Photography by the author.
For many security officers, being deployed to condominiums is last on their list of choices for job postings.
On paper, it may sound like a cushy job. A condo is a relatively safe and low-risk property, and all officers are required to do are register incoming vehicles, conduct regular patrols, and monitor CCTV cameras in the guardhouse.
But in fact, the small and cramped guardhouse may just be the safest place in the condo. Outside those four walls, it’s a jungle out there.
Officers are at the beck and call of the hundreds of residents and their properties’ managing agents, even if many of the duties that they are expected to fulfil are not officially part of their job scope. They double up as conflict mediators, technicians, electricians and even cleaners at times.
In the wee hours of the night, if there is a blown light bulb or a puddle of dog pee in the lift, security officers are the first responders to such “emergencies”. They are expected to get their hands dirty to solve the problem immediately, and they don’t get a penny more. And if an officer gets electrocuted while fixing a light, it’s just bad luck. He’s not insured for such tasks.
Hence the word “security” in their job title carries little weight. At condos, officers are merely pushovers that can be kicked around by bullies who live in expensive homes and drive flashy cars.
In April, I captured in photos several lapses in the security industry. Officers were caught sleeping at their guard posts in the middle of the night. I also learnt that several of them had been working full-day jobs before performing their security duties.
But I had merely scratched the surface of a problematic industry that has long been beleaguered by low wages and long working hours.
Residential security, which forms the largest segment of the security market, has for years been a hotbed of complaints from both security agencies and their clients.
On top of the list of problems is how security is already fundamentally viewed. To residents and the Management Corporation Strata Title (MCSTs) that manage the condos, a security guard is no more than an odd-job labourer.
“We have developed the idea over decades that a security officer is a jaga. The jaga in the old days was basically a caretaker of the property, but he’s also considered a security guard because he’s tasked to chase away trespassers,” says Raj Joshua Thomas, president of the Security Association of Singapore.
“The industry is no longer the same. We’ve moved on from that already and mindsets have to change. Security is an important profession and we are professionals in this area.”
Unfortunately, this flawed mindset that Thomas refers to is so deeply entrenched that security officers at some condos do not get the respect they deserve. Instead of being a symbol of authority, their uniforms pin a target on them for verbal abuse.
In March, a video of a man railing against his condo’s security officer went viral on social media. The officer had simply issued him repeated warning letters about violating parking rules at the condo. Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg for so many other cases of mistreatment of security officers that aren’t documented. Scolding and shouting at officers are a common affair, while agencies that I speak to share that their employees have even been spat on and slapped by residents and the condo’s management.
Ardi of Spear Security shares how an officer was once tailed by a condo resident when he was on his regular lunch break. The resident took photos of him buying food at a coffee shop, and submitted them to the managing agent as evidence of the officer abandoning his post. At another condo, residents installed their own surveillance cameras inside guard posts to spy on officers.
At condos, the resident is king. They pay exorbitant maintenance fees, effectively making them the security officers’ paymasters. Unsurprisingly, there is the tendency to feel entitled to one’s actions, however unreasonable. Accordingly, security officers are pretty much helpless when residents defy their instructions or hurl abuse at them.
According to Robert Wiener, president of the Association of Certified Security Agencies, most MCSTs and managing agents do not fully back their security teams when disputes arise. They also rarely take action against residents who infringe by-laws unless it’s a very serious case.
The phenomenon of deploying older officers to condos only makes matters worse, and it’s a problem that won’t be solved any time soon.
MCSTs and residents have frequently complained about having to deal with officers who are slow, unresponsive, and perhaps even unfit to do patrols around the condos’ premises. But with the industry already facing a dearth of talent, it’s hard to attract young officers to fill those positions in the first place.
Let’s be honest, a condo isn’t the Istana. With Singapore already the safest country in the world, there’s not much in a condo that a security officer is realistically “protecting”. Some condos, like the one my parents live in, even employ as many as six to seven guards. It’s unnecessarily excessive when you consider their primary roles.
Security is thus superseded by the other tasks that the officer is also expected to fulfil, like inspecting water pumps, managing facilities bookings, and being the intermediary between the condo’s management and residents.
In other words, a residential security officer performs a front-facing “customer relations” cum estate management job, which isn’t appealing to the younger talent. Thus it’s no surprise that most of them prefer to be on the prowl for shoplifters at departmental stores or join the auxiliary police. Such postings offer them a greater sense of purpose and job satisfaction.
With an estimated shortage of about 20,000 officers today, this leaves agencies with no choice but to continually deploy older – sometimes even elderly – officers to residential properties.
“I’ve had condos who specifically requested for young and fit officers, and I just reply that I cannot take up the contract because there is no way that is going to happen,” says one owner of a security agency who declined to be named.
Joshua, who runs security firm TwinRock Global, adds: “Any agency that promises to deploy ‘young’ and ‘fit’ officers to condos are just bluffing, and they will not be able to perform. Then the MCSTs will be frustrated and it will be a never-ending cycle.”
He proposes that the current wide-ranging job scope of residential security officers be segregated so that officers can focus solely on their security duties. The enforcement of by-laws and other estate management functions could then be performed by a custodian.
“If MCSTs still insist that officers perform all these duties, then they should pay us more so that we can send our officers for the relevant training. Then it will be fair and make sense. This way, we can also create a profession within a profession and attract people who are interested in doing facilities management and not just being the ‘kickaround’ security officers,” he adds.
Another major problem with the security contracts drawn up by condos is the inclusion of liquidated damages. For instance, a security agency was once forced to pay $27,000 in liquidated damages for a contract worth $25,000. Another firm was slapped with a $30,000 penalty for missing clocking points while on patrol, but it turns out that the condo’s security system was already faulty to begin with.
For the longest time, security officers were one of the lowest earners in the country. Recently introduced schemes by the Security Tripartite Cluster (STC), which comprises the union, security associations and government agencies, have been long overdue to raise officers’ wages.
The Progressive Wage Model (PWM) is essentially a minimum wage for every level in an officer’s career. Officers will also see their annual basic pay increase by around $300 next year, followed by an annual 3 percent increase. With the removal of the overtime exemption in 2021, it will be illegal to make officers work more than 72 overtime hours in a month. Previously, they would clock on average up to 95 overtime hours a month.
How they were able to perform their duties to the best of their ability when they were so knackered was anybody’s guess, and it’s no wonder that sleeping on the job became a common affair.
But these initiatives are also a double-edged sword. With condos already used to paying for cheaper security contracts, these schemes will only make officers more expensive to hire. An officer who previously earned a basic monthly salary of $600 with little to no overtime pay would now earn a starting wage of $1,100, with increments of $75 in 2019 and 2020. By 2021, he could expect a raise of $150.
Consequently, MCSTs may feel more inclined to engage fewer officers to fulfil the same duties, thus further worsening the manpower shortage. Security agencies that try to lowball the market will also ultimately feel the pinch as they would not be able to afford the ever-increasing salaries of their officers.
Without a total transformation, it’s hard to see how the security industry can remain afloat with outdated operational procedures and mindsets.
Technology has recently been championed as a crucial piece of the puzzle. In February, the government announced its security industry transformation map (ITM). It would invest $10 million in the next three years to support technology and innovation in the industry, and help buyers source for services that best meet their security needs.
Steve Tan, executive secretary of the Union of Security Employees (USE), says the STC is working on buyers outreach sessions and many other programmes that tackle the problem from the perspectives of the multiple stakeholders involved. “This ensures that the sector heads towards man-machine [integration] and a mindset shift to deploying security in an effective and productive manner.”
Steve adds that the nature of residential security offers huge potential for technology to offset the severe manpower shortage. He cites the example of Japan and other countries where apartment buildings are almost fully automated without having the need for a security guard.
“But many MCSTs still prefer to have warm bodies around in their condos, even if they are not doing anything. They also do not want to spend on technology.”
For change to happen, residents and MCSTs must first see technology and manpower as one holistic service instead of two separate entities.
At the moment, most condos tender contracts for security systems and officers separately. A vendor would simply install the required number of CCTV cameras at pre-designated locations without actually considering a condo’s real security needs. On the other hand, a contract for manpower, which would be renewed annually, would simply list the required headcount to man these systems.
Neither contractor is required to do a proper risk assessment of the premises to offer a comprehensive security solution.
Over time, lapses in the condo’s security would have a snowball effect, as Brian Ong discovered when he took over the chairman role of Cherry Hill Condominium a few years ago.
He was shocked to find that 20 to 30 percent of the CCTV cameras were faulty and had not once been replaced because the original vendor was no longer in existence. Many of the cameras were also placed in blind spots or dark areas. Security officers were thus unable to conduct investigations into offences or crime because of the horrid image quality of video recordings.
At the same time, he was frequently receiving complaints about officers using their phones while on duty.
So Brian took the plunge and made the unprecedented move of awarding a single contract to one agency, AGSI, to integrate a new security system and restructure the manpower. Today, Cherry Hill is the first condo in Singapore to have most of its security operated by an off-site command centre.
Digital CCTV cameras at the Serangoon residence relay ‘live’ high-definition footage back to an office in Jurong East. There, security officers closely watch the multiple cameras displayed on the big screen. The images are crystal clear and I can clearly make out the faces of residents. At any time, officers can select a particular camera to rewind and review the footage on his own terminal.
The system also allows officers to set up an invisible trip-alarm zone at danger-prone areas, for example the swimming pool, by simply drawing a box around the desired area on the computer.
Standing in the command centre feels like being in a Jason Bourne film, where the CIA uses all the technology at their disposal to hunt down the wanted man. Nothing escapes the eyes of these officers here. Not even a sneaky dog which decides to use the lift as its toilet.
“We had a case where dog poo was found in the lift. Previously, it would have taken us a few days to catch the owner responsible, if we could even find clues in the low-quality footage. But with the guys in the command centre analysing the footage, we resolved it in a day,” says Brian.
Such sophisticated camera systems are typically employed by casinos and the police, and could cost a few hundred thousand dollars to implement. But because AGSI’s package is designed to effectively reduce manpower needs with technology, Brian reveals that his condo only had to pay around $70,000 to upgrade, just slightly more than hiring two security officers a year.
AGSI’s Gary Haris shares that the company’s integrated security solution could save a condo a million dollars over 10 years.
“This is the future of residential security. Condos must realise that they are going to be paying more for security every year, and they need to invest in technology to complement the work of security officers instead of depending on warm bodies to do all the work. That is neither productive nor cost-efficient,” says Gary.
The agency is currently in talks with 10 other condos, and Gary says the ball now lies in the court of MCSTs to embrace change or be left behind when costs rise further.
Gary assures me that while technology may drastically cut the boots on the ground, it does not spell the end of a security officer’s career. The changes in job scope and security needs mean that there is an increased demand for highly skilled officers to operate IT systems and conduct analysis work, and they will continue to receive training to upskill themselves as technology becomes more advanced.
This, in essence, is the transformation that the industry needs to shake off the public’s negative perception and to be viewed as a professional field.
While the security agencies will continue to work with USE on that front and convince MCSTs to embrace change, Joshua says the onus is still on the agencies to progress and improve.
“We can talk about all the problems in the residential security sector, but we must also look at what we need to do to reform ourselves. In our line of business, it’s very easy for us to descend to the mistake of treating our officers as digits and products. We cannot lose the core human value of our work, and we need to make that apparent to them.”
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