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  • I-Witness
Published 02 March 2023
4-min Read

A lesson in leadership from a constable’s earliest days resonates during a national security crisis almost 20 years later.

By: Khoo Yan Leen and Estella Monique Siek

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PHOTO: Naveen Raj Kunaseelan

Lead by example – this is the mantra that has guided Mr Chong Teng Kok throughout his 32 years in the Singapore Police Force (SPF).

Mr Chong first joined the SPF in 1971 and served with distinction in various appointments and roles before retiring in 2003 as a Senior Station Inspector. But it was during his earliest days as a constable that Mr Chong learnt a profound lesson in leadership.

The Story of the Dirty Boots

It was just another morning in 1972 when Mr Chong reported for duty at Kandang Kerbau Police Station in Little India (now the site of Tekka Centre).

“After our falling in, the Patrol Sergeant singled out a fellow constable and scolded him for his dirty boots,” recalled Mr Chong. “Even though the constable insisted that he’d cleaned his boots under a running tap, the Patrol Sergeant was still not convinced.”

Just then, the Officer-in-Charge (OC) Division stopped by and asked what was happening. The OC listened, took a good look at the constable’s boots and then commented that they weren’t dirty after all!

“What had happened was that since most of the constables in that section were rookies fresh from the Police Academy, their well-polished boots had made the other constable’s boots look dirtier in comparison,” recalled Mr Chong.

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On duty at Rumah Miskin Police Post in 1972 (left); at the Police Academy in 1979. PHOTOS: SPF

“This experience really stuck with me as it was rare in those days for senior officers to interact much with junior officers, much less an OC Division speaking up for a junior constable,” he said.

Having seen this OC walk the ground and treat all his officers with fairness and respect made Mr Chong realise how crucial it is for leaders to listen, be present and lead by example. It was a lesson he would take to heart.

“Follow the Plane”

In March 1991, Mr Chong was serving as the Deputy Officer-in-Command of Police Troop K “A” in the SPF’s Special Operations Command (SOC). On the evening of 26 March, he was on standby at Queensway Base when the emergency bell rang. The message from the teleprinter read, “Hijack Code Red.”

“Singapore Airlines flight SQ117 had been hijacked,” said Mr Chong. “There were 39 of us and we swiftly responded. Soon, we’d taken up positions on the tarmac of Changi Airport with our arms on the target.”

In the meantime, Mr Chong and his fellow SOC troopers stayed alert while awaiting orders from the Executive Group, the crisis management team that was made up of senior officials of various ministries.

Suddenly, the plane began moving. “An agreement had been made with the four hijackers to move the plane to a refuelling point, to prepare for a flight to Sydney,” said Mr Chong. “The Executive Group relayed one simple order to us – ‘follow the plane’.”

A Dash in the Dark

Giving his instructions to the SOC troopers, Mr Chong rose from the tarmac and took off: “I started running after the plane at its 5 o’clock position.”

Not knowing what awaited them, the troopers kept pace with the plane before taking up their positions again once it was stationary. As Mr Chong checked the troopers and trained his eyes on the plane, things seemed to settle down again.

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Flight SQ117 at Changi Airport. PHOTO: SPH Limited; reproduced with permission.

But what the hijackers didn’t know was that the refuelling point was where hostage rescue exercises had previously been conducted. The ordeal finally ended in the early hours of the morning when commandos of the Singapore Armed Forces stormed the plane, killing the four hijackers and rescuing all the passengers and crew.

A Lesson for Life

Recalling the events of that night, Mr Chong shared that the SOC troopers had remained steadfast throughout the nine-hour mission because of their shared dedication and camaraderie. Embodying the mantra of leading by example, Mr Chong always made sure that he was present for his men, and to listen to them.

“That’s the lesson I took from the dirty boots almost 20 years ago,” he explained, which was affirmed by the troopers’ actions that night.

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Mr Chong gearing up for training in Nepal in 1999. PHOTO: SPF

Today, Mr Chong continues to draw on his policing experience as a Senior Executive with the National Crime Prevention Council; he hasn’t hung up his boots by any means.

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Mr Chong continues to share crime prevention messages with the community. PHOTOS: NCPC

“I really enjoy conducting talks and sharing with members of the public about how we can work together to prevent crime,” he said. “I’m proud that through the efforts of our officers and the community, Singapore is now one of the safest cities in the world!”

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