The Police Coast Guard of Singapore, formerly known as the Marine Police, is responsible for maintaining law and order in Singapore’s waters, including its surrounding islands. Tony Tan, who served with the Marine Police for over two decades, told us a bit about his adventures on the high seas.
Laid-back and jovial, retiree Tony Tan, 75, looks just like your average grandfather. Unlike most grandfathers, however, Tony served in the police force for 25 years, 23 of which were spent with the Marine Police. Despite his unassuming appearance, he’d clearly seen a lot of extraordinary things in his day: midway through our interview, he described how pulling decomposing corpses out of the sea used to be part of his job.
“It happens very fast. Once someone drowns, the body will begin decomposing within 24 hours. And the eyeballs will usually be missing, because fish attack the eyes [first]. Whenever we retrieved a body, we would put it in the back of our boat, cover it with a sheet, and then bring it back to our headquarters on the mainland.”
The second of 14 siblings, the young Tony used to visit his father, a chief clerk, at Queensway Police Station. As such, it came as no surprise when Tony enrolled in the Police Academy at the age of 19, after finishing school in April 1962.
“As long as you were healthy and you met all their requirements – like height, eyesight – you could join. We [new recruits] had a normal, basic, six-month training from April to December on things like normal drills, unarmed combat, weapons training, those sorts of things. Everyone who joined the police force had to go through it.”
When asked if training had been tough, Tony shrugged and smiled. “I wouldn’t say so… I guess because we were young and all, we could endure. As long as you ate properly and got enough sleep, it was okay.”
Tony during his days as a trainee officer in the Police Academy, circa 1962. Photo courtesy of Tony Tan
After graduating from the Police Academy, Tony was assigned to a land police unit that oversaw the area around Orchard Road, stretching from the Nassim neighbourhood to Killiney and down to Dhoby Ghaut. He would patrol the area, where several government ministers’ residences were located at the time, on foot or by bicycle. He was later transferred to a police post around Havelock Road.
In 1964, at the height of the Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation (or Konfrontasi), Tony was transferred to the Marine Police, which had been looking to bolster their numbers in light of the conflict. “I think [the Marine Police] needed more manpower, so about 30 or 40 of us were transferred from various other police divisions,” he recalled.
To prepare him for the change in environment, Tony underwent re-training, which included studying the law of the sea. However, as he was only 21 at the time, he was not permitted to obtain his helmsman licence until 1967, and instead served as a crew member on Marine Police patrol boats in the interim.
Tony recalled going out to sea in small, old wooden boats. “We would try to stop [the Indonesian vessels] from infiltrating our waters. If we saw one of their boats, we would radio back to headquarters and report that we encountered one. Their boats were much bigger than ours and our engines were small and old, so our boats were slow. But [the Indonesian vessels] would generally stay in international waters, they wouldn’t come disturb us so much.”
Tony in his “mobile office” after his transfer to the Marine Police and gaining his helmsman licence, circa the late 1960s/early 1970s. Photos courtesy of Tony Tan
Apart from the stand-offs with Indonesian vessels, Tony’s job also involved more conventional police work, such as patrols, maintaining peace and order, and chasing down criminals. In this respect, going to work on any given day could involve a fair amount of drama.
Tony related a case where a group of Indonesian men had come to Singapore to buy and sell goods. While in Singapore, however, they burgled several houses with the intention of selling the loot back in Indonesia. Early one morning, the headquarters informed Tony’s unit that the criminals were in the area they patrolled – the waters to the south and southwest of mainland Singapore.
“We got a message from headquarters to keep a look out for them, so we went out and waited in the outer sea, near international waters. We encountered two or three boats, which were going very fast. As we had had enough time to go out and wait for them, when they saw us coming they had no choice but to turn around. In the end, they stopped on St. John’s Island and we arrested all five or six of them.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, Tony and his unit made regular stops on the Southern Islands, such as Pulau Semakau and Pulau Seking. Over a thousand people used to live in kampongs on Pulau Seking before they were resettled to make way for landfills and petrochemical facilities. Tony used to disembark and patrol the islands, just as he once did on the mainland. If any islanders were unwell, Tony and his team would bring them to the mainland to receive medical attention. “Sick, injured, about to give birth – as long as they called and we happened to be in their area, we’d go pick them up.”
Towards the end of the 1970s, Tony found himself attending to Vietnamese “boat people” who had arrived in Singapore – refugees from the Vietnam War who had fled their homes and sailed south in search of aid. “[The refugees] would anchor their boats in Changi. You had to see them…poor things. The boats were overcrowded – the bottom of the boat would be full of people, the top too,” Tony said, his normally chipper manner faltering as he recalled the heart-wrenching sight.
Tony’s unit was called in to help maintain order, and witnessing the refugees’ plight first-hand was one of the things he found hardest in his job. They would give the refugees food and water, repair their boats, and bring those who were severely ill to Bedok Jetty, where a makeshift camp with a medical team had been set up. However, due to Singapore’s policy of only allowing refugees ashore temporarily and not granting them long-term residence, those not taken in by another country were eventually sent back to sea.
According to Tony, things were “relatively quieter” in the 1980s; the police mainly encountered smugglers dealing in contraband liquor and cigarettes, which they acquired from errant cargo ship captains. “If the captain wanted to make a bit of money, he would take the ship outside Singapore’s waters, break the seal on the cargo crates, and sell the stolen goods to the smugglers,” he explained. “If we encountered them, we would arrest them, but if they escaped and fled inland we would tell the shore police to go after them. They wouldn’t try to attack us because they weren’t armed, but they would try to evade us and escape capture.”
Tony posing with US warships (left) and aircrafts (right) that had temporarily docked in Singapore, circa 1970s. Photos courtesy of Tony Tan
As for the corpses, Tony explained that accidental deaths by drowning were not uncommon, particularly among intoxicated seamen. “Vessels have this thing called the gangway, which you use to climb onto the ship. There is a tiny platform that you have to jump onto, and then go up the gangway steps from there,” he said. “So usually at night, when the seamen returned after going for drinks during their breaks, some of them would fall into the water while trying to board the ship. Once they fell, they would sink almost straightaway. It could take us over a day to find the body.” At other times, sailors would get into drunken competitions – such as daring each other to swim from one ship to another – which would come to a tragic end. Tony and his team would then be called in to retrieve the bodies.
“You have to have compassion. After all, they are dead, and as their fellow human being…” he said, his voice trailing off. “But later on, as I saw more cases, I treat it as normal, lah. If you don’t do it, then who will?”
Tony eventually retired from the Marine Police in 1988, when he was 45 (the retirement age for officers back then). He worked in clerical jobs until he finally retired in 2000, when his first grandchild was born. Although he appreciated the regular office hours, after decades of shift work with the police, he missed the sea.
“I missed it, I missed it very much,” he said, with a touch of wistfulness in his voice. “Now, I don’t get to go back out to sea, unless [I were to] hire a boat and go out, and that’s expensive. It’s a different environment there, with all the fresh air. In the open sea, with no buildings around you can see a long way. During those years, I spent more time on sea than on land.”
In his understated fashion, he continued, “I enjoyed the work, but it’s just a normal thing, protecting Singapore from outsiders.”
 The Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation (1963 -1966) was a conflict waged by Indonesia in opposition to the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. The breakdown in relations involved several cross-border military attacks, raids, and bombings.
Written by: Chew Hui Lin
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