Mr Albert Lee, former Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) (NS), has served in the SPF for close to 50 years.
Mr Albert Lee, 67, enlisted in 1968, in a batch of some 150 Police national servicemen. After completing his 12-year cycle of part-time NS in 1980, he carried on serving in the VSC for another 30 years until 2010 when he reached the age of 60, remaining a PNSman at heart till today. Albert was dreading what he imagined would be very tough NS training when he enlisted in 1968. Things changed when he found out that he would be enlisted to the SPF. Part-time NS – twice a week from 7pm to 10pm – also meant he could continue helping his brother run a stationery business. Later, he served about 12 hours per month of ICT a year for 12 years.
“I enjoyed the training. On top of that, the trainers were also very friendly,” Albert says. The police force occupied premises such as Gan Eng Seng School in Anson Road as venues for the six-month long basic training, which included aspects such as knowledge of the law, leadership and physical training. For arms drills, they had to march to Tanjong Pagar Police Post to draw the British .303 Lee Enfield rifle, which was very heavy, and back again later.
He spent his 12-year stint at the old Central Police Station on South Bridge Road, where he was promoted to Corporal (CPL) and later, Station Inspector and ASP. Each station had about 1,000 PNS officers in 10 teams of about 100 men each. Initially, teams of up to eight youthful officers, led by a regular, would patrol by foot, bicycle or car in eight-hour shifts. “The regular officers felt a bit odd because it’s just like a father taking care of a big family.”
Noting that there were then some 15,000 PNS officers islandwide as the SPF was being beefed up for the security of Singapore, he was fully aware that this was necessary, even though there seemed to be no immediate crisis. Singapore as a young country itself was an “attraction” that had to be protected, he says.
In Chinatown, unlicensed “pirate taxis” would triple-park and obstruct traffic along New Bridge Road and Eu Tong Sen Street. The taxi-drivers would mock Albert and his colleagues as “geena mata” (“children policemen” in Hokkien or Teochew) because they were unarmed, only had batons, and looked so young. Their uniform then, leftover from British colonial times, probably did not help – grey top, brown shorts and white wool anklets that felt ticklish on their legs.
It was only later, with the introduction of stiffer fines for traffic-related offences, that drivers would rush up to plead for leniency whenever they saw Albert and his colleagues whip out their little black notebooks.
Over time, he too plucked up more courage. He was told that secret society members had their principles, and would not harm police officers who were just doing their duty. Although he knows of no police officer who was injured while on duty, every day, he and his fellow officers were still aware of the very real risk to life and limb that their work demanded.
Their scope of work included raiding gambling dens, bars, night clubs and opium dens that were very smelly and full of old trishaw riders, lasting even into the early 1980s mostly in Sago Lane, Hokkien Street and Telok Ayer Street. Over at Tanjong Pagar, they had to deal with workers getting drunk on the alcohol called toddy and falling unconscious in the middle of the road, creating a mess and causing a public nuisance.
He was involved in the Robinson’s department store fire at Raffles Place in 1972, and had to run all the way there from Central Police Station as the narrow roads leading up were all jammed. His immediate main task then was crowd control, and he could see the fire burning and felt concern for the people trapped inside. In subsequent days, he and his teams performed a vital function where they conducted security patrols to prevent looting and theft from the incident site. In those days, crimes such as looting would have been more common if not for the presence and vigilance of PNS officers.
Once, he “went undercover” to trap members of a racket stealing calculators (worth $80, a big sum then). For this covert operation, he had to leave his police warrant card at the station and had nothing on his body to reveal that he was a police officer. This was his first experience as an undercover officer. Though he felt nervous, he told himself he had a job to do.
He appeared “cool” and spoke their street language with a mix of dialects. He was offered a packet of chicken rice and a can of beer, which he acted like he enjoyed, as if he was eating with friends. He pretended to be a buyer and went to meet the thieves in a Joo Chiat cubicle with a stash of dummy currency, before his colleagues eventually sprang the ambush. “I had no backup. I was like a lone ranger and it was only later that I realised I could easily have been beaten up.” These were the early times, when the equipment was heavy, like the very basic walkie-talkies and telex machines, but the esprit de corps (camaraderie) lightened the burden of duty. “We supported each other,” he recalls. “Times were tough, but the camaraderie was strong.”
This story was first published in MHA’s ‘Everyday Guardians’ publication that was released in conjuction with NS50.