Inside the world of a Singapore police investigator
Istana incidents, mindless crimes and long hours are just some of the things Station Inspector Zulkiflee Mohamed faces on the job. CNA Insider gains access to the investigative work done in the central region.
SINGAPORE: In the words of police investigator Zulkiflee Mohamed, it was an attack that happened “for no reason”. And he has seen many assault cases.
A tourist was entering the hotel’s service lift — the wrong lift, figured the security guard who was following him. But when the guard stepped inside to query the seemingly lost guest, the man punched and kicked him.
It was not long before Station Inspector (SI) Zulkiflee was on the scene with another investigation officer (IO), reviewing the closed-circuit television footage and interviewing the victim, who tried to make light of the pain in his rib area.
It was nearly 4am, “around that time when people would be drunk”, said SI Zulkiflee. But as he discovered, this assailant — whom patrol officers had detained in a toilet of the hotel in Orchard Road — was not considerably inebriated.
“He smelled of alcohol, but he wasn’t drunk. He was already sober,” the Land Division IO told CNA Insider after both interviews were done.
With the tourist's statement recorded and his passport confiscated, it was time for SI Zulkiflee to grab some food before he had to start fasting.
He was already three quarters into his 12-hour shift, but by the time the sun was rising, there were still cases that needed his attention. “I’ll be going home probably at about 2pm to 3pm,” he reckoned.
Mindless crimes and long hours are just some of the things the 36-year-old faces — a world CNA Insider gains access to for an inside look at the investigative work done in the Tanglin Police Division.
FROM BISHAN TO ORCHARD
More than a dozen reports, on average, are filed every hour in this land division covering areas such as Bishan, Bukit Timah, Kampong Java, Orchard and Toa Payoh.
It is a region that ranges from the heartlands to landed properties to the shopping and night entertainment belts, pointed out SI Zulkiflee. And then there are establishments like the Istana.
“We do face cases of drones flying over the Istana, and that poses a national security threat,” he said.
“We do get calls about suspicious items at these sensitive establishments, like the Istana, embassies and several ministries that come under our jurisdiction.”
When IOs attend to such incidents, they must ascertain what these items are and — along with their crime scene specialists — find forensic evidence such as DNA or fingerprints.
Last year, they were also involved in the major security deployment for the Trump-Kim summit. The “usual things (that) happen every night”, however, are the fights. And these can happen anywhere.
On one of SI Zulkiflee’s night shifts, a youth lodged a report at Toa Payoh Neighbourhood Police Centre, claiming to have been hit with a weapon by someone he knew. He had superficial injuries, which were observed to have healed.
It turned out that the incident had happened a few days earlier, in the northwest of Singapore. “He was undecided about whether he should report the matter … He fears for his safety,” said SI Zulkiflee.
“He did go to the hospital to seek treatment, and we’ll get in touch with the hospital.”
The first course of action, however, was to track down the attacker, starting with a background check — with the help of Jarvis, a screening platform that integrates multiple police databases, turning a 20-minute process into a five-minute search now.
“If he is deemed by me to be a violent person, I’d ensure that there would be enough manpower should the need arise,” SI Zulkiflee explained.
It could be a situation where we talk to him and he eventually opens the door. Or if it escalates into a life-threatening situation, then we may call on more officers.
In the event, the man let the police into his flat but was “very evasive”. “Initially, he didn’t even want to admit to what he did,” added SI Zulkiflee.
“It took some time … to make him understand the reason I was there was that I knew something. That’s why he started telling his story and admitted to the crime.”
To deal with the attendant safety risks, IOs carry a pistol and handcuffs on the job. “We’re also trained in defence tactics to bring a subject down,” said SI Zulkiflee. And there are violent subjects “at times”.
But he credits the ground response force — the ones responding to the 999 calls — with facing more danger than he does in conducting investigations when “the incident would’ve de-escalated”.
In fact, sometimes he has subsequently bumped into some subjects in the street, and “they’d still acknowledge me with respect”, he added.
Having been an investigator for eight years, he has also seen a few brazen criminals. One, for example, took the entire cash register out of a shop during operating hours. It was a case with “minimal” leads and forensic evidence.
But after days of conducting interviews and trawling through CCTV records near the shop, his team established a suspect, arrested him and took him to court.
One of his toughest cases was a foreign syndicate that used cloned cards to go round withdrawing money from automated teller machines, amounting to at least S$300,000 in total. “I was faced with a huge number of victims,” he noted.
A bank had notified the police of the likelihood of a syndicate at work, “and with the joint efforts of several departments, we managed to track this syndicate and brought them to justice”.
“After the syndicate was arrested, it was a painstaking three to four days of CCTV viewing as well as having to interview the accused persons,” he said.
“I wasn’t sleeping for those three to four days … I didn’t go home. I was practically living in the office.”
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Asked about his interviewing techniques, he shared that he sets a “baseline” by asking basic questions on where a suspect lives and works or whom the person lives with, for example.
“I’d observe his voice, his body movements … When I interview and he starts lying, I’d know,” he said.
It’s not only interviewing techniques that are important. Our evidence collected for a particular case plays a major part … Humans can lie, but evidence doesn’t.
Where there is no CCTV footage nor forensic evidence and where, say, a stolen item has no serial number, then these cases are “almost impossible” to solve.
“I would’ve already followed up on whatever leads I can find,” he added. “As long as my conscience is clear (and) there’s really no lead, then there’s nothing for the police to look into further.”
Watch: How police officers investigate crime (7:53)
There are many types of cases that IOs attend to, from break-ins to cheating to loan shark harassment as well as incidents of death, like a coroner’s case that occurred while CNA Insider was on the ground.
A man was pronounced dead at Tan Tock Seng Hospital after having difficulty breathing at home.
“Doctors at the hospital weren’t able to ascertain the cause of death,” said SI Zulkiflee. “That’s why they made it a coroner’s case — so police can … conduct further investigations.
“I spoke to the next of kin to find out what had happened at home, prior to the deceased being conveyed to the hospital. And I checked the body of the deceased for any injuries, any abnormalities.”
It was too early to classify it a natural death. But in such cases, he takes an empathetic, “softer approach” when talking to the relatives. Most of them, he said, understand why certain procedures are in place.
“They’re already in grief, and ultimately, we don’t want them to grieve any further. We try to talk to them nicely in this case,” he added.
But whatever the case, even if it involves a child, IOs must be “a neutral party” as well as “firm with the subject we’re interviewing”.
Behind his unruffled exterior, however, there are times when he gets frustrated — when he has been working for long hours and “still hasn’t eaten anything”. He said wryly: “My colleagues know that I’m an angry man when I don’t eat.”
The nature of his work means there is often a risk of that. Plain-clothes IOs are put on call — on “tour” as they term it — about four to five times a month.
This is the 12-hour shift, day or night, when they are on standby for any cases that uniformed officers refer to them. At any given hour, a team of three or four IOs are ready to respond to urgent reports.
This includes monitoring all online reports lodged by the public.
“We can’t stop (people) from venting whatever they want to vent in the report, so sometimes it’s difficult to understand what the person’s trying to tell us,” said SI Zulkiflee. “You have to read slowly.”
The aim, as with any ambulance or 999 call or a report filed in person, is to see if there is any “investigation value” to establish a criminal offence.
There are occasions when there are few such cases, for example when 80-plus reports came in without his team needing to be activated. But then towards the end, “it got a bit hectic” and the calls “kept coming in”.
“I’ll probably be in lock-up after this and clearing whichever accused (person) who was arrested in the last few hours,” he said after 13 hours of work.
A NEVER-ENDING QUEST
SI Zulkiflee was a ground response officer for eight years before he became an IO in 2011. And his first tour was a “culture shock”.
“It was the amount of calls that came in on my phone. I didn’t realise it was going to be that many,” he recalled.
“My phone couldn’t last me for the entire shift. I had to charge it probably two or three times. And even when I was eating, I couldn’t eat in peace.”
He got used to the job after six to seven months. And there have since been changes, like the use of smartphones, that have helped to reduce the workload.
“In the past, IOs would jot down everything in this book called the field book … whatever evidence we got at the scene,” he explained.
“When you came back to the office, you had to transfer it into the system … But right now, with the smartphone, everything is done online. So at the scene, I can straight away key in whatever observations I have.”
Not only is there no duplication of work, but also when IOs brief the Investigation Branch management in the mornings on offences committed or follow-ups required, this electronic system is used, replacing the printed copies of cases.
Still, there is a lot of paperwork to be done in putting up recommendations to the Attorney-General’s Chambers to address each case and, especially when a case goes to court, in preparing documents like the charges and statements of fact.
“IOs are required to facilitate the whole trial — basically, prepare the witnesses for interviews with prosecutors … (and) apply for subpoenas,” said SI Zulkiflee. “(We) also take the stand in court to give our evidence.”
Sometimes, IOs could be engaged in court “for days or even weeks”. And although serious crimes like rape and murder are referred to the Criminal Investigation Department, an IO like himself may still be “juggling about 30 to 40 cases”.
That means fielding calls from members of the public who want updates, even at 3am or 4am. “I’d always tell them that it’s the wee hours (and to) call back during office hours,” he said.
Some of them are okay; some of them are outright trying to find fault.
Some also question why the police cannot solve cases quickly when there are CCTV cameras. But as IO Lim Jian Xiong put it, such footage “is useful, but it isn’t a silver bullet”.
“Sometimes the footage may not be clear. Sometimes the identifying features of the subjects involved in the footage may not be distinctive enough for us to link it to an actual subject,” he said.
“Most of the time, we do need additional information and additional legwork … to link footage to the case.”
For all these challenges, there are supportive supervisors and collegial camaraderie to “make the work less painful”, said SI Zulkiflee, who is married without children.
“With the support … from my wife and my family, who understand my long hours, it helps in managing the fact that I don’t see home that often,” he added.
He also keeps going because of the “satisfaction of solving cases and the challenges that come with it”. “I love the fact that justice is served for the victims.”