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UNLESS YOU'RE TOM CRUISE in Mission: Impossible, breaking into a high-security facility is simply, well, impossible. Ask Toby Koh - he ought to know. Mr Koh, 47, is managing director of the Ademco Security Group, a major player in the security business whose mission is to keep people and places safe, in Singapore and more than 20 cities across Asia. If you work in a bank or office building, own a warehouse in an industrial complex or have children in school, chances are Ademco is present and helping to keep you and your loved ones accounted for. For over 30 years, the company has provided fire- and intruder-detection systems that keep buildings secure.
Ademco's roots as a security provider date back even longer, when Mr Koh's father T.C. Koh was hired to set up a regional office for Ademco USA, then a specialist in security equipment. The Housing & Development Board (HDB) and Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) were early customers. After a management buy-out, the company began designing and installing complete security and fire alarm monitoring solutions for private and public institutions throughout Singapore.
Toby Koh joined the company in 1995 after a stint as a corporate banker. Since then, he has helped to establish Ademco as an industry leader, taking the business international and pioneering a number of security solutions in the process. Ademco is one of four companies responsible for fire monitoring in Singapore, with about 65 per cent of the market share. The company also takes care of security alarm monitoring for 3,000 buildings here. Ademco's command centre - from which employees keep track of the goings on at thousands of locations throughout Singapore - is nothing like the CIA vault that Cruise (as rogue agent Ethan Hunt) broke into during a memorable hanging-by-wires scene. In fact, it looks a lot like an ordinary office - but security-conscious readers can take comfort in the knowledge that it's really, really safe.
You started out providing electronic security in the 1980s. How did Ademco get into the business?
The public mindset was not really there in the beginning. My dad had a job selling equipment for a U.S. equipment manufacturer. Once, he did a favour for an American guy in Taiwan who was in the security business and who told him, "You're in the wrong business". The next time my father was in New York, the guy showed him a command centre - he had a subscriber base of 14,000, meaning he was monitoring 14,000 homes and offices, with each subscriber paying a monthly fee. At the time there were very few command centres in Asia, people just had their own jagas (guards), monitoring was still new and nobody linked up their systems. So, my dad bought the business and focused on building a command centre.
Who were some of the people who first bought into the idea of monitoring premises?
We lobbied the fire department (which was using Ademco equipment) to let the company do the monitoring, we told them that with technology we can do things the "smart" way. We are the largest contractor for Mindef, which has many sensitive sites. We also monitor all the schools in Singapore, except for independent schools. Our customer base is mostly commercial clients and the government. Working for foreign governments is trickier - I'm not smart enough (to deal with corruption and under-the-table dealings). If we see someone attacking an ATM, we will call the police - we have direct lines to the police and SCDF.
The security system at a bank branch costs about S$50,000, but is much higher at a more complex site. How does the system at a high-security site work?
We take the customer through the thought process, do they want in-your-face coverage, or something subtler? Typically, the security design is in layers, like an onion and done in depth from outside to inside. The perimeter fencing has sensors, cameras allow us to do video analytics, the secondary perimeter protection includes light pulses being sent at a certain frequency. Every window and door will have a locking device, staff members have a means of getting in (like a smart card) and there are glass-break detectors too - those are the third line of defence. The fourth line includes a passive infra-red motion detector. For a fairly secured building where there's R&D and I.P. (Intellectual Property), there will be biometric readers, face-recognition systems and camera coverage everywhere.
Do you evaluate security systems and take note of escape routes each time you enter a building?
It's just a habit to do that. Wherever I go, I look up for cameras, see what locking devices there are. My senses are a lot more heightened when I travel. In restaurants I make sure to sit where there's a view of the room - there are still drive-by shootings in Hong Kong and parang attacks in Malaysia - my kids say I'm paranoid. Still, we think there's a market for traveller safety. Young, more affluent customers don't just want to go to the beach in Bali anymore, but in many places, there will be issues of language and remoteness, so the idea is to have a traveller app for safety - and a satellite phone as an extra precaution.
With advances in technology helping to make strides in the industry, how do you change traditional ideas about security?
The message we need to send to the world is this: the way we use security officers needs to change. It's very sad that property owners still use security officers to patrol the premises ten times a day. The cost of investing in equipment has come down drastically while the cost of hiring guards has gone up, so the mindset behind the way we use guards is not efficient. With security equipment, it's a system that doesn't sleep. Most owners still want warm bodies on site, so fewer guards but better guards is one solution. Autonomous robot guards are not the answer yet - they are not robo-cops.
What's a good security tip, and is there such a thing as too much security?
There's always crime (internal and external) and having the right system in place helps to mitigate the risk, so make sure the security presence can be seen - always put the system as a visual deterrent. Honest people don't care about the surveillance. Next, no one manufacturer would have the best in everything, and we get equipment from everywhere. In the field of A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), you probably don't know that the best facial recognition technology comes from China. That country is so wired up that there's no way a snatch thief will be able to escape. Having good coverage of public roads is fantastic but the concern is privacy. I personally think that there is no such thing as "too much" security - I'm just concerned about privacy and what they use that data for.