?

Secondly, the auxiliary police. Could the Ministry confirm how many officers are serving in the auxiliary police forces collectively and whether there are plans to expand the APFs? It was reported online that auxiliary police were aggressively recruiting in Malaysia. Does the Government stipulate the minimum criteria for recruitment since these auxiliary police will carry firearms and have Police powers, are they also subject to psychological testing as with the regular Police?

In his reply, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs, Teo Chee Hean, said the police “have been recruiting more officers in the Home Team and will continue to do so to meet new operational demands, such as COPS.”

2014:

In 2014, following the riot in Little India in December 2013, Ms Lim raised several concerns about the manpower issue in the Police Force and in the auxiliary police.

In February, she asked Mr Teo about the current total strength of the auxiliary police forces; and what proportion of the total strength (in percentages and in absolute numbers) comprises Singapore citizens, permanent residents (PR) and non-PR Malaysians respectively.

This perhaps was prompted by the government’s intention to change the law to allow auxiliary police officers to carry out some police duties in prison. In effect, these functions will be outsourced to the auxiliary police for the first time in Singapore.

In his response, Mr Teo said, without actually replying to what Ms Lim had asked:

“The current total strength of the auxiliary police forces is about 6000 officers. The majority of the officers are Singaporeans, while the others are Malaysians. The employment of Malaysians into the auxiliary police forces started in the 1970s and we have continued with this practice till today.”

Not taking that as an answer, Ms Lim returned a month later to question further the outsourcing of police services to the auxiliary police.

In March 2014, Ms Lim said in Parliament:

“Madam, I am concerned about many Home Team uniformed services turning to outsourcing as a response to increasing demand for services and manpower shortages.

“For example, in October 2013, the SCDF added only four more emergency ambulances to increase its fleet to 50 vehicles, but doubled the number of private ambulances to 20. Today, the number of Auxiliary Police Officers stands at 6,000 officers, compared with over 8,000 regular officers in the Singapore Police Force. At the Woodlands checkpoint, APOs make up 20% of officers. Recently, the Prisons Act was amended to expand the role of APOs to allow them to conduct inmate escort and patrols within prison premises.”

She asked if the trend of outsourcing of police, security and emergency functions to private operators would increase further.

“If so, where is the line to be drawn before we see the quality of functions compromised and cost-effectiveness eroded? Should the issues be dealt with not by outsourcing, but instead by allocating more resources and support for recruitment and retention to the Home Team? And instead of outsourcing with its limits, should we not focus on “best-sourcing” instead?”

She told the House that outsourcing clearly has its limits.”

“Should the focus instead be on Home Team manpower recruitment and retention,” she asked, “and ensuring they have the best resources on hand to protect our Home?

Manpower shortage confirmed by top officers

Ms Lim’s concerns about the lack of resources in the SPF seem to have been vindicated following the riot in Little India and the just concluded COI hearings.

The shortage of manpower on the ground on the night has been a focus of the hearings, with the COI members questioning police officers about the matter.

The most notable testimonies about the shortage came from Police Commissioner, Ng Joo Hee; and the commander of the Special Operations Command (SOC) on the night of the riot, Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) David Scott Arul.

Mr Ng told the inquiry, regarding the manpower shortage problem in the SPF:

“We frequently have to rob Peter to pay Paul, as was the case when we keep reducing the size of our anti-riot troopers to fund other capabilities.”

For example, police resources are so thinly spread out that just maintaining law and order in Little India and Geylang alone “have already stretched police resources to near breaking point”, he said.

He added, “I have never been satisfied with the situation in Geylang or Little India, but I accept the fact that we can do little more with the resources that we currently can muster.”

Mr Ng, who revealed that the size of the SPF has not kept pace with the population increase, said the force would need a further 1,000 more officers if it is to beef up its anti-riot capabilities, and to continue to keep Singapore safe.

The shortage of manpower for the SOC was brought to light when DAC Arul revealed that he was unable to comply with orders to arrest as many rioters as possible on 8 December because he did not have enough men with him then. All his officers could do then was to focus on dispersing the crowd and arrested only those who resisted, he said.

To be sure, the government has indeed tried to resolve the manpower shortage with various initiatives, including improving the career and promotional prospects for officers, leveraging on technology, and direct recruitment campaigns.

But all these, one fears, will not resolve the problem which, honestly, has come about because of the government’s misguided and extreme immigration and foreign labour policies which have put immense strain not only on our physical infrastructure but also on our services and manpower limitations across the board, at every level.

It is worrying therefore to hear the top police officer say that maintaining law and order in just two places has “already stretched police resources to near breaking point.”

This puts our officers’ lives potentially at risk, as can be seen from the Little India riot where outnumbered police officers had to fend for themselves until the SOC arrived.

What is also troubling is that the shortage of manpower has been raised by Ms Lim over a period of 8 years – with the matter coming to public knowledge only after a riot has taken place – without being resolved adequately.

Nonetheless, kudos to Ms Lim for her dogged persistence in trying to raise the alarm.