Exclusive: Singapore using virtual reality in counterterrorism

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Interview with Ng Yeow Boon, Senior Director, Ops-Tech Group, Ministry of Home Affairs.

Image: SPF/Facebook

As the Trump-Kim summit takes place today in Singapore, security across the island has been ramped up.

One of the reasons Singapore was chosen as the host is its reputation for safety and stability. The country is investing in high-tech tools to support its public safety officials. The government uses virtual reality to simulate terrorist attacks, and is looking at how artificial intelligence can help them make quick decisions.

In an exclusive interview with GovInsider, the Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) tech chief shares how officers are prepared to respond to crises. When plunged into the chaos of an attack, they need to be able to work cohesively, Ng Yeow Boon, Senior Director of the Ops-Tech Group says.

Virtual team-building

Image: SPF/Facebook

In January, Singapore’s Home Team began using augmented reality and virtual reality to simulate terror attacks, knife-wielding hostiles, and other scenarios, training commanders in “team-based decision-making”, says Ng. “You feel that you are in a real situation, facing a gunman, and you have to act”, he explains. These simulated training exercises will take place at the newly-launched Home Team Simulation Centre.

MHA is moving away from “skills-based simulation” - like how to shoot a gun, steer a boat, or read a radar - towards more realistic and complex simulations with a first-person view, says Ng. In the virtual world, there are no limits. “An oil tanker on fire - you cannot [physically] simulate that”.

In these training sessions, dangerous scenarios unfold on-screen, made to look as if they are happening on an actual Singapore street. Up to 20 officers in a mock command centre provide instructions for those on the ground to follow. Each virtual exercise has an added layer of complexity: trainers can introduce disruptions and scenario changes to create unpredictability, testing officers’ decision-making skills while under stress.

Officers of the future

Singapore plans to automate some of the police work to cope with a shortage of manpower for public safety jobs. The country plans to use artificial intelligence “in a much more significant way”, along with facial recognition, to augment the abilities of officers and optimise limited resources, the country’s Home Affairs Minister announced last year.

Technologies like these can be a “big force multiplier” in officers’ work, Ng says. For instance, video analytics can help them interpret CCTV footage to detect “emerging events”, he says. “A fight, a riot, a person in distress - we should be able to pick this up.”

During mega-events such as the National Day Parade, Home Team agencies can coordinate with hospitals and supporting agencies better. “Information is received and shared almost instantaneously, when in the past probably there is a lag,” Ng explains. “You actually use a common architecture - just like all of us that’s on Whatsapp.”
“Information is received and shared almost instantaneously.”
In a similar way, agencies, officers, and responders can ‘share’ sensors, allowing for better collaboration. “Different agencies may have different sensors, all of which are able to come into one to complete a ‘common situation picture’, facilitating better decision-making,” says Ng.

The Ministry is also exploring drones to manage incidents such as fires, or keep major events secure, he adds. The Singapore Civil Defence Force, for instance, used them during a fire at a waste management plant last February to locate hotspots that firefighters on the ground couldn’t see.

New dynamics

While MHA is investing in these technologies, there must be clear benefits to officers and their day-to-day work, Ng says. “We continue to apply technology to pain points and not just focus on something that is very long-range and has very little connection to frontline officers in particular,” he remarks.

In the future, predictive policing could help officers derive insights from historical patterns, he adds. They will be able to suss out “trending hotspots where you may want to pay more attention than usual”, Ng explains. This not only increases the effectiveness of a single officer, it also helps to optimise on limited police resources.

Team dynamics and processes are also changing, with officers now operating in small and nimble teams, rather than in one large one. “Officials are more mobile, more connected. They don’t need to have one leader and twenty men like a platoon [in the military],” Ng points out.

Ultimately, MHA’s vision is to empower every single officer, and equip them with tools that can help them work smarter and safer, Ng believes. “Technology in the hands of very creative officers can transform the organisation,” he says.

This week, Singapore is on the international stage, and the world will witness history in the making. No matter the outcome of the much-awaited meeting between the US and North Korea, Singapore’s public safety officials must ensure it goes smoothly.