in their shoes

Just smile, don't talk: Rookie security guard learns to be seen, not heard

Manpower correspondent Toh Yong Chuan goes undercover as a security guard. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Manpower correspondent Toh Yong Chuan goes undercover as a security guard. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sunday, Nov 23, 2014

It was 7.45am when I reported for duty at the guardhouse of an upscale condominium in District 9, dressed in my uniform of white shirt and dark blue trousers.

Mr Johari, a middle-aged guard who had been working there for two years, showed me the ropes and the first thing he said to me was: "Watch out for the cars."

He meant I would have to memorise some residents' car registration numbers in a hurry if I was going to do the job right.

Helpfully, he rattled off some critical numbers: 30, 166, 186, 2125. Those were the car numbers of residents who expected the guards to recognise them and lift the carpark barrier quickly when they approached.

"They will complain if you are slow, like this one who is in the management committee," he said, as a car drew up. I scribbled the numbers into a notebook.

My supervisor, Mr Zaini, had another tip: "Make sure you smile."

He explained: "People staying here are all 'somebodies' and they want to be acknowledged. Don't ask visitors their names or who they are visiting. They get offended."

It made me wonder why this condominium needed guards at all. Why not have a smiling robot of the sort being produced in Japan, that can recognise residents and car numbers? Or give residents remote controls to operate the barriers themselves?

Mr Zaini said we guards play a role in providing security to the wealthy residents. "It gives them a sense of security to have uniformed guards around," he said.

The freehold condominium has only four-bedroom apartments and penthouses above 3,000 sq ft in size. The 100 units are spread out over four five-storey blocks in a sprawling compound about the size of a football field. Besides the swimming pool, gym and function room, it also has a yoga pavilion and lounge. All the apartments have private lifts.

Over the past two years, some units changed hands for between $10.7 million and $27.5 million.

Mr Johari told me about half the residents were Singaporeans and the rest were foreign tenants paying more than $15,000 a month in rent.

The management council hired a private company to provide security guards. A 12-man guard team was assigned there, with six guards on duty on each 12-hour shift and shift changes at 8am and 8pm.

Each 12-hour shift is further divided into one-hour blocks, with 11 hours of work and a one-hour meal break. The 11 one-hour blocks form a rotating roster, with five guards put on one of five tasks hourly: manning the main guard post, guarding the basement entrance of the clubhouse, operating the carpark barrier, watching CCTV cameras and patrolling the grounds.

When it was time for my one-hour break at noon, Mr Johari led me to a small makeshift area in a corner of the basement carpark, next to a pump room and out of sight of residents. The stale smelling room was lit by a fluorescent tube. There were metal lockers, a wooden table with chipped corners and four plastic chairs, two of which were shaky. A desk fan provided some comfort.

When I took my lunch break there, I could see Ferraris, Lamborghinis and a Bentley - some of the residents' luxury cars - and we security guards had to make sure nobody sneaked pictures of them.

The guards at this condominium are barred from using the common toilets in the clubhouse and swimming pool. They have their own, also in the basement carpark. It has one toilet bowl and a sink. During my two days there, it had no soap or toilet paper, and the tap was broken.

Ms Amy, in her 50s, the only female guard in the team, said that she tries to avoid using the toilet and brings her own hand sanitiser.

I was appalled, but my security guard colleagues did not seem to mind any of this. I brought my own toilet paper and wet wipes on Day 2.

As a new guard, I was assigned unpopular tasks that kept me on my feet: operating the carpark barrier, guarding the clubhouse entrance and patrolling.

What I liked least was having to spend an hour stuffing letterboxes with a notice about the swimming pool closure and checking at the start of the day that more than 500 light bulbs in the lift lobbies, walkways and carpark were working.

For the effort, I was paid $70 a day. My fellow guards at the agency serving this condo are paid between $1,800 and $1,900 each month. My employer, who has an "A" grade from the annual police grading exercise, pays slightly above the going rate of about $1,700 a month.

But Mr Johari felt the pay was still too low for the long hours put in. "At our level, we are only working for the money," he said. "What job satisfaction is there?"

His salary is well below the median monthly gross salary of $3,480 for Singapore citizens and just below the $1,900 monthly Workfare salary ceiling. And he works 12 hours a day, six days a week.

In just two days there, I felt my self-esteem being nibbled away, not least because I learnt quickly that a security guard does his job best when he is invisible and doesn't draw notice to himself. Just smile, do your job, don't engage with residents, don't give them any opportunity to complain.

Over two days, only twice did people thank me.

A Filipino maid was grateful when I held a door for her and the pram she was pushing, and a CityCab taxi driver said thanks when I pointed him to the guards' toilet.

From condo to worksite

After two days at the upmarket condo, I asked the agency manager for a change and was redeployed to the worksite of a nearly completed private building in Little India.

I presented myself at 7.45am dressed in the same uniform.

I arrived to find a woman security guard, seated at a folding metal table, being scolded by a cleaning supervisor. The middle-aged woman had not even begun to eat her roti prata, but the supervisor was scolding her for "dirtying" the place. The truth, I learnt later, was that other workers could use that table for their meals, but not the guards.

The building, with offices and shops, is not yet open to the public. The guards are there mainly to watch over the contractors putting the finishing touches to the building.

Here I would be known as Security Officer Toh and I was not told to smile, apparently because I would come into contact mostly with workers and the building's handful of full-time staff. Unlike at the condo, the guards here were free to use any of the toilets in the uncompleted building, at least for now.

But there was no proper rest area or lockers, and guards could put their belongings anywhere, as long as they were out of sight. "Put your backpack below the table," said my supervisor Krishnan, in his 60s.

Here too, security guards typically work 12-hour shifts, but the duties were less structured and there was no roster of tasks.

During my two days there, I spent five hours each day guarding the door to a room to make sure no one entered, as it had just been cleaned with chemicals.

I told Mr Krishnan what the place needed was a lock, not a guard, but he ignored the idea. He snapped: "Why you talk so much? You are a new guard."

I was also assigned to patrol the perimeter of the premises. One of my colleagues, Mr Lim, in his 40s, asked if I smoked. "For smokers, going on patrol means you can find a corner to take a smoke," he said with a smile.

I do not smoke, but going on patrols allowed me to test the observation skills I had been taught.

So when I spotted a white van parked illegally near a taxi stand for more than 20 minutes, I reported it to another supervisor, only to have him say: "Leave it to LTA, not our business." The van's presence was not entered into the guard room's official record book, labelled "Occurrence Book". All it said was: "10 to 11am: SO Toh conducted patrol. Everything normal."

Another time, the fire alarm went off. I could not contact my supervisor who was on his meal break, so I did what I had been trained to do.

I checked the floor under my charge, evacuated a worker to a safe area and reported what I had done to the worksite's fire control centre. I also made an entry in the record book, as I had been trained to do.

It turned out to be a false alarm. While I did not expect a pat on my back, I certainly was unprepared for the dressing down that came from the burly security manager, a full-time employee of the building owner.

Yelling at me for recording the incident, he shouted: "You are trying to be too smart!"

That was when I learnt that guards were not allowed to write in the record book. They had to write on a piece of paper and show it to the security manager, who would then decide whether to put it in the book. Clearly, it was meant to show only what the security manager wanted to record.

After the dressing down, I decided I had enough. I told the agency manager I would not be coming to work the next day.

Mr Krishnan did not bat an eyelid when I said goodbye at the end of my shift. "Relief guards come and go. I am angry that the manager keeps sending inexperienced guards like you to me," he vented.

Ending my short stint as a security guard, I remembered Mr Zaini, the condominium supervisor who told me to smile while on the job. He has been a guard for 15 years and I'd asked him how he did it.

"This is a thankless job," he said. "Smiling makes it easier for me to get through the long day. And at the end of each day, I smile because it is over and I can get home to my family."

tohyc@sph.com.sg

The names of individuals in this report have been changed.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sunday, Nov 23, 2014