Bag checks at MRT stations: ‘Why inspect my luggage and not his backpack?’

The backpack and luggage carried by Yahoo News Singapore’s Senior Correspondent Safhras Khan (left) and News Editor Vernon Lee (right) during their observations of random bag checks conducted at MRT stations recently. (Photo: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore)

By Safhras Khan and Vernon Lee

Two men entered a train gantry at Newton MRT station around the same time, with one holding a luggage and the other carrying a backpack.

A security officer at the station stopped the man with the luggage and asked for an inspection of the item by a counter.

The man who was stopped pointed to the backpack-carrying commuter who had just walked away towards the train platforms and asked the officer, “Why do you inspect my luggage and not his backpack?” Giving a quick scan of the items inside the luggage, the officer said, “Because your bag is very big.”

About half an hour later, the men arrived at Holland Village station and swapped the luggage and backpack. As soon as they walked through a gantry, the man pulling the luggage was stopped by a security officer while the backpack-carrying commuter managed to breeze past them.

An exchange at the bag check counter took place at the station that was similar to the one at Newton. The man who had his luggage checked asked the officer the reason for the inspection and was told it was a random check. When pressed whether backpacks were not the focus of such checks, the officer replied brusquely, “We check randomly, all bags.”

The men carrying the luggage and backpack happened to be the two reporters of this article who recently observed how random bag checks were carried out at MRT stations across all the Lines. In total, they visited nine stations over four hours to observe the security officers on duty.

At six of the stations, the reporters were not checked at all when they walked past the security officers. At the start of their assignment, they also observed there were no officers on duty at the bag counters of five stations over half an hour during lunchtime.

Yahoo News Singapore’s Senior Correspondent Safhras Khan had his luggage checked by a security officer stationed at Holland Village MRT station. Photo: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore

A deterrent for potential terrorists

When told about the observations made by Yahoo News Singapore, a security expert who is involved in providing security services at MRT stations said there are certain broad guidelines for bag checks given by clients and the authorities.

“We look at not only the size of the bags. We also look at the people carrying the bags, ascertain whether they look suspicious and then do the random bag checks. Even small plastic bags are checked,” said Kelvin Goh Ching Hua, general manager at Soverus, one of the three companies that provide security services at MRT stations along with Certis CISCO and Henderson Security Services. Goh added that he could not reveal more details on how such checks are conducted due to security reasons.

Assoc Prof Kumar Ramakrishna, head of Policy Studies at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, pointed out that backpacks have been used in past terror attacks, such as in Madrid, London and Manchester. As such, backpacks should be regularly checked as part of the security measures undertaken at train stations in Singapore, he said.

Security experts said that the main aim of random bag checks at the train stations is to act as a deterrent for would-be terrorists.

“For those who may be planning mischief, they will know that Singapore is not so lax or ignorant of what is going on around us,” said Ramakrishna.

Goh agreed, saying that the randomness of bag checks and the presence of security officers are effective in signaling to the public at large and potential terrorists that the relevant authorities are monitoring train stations closely.

Balance between security and smooth commuting

Raj Joshua Thomas, managing partner at security services firm TwinRock Global, said that while bag checks are the most visible security element, there is also a “layering” of other security processes taking place at the same time. These include the monitoring of CCTV cameras and the positioning of other security personnel who are not doing bag checks in different areas of train stations.

In addition to the comprehensive security measures in place at the stations, Ramakrishna said the frequency of security checks is based on the prevailing risk assessment at the national level. If intelligence information were to indicate a higher terror threat, then bag checks and armed patrols at the stations would be stepped up accordingly, he added.

Ultimately, there is a need to calibrate a fine balance between maintaining the security of the MRT system and facilitating the smooth flow of human traffic at train stations, experts said.

“When you have an area where there are many members of the public, you don’t want the security officers to overwhelm the flow of traffic so a bag check has to be done in an unobstructive manner,” Thomas said.

Ramakrishna pointed out that train stations are “important nodes” of Singapore’s economy. If the relevant authorities were to impose a strict security regime at the stations, it would have an impact on economic efficiency.

Goh said that if bag checks were too onerous, commuters would find it inconvenient to travel by trains.

“More importantly, you may send the wrong signal that we are in a state of heightened alert if we have to do more thorough checks. We should not let the terrorist threat affect our lives too much,” he added.

– additional reporting by Dhany Osman

Editor’s note: This article is dedicated to the memory of the late Safhras Khan, Yahoo News Singapore’s Senior Correspondent.