the generation gap
kidnappings for ransom
memberships of thousands
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.
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."
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."
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."
accommodation was part and parcel of training
in the past.
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.
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
"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
life on the line
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
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.
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.
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.
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
"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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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."
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.
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
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'
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
from an experienced generation
The pioneers had this
advice for the younger generation of officers.
away from corruption and exercise your duty
without fear," advised DSI Low.
clean," reiterated DSP Law. "Never
stray off the right track."
adapt quickly and complete your work,"
added DSP Chang.
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."
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.
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
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
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.
article first appeared in Police Life Annual 1997.
Used with permission, courtesy of the Singapore
Copyright © 1998 Singapore Press
Holdings. All Rights Reserved.