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February 22, 2018 Thursday | Last updated on 20/02/2018 12:46PM (Singapore)
 
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Home Team News Home / People / HT Officers / Safeguarding Our Borders with Science  
Published: 12 Feb 2018 05:01PM (Singapore)
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Safeguarding Our Borders with Science
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Home Team officers aren’t only dressed in blue; some of us wear white too – white lab coats, to be exact. Meet Lai Hui Ngee, one of our Guardians helping to keep our home safe and secure through science.
 
By Mike Tan
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Lai Hui Ngee, Senior Laboratory Manager at MHA’s Tuas Protective Analytical Facility. PHOTO: Muhamad Khair

It’s a reaction that Lai Hui Ngee can always count on – whenever an acquaintance learns that she works at a laboratory at Tuas Checkpoint, he or she will invariably say, “Oh, there’s a laboratory at the checkpoint?”

There is, and it’s doing critical work too. As Senior Laboratory Manager with the Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) Office of the Chief Science and Technology Officer (OCSTO), Hui Ngee leads a team of scientists and technicians at the Tuas Protective Analytical Facility (PAF). There, they analyse incoming shipments for toxic chemical agents, bio-terrorism threats (such as anthrax and the plague) and other dangerous or sensitive materials.

We asked Hui Ngee four questions about her work and how her team collaborates with officers from the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) to help keep our borders secure.

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Guardians in white: MHA’s laboratory at Tuas screens incoming shipments for dangerous or sensitive materials 24/7. PHOTOS: Muhamad Khair

Why did you choose Science as a vocation, and how did you join MHA?

I always found Science and Mathematics more interesting than Accounting, Business or the Arts!

After I graduated from the National University of Singapore with a degree in Chemistry, I was a chemist in a commercial laboratory that provided analysis services. I was there for three years before moving to the in-house lab for a firm that manufactured disk drives. After that, I returned to NUS, working with instruments for LC-MS (Liquid Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry), GC-MS (Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry) and so on. So I brought these experiences with me when I joined MHA in 2013.


Tell us about the Tuas Protective Analytical Facility.

It was set-up by MHA in 2009 as its first operational laboratory at the Singapore border to screen and detect incoming trucks with cargo for any CBRE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Explosive) materials. When we detect something that seems off, we take samples to do further analysis, and get results very quickly.

We’re always looking for ways to improve our screening processes. Technology evolves very fast and every few years, we’ll enhance our equipment and screening tools. In 2017, for example, we expanded our laboratory to accommodate more analytical instruments and detectors that are more sensitive and able to flag low traces of CBRE materials.

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Applied science: Inside the lab at the Tuas Protective Analytical Facility. PHOTO: Muhamad Khair

What’s a typical day for you at work?

Our work is never routine, and every day is a surprise!

Every morning, I go to the lab to check on our analysis and to ensure our operations are smooth. I also visit the sampling lanes where we screen incoming cargo from heavy vehicles. Tuas PAF operates 24/7, so we have a group of trained ICA officers – known as Security-Sensitive Material officers – who support us in our day-to-day operations. They have knowledge of CBRE materials and screening protocols, and it takes about 10 minutes for them to check each heavy vehicle. If anything unusual is detected, we’ll proceed with a more detailed lab analysis.

Tuas is the designated land checkpoint for hazardous cargo and livestock arriving in Singapore, so our lab also carries out daily bio-surveillance on trucks carrying avians such as chickens and ducks. We've been doing bio-surveillance for flu-related virus that are often associated with avians since 2009, after the H1N1 outbreak, with the aim of protecting our checkpoint operations and officers. Our bio-surveillance results are out in three hours. We do this daily. We have to be prepared, and that’s what keeps us on the job!


What do you love about your work as a Home Team officer?

That we have strong support from our supervisors and colleagues at OCSTO and MHA. We’re using science and technology to safeguard our borders, and that’s very satisfying.

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