Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Hougang MRT security incident: Man arrested after bag left unattended forces station to shut

By Ng Jun Sen, The Straits Times, 3 Apr 2017

A 39-year-old man who intentionally left his bag at the platform of Hougang MRT Station while he ran an errand yesterday was arrested for causing alarm to the public, said police. The incident triggered a temporary 20-minute closure of the MRT station as commuters were told to leave for their own safety.

Trains continued running along the North-East Line but skipped Hougang, the first time such a measure was taken due to an emergency.



Only household items were found inside the bag, the police said. "The police treat all security threats seriously and will not hesitate to take action against anyone who intentionally causes public alarm," police said, adding that people should avoid leaving personal belongings unattended and to report any suspicious items or behaviour.









Quick action, calm evacuation at Hougang MRT station after alert over suspicious bag
Station closed temporarily for 20 minutes; man who left bag traced quickly and arrested
By Ng Jun Sen and Chew Hui Min, The Straits Times, 3 Apr 2017

When Mr Lau Pak Seng, 69, got an alert on the Government's SGSecure mobile app yesterday urging the public to stay away from Hougang MRT station, which he lives next to, he got a shock.

The retiree said: "I genuinely thought there had been an attack. I dared to go over to take a look only after my daughter's SGSecure app said it was safe."

The station was temporarily closed for 20 minutes because an unattended bag had been found. Staff from the North East Line's operator, SBS Transit, had found it at Hougang station at about 2.40pm.

"For the safety of all passengers, trains were made to bypass Hougang station and police were alerted," said an SBS Transit spokesman.



When The Straits Times arrived at the station at around 3.30pm, staff and police officers had begun ushering commuters out of the place. Those who stopped to ask about the closure left promptly and calmly after they were told it was unsafe to enter the station. Commuters were redirected to bus services or other train stations.

An elderly woman was injured in the process. She was taken to Tan Tock Seng Hospital to treat a laceration to the back of her head and pain on her right elbow, said the Singapore Civil Defence Force.

Train services resumed, and the station was reopened at 4.03pm after there was no danger detected.

In the station control room, police officers and SBS Transit staff were seen huddled over screens that showed several closed-circuit television feeds.

"Officers from the Ang Mo Kio Police Division and Public Transport Security Command, with the assistance of SBS Transit, quickly traced the owner of the bag and he was arrested at Hougang MRT (station) at about 4.35pm," said a police statement. This was within two hours from when the bag was first found.

The man, who was dressed in a white singlet, camouflage-patterned shorts and orange slippers, smiled sheepishly at cameras as officers led him out of the gantry into a secure staff area of the station.



There, he was detained for almost three hours before he was led out to a police car in handcuffs. Officers were seen carrying away a luggage- size package, believed to be his bag.

The police said preliminary investigations showed that the man had "intentionally left his bag inside Hougang MRT station while he ran an errand". He was arrested for an offence of public nuisance.

The incident comes during a time of heightened security owing to recent terror attacks, such as last month's London incident. Four people were killed and dozens more injured when a man ploughed through a crowd of pedestrians and fatally stabbed a policeman just inside the gates of the British Parliament before being shot dead.



Some commuters here were impressed by the quick reaction from the police and station staff, even though they were inconvenienced.

Said administrative assistant Albert Yeo, 31, who wanted to ride the train home but chose a cab instead: "Even if they need to shut the whole train system down, so be it. It is better to be safe than sorry."

Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Darryl David commended the swift police response: "It is better to err on the side of caution because we won't know if it is a false alarm or not until we do our checks."



Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Melvin Yong thanked SBS Transit staff in a Facebook post, praising their actions as "professional and commendable". He said: "This is a reminder that beyond the work of transporting people, our public transport workers are important eyes on the ground. As first responders, their alertness and quick response are crucial to ensure the safety of commuters."

An SBS Transit staff member, who declined to be named, said the incident shows that their training in vigilance has paid off. "What you see today tells others that we don't take these things lightly. Once we detect a threat, we escalate it to the police. Everyone does their part."









































Security scare: Prudent to shut Hougang MRT station, say experts
They say it is essential to err on the side of caution, given rise in terror threat in region
By Ng Huiwen, The Straits Times, 4 Apr 2017

It was prudent and necessary for police and SBS Transit to react the way they did after an unattended bag was found at Hougang MRT station on Sunday, security experts said.

A 39-year-old Chinese national caused a security scare after he left a bag at the train platform while running an errand. The bag was later found to contain household items.

The experts said the incident happened during a period of heightened threat of terrorism in the region.

"Trains and train stations... are 'target-rich environments' for terrorists to inflict maximum casualties," said Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, head of policy studies and coordinator of the National Security Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

"It was prudent to close the station to ensure no civilians would have been injured in the worst-case scenario of a bomb going off," he added, citing terror attacks on transport networks in the past, such as Mumbai in 2008 and London in 2005.

The station on the North-East Line (NEL) was shut for about 20 minutes after emergency forces were activated. The man has been arrested for public nuisance, with investigations ongoing.



Professor Rohan Gunaratna, who heads the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at RSIS, said the authorities did not overreact. He added that it was essential to err on the side of caution, given the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorist group in the region.

"The Government will not take any risks and it will not relax its security after this incident," he said, although he noted that responses to such incidents should be calibrated.

Criminal lawyer Amolat Singh called for laws relating to such incidents to be sharpened to reflect the security climate.

"Currently, there is no such notice that you cannot leave your items unattended. It is arguable that this guy simply did not think it was wrong. Pinning him with an offence or punishments requires more clarity," he said.

Experts agreed the actions taken were in line with the national SGSecure efforts, with possible security threats at key infrastructure here.

Launched last September, the SGSecure movement aims to mobilise people to be more aware of security, respond to a terror attack and stay united after it.

Said RSIS associate research fellow Abdul Basit: "At the end of the day, no matter how prepared the forces are, commuters have to be alert as extra eyes on the ground."

In response to media queries, SBS Transit, which runs the NEL, said current security measures at its MRT stations and bus interchanges include deploying transit security officers and installing surveillance cameras.

"We also continue to review our security measures to ensure these are relevant in a dynamic security climate," said Ms Tammy Tan, SBS Transit's senior vice-president for corporate communications.

Transport operator SMRT said it works closely with the authorities, including participating in regular emergency preparedness exercises to practise response protocols.











Hougang station closure 'the right thing to do'

By Tay Hong Yi, The Straits Times, 5 Apr 2017

The "right thing to do" - that was how Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam described the closure of Hougang MRT station due to a security incident on Sunday.

Recounting the events that led to the station's closure, Mr Shanmugam told the audience at a security conference yesterday that a station camera had picked up someone leaving a bag behind and walking off.

"The immediate response was to close the station down," he said in a half-hour speech at the opening ceremony of Milipol Asia-Pacific 2017 at Marina Bay Sands.

"There were questions as to whether we overreacted," he added, "but if it were really a bomb, then the question would be why we did not, so closing it was the right thing to do."



In his speech, Mr Shanmugam talked about the evolving threat of terrorism, pointing out terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's rhetoric that "anything can become a weapon", and what it means for security.

This calls for collaboration with like-minded countries, the private sector and industry to develop technology such as artificially intelligent surveillance cameras, and to nurture a pool of technologically savvy officers, he said.

"It is going to require a fundamental change in the way security agencies think and operate because they have to keep trying to stay ahead of the terrorists."

Referring to a report by The Straits Times (ST) on the 20-minute closure of Hougang station, Mr Shanmugam highlighted the SGSecure mobile app as one such tool. An SGSecure user quoted in the report told ST that he had received an alert on the app urging the public to stay away from the station.

Launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in September last year, SGSecure is a national movement that seeks to sensitise, train and mobilise Singaporeans in preventing terrorism and dealing with its aftermath.

"There is a general sensitisation to this idea," Mr Shanmugam observed on the uptake of SGSecure. The app has received 380,000 downloads.

He said that it was the Government's duty to ensure that SGSecure becomes part of the national fabric, and that it intends "to go to every single household in Singapore (to do so)".

"We have done (this for) about 60,000 households since we started," he said, adding that every household in Singapore would be reached over the next three years.

In the incident at Hougang station, a 39-year-old man who left the bag unattended at the platform was arrested for causing public nuisance. The Straits Times understands that he is currently out on bail, pending police investigations.

On the station closure, experts at the conference agreed that it was better to be safe than sorry.

Professor Alexander Siedschlag, who conducts homeland security research at Pennsylvania State University, told ST that the authorities needed time to make a comprehensive assessment on whether there was a threat.

"They needed some time to consider the situation... see if it is part of a bigger picture... (and) if there are suspicious things happening (elsewhere) in the country and in the transportation system," he said.

Still, Prof Siedschlag cautioned against regularly shutting down vast swathes of transport infrastructure. "It should not become a habit, where you have to do it every other day," he said.

He emphasised the need to leverage technology, training and reporting systems to find solutions that reduce disruption without compromising safety.











Public Transport Security Command (TransCom): Keeping trains and buses secure

Hougang MRT incident puts TransCom in the spotlight
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 10 Apr 2017


Even after 10 years of experience in dealing with security incidents in Singapore's public transport system, police Staff Sergeant (SSG) Nasron Nasir had his nerves rattled when he was tasked to respond to a 999 call on April 2.

The 35-year-old had to rush to Hougang MRT station after an unattended bag was found on the platform, resulting in operator SBS Transit ordering a temporary closure and trains to bypass the stop.

Together with Special Constabulary Corporal (Cpl) Muhammad Ruzaini, 22, they were the first Public Transport Security Command (TransCom) officers to arrive at the MRT station.

"Honestly speaking, I was really nervous. I thought it was going to be the first explosives case (on the MRT) in Singapore.

" But we needed to overcome our fear and be sharp. We couldn't let our flaws cloud our judgment," SSG Nasron, a TransCom veteran, told The Straits Times in an interview with him and Cpl Ruzaini.

The bag, left behind by a 39-year- old man while he ran an errand, was later found to contain only household items. He was arrested for causing alarm to the public after preliminary investigations showed that he had left the bag intentionally.

The incident also cast the spotlight on the work of the TransCom, which was commissioned in 2009.

TransCom had its beginnings as the Police MRT Unit, which was formed in 2005 in the light of growing global security threats and the vulnerability of the public transport system to attacks. In July that year, terrorists struck London with coordinated bombings on three underground trains and on a bus.

The unit has grown from 30 officers to about 500 now, in tandem with the expansion of Singapore's rail network.

Full-time national servicemen such as Cpl Ruzaini account for 80 per cent of the unit's staff strength and play a vital role in patrolling the transport network daily, responding to a range of incidents, from theft to outrage of modesty and disputes.

SSG Nasron said TransCom officers are trained to know the ins and outs of each MRT station, so they can help evacuate commuters if necessary.

They also need to learn the different "characteristics" of each station, based on the crowds which frequent it at various times of the day, and the associated crime risks.

While both he and Cpl Ruzaini were unable to discuss the specifics of the April 2 case as it is under investigation, they said the general procedure would be to cordon off the area around the bag.

When dealing with suspicious items a visual assessment is first conducted. "We look for tell-tale signs - like oil leaks, protruding cables, ticking sounds, pungent smell - signs indicating it could be dangerous," said SSG Nasron.

"We also assess (based on) whether bomb threats have been made recently," said Cpl Ruzaini.

SSG Nasron, who has 150 officers in his team, said they are asked to respond to cases of unattended bags left at MRT stations and bus interchanges "every few days".

But they are mostly false alarms, with contents of the bags ranging from towels to rotten food.

Still, SSG Nasron said: "There's always a stressful feeling when we open up a bag... But that's why we are here - to make sure the public transport system is safe."



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