SEE PHOTOS & WATCH VIDEO: Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police Zuraidah Abdullah – the Airport Police Division’s first woman Commander and the Her World Woman of the Year 2015 – opens up about growing up in a kampung, being gender-blind, and ensuring the safety of the 50 million-plus passengers who pass through Changi Airport every year
The Her World Woman of the Year 2015 – the first from a uniformed organisation – is fidgeting uncomfortably in her chair as we do her makeup and hair for our photo shoot. She is evidently disinclined towards cosmetics—especially while in uniform.
In front of me is a trailblazer who, on June 3, 2013, became the first woman to hold the rank of Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police – the third-highest rank in the Singapore Police Force (SPF) – and she is getting antsy.
As our makeup artist, Lolent, lifts the eyeshadow palette closer to her face, Zuraidah sneaks a peek, pulls back when she sees a fuschia hue and exclaims: “No, no, no! Not that!” Lolent smiles and tells her calmly as he points to a neutral shade: “Don’t worry, I’m using this one—very light! Very natural!”
Zuraidah, 53, sighs and says to me: “You wanted to know what the most stressful thing I’ve been through is, right? This!”
Her unease is completely forgivable. What she is familiar and comfortable with is wearing a uniform. After all, her entire life has been filled with experiences that relate to it.
A DIFFERENT DAY, EVERY DAY
Zuraidah’s grand-uncle, the penghulu (village chief) of Kampung Pandan (where the HDB flats opposite Jalan Mas Kuning now stand), was himself a police officer. He was an imposing figure of authority, but not the reason Zuraidah was inspired to join the force.
In the 70s, she was actively involved in the National Cadet Corps from the time she was a student at Tanglin Technical Secondary School (now Tanglin Secondary School) to her days at St Andrew’s Junior College. As a result, the transition to a career in the force later on was, unsurprisingly, a cinch. “I was used to doing drills, using firearms, being in a camp, waking up early in the morning—it was natural,” she says.
However, that too wasn’t the driving force behind her decision to uphold the law as a career.
“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, even after I entered university,” says the National University of Singapore civil engineering graduate. In fact, she lets on that she could have had a very different life—one in which she would have donned a safety helmet and built MRT lines. “I applied for a job at SMRT, but I didn’t get it,” recalls Zuraidah, who also had a short-lived career as a teacher at St Teresa’s High School.
Things changed in 1986 when she saw an SPF career advertisement that read: “Join the police force, every day is different.” There it was—the promise of a dynamic vocation, a life less ordinary and a departure from monotony and repetition.
“There were three options on the application form. I filled in ‘police officer’ as my only option and left the other two blank. It was that or nothing at all,” says Zuraidah. Within a week, she got a reply asking her to report to the Police Academy. She became the first Malay graduate, and the sixth woman, to join the force through its direct-entry programme.
The illustrious 29-year career she has carved out with the SPF has seen her taking on head appointments at the Central Police Division, Jurong Police Division and Training Command where, for the most part, she played the role of mentor.
“When I attended the wedding of an officer whom I had worked with and coached, I met his immediate Commander who said to me: ‘You have trained him well.’ That was the best compliment I ever received,” says Zuraidah. “I look forward to mentoring and coaching people. To me, it’s less important that you do a good job; it’s more important that you can train someone to do a better job than you can.”
That said, Zuraidah wasn’t always the mentor. As an Investigation Officer in her first posting at Queenstown Police Division (now Clementi Police Division), where she was the only woman officer, it was not unusual for her to pull 36-hour tours of duty, during which she had to deal with cases of drug trafficking, rape, family disputes, housebreaking and robbery.
The job, with its punishing and erratic schedules, proved to be – and still is – different every day.
“Every posting has been a highlight and an enriching experience,” says Zuraidah.
“Someone gave me this piece of advice: Whenever you get posted to a new place, start preparing your farewell speech. What do you want to be able to say when you leave that post? Make that happen.”
SERVING THE NATION, HELPING THE PEOPLE
Last year, after being Commander, Training Command since 2010, Zuraidah was appointed Commander, Airport Police Division, becoming the first woman to take on that role. Her job? Being in charge of the police officers there and overseeing the security of the terminals at Changi Airport (including Terminal 4 which opens in 2017)—and the stress levels are through the roof.
“A crisis can happen at any moment—the airport is a target for any terrorist movement. Having to keep it – and the millions of passengers (there were a record 54.1 million last year) – secure at all times is a challenge. I have to be on standby constantly,” says Zuraidah, whose typical workday includes attending meetings, making weighty decisions on security issues, directing plans of action, ensuring there is maximum security for delegates who come through the airport (most recently, those involved in the SEA Games held in Singapore), and conducting supervisory checks at the three existing terminals.
“The first thing I did when I became Commander at the airport was to accompany the men on their patrols,” recalls Zuraidah, who is zealous about her walkabouts. “You cannot command with a remote control. You have to go down to the ground and appreciate the situation for yourself.”
Her advantage in this maelstrom of responsibility and decision-making? Her degree in civil engineering. “I look at the airport through the eyes of an engineer, so I can see it from two perspectives—the security angle and the design angle,” says the self-confessed workaholic, who sleeps about four or five hours a day.
When asked how she maintains work-life balance, the avid cyclist starts drawing a Venn diagram made up of two intersecting circles, one marked “W”, the other marked “L”. She indicates that the intersection between the two circles represents the work-life balance that many people try to achieve.
“If you look at life in this manner, you can never be satisfied,” she says. Then she begins drawing two concentric circles. This time, the inner circle is marked “W” and the outer one “L”. “If you look at it from this perspective, then you’ll always be satisfied. I look at work as the way I am, the way I live. It’s part of my life. Therefore, I’ll always have work-life balance,” says Zuraidah, who admits she often ends up forfeiting numerous leave days because she simply cannot find the opportunity to use them.
OF SACRIFICES AND LIFE LESSONS
When she has time to herself, she goes trekking or cycling with friends, or makes free-and-easy trips to less-touristy destinations like Takayama, a city in Japan’s Gifu prefecture—without her husband Aziz, a retired police officer whom she met in the force.
“He doesn’t like these kinds of holidays – he prefers conducted tours, which I don’t – so I usually leave him behind,” she says with a chuckle. “When I’m on leave or on holiday, I don’t like having a fixed itinerary,” she adds. “I break away from discipline—no schedules for me.”
Otherwise, she is a homebody who eschews crowds and prefers to invite her close pals to her home, where she cooks for them.
Nevertheless, family time is something Zuraidah admits she has sacrificed for her career. “I wake up just in time to say ‘hi’ to them and by the time I’m home, everyone’s fast asleep. So I make it a point to meet with family every three months. I believe it’s not the quantity of time I spend with them, but the quality,” says Zuraidah. “I use my three-room HDB flat as a base for family gatherings and I hold potluck sessions because my family knows I don’t like to cook—although I can!”
She has three younger brothers (the youngest of whom is 42) and says she is lucky because her parents never treated her differently just because of her gender. “My mum laid down this rule: If one cried, all would get smacked. Her rationale was that we should work as a team and not have allowed something to happen in the first place,” she says. “My dad was a driver and my mum was a maid, and my brothers and I shared the household chores. My parents treated us equally; right from the start, I never saw my gender as an issue.”
Likewise, deploying more women in the force is not a conscious decision—it’s an officer’s competency (not gender) that counts, says Zuraidah. “But I guess I’ve made it possible for women officers to give (various roles) a try. Now there are women who are fast-response car drivers, women in investigation, in the crime control unit, in the police coast guard—I tell them, if you’re interested, just go for it! If you’re competent, we will deploy you.”
Zuraidah’s solicitude extends to all her officers—she often asks them how she can be a better Commander and acts on their feedback, whether it’s spending time after her inspection rounds to engage them in conversation about their personal lives, putting a fridge in the guard post (so the officers won’t be dehydrated in hot weather) or providing officers with heavy-duty paper punches and ring binders to facilitate their administrative duties.
The reason for this attention to detail? “If the officers are not comfortable, they will not be able to do a good job,” explains Zuraidah, who considers her officers’ feedback gold. “(Pieces of feedback) are like the dots in a join-the-dots puzzle. The more dots there are, the clearer the picture will be and the better the decision I’ll make.”
She recounts an episode from the late 90s when she was Head of Operations at Central Police Division and held the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police. Her staff assistant, a Vigilante Corps member (a VC is the lowest-ranking officer in the force) who was not proficient in English, told her to her face: “You are a dinosaur.”
Zuraidah was livid at first, but was quickly overcome by curiosity and found out that it was because she was still using Wordperfect – a now-defunct word-processing application – to edit her documents while all the other officers were using Microsoft Word. The officers were doing extra work converting the documents for her, and she hadn’t realised it, until the VC brought it up bluntly.
“I’m a hot-tempered person, so I guess nobody dared to give me feedback, except this VC who had the courage to do so. I learnt from this incident that if I tell my officers I welcome feedback, I must show that I welcome it, even when it is negative. Only then will they be forthcoming in giving feedback,” she says. “That VC’s feedback was a gift to me.”
MARK OF A GOOD LEADER
When I ask Zuraidah who her role model is, her prompt reply is “my late mum”. “She was a very smart lady despite the fact that she didn’t receive an education. She had a never-say-die attitude and always found ways to get around obstacles—when we couldn’t make ends meet, she would sell lontong,” Zuraidah says, recalling her mum’s advice to her when she would swear at a table because she had accidentally kicked it.
“My mum would tell me, ‘The table doesn’t know anything—it can’t think. But you can. If you want to prevent yourself from getting injured, move the table’. I learnt from her that a good leader is someone who makes things happen. Later in my career, when I was in command and given the mandate to make changes, I made sure that I made changes that were best for my officers,” she says.
“I’m a strong believer in giving your best—wherever you go, whatever you do.” HW