Ng Joo Hee: The policeman's policeman

Policing is the only job top cop Ng Joo Hee has held and he relishes the challenges

The story was first published on March 24, 2013

Midway through the first interview he has given since becoming Commissioner of Police, Mr Ng Joo Hee says: "Did I tell you that I never wanted to be policeman?"

Then he lets on: "My first ambition was to be a chemical engineer, join an oil company, travel the world to look for oil and go on adventures, maybe to the Amazon or somewhere else."

He pauses and adds that his other ambition was to be a journalist. "I'm a decent writer, I can take photographs and when I was young, the Vietnam War was at its tail end, so I thought maybe I could go and cover the war."

Journalism's loss, it seems, was the police force's gain. The police scholarship recipient rose all the way to the top, taking over from former commissioner Khoo Boon Hui in 2010.

On paper, the 46-year-old is every bit the typical government scholar. He graduated in 1988 from Oxford with an engineering science and economics degree, and has a master's in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard as well as an MBA.

People who have followed his career closely, however, say he is no desk jockey and remains a man on a mission.

Security consultant and former intelligence analyst Susan Sim, who has known Mr Ng for more than 20 years, calls him "a warrior- philosopher" always focused on getting the job done.

True to form, when asked to explain his crime-fighting strategy, he cites 18th century English statesman Robert Peel, who created the concept of the modern police force.

"The people are the police and the police are the people," he says, quoting Peel, before he describes his Community Policing System to put more police officers on the ground in neighbourhoods across Singapore.

"The police should be talking to people and interacting with them before the crime even occurs. So we decided to embed officers into the community and I mean truly embed them."

Mr Ng is the eldest of three children. He has a younger brother and sister. His parents ran a small sundry stall in Tanglin Halt. Money was tight at home.

He attended Anglo-Chinese School and did well enough to be offered a place in Oxford.

"You know, I walked out of the Oxford entrance exam and I thought, s***, I failed, it was so difficult," he recalls. "But later I received a letter. They gave me a place but how to go? No money."

It was 1985 and a scholarship would help.

"My parents were hawkers and I had a place in Oxford," he said. "I needed a scholarship but I never thought of joining the police. The Singapore Armed Forces scholarship was what I wanted."

He changed his mind, however, after visiting a few police stations. "I was given the weekend to decide. Then Ong Kian Min and Benedict Cheong, the first batch of police scholars, were tasked to show me around," he said.

"So I went to the Traffic Police, took part in a few raids and I saw that the police were doing real work, saving lives.

"I thought this beats running around in the forest. After that, I said, yes, why not the police? So I signed on."

His police training began while he was in university.

"They decided to send me for the inspectors' course at the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary when I was still an undergrad in Oxford," he said. "I was at most 20 years old and the other guys were 50, but they were very accepting and I learnt from them."

He also had a stint with the Merseyside Police, where he would join the local officers on duty at Liverpool football matches. "At the time, hooliganism was a big issue - they were literally fighting the police," he said. "It was very exciting but I also saw how bad it was at some of the depressed parts of the area."

When he finished at Oxford, he was sent to the Los Angeles Police Department for a visit.

"For two weeks, I was on the streets of LA with a sergeant, running around in his black and white police car, eating doughnuts. It was very exciting for a young guy," he recalls.

The tougher tours began after he returned home, most of which he was hand-picked for or had volunteered for.

Policing has been his only job, although he has held civilian postings at the Home Affairs Ministry and Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Mr Cheong, who was a Senior Assistant Commissioner before he left the force and is now chief executive of Temasek Foundation, said of Mr Ng: "As a commander, you always want to lead from the front and Joo Hee was that sort of person, even in the early days."

He added that Mr Ng did not just seek comfortable staff postings. "He was always ready to take up challenges, like when he was asked to go to the ISD, he just went even though he knew little about the job," added Mr Cheong.

The Internal Security Department (ISD) posting was something Mr Ng did not see coming, especially since he had just returned from Oxford. "I didn't ask for it. To be honest, I didn't even know what ISD was about," he said. "But where I'm told to go, I just go."

Later, he volunteered for a United Nations peacekeeping mission to Cambodia. It was 1991 and a peace treaty had just been signed, which meant the end of civil war and with it, the UN received full authority to supervise a ceasefire, disarm the factional armies and prepare the country for free elections.

"Although we brought our guns along, the UN didn't allow us to carry them openly but it made sense because we had pistols, while the other fellows had bazookas and AK-47 assault rifles. We don't want to get into a gunfight with them," he said. "We come in neutrality. If we don't agree, we walk away."

At 75 strong, the contingent to Cambodia remains the largest that the police have ever sent on an overseas peacekeeping mission.

"We lived in fear and I slept with a parang under my bed every night then. It was a life-changing experience living in a war zone," he says, of the stint which stretched from 1992 to 1993. "My first lesson there was that we must never go to war - it's a terrible thing because the people who suffer are the women and children.

"Not to mention the crippling poverty, which I saw first-hand every day - kids literally going through our rubbish, eating our rubbish."

One of his biggest challenges awaited him upon his return from Cambodia.

"I remember walking down the steps of the plane and I saw Lim Soo Gee," he said, referring to then commander of the police Special Operations Command, which had just been set up.

"He said, 'Joo Hee, you're posted to me and your task is to start the Star (Special Tactics and Rescue) Unit.'"

At the time, the police had only a small part-time unit, called the Police Tactical Team, to deal with armed and dangerous criminals.

"If we had a gunman, the OC would go and pick a few guys from the ang chia (red trucks, referring to the police riot squad), get them together and then go and do the operation" said Mr Ng.

"It was damn dangerous. Lucky no one got killed and those days, as you know, there were gunmen."

What prompted the formation of the Star Unit was the hijack of Singapore Airlines Flight SQ117 in 1991 by four Pakistani men, who took control of the plane as it left for Changi Airport from Kuala Lumpur.

The hijackers demanded, among other things, the release of 11 political prisoners held in Pakistan at the time.

Men from the SAF's Special Operations Force later stormed the Airbus A-310 jet and freed all 123 hostages, but not before killing all four hijackers.

"It was obvious that there was a need for a police option and the task was given to me to form the unit, qualify for it and lead it for a few years. I did my best."

Consultants who were former members of the fabled British Special Air Service were engaged to help set up the unit.

"Today, I'm proud that the Star Unit has managed to maintain its standards and remains a life-saving force, not a life-taking one," he says.

Mr Ng moved on to several other key posts after that: commander of the Central Police Division, deputy director of the Criminal Investigation Department, director of the Police Intelligence Department and then, in 2007, director of prisons.

He sums up his leadership strategy in three points, the first of which is that as police chief, he has to be clear about the mission.

"The other thing is I have to pick my best team and try to put the right people in the right places," he says. The Manchester United fan adds: "So in that sense I am like (club manager) Alex Ferguson, for every match I try to assemble the best team I can."

And third, is to measure the performance of the force. "This is why crime is dropping, dropping, dropping: It's because we measure," he says. "Every week I sit down with my commanders and we look at the crime rate. That's 52 weeks a year I do this.

"We look at it and we keep a close eye on it and they hold themselves responsible for crime in their jurisdiction, just like the country holds me responsible for crimes in Singapore."

Many of his commanders have MBAs, he points out. He tells them to imagine having competition.

"My competition is the Hong Kong Police, it's the NYPD, it's the Metropolitan Police in London, and it's the Shanghai police."

Another battle he fights, aside from crime, is corruption, which he addressed in a recent message to his officers, saying: "From the moment we choose to wear police blue, we also choose to live by a special code."

It is the same code which he believes former colleague Ng Boon Gay broke when he was charged and put on trial for corruption last year.

"Boon Gay has been found not guilty... but certainly his acts are reprehensible," he says. "He has broken every one of our values and he has tainted the whole police force by his behaviour and that is very disappointing."

When asked if his stand is that every police officer must be beyond reproach, Mr Ng says: "The public expects it and that's why this is more than any ordinary job. You want to do this job? It's different, it's tough."

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