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Published: 03 Feb 2011 05:00PM (Singapore)
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Riding on to bigger dreams
In the first of our women in policing series, Singapore Police Force's first woman United Nations peacekeeping contingent commander shares her career insights and about leadership opportunities for women police officers.
By Tan Yi Wen
The SPF’s first woman commanding officer of the Traffic Police (TP) Patrol Unit, Superintendent Sng May Yen (centre), with the officers from her unit, Corporal Iswandi Bin Said (left) and Corporal Roszliana Binte Md Sufaat (right). PHOTO: Supt Sng May Yen.

From peacekeeping in Timor-Leste, to identifying victims of the 2004 Asian Tsunami, and to raiding illegal gambling dens, Superintendent (Supt) Sng May Yen has seen much action in her 15-year police career.

So what sparked off her passion for a police career?

A simple dream.

To be able to ride on the large Traffic Police motorcycles. 

Not only has she fulfilled that dream of becoming one of the first two woman police officers to ride the large and heavier patrol bikes on duty, the 39-year-old became the first woman commanding officer of the Traffic Police (TP) Patrol Unit, which she served from 2008 to 2010, leading more than 150 officers. 

The role of women police officers has evolved and grown over the years in the Singapore Police Force (SPF). Supt Sng has benefited from the changes.

“Increasingly, we have been given equal opportunities as our male counterparts. We are also seeing more female officers holding higher positions in the force,” she said.

Supt Sng started out as a junior officer in the all-female mobile squad in 1990 where she rode the smaller 125cc Piaggio Traffic Police scooter. 

She left the force after two years to further her studies and rejoined in 1995 as a senior officer, where she was posted to the Central Police Division as an Investigating Officer.

In the past, Supt Sng said the job scope for the women mobile squad was limited to illegal parking and patrols around the city area.

Back then, her male colleagues would be assigned to patrol in the larger 750cc motorcycles.
Several years later while at the Traffic Police Patrol Unit, she was able to ride the 800cc Honda VFR motorcycle during patrols.

The patrol unit now has both male and female traffic police officers working together in different teams. The women officers perform more diverse duties such as expressway patrols and setting up of roadblocks, just like their male teammates. 

Some of the women officers under Supt Sng’s charge are also keen to follow in her footsteps. They have requested to learn to ride the Class 2 motorcycle. 

“I simply have no words to describe my happiness in being able to work in my dream job as the Commanding Officer of the Traffic Police Patrol Unit,” said Supt Sng. “The sense of pride just overwhelms me whenever I ride the big bike on the road while on duty and strangers would smile and wave at me.” 

Supt Sng rides the 800cc Honda VFR motorcycle while on patrol duty when she was the Commanding Officer of the Traffic Police's Patrol Unit from 2008 to 2010. She also owns a Harley Davidson motorcycle. PHOTO: Supt Sng May Yen.

In 2001, she was deployed to Timor-Leste as part of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) peacekeeping mission.

Due to her traffic police experience, she was assigned to the traffic planning team for the East Timor’s Independence Day Celebrations. She was in charge of training the local police force in traffic operations, as well as the traffic operations during the Independence Day Celebrations.

Recalling the experience, Supt Sng said it was challenging as her team of three officers had to plan the entire traffic arrangements for the two-week celebrations. 

With the help of about five more officers, Supt Sng had to recruit, brief and train the new local police officers within a period of about two months to carry out basic traffic control and escort operations for visiting VIPs such as the then Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, American President Bill Clinton and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. 

Her team took photos of traffic hand signals to teach local police officers how to use the signs for traffic control. The trainees were also given traffic control practical training at road junctions.

When the local police officers did not have enough motorcycles for the traffic operations, Supt Sng had to source for them. She ended up borrowing bikes from the Timorese Health Ministry’s. 

“It was quite amazing thinking back now. There were many busy periods during the two-week celebrations and I didn't sleep for three days as the activities went on. But I was lucky that I had a good team,” said Supt Sng. 

Supt Sng (right) and fellow UN Peacekeeper Supt Lilian Tan (left) share a fun moment with the Timorese children during her peacekeeping stint at the 2007 United Nations Integrated Mission in East Timor (UNMIT). PHOTO: SPF Public Affairs Department

Since 1989, the SPF has taken part in the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions in Namibia, South Africa, Cambodia and Timor-Leste. SPF has been deploying officers to Timor-Leste since 2000.

For Supt Sng, she had the privilege of being selected by SPF for two of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force (UNPKF) deployments.

After her year-long stint in the 2001 UNTAET, Supt Sng went back to Timor-Leste again in 2007, this time as SPF’s first woman contingent commander. She led a team of 21 officers to the United Nations Integrated Mission in East Timor (UNMIT).

“In our interactions and engagement with the local police, we gave them the confidence that female officers can also perform as well and assume positions that were traditionally held by male counterparts. This in turn encouraged other abled female UN police officers to take on bigger responsibilities,” she said. 

The UN aims to increase the participation rate of woman police officers to 20 percent by 2014. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said it is “because women bring an essential extra dimension to one of our most important tasks — bringing peace, stability and development to populations recovering from conflict”.

Currently, woman police officers make up 8.5 percent of the 13,000 peacekeeping police officers.

According to a United Nations Radio report, women police officers are needed in areas where there has been sexual violence, to escort women and children and also inspire the women in the local communities to become more independent. 

Supt Sng (right) shares her love for children when she served as SPF’s first woman contingent commander during the United Nations Integrated Mission in East Timor (UNMIT) in 2007. PHOTO: Supt Sng May Yen.

In 2005, Supt Sng also managed to put such skills to good use during the aftermath of the 2004 Asian Tsunami crisis.

The social work graduate was part of the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) team deployed to Phuket, Thailand two weeks after the tsunami. She was again sent to Phuket a few months later as the Singapore Liaison at the Information Management Centre (IMC) to help Singaporeans identify their missing family members. 

Although police work involves dealing with bodies, Supt Sng said her experience in Thailand was different from the usual investigative police work because she had to bring the victims’ next-of-kin to identify and collect their loved ones’ decomposing bodies or skeletons, which was often all that remained of the tsunami victims.

In one instance, she recalled travelling to the town of Khao Lak, about 100 kilometres north of Phuket, with a tsunami victim’s relatives.

From finding a temple to cremate the body to guiding the family members through security checks to bring the ashes back to Singapore, Supt Sng had to help the victim’s family members through numerous processes but one of the hardest tasks was the actual identification of the body. 

To prepare the family before they saw the body of their loved one, she brought them to the site of the hotel where the victim had been staying just before disaster struck. 

Upon arrival at the mortuary, she has asked to see the body before the relatives so that she could check the condition of the body. This was to prepare the family members and help ease the shock from seeing their loved one in a decomposing state. 

“When I brought the family there I was a bit worried because what they see is no longer the full body but just a set of bones. So you can imagine the sadness,” said Supt Sng.

The family members, though quite calm when they claimed the body, initially could not accept that the set of bones belonged to their loved one. 

Therefore, Supt Sng had to do a lot of explanation to them about the identification process through dental records matching. She reassured them of the high accuracy of such methods. 

“It was a very depressing working environment because every day you just deal with bodies and the condition of the bodies were very pitiful, especially when it comes to the processing of small babies and children,” said Supt Sng, who also said she loves children.

Taking the experience positively, she said: “But maybe I’m fated to go there and help the family bring their loved one’s body back.” 

Despite the dismal work, Supt Sng said the officers learnt a lot from their experience.

For her, the challenging environment taught her how to better empathize with victims’ families and help family members make sense of their sadness, grief and anger.

“It was the mental and emotional resilience that helped me through more than my technical expertise in doing the job,” said Supt Sng.

Besides her overseas police work and her years with the Traffic Police, Supt Sng saw much action during numerous raids of illegal gambling dens as the Deputy Head of the Gambling Suppression Branch in the Criminal Investigation Department from 2002 to 2005.

While she found her time in the Traffic Police most memorable, her overseas missions have also given her invaluable experiences. 

The six female police officers who are part of the 5th batch of UNMIT peacekeeping officers currently in Timor-Leste. This 21-person contingent has the most number of woman peacekeepers in SPF’s UNPKF history. PHOTO: Supt Sng May Yen.

In October 2010, Supt Sng was deployed to Timor-Leste as part of SPF’s UNPKF for the third time. She continues her peacekeeping mission for UNMIT as the contingent commander, this time with more female police officers and new members going for the first time, in the 21-person strong contingent. 

Reflecting on her career, she said that when most people think about a mission, they usually feel it is a man’s job. 

Supt Sng feels that women police officers are just as capable to take on the “man's job” and step up to become leaders.

“You will never know what you can achieve and the difference you can make until you try,” she said. “I never thought I would be the first female overseas contingent commander.”

That is one of the reasons why she is grateful to SPF’s management for giving her many opportunities.

“As a police officer, regardless of gender, we face similar risks in our jobs. But our competencies speak for itself,” she said. 

“In terms of risk-taking we may not be as bold as the guys. When I went for the mission (in Timor-Leste), I told my officers that my main aim is that if 21 officers go, then 21 must come back safely. In terms of risks, the women may not be as bold, but I think we can manage as well.”
Check out more photos of the Supt Sng May Yen and the teams she lead in the Singapore Police Force. 
Interested in a becoming a police officer? Visit Home Team Careers website here.
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Commander Spotlight: “[The] example he sets makes us want to be better leaders, better officers.”
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