Singapore’s vision for hands-free immigration clearance

By Vanessa Gu

The Immigration & Checkpoints Authority is hacking the manpower crunch with data analytics and automation.

Image: Singapore's Immigration & Checkpoints Authority.

More than 200 million travellers crossed Singapore's borders in 2018. The number is only set to increase with upcoming plans for a fifth terminal and the Tuas Megaport. With an ageing and shrinking local workforce, the city needs to secure its borders with less, and it's looking to transform its checkpoints with automation and data analysis.

“It is a very massive transformation,” according to the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority’s (ICA), Director of Planning and Review. It will “fundamentally change operations, how we work, how our roles will transform, and how we secure our borders,” says Assistant Commissioner Kelly Lim.

Lim spoke to GovInsider on ICA’s transformation, and she told us how the authority is automating its operations and making sure its officers are future-ready.

Hands-free immigration clearance

From 2022, Singapore residents will go through immigration checkpoints without taking out their passports. With an Automated Border Control system, they will be identified on-the-go by biometric markers like irises, or facial features. “You don't even need to pull out your passport for clearance, you will just be cleared on the move,” Lim says.

ICA wants “automated clearance as the norm”, Lim says, even for incoming visitors. “Majority of travellers are genuine travellers” she adds, and they should be facilitated. But this does not mean that human officers are now obsolete, she clarifies. Instead, the future of immigration officers will be mobile.

With the new clearance concept, officers will not be stationed behind counters, but assist visitors and residents on the move. In the event where visitors require more scrutiny, officers will approach with a mobile clearance application on their handheld devices, Lim explains. “If you have been assessed to be eligible for entry, the officer will grant you clearance on the spot with his mobile device,” Lim says. And if more assessment is needed, they will be referred to a secondary office.

Contactless immigration trials are currently underway at Singapore’s Tuas land checkpoint with Malaysia, and Lim says these are expected to shave immigration processing time by about 40 percent. “I don't imagine anywhere in the world that there is a breeze-through kind of clearance on the move, and if we can do that, I think that really speaks volumes,” she adds.

Data analytics to secure borders

Automation will be the backbone of ICA’s transformation, Lim says. However, the move is “not as straightforward as just removing counters and adding on lanes,” she quips. Massive amounts of data need to be collected and processed “to do that risk assessment and to inform that logic in that system to grant you entry or not,” she explains.

Under the New Clearance concept, arriving visitors will be subject to pre-arrival assessment. Based on the information collected from various data sources, “we will determine their risk profile using data analytics,” Lim says.

One data source will be electronic arrival cards for foreign visitors. Since October 2018, foreign visitors have had the option of filling up personal information and trip through ICA’s mobile app. Besides facilitating pre-arrival screening, ICA is also exploring the use of electronic Visit Passes to notify visitors on how long they can stay in the country.

Manpower transformation

ICA’s transformation will change how the 6,000 officers across different job functions work. It is bound to create “some discomfort and anxieties among officers,” Lim says, and she wants to reduce that anxiety by equipping every officer with skills and tools needed for their new roles.

The immigration authority is collaborating with Singapore Polytechnic to develop customised and stackable courses for officers, she reveals. Regardless of their roles, officers in ICA will be nominated to undergo a Digital Confidence course “to step up their data confidence,” Lim says. With data analytics set to be a big part of ICA’s future, Lim wants every office to know “what data is about, and how we can better make use of data.”

To make training more accessible to officers stationed at checkpoints across the island, ICA is building facilities right where they work. These include facilities for simulation training where officers can train with their teams on how they can react to situations on-the-ground, and online courses that officers can access during lull periods at work.

ICA has set itself an ambitious goal to roll out the bulk of its transformation by 2022 to cope with the increasing travel volume and manpower crunch. Meanwhile, Lim says: “we are already thinking about what's the next leap for us.”