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50 Years of Aviation Policing in Singapore

By: Syam Roslan
(Photos: Singapore Police Force)

On 1 November 2020, the Singapore Police Force’s (SPF) Airport Police Division (APD) commemorated 50 years of aviation policing in Singapore. To mark this momentous milestone, we look back at the evolution of APD and its key developments since its formation in 1970.


The Early Years of Aviation Security

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The first Airport Police Station at Paya Lebar Airport, in the 1970s

The history of aviation security in Singapore goes back to 12 June 1937. This was when the Kallang Airport, Singapore’s first civilian airport, was opened to the public. Then, airport security was managed by a small group of airport personnel called the Special Constabulary.

In 1953, the airport’s growing needs prompted the replacement of the Special Constabulary with the Airport Constabulary. The Airport Constabulary saw through the shift of airport operations to Paya Lebar Airport, which opened in 1955. This continued until 1961 when the Airport Auxiliary Police Force took over from the Airport Constabulary. The Airport Auxiliary Police Force worked closely with the SPF, as their location was under the jurisdiction of Paya Lebar Police Station.


Formation of the Airport Police Division

Due to increasing air traffic and passenger loads, the SPF undertook full responsibility of airport security, leading to the formation of APD on 1 November 1970. When it was first established, APD was located at the Paya Lebar Airport and had a modest manpower strength of about 100 officers to police airport operations involving an annual passenger load of 1.6 million.


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Airport Police Station in the 1980s

APD started a Security Screening Unit in 1974 to conduct pre-board screening of passengers. The screenings were conducted manually by APD officers until the introduction of X-ray machines in 1976. 30 June 1981 saw the relocation of APD to Changi due to the shift of airport operations from Paya Lebar Airport to Changi Airport. The Changi chapter was a time of new frontiers for APD with many aviation milestones made in tandem with the continuous growth of air traffic and passenger loads.


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An APD officer conducting security checks at the tarmac of Changi Airport in the 1980s

APD underwent its baptism of fire on 28 March 1991 when Singapore Airlines flight SQ117 was hijacked by four terrorists. The swift and steadfast action of the SPF’s Special Operations Command, the Negotiations Unit, the SPF’s APD and the Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) Commandos led to the successful rescue operation after an 8-hour standoff, with no hostages harmed.


New Roles, New Responsibilities

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The use of X-Ray machines, introduced in 1976, assisted APD in conducting security checks on passengers

In 1993, APD’s responsibilities expanded beyond general policing when the SPF was appointed the Appropriate Authority (AA) for civil aviation security in Singapore, as required by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). APD is the executive arm for the SPF in carrying out regulatory functions expected of the AA. This included overseeing, regulating and reviewing all aviation security measures in our airports. In addition, APD is also required to conduct quality control activities on airport entities to ensure that their security measures are in line with the set standards and practices, as required under the ICAO’s civil aviation security framework.


Aviation Policing in the New Millennium

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The opening of the new Airport Police Station in 2000

In 2000, APD moved to its current site at 35 Airport Boulevard, due to the need to make way for the construction of Changi Airport Terminal 3. The millennium period saw APD’s jurisdiction expanding further, with the opening of then Budget Terminal (now Changi Airport Terminal 4) and JetQuay (now CIP Terminal) in 2006, as well as the opening of Terminal 3 in 2008.

The 9-11 incident, and the myriad of attacks and threats on aircrafts and airports worldwide, have shaped APD’s robust aviation security regime. Airport security was upped by several folds. Since October 2001, joint foot patrols with SAF officers have been conducted at the airports. The men in green and blue, armed with sub-machine guns, project high visibility and strong presence of security forces at the airports.


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The current site of Airport Police Division

To ensure better security of the airport’s transit areas, APD conducted regular operations and checks to look out for suspicious persons. That same year, APD started a system of regular roadblocks and checks at roadways leading to the airport terminals. These roadblocks brought the police presence beyond the airports and effectively deterred anyone intending to commit mischief or criminal acts during their journeys to the airport.


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Joint patrols between APD and SAF officers were rolled-out after the 9/11 incident

In 2004, APD endorsed the implementation of the Hold Baggage Screening (HBS) System to detect threat objects and items in hold baggage using automated x-ray machines. In addition, all departing passengers and their hand carry belongings were subjected to mandatory preboard screening. Items assessed to be of threat to the safety of the aircraft would be removed. In 2005, APD started joint patrols with the Police K-9, specifically targeted at terminal buildings, bringing police visibility and presence one level higher. In 2008, APD introduced the Regulated Air Cargo Agent Regime (RCAR). The RCAR, which sees APD regulating more than 200 air cargo agents today, serves to ensure a secured supply chain on commercial aircrafts.


Maintaining Excellence

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APD receiving the AVSEC Organisation of the Year award in 2015

The new decade saw a slew of aviation security developments to augment APD’s operations, including the Threat Oriented Passenger Screening Integrated System (TOPSIS), where the community was roped in to assist APD in identifying suspicious profiles at the airports. Electric Stand-Up Vehicles were officially launched in April 2012 and deployed daily at Terminal 1 to 4’s transit areas, to enhance police presence and provide faster response to incidents.

The robust aviation security regime that APD has put in place, together with its stakeholders, received international affirmation. Singapore was complimented by overseas aviation security regulators from Australia, US and Europe for having a good systemic structure in managing aviation security. Singapore ranked the best among ICAO’s Contracting States for the ICAO Universal Security Audit Programme in 2012, with zero non-compliance results during the audit. APD received further recognition in 2015 when it was awarded the ‘Aviation Security (AVSEC) Organisation of the Year’ at the Emirates Group Security Aviation Security Symposium & Awards in Dubai.


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APD officers conducting patrols at the Changi Airport using the Electronic Stand-Up Vehicles

As one of the respected names in aviation security within the region, APD organised the inaugural ASEAN Counter-Terrorism Conference on Aviation Security in 2018, in collaboration with the Ministry of Home Affairs, Immigration & Checkpoints Authority and the INTERPOL Global Complex for Innovation. The conference, which facilitated sharing of insights and aviation security best practices, was well received by ASEAN member states.

On the operational front, APD was involved in a number of high-profile security deployments, such as the historic DPRK-USA Singapore Summit and the ASEAN Summit.

As the threat of terrorism remains high in the current climate, APD played its part in multi-agency counterterrorism exercises such as “Exercise Northstar” at Terminal 3 and “Exercise Heartbeat” at Crowne Plaza, Changi Airport, to test our coordinated responses to mass casualty incidents and validate their contingency response plans.


Looking Ahead

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APD officers at Changi Airport, as part of the DPRK-USA Singapore Summit security deployment

In the past 50 years, APD has evolved to meet the different challenges and needs posed by a dynamic aviation domain that continues to grow exponentially year after year. Recent times saw the opening of new airport terminals and buildings such as the Terminal 4 in 2017, the Seletar Airport Passenger Terminal Building in 2018 and Jewel Changi Airport in 2019. While these developments signified the growth of Singapore’s aviation industry, they have also inevitably further increased APD’s responsibilities to ensure the safety and security of these locations, which continue to be vulnerable to global threats of terrorism.

Today, APD’s manpower is also augmented by Police National Servicemen and VSC officers, to support the operations of airport policing. APD continues to be relevant in the aviation domain even in tough times. This is evident through APD’s active involvement in the two-month-long deployment in 2019 to search and locate rogue unmanned aircraft systems and operators with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), Changi Airport Group (CAG) and the SAF, to prevent disruptions to airport operations.


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Exercise Heartbeat, held at the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport in 2019

2020’s pandemic situation has hit the aviation sector very hard. This led to APD adopting a paradigm shift and changing its approach towards aviation security regulation. APD continues to work closely with airport stakeholders to manage potential law and order situations arising from foreign workers placed under COVID-19 quarantine orders, and passengers affected by COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Moving ahead, Assistant Commissioner of Police Evon Ng, Commander APD said, “Now, APD will need to play an even more important role in aviation security, as the Government continues to take steps towards reviving the Changi air hub and establishing safe air travel bubbles with other countries. Any untoward aviation incident will risk the status of Changi air hub globally. APD will work even closer with our airport stakeholders, such as the CAAS and the CAG, to ensure a robust aviation security regime at our airports without compromising the bilateral arrangements for safe air travel bubbles. This is aligned to APD’s vision of making Changi Airport and Seletar Airport the safest airports in the world.”


08 December 2020 @ 2:00 PM
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