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Crossing the generation gap

Emphasis in the old days was on developing endurance and discipline The emphasis in the old days was on developing endurance and discipline.

-- DSP Law
Ah Kaw

Crime-ridden society

Regular gang wars… kidnappings for ransom… triads with memberships of thousands… rampant smuggling… They sound like something out of a detective novel or television series. But these were widespread in Singapore in the early '50s and '60s.

"It was tough society then," said DSI Anthony Low who has been with the SPF since 1962 and is presently with Bedok Police Division. "You had to be tough to survive as a policeman." Training for officers in the '60s and '70s was accordingly very different. The emphasis then was more on developing the physical abilities of the officer.

Tough going

The daily training schedule would be drill in the morning followed by classes until 1pm followed by unarmed training and finally recreational training at 4pm. This strict regime was followed every day and it instilled in the officers a deep sense of discipline.

DSP Law Ah Kaw, Deputy Commander Airport Police, has much to say about discipline. "When I was a trainee in 1961, we were very disciplined. We obeyed every instruction given without question," he said. "I remember how a trainee was punished for not marching smartly on the parade ground. He was made to run to a tree, kiss it and say 'Sorry' before running back. In those days, that sort of thing was considered the way to develop endurance and discipline." DSP Law Ah Kaw

The situation was slightly different for DSP Lee Swee Thin, now Assistant Director (Specialised Crime) CID. Having joined the SPF in 1963, DSP Lee was in the pioneer batch of police officers trained in Kuala Lumpur.

"I was trained at Pusat Latehan, Polis Di-Raja Malaysia," said DSP Lee. "Conditions were really bad then. We're talking planks for a bed and a primitive bucket system for a toilet. Our tough physical training included riot drill and even jungle training."

Surviving the turbulent years

The early sixties in Singapore were far from peaceful and one problem officers had to constantly face was racial tension. ASP C V Gabriel who joined the SPF in 1965 recalled the tension in the air as he walked through Chinese and Malay kampongs. "It was a day after the first racial riot in 1964," recalled ASP Gabriel. "I could really feel the tension."

It was a worrying time too for the family of DSP Chang Hong Fook, now Head Welfare Division. "Back then, I was just a young PC," said DSP Chang who has served in the SPF for 35 years. "My mother was so worried when I did not return home during the riots that she actually came to the station to look for me."

Primitive accommodation facilities
Primitive accommodation was part and parcel of training in the past.
Fighting the triads

Secret Societies ("the SS") were extremely powerful at that time and exercised an enormous control over the community. DSP Chang said that secret societies were at work around the corner.

"It was very common for people in your kampong to have connections with the SS," said DSP Chang. "Back then, it was easy to get caught up with the wrong type of people."

"The SS were very notorious for running protection rackets then," noted DSP Lee. "They would extort money from hawkers, renovation contractors, car washers, newspaper vendors and even pig farmers. For example, pig farmers who collected swill from households had to pay protection money to the gang controlling that particular territory or they would not be left in peace. Often rival gangs would clash over territorial rights."

Putting life on the line

Violent confrontations between policemen and gangsters happened often and it was common for police officers to be injured while intervening in gang clashes. "Once I was involved in a settlement talk with a violent SS faction," said DSP Chang. "The situation was very tense and shots were exchanged, with one bullets grazing my cheek! Luckily, I was not seriously injured and we rounded up the SS members."

Many officers put their lives on the line in the course of duty. ASP Stephen Koh who signed on in 1962 and is currently overseeing the fitness regime in the Police Academy played a crucial role in the shooting of the notorious gunman nick-named "Ah Huat". "We moved in on Ah Huat when he went for his breakfast," said ASP Koh. "It was over in a few minutes," he added gravely.

Brain vs brawn

Today's police officer does not work in such a physically intimidating environment; the challenges he faces still call for "action" but more thinking, especially independent thinking and initiative.

"Today's officers are on average more versatile than those in the old days," remarked SSSgt Robert Chew. "I guess that's because of the training." SSSgt Chew, who joined in 1967 is currently a course co-ordinator with the PA.

Police trainees
Police trainees then.

"During my training days, we were extremely fit and disciplined because we constantly ran and drills," said SSSgt Chew. "We were also fortunate to have experienced inspectors to teach us, except that communication between trainees and lecturers was very limited. Today, training techniques have improved because communication is encouraged between trainees and their lecturers.

Trainees are able to learn more effectively through new techniques and audio-visuals aids. As trainees graduate and become officers of high calibre, the public expects more from them too, since the public is also well educated about the law."


"When the Police Tactical Team (PTT) first started out, it was known as a motley crew of volunteer officers coming together to make a difference," remarked ASP Koh proudly. Being a pioneer member of the PTT himself, he remembered the special comradeship he shared wit his fellow officers. "We began as volunteers," said ASP Koh. "Then we slowly became comrades-in-arms and I was looked upon as a fatherly figure by these officers." Comradeship teamwork and esprit-de-corps were certainly important back then.

"If a Routine Officer (an investigating officer in present-day terms) was tied up with work, his colleagues would always help out," revealed DSP Lee. However in today's SPF, there are specialised teams to handle specific areas of work and investigation. This eliminates unnecessary work and gives more time for officers to concentrate on their fields.

Quaint practices

According to a female Inspector who signed on in 1961 (and who decline to be named), female trainees were punished whenever they sneaked a peek at their male counterparts (talk about discipline!).

female trainees
Female trainees

DSP Law also had his fair share of stories. "Back in the 60s, there were three bugle calls, on in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening," DSP Law. "Whenever the bugle sounded, every officer was to stand at attention, regardless of what he was doing," laughed DSP Law. We could only imagine the funny situations in which many a trainee would gotten into under such circumstances!

However, these all played a crucial role in maintaining the high discipline of the officers. "Those days, whenever a senior officer entered the charge office, the officer on duty would call for attention, the duty officer would then pay compliments to the senior officer before everybody resumed duties. Sometimes such practices left complainants bewildered!"

But that was not always the care. For DSP Chang, the morning meetings between each division's Routine Officers still remain deeply etched in his mind because they were held at the mortuary! "In those days, whenever we had a death case on hand, regardless of causes, we would have to be at the mortuary. The mortuary became the meeting ground to catch up with old friends in the different divisions, something our normal duties wouldn't allow."

A first time for everything

Sometimes, being a pioneer is tough because you have to dive head first into situations which have not been dealt with before. In the case of DSI Low, he was one of the pioneer members of the Special Squad that was formed by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to handle "special" cases. Headed by our recently retired Commissioner, CP Tee Tua Ba, DSI Low felt it was his honour to be involved in the forefront of combating serious crime.

After a successful raid
Members of the force after a successful raid.

Aside from dealing with strange or unfamiliar procedures, these pioneers also had to handle cases independently, regardless of the fact that you might be a "green-horn". "When I was an RO in Ang Mo Kio Police Division, I had to handle cases on my own despite my lack of experience," said DSP Chang. But this is the sort of training that will benefit a "green-horn", according to DSP Chang. "In the past, I didn't even have the chance to see my OC's face," joked DSP Chang, "but it's through this that I developed my guts and decision-making skills."

DSP Lee, however, did not have it so easy. "When I went to Kuala Lumpur for training, it was my very first time out of Singapore," he disclosed. "I didn't speak a word of Malay." On top of that, DSP Lee had to deal with intimidating-looking squad mates. "The officers from Sabah and Sarawak were tattooed and looked fierce," said DSP Lee. "It's because they were natives of their country and the tattoos were quite the norm for them." Slowly, DSP Lee grew accustomed to their ways and ended up making good friends although there was a language barrier. In fact, after his training in Kuala Lumpur, DSP Lee has become an accomplished speaker of the Malay language.

The "teach-yourself" approach

Such was also the case for ASP Koh. "Back in the 70s, some of the PTT officers would practice rapelling techniques on their own," he said. "Many suffered injuries but due to insufficient trainers, we had to experiment on our own to achieve perfection in our techniques."

With no one to turn to at times, our pioneer officers had to learn things the hard way. "When we conducted investigations," recalled DSI Low, "we went through in our minds what we had covered and what we hadn't. We tried to think like our suspects."

DSI Anthony Low
DSI Anthony Low
When questioned where he obtained such a theory, DSI Low replied matter-of-factly that he got them through years of hard knocks, empty corners and dead-ends. Luckily, the precious know-how of many officers like DSI Low have been tapped and used to impart valuable experience to our younger officers.

"I'd do it again..."

Having been in the force for over 30 years, do these officers still "have it in them" or have they simply lost interest in their jobs? Definitely not, said DSP Chang. "In fact, I would very much like to sink my hands into investigation again."

Many older officers also feel the same. Some still have the flame of enthusiasm burning away in their hearts, fuelling their love for the job. And when asked which part of their career they would re-live should there be a chance, many replied "investigation".

"I have enjoyed police life tremendously," declared DSI Low. "In fact, I have enjoyed my career as a police officer."

"Doctrines… that is what I feel I have contributed to the younger generation of the officers," said DSP Lee. It was indeed no small feat for him. DSP Lee wrote the SPF's doctrine on investigation and the Crime Investigation Manual which are still being used by detectives, not only from CID, but in the divisions to. "The doctrine and manual are a collection of my 34 years' experience as a police officer," said DSP Lee proudly. "In fact, they have been tested internationally when they were produced as proof of the SPF's legitimate investigation procedures during the 'Flor Contemplacion' case."

With officers of such high calibre as pioneers of our present force, it is no wonder that the SPF has achieved such great heights as a law-enforcement agency in Southeast Asia.

Advice from an experienced generation

The pioneers had this advice for the younger generation of officers.

"Keep away from corruption and exercise your duty without fear," advised DSI Low.

"Yes, stay clean," reiterated DSP Law. "Never stray off the right track."

"Learn, adapt quickly and complete your work," added DSP Chang.

Training before the age of computers
Training before the age of computers.

"Strive for the best in whatever you do," was DSP Lee's advice. "Remember, whenever you are uncertain about something, always ask! There are many capable officers around to help you."

The lessons of history

In comparing policing today and policing in the early days, we must take into account the times our pioneers lived in. They had to contend with problems like racial strife and disorder. However, as time went on, Singapore's police force grew in size, ability and technology and officers became better equipped to handle a greater variety of situations.

As Singapore progressed, so did its citizens. Becoming better educated and knowledgeable of the law, they knew the consequences of breaching the law and as a result, crime was remarkably reduced.

Our officers today need not fear facing a gunman every time they turn a corner but they have to face different problems. Whether it is coping with simple domestic disputes or suicide attempts, today's officers have to be operationally attuned to successfully overcome each case.

Attire was not very sophisticated in those days.
Attire was not very sophisticated in those days.

By flipping through the pages of the SPF's history, we learn more of the SPF and in the process, of ourselves as officers. Through these officers, we can learn more on how to handle ourselves in certain intricate situations. After all, whether one joined the SPF in the sixties or the nineties, the objectives are the same - maintaining law and order and protecting life and property.

Let us not be complacent with our present success but be inspired and motivated, to not only set a higher standard of service to the nation, but also to better ourselves as officers through experimentation and learning.

This article first appeared in Police Life Annual 1997. Used with permission, courtesy of the Singapore Police Force.


Copyright 1998 Singapore Press Holdings. All Rights Reserved.