Taking on the coronavirus

Coronavirus: More ICA officers volunteering than needed

Superintendent Toh Lai Keng, Deputy Commander (Ground Operations), Airport Command, with a screening officer at the checkpoint for arrivals at Changi Airport's Terminal 3. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Superintendent Toh Lai Keng, Deputy Commander (Ground Operations), Airport Command, with a screening officer at the checkpoint for arrivals at Changi Airport's Terminal 3. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

The day 92 Singaporeans came home on a special Scoot flight from Wuhan, seven Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officers were waiting to receive them at Changi Airport.

Superintendent (Supt) Toh Lai Keng, Deputy Commander (Ground Operations), Airport Command, was one of them.

He felt it was important to be on the ground with his officers, all of whom had volunteered to screen those returning with full knowledge of the risks.

"We had more volunteers than we required," Supt Toh, 49, said, his voice tinged with pride.

The fact that Wuhan was the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak also meant that the passengers evacuated were of a very high risk level, he said.

To make sure this was properly managed, Gate F55 at Terminal 2 was specially prepared to receive them on Jan 30, away from passengers on normal flights.

As a precaution, the officers who volunteered wore full protective gear, including masks and gowns.

Supt Toh said he decided to join his six front-line officers to instil confidence - and walk the talk.

"We tell our officers, 'we are always there for you, whenever you need us'. Crisis is the best time to prove that this isn't just lip service," said Supt Toh, who has served in the ICA for 25 years.

 
 

In the first one to two weeks of the coronavirus situation, formulating policies was the biggest challenge, he said. "It was quite hectic. Policies were changing every other day with the situation, and there were many joint meetings," he said, adding that regular briefings to ground team leaders helped in relaying information quickly.

Although the sheer volume and variety of places of origin of travellers mean the air checkpoint has a high degree of exposure, morale on the ground remains high, he said. Screening officers do shifts of between seven hours and 10 hours, but their contact with each traveller is transient, lasting only about one to two minutes.

With traveller traffic down significantly, he is also using the down time to engage officers more closely and provide training.

"We're learning a lot from this crisis, from our contingency plans to how we work with each other. On the ground, officers have also become more united," he said.

Having an understanding family helps. His 10-year-old son is "quite knowledgeable" about the ongoing coronavirus situation, and his wife, who is also an ICA officer, understands what he needs to do.

"On the ground, we are in good spirits. To us, it is about serving our fellow Singaporeans," he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 16, 2020, with the headline 'More ICA officers volunteering than needed'. Print Edition | Subscribe