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EXCLUSIVE: Singapore’s fight against bioterrorism and virus outbreaks with science and technology Part 2

This is the second article of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.

Singapore is recognised as one of the safest countries in the world and has been holding that record for a long time. The nation topped the list for Gallup’s Global Law and Order Index for the year 2019, with an index score of 97 out of a possible 100. The Singapore Government has always been staying on top of all issues concerning the safety and security of the people.

In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, Singapore had shifted its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level from yellow to orange on Friday, 7 February. With the nation stepping up efforts to protect its citizens and businesses while fighting the spread of the virus, OpenGov looks to understand the measures taken by government agencies to handle such situations.

OpenGov had the opportunity to sit with Dr Lee Fook Kay, Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), to obtain more insights into how MHA is harnessing science and technology (S&T) in viable and innovative ways to ensure that it is at the forefront of safety and security efforts.

Dr Lee Fook Kay, Chief Scientist. Ministry of Home Affairs

Dr Lee was appointed as the first Chief Scientist of MHA in April 2019. Prior to his appointment as Chief Scientist and since 2008, Dr Lee Fook Kay had been the Chief Science and Technology Officer at MHA.

In that role, he steered and led MHA’s development efforts in CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosives), Forensics, Video Analytics, Biometrics, Profiling, Robotics, Automation, Artificial Intelligence and Human Factors, amongst others.

In particular, Dr Lee has had more than twenty years of experience in the CBRNE domain and has been instrumental in the strategic building and development of CBRNE capabilities in Singapore.

Today, he remains a key advisor in the National Advisory Board that oversees the strategic and policy issues in CBRNE. Dr Lee was also appointed as Singapore’s expert member in the IAEA Emergency Preparedness and Response Expert Group (EPREG) from 2012-2015.

Keeping up with a dynamic international threat landscape

Dr Lee said that it is important for laboratories to tap on international networks, to stay updated on developing trends in the threat landscape and be able to further grow their capabilities. He shared that the team leading the laboratory network is in regular contact with international agencies which are responsible for threat assessments, in the arena of CBRNE security.

Dr Lee shared that the team is also active in multilateral biosecurity dialogues. One such dialogue is being championed by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, in which countries such as Indonesia, Philippines and the United States participate as well. Dr Lee noted that reports of disease outbreaks, their severity and where they could have originated from are some of the key topics being discussed during such dialogues.

The leading staff of the Home Team laboratory Network also participate as a team of chemical and biological weapon experts with the United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism for chemical and biological defence. In the event of a chemical or biological incident, our experts can be activated to help out.

The Home Team also actively participates in the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is an international organisation that focuses on ensuring the peaceful use of nuclear energy and to prevent its use as nuclear weapons or for any other military purpose. Having been an expert with the agency for four years, Dr Lee said that information from the IAEA on nuclear and radiological materials, and their sources of detection is crucial to the Home Team’s learning.

Dr Lee also said that all of the Home Team’s CBRNE laboratories have received the ISO 17025 accreditation. This signifies that there is high trust in the testing procedures of the Home Team’s laboratories and the safety measures that are in place.

Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX)

Picture courtesy of Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore

The Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX), which was officially launched in December 2019, is set to enhance Home Team operations exponentially by integrating science and technology (S&T) capabilities. It aims to empower Home Team Departments in their common mission to keep Singapore safe and secure.

“HTX will facilitate greater co-operation and synergy across the entire homeland security ecosystem and galvanise the different Home Team Departments to work together even more effectively,” said Dr Lee.

Dr Lee also explained that HTX will work closely together with the Home Team’s operational forces on the ground to better understand the operational challenges faced and to better anticipate their S&T needs. As a result, it is well-positioned to develop customised solutions for use by the Home Team and also grow new and deep organic capabilities in S&T for homeland security.

 Collaborations with local research institutions

Dr Lee said that the S&T programmes in the Home Team also leverage collaborations with local research institutions on R&D, to shorten the development time in translating experimentally viable technologies to practical capabilities which help improve systems and operations.

One example of such a collaboration is nanotechnology research, which can provide highly effective materials for fingerprinting. The Home Team works closely with the Nanyang Technological University Singapore to engineer a silica powder that not only facilitates the lifting up of fingerprints but also collects samples for the chemical analysis of an individual’s consumption of drugs.

Future actions for boosting Singapore’s science and technology capabilities in safety and security

“I think the fourth industrial revolution and its advances in scientific and engineering developments in artificial intelligence and nanotechnology are proving to be a very exciting era for science and technology,” said Dr Lee.

Dr Lee cited the example of cosmic radiation, another interesting area of innovation which “harnesses the power of the universe”. He explained that muon particles, which are received by us from the universe on a daily basis, can be innovatively applied to replace X-rays for cargo screening. They can be deflected by certain materials in cargo to produce more complex imaging results, which include details on their density and other attributes.

Dr Lee also said that the Home Team is focusing on boosting organic capabilities in areas such as forensics, biometrics and behavioural profiling. The laboratory network and forensic investigation capabilities are to continue to grow as well, with a focus on CBRNE. Biometrics and behavioural profiling, and brain research will also see technological developments.

“I believe that driving organic capability development in these areas will put Singapore even more at the forefront of being technologically ready”, said Dr Lee.

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