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Security firms complain that Govt's 'shifting goalposts' for grading is costing them business

SINGAPORE — Alwatch Security Management is one of a number of security firms in Singapore that are deeply unhappy over the impact of changes to a system used to grade them according to various criteria.

Some security agencies are unhappy at tweaks to Security Agencies Grading Exercise (Sage).

Some security agencies are unhappy at tweaks to Security Agencies Grading Exercise (Sage).

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SINGAPORE — Alwatch Security Management is one of a number of security firms in Singapore that are affected by changes to a system used to grade them according to various criteria, and one of its directors is furious.

Going by the Security Agencies Grading Exercise’s (Sage) 2017 cut-off points, Alwatch could have secured an A grade with its score of 87.33 per cent this year given that the cut-off point for an A grading back then was 86 per cent.

But the security firm got a C, leaving it with a lot of explaining to do to its clients and cutting it out of tendering for Government contracts, which make up about one-fifth of the industry’s business.

Industry insiders say these contracts are known to require at least a B grade, which Alwatch missed by merely 0.67 points.

Ms Morrine Henson, an industry veteran who is one of Alwatch’s directors, told TODAY on Wednesday (Dec 18): “We’ve been spending money like hell — some S$40,000 last year alone on systems and training — and we (stand to) lose our jobs from our clients. How are we going to make up for this? We are business people, not scholars.”

Her beef is with the bell curve the Police Licensing and Regulatory Department (PLRD) uses to determine the grades for each security agency, even as firms had clamoured to raise standards in line with the Government’s Security Industry Transformation Map.

The cut-off for an A would have been a score of 86 per cent in 2017 and 95 last year, but it became 96 this year. The cut-off for a B similarly inflated from 73 in 2017 to 85 last year, and then to 88 this year.

For the past two years, a score of 50 would have guaranteed firms a C. Now, those scoring lower than 55 would be slapped with a D grade, certifying the firm’s standard as “unsatisfactory”. Firms with two consecutive Ds will not get their licences renewed.

This was what the Security Association Singapore (SAS) spoke out against in a strongly-worded statement on Tuesday (Dec 17), calling out the “shifting goalposts” for giving the wrong impression that the more than 200 firms operating here have not improved.

“Agencies are also not informed of the cut-off points in advance, because these can only possibly be determined after all the raw scores have been tabulated and plotted on the bell curve,” the SAS statement said.

In response to the SAS statement, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said on Tuesday that the assessment criteria, including weightage, are transparent and known to all security agencies.

Changes to the criteria of the grading system are made in close consultation with agencies and with advance notice given, it added.

The Sage system was designed to raise industry standards, by setting out the expectations of security agencies, MHA said.

On Wednesday, TODAY spoke to several firms to take a deeper look at what went on behind the scenes, and found that many in the industry believe that the grades seldom paint an accurate picture of service quality or whether a company had invested in technology and upskilled its security guards.

Over at one of the firms that was slapped with a D, Sands Global, 2019 was the year it had invested most heavily in technology like body cameras and cloud computing solutions for ‘live’ attendance taking, so it had gunned for a B.

But after spending at least S$20,000 to S$30,000 on these systems and in training its guards, it did not manage to maintain its previous C grade, and was instead downgraded.

A large part of it was because it got 14 points deducted from its score for infringing three licensing conditions — 10 points were deducted for employing an unlicensed security officer, which the firm asserts was “not true”, saying that the man was just being interviewed at a deployment site when a PLRD officer happened to pop by. The points deduction was a consequence the firm did not see coming after paying a fine to close the matter.

For another firm, Securistate, that got a C with 84.97 per cent this year after getting Bs for the past two years, its prized contract with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) now hangs in the balance, although its director said the firm’s standard did not drop.

The director, Mr Vigneswaran Mohan, 32, told TODAY that losing the contract would set his firm’s revenue back by 40 per cent, although he understands that the LTA is pleased with Securistate’s service.

Besides, the C grade, which would have to be prominently displayed at guard posts, is “bad publicity”, which could put off some potential clients, he said.

Pointing out that the grades impose an “unnecessary risk in a difficult market” amid a volatile economic environment, Mr Mohan said: “We understand that the Government is trying to push a certain policy, and we try to tiptoe together with it, but the problem is, we don’t know where the bar is being set.”

He added: “Why hit the bottom line for businesses? The purpose of grading should be to incentivise companies. Rather than using the ‘stick’, they should use a ‘carrot’ approach and maybe give (the better-graded) companies more leeway or cash benefits.”

Ms Henson of Alwatch also criticised the current grading system as detrimental to businesses. She said security firms are already squeezed in a market where clients are reluctant to pay a higher price for better security systems.

If a firm had charged a higher price with its A grade status, clients would have just gone for the B firms, she said. And C-rated firms would have diminished leverage as to what price they are able to charge. “It is making life very difficult for everyone,” she added.

She reiterated that the bell curve should not be applied to businesses, and that it is fairer for firms to be judged by a standard that sees an aggregate of over 85 per cent as an A or at least a B.

“We are not students… Even in our own educational systems, when a person scores 70 plus, he is already considered a B. But in this case, any agency scores below 88, they are automatically in C, which is crazy!” she said.

The bell curve fails to take into consideration that firms had invested in all kinds of systems to attain standards, such as a physical 24-hour command centre or operations room that can cost more than S$100,000 to build but can add 20 points to their scorecards, she added.

“You want us to have this, you want us to have that, but yet you don’t recognise the fact that we have invested money upgrading? Come on. This is not the way it should be,” said Ms Henson. “Of course, we are angry. We want to have the standards raised, that’s for sure.”

Speaking in her personal capacity, she said: “I feel that whoever is coming up with all these rules are not people who are from the ground.

“You don’t go on the ground, you don’t know what’s happening. You just sit there and judge, which is not correct… We are doing a business. We need to survive.”

TODAY has sought comment from the Singapore Police Force (SPF).

Some concerns were dealt with in a dialogue PLRD held with security agencies about the new criteria in May this year.

According to a summary of the dialogue on the SPF website, the PLRD had said that its objective is to use the grading exercise to nudge the industry as a whole to move in a certain direction.

The PLRD also noted concerns that the finalised assessment criteria were disseminated only in April 2019 when the assessment period ran from June 2018 to May this year.

It said in the dialogue summary that it “recognises the security agencies’ anxiety and will endeavour to start industry consultation earlier”.

Related topics

security agency grades performance

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