ICA officer who set garments on fire at Tuas Checkpoint wanted to overcome phobia: Defence lawyer

Wan Ting Koh
Cropped Hand Of Woman Igniting Cigarette Lighter Against Black Background
Photo from Getty Images

SINGAPORE — For three consecutive days, an Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officer played with a lighter while on break or waiting for her shift to start.

On all three occasions, Ayu Wandira Sunarno set fire to clothes and caused a fire to break out at Tuas Checkpoint.

Ayu, a 24-year-old sergeant, was jailed for six months on Friday (6 December) after pleading guilty to two counts of committing mischief by fire by playing with a lighter flame, knowing that she could cause damage to property. One count of the same nature was taken into consideration for her sentencing.

Ayu’s lawyer told the court that her client was attempting to overcome her fear of fire when she committed the offences.

Set fire to prayer garments

On 5 July, at about 9.10pm, Ayu was at the fourth floor female locker room at Tuas Checkpoint ahead of her night shift.

Not wanting anyone to see her, Ayu headed to a female prayer room where she played with a lighter. However, a telukong (female prayer attire) caught fire. Instead of putting out the blaze, Ayu left the prayer room. One of her colleagues commented that there was a burning smell, and the officers in the locker area began searching for the source of the smell.

The group even turned off the power switches, thinking that there might be a short circuit. Feigning ignorance, Ayu helped her colleagues with the search. The group noticed smoke emitting from the prayer room and found the telukong on fire. They threw water on it before disposing of the burnt garment.

Ayu then began her shift as per normal.

The next day, after napping in the prayer room for an hour during her break, Ayu retrieved her lighter and began to play with it again at about 3.30am. Subsequently, another telukong caught fire.

Ayu turned away from the flame, thinking it would extinguish itself, but it did not. Ayu then woke a colleague who was napping in the room and they eventually used a floor mat to extinguish the fire. Her colleague notified their supervisors about the incident but Ayu simply went back to work.

On 7 July, Ayu repeated her actions, this time in a toilet at about 12.30am, while on her break. She set fire to a loose thread on a T-shirt handing on a clothes rack. When the shirt burst into flames, Ayu flushed the lighter down the toilet bowl and ran back into the locker room. She then lay down and pretended to sleep.

The fire spread to other clothes and towels, triggering the sprinkler system and the alarm. When asked about the incident, Ayu claimed that she had been asleep.

Damags to the clothes rack, false ceiling and wall tiles amounted to $401.04.

All the female officers were interviewed about the incident. While Ayu initially denied the offences in her first statement to the police, she admitted to them on 9 July.

Traumatised by cooking assignment in polytechnic: Defence lawyer

Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Stephanie Koh sought at least six months’ jail for Ayu, citing the potential harm that could have been caused.

The fires were started in confined spaces and had placed other ICA officers who were present at risk, said DPP Koh.

“On each occasion, instead of extinguishing the fires immediately, the accused allowed the fires to grow bigger while she pretended that she did not know there was a fire or what caused it,” she added.

“It is fortuitous, and not to the accused’s credit, that the fires were extinguished fairly quickly.”

Her lawyer, Sofia Bakhash, said that her client had been trying to overcome her fear of fire, brought on when a skillet she used erupted into flames during a cooking assignment.

Before working at ICA, Ayu was enrolled in a culinary diploma course in Republic Polytechnic, where a skillet caught fire during one of her presentations. While she was not injured, Ayu was traumatised and developed a fear of open flames. Ayu dropped out of the course on 30 March 2016 and later pursued a career with ICA.

Before her first offence, Ayu was watching a movie that triggered her trauma. It was while she was getting dressed that she felt a certain resolve to finally overcome her fear of open flames. “We are informed that at the juncture, she felt that the only way to get over this issue was to face it directly,” said the lawyer.

Ayu then committed the offences.

For each count of committing mischief by fire, Ayu could have been jailed up to seven years and fined.

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