‘Never approach from behind’: How Singaporean enforcement officers handle the public

Lianne Chia & Grace Yeoh

SINGAPORE (CNA) – The one day Chow Kai Wen was deployed as an enforcement officer by the National Environment Agency (NEA), a member of the public slapped him.

Chow, who was with a colleague, had approached the man when they noticed him eating at a table in a hawker centre, in breach of regulations during the “circuit breaker”.

After identifying themselves, they informed him that he had committed an offence and asked for his particulars. But he ignored them, so they had to call the police for assistance.

When he finished his meal and tried to leave, the duo stopped him. That was when he slapped Chow on the left cheek, causing his mask to tear.

“It was pretty unexpected,” said the 38-year-old. “My first thought was that he has to be dealt with by the law. We don’t deserve this.

“Thankfully, the police arrived soon after.”

This man was the only one Chow had to issue a fine in his short stint as an enforcement officer, a role that entails patrolling and looking out for breaches of safe distancing measures.

The NEA Senior Assistant Director (Tenancy Management) usually oversees operations of markets and hawker centres, which includes crowd control and managing entry into these areas. But that day, he was covering for a colleague.

The team of enforcement officers he oversees has told him stories aplenty of verbal abuse and resistance among members of the public. He himself has been on the receiving end of complaints, besides being slapped.

“People would be frustrated with us, saying, ‘Why are you so stupid to implement this? Why are you doing this to inconvenience us?’” he cited. “We may feel affected, but we still need to remain calm.”

Chow Kai Wen with a member of the public. PHOTO: CNA

Since the start of the circuit breaker on April 7, these officers and the safe distancing ambassadors have faced many people. And it has been a steep learning curve, even as most of their encounters have been positive.

Around 3,000 enforcement officers and ambassadors have been deployed daily to public places and Housing and Development Board estates.

They come from around 50 public agencies and also include volunteers and non-public servants, such as those from the hospitality and aviation sectors, stated the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources last month.

Cindy Tay, for example, is a tourist guide with 32 years’ experience whom the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) roped in to be a safe distancing ambassador when her tour group bookings started drying up as the COVID-19 situation escalated.

The same thing happened to another tourist guide, 32-year-old Jeff Tan.

“I like to be outdoors, so when this opportunity arose, I thought on the one hand, I can assist Singaporeans and businesses in following any new guidelines; on the other … I’m allowed to go out and walk around while carrying out the duties,” he said.

The two are part of a group of 12 stationed in Chinatown, where they patrol assigned areas in pairs. They work shifts — three days on, three days off — beginning at 11am and ending at 8pm, with a two-hour break in between.

When they see violations, they take pictures where possible and share them with STB officers. They also return during their shift to see if there is compliance. If the person has still not complied, they inform the officer-in-charge, who would then log a case with enforcement for follow-up action.

But both Tay and Tan stressed that they take a “light touch” approach, which they said is perhaps influenced by their background in tourism.

“We handle guests from all over the world, so we’re able to understand or look at their body language and see if they misunderstood us or if they’re uncomfortable,” said Tan. “Then we’d try to clarify.”

He added with a laugh, “In general, we’re also more patient.”

Empathy plays a part too, for example when Tay must get senior citizens sitting in groups to disperse.

“They’ve been there for 30 to 40 years, sitting there playing chess and chit-chatting … You’re telling them to change overnight. I think we have to exercise a lot of compassion,” said the 57-year-old.

“I tell them, please, it’s for your health, and the government really takes care of you guys.”

She also offers them “other possibilities”. “If they tell me they’re very bored at home, I tell them to come down at staggered timings,” she cited.

She added that she pays attention to her body language, making it a point not to approach them “like I’m going to summon (them)”. She approaches with a smile instead, which she hopes is visible behind her mask, she quipped.

And she always greets them first. “After all, we aren’t enforcement officers,” she said.

But enforcement officers can also be mindful of the way they deal with people.

Chow, who is often at the Geylang Serai market, where the NEA restricts entry based on the last digit of the patron’s identification card number, said he can understand the frustrations of some of the people he has turned away.

They include the elderly, who might have made the trip to the market despite having difficulty travelling. Then he would educate them about the need to comply with regulations. He stressed to CNA Insider the importance of remaining professional and firm.

The key difference between enforcement officers and the ambassadors is that the latter do not have the power to issue fines. Their task is simply to remind people of measures such as wearing a mask and leaving sufficient space when queuing.

But they can come in the firing line too.

Nat, an SG Clean ambassador in his 40s, has been patrolling a food court since mid-April. On his first day, he encountered a stallholder who refused to wear a mask owing to the heat at her stall and complained that the government has “no idea what they go through”.

She also insisted, he recounted, that NEA officers “come and stand in her stall to see what it’s like”. He said it took a lot of patience, multiple conversations with her — and the efforts of different colleagues — before she complied.

“In cases like this, we’d try not to be too hostile and try to be in their shoes,” added Nat, who requested that he be identified by a pseudonym.

“I wish I could tell them to relax a bit, but unfortunately, the law is the law.”

Nonetheless, he estimates that “95 to 97 per cent” of the people who breach the regulations would comply immediately when he approaches them.

The four of them are immediately identifiable as they walk around their assigned areas: Nat in a white polo shirt and lanyard; Chow with a red armband and lanyard; and Tay and Tan in red polo shirts.

This, they said, has made them cautious about the scrutiny they receive from the public. “All of us have a very high self-awareness,” said Tan.

He also ensures that he keeps a safe distance from his teammate as they do their patrols — which he said was not instinctive at the beginning.

“When you go out with a colleague, you’d tend to walk closer,” he said. “So we really try to be spaced apart, and have one person walk in front and the other behind.”

In general, said Nat, people eye them with curiosity. Some people ask where he is from and why he is there, while others are wary or appear “slightly unhappy” that they are being “monitored”.

There was once, he recalled, when he approached a group of elderly people, and before he could open his mouth, they jumped up with their hands in the air as one of them exclaimed, “Please don’t catch me!”

“I learnt never to approach people from behind,” Nat said, chuckling.

Another incident that amused him happened when he was off duty and had gone into a fast food restaurant to buy dinner without changing out of his uniform.

“The moment I walked in, the manager shouted into the kitchen to remind everyone to put their mask on,” he recounted.

Tay, too, finds it amusing that the elderly regulars she encounters on her patrols have given her team a nickname for the colour of their polo shirts.

“They say the ‘red ants’ are coming when they see us,” she said. “I enjoy the nickname.”

To her, it is a sign of the rapport she has with the people she meets regularly, and a sign that “they know what they’re supposed to do”.

“The mood’s definitely different,” she said. “If they know they’ve done the right thing, they don’t have to be afraid of us walking around.”

Over the weeks, all of the four CNA Insider spoke to have observed people taking the situation more seriously and generally being more aware of the regulations.

“At the start, it was very crowded within the market, and they’d crowd around the stalls to pick their produce,” said Chow. For Tay’s part, seeing the elderly try their best to comply with the regulations is “very heartening” and one of the “biggest satisfactions” of her job. “They’re improving slowly,” she said.

She is encouraged by the fact that being on the ground has proved to be more pleasant than she had expected.