Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Beware of Airport Strangers Who Ask You To Carry Items For Them

Something very strange happened this evening. I have just now arrived home from the airport after taking my domestic helper to catch a flight home to the Philippines. The Cebu Pacific flight is scheduled to depart from the Budget Terminal at 12:20am.

After almost a year and a half living with us in our employ, it was with a great deal of sadness that she had to leave us. However, it will certainly make her 5-year old daughter happy that her Mummy is finally returning home to be with her.

The drama that unfolded before Christine entered the immigration area of the terminal, left me with a very surreal feeling and I cannot shake the 'gut feeling' that we may well have averted a very disastrous and potentially tragic situation.

It is well known that Singapore has very strict laws when it comes to importing or exporting prohibited substances.

It is also very well known (at least to frequent travellers) that to carry any items of behalf of other people is very dangerous and, due to the laws, potentially life threatening.

We arrived at the airport at around 10:30pm, and while we were waiting for our maid in queue to check her luggage and collect her boarding pass at the Cebu Pacific check-in counter, I took Jaime over to the McDonalds store for a cold drink for him and a coffee for myself.

When we returned, Christine was deep in conversation (in her native tongue) with the lady in queue in front of her. Both looked somewhat stressed, and when I gave her a questioning look, Christine asked what the consequences would be because her check-in suitcase was 15.2kg when she weighed it at home... she was concerned that she would be charged excess luggage fees for the extra 0.2kg. I explained that it would not be an issue. I then asked her also how much her carry-on luggage weighed because the signs all around advised that anything over 7kg would be charged 'from S$15 per kg'. She told me that it weighed just under 7kg.

After a wait of around 30 minutes plus, she finally checked-in her suitcase, and the wanted to know if she had time to walk to the arrival terminal to exchange some Singapore currency which she had left over to Phillipines Peso. Given that it was now just 11:10pm and still more than an hour until departure, I said that would be ok.

As we were walking, Christine made a comment that her handbag was now very heavy, and she seemed to be struggling to carry it comfortably. This was the first 'red flag' to me that something was not quite right - her handbag size and weight was not previously a problem. She opened her handbag and showed me three 6-packs of bars of soap, and explained that the lady that she was talking to in the queue in front of her, had told her that she had no money and was worried that her luggage was overweight and therefore could Christine carry the soap in her carry-on luggage until after check-in.

My immediate reaction to this news was absolute horror, and I proceeded to smell one of the packs of soap bars... it smelled just like soap - but I thought of course it would - if a criminal was going to transport illegal substances disguised as bars of soap, they would most likely hide it inside real soap, would they not? Christine saw the shocked look on my face, and not being a regular traveller and somewhat naive, it took a moment to dawn on her what my concern was... it was just a moment though. The penny had well and truly had dropped.

While she was exchanging her money, my mind was racing a million miles an hour trying to determine what the appropriate next steps should be.

Christine told me that the lady would be waiting in the departure hall still, because she had agreed to take the bars of soap back off her before they proceeded through imigration and customs... here comes 'red flag' number two!! - the lady was nowhere to be seen, and had presumably already passed through to the gates.

That was it - the hairs on the back of my neck were now standing on end, and all my instincts were telling me that this was a clear attempt of a potential drug courier finding a mule in my domestic helper.

We approached an airport security guard on duty, and told him the story from the time we had arrived at the airport up until the point that we were standing there in front of him with three packets of soap bars in Christine's handbag, that belonged to an absolute stranger.

I will not say anything untoward about the security guard in case we need his testimony at a later point (I'm assuming there are security cameras around the check-in counters and departure hall), however his first reaction was 'I advise that you check the soap in at the check-in counter' - I then re-emphasised the point that Christine's luggage was already checked-in and that the soap was given to her by a complete stranger standing in queue in front of her - and that stranger had now disappeared (presumably) to the gate to board the flight.

Once the security guard understood this, I asked him if we could pass the soap to him for his action (whatever that might be). He said that he cannot take it, and that it should be passed on to the customs people after immigration. I told him that I didn't think that was the right option, because if there was anything illegal, it could be misunderstood that Christine was actually trying to transport the items.

He agreed with me, and advised that she should just dispose of them there in the check-in area - in fact, he said she should take them to the bathroom to throw away... Once again, I was not happy with this solution either, because I was concerned that it might be considered as someone trying to secretly get rid of illegal substances (and remember, I had touched one of the packs to smell the contents). He then agreed for her to dispose of them publically in front of him and also any people in this somewhat crowded section of the airport - in a public trash bin just a few metres away from him.

So that's what happened - like I said, all my instincts were firing... I'm not normally a paranoid person, but the whole situation just seemed wrong. I cannot help but truly feel that this whole epsisode could have turned out very poorly for us, had we not alerted the authorities and disposed of these soap bars publically. I think that the airport security staff should perhaps have a standard operating procedure for such a predicament. After all, if there was something illegal in those bars of soap, it could really be a case of 'life or death' under Singapore law.

(Update - while searching for pictures for this article, I found the attached image in an article from Malaysia - drug couriers carrying bars of soap that had been hollowed out to hide their stash... I really don't know how I can sleep now - I'm thinking of maybe calling the airport up and telling them to check in that rubbish bin).

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