[top photo: Mr Jai S. Sohan, director of the Foreign Affairs Ministry's consular directorate, has a team of 22 officers here who, together with their overseas colleagues, are ready to respond to emergencies that Singaporeans may find themselves in while abroad.]
By Lee Siew Hua
Senior Political Correspondent
IT CAN be a wild, wild world out there for Singaporeans accustomed to life on an orderly little island.
Singaporeans away from home have faced the Influenza A (H1N1) scare in a Hong Kong hotel this month, the Mumbai terrorist attack last year, earthquakes, riots, fires, airport shutdowns and more.
But the Republic's consular officers are a lifeline in foreign lands. They are the human face of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).
Racing against time, they go sleepless and may face danger to save citizens from trouble, Singapore's envoys tell Insight in report after report.
They also discuss the expectations of Singaporeans, the constraints and heady challenges of doing their job well, and how travellers can help themselves.
The consular role is vital as more Singaporeans are travelling, working or studying abroad.
Says Mr Jai S. Sohan, director of MFA's consular directorate: "Our constituency overseas has grown over the past few years."
When trouble hits mobile citizens, the priority is to help them and their next of kin.
So at all times, the MFA is in action and in close touch with the families.
For major crises like the 2004 tsunami, a Duty Office in the MFA's Tanglin complex is purpose-built to double as a crisis management centre.
"No start-up time or reconfiguration is needed. All we need to do is get the manpower in," Mr Sohan says.
From past experience, the centre can be fully manned in 30 to 45 minutes. "How fast you respond and react to a crisis is all-important at the initial phase of the crisis," he tells Insight.
At this nerve centre, the crisis team gathers and sends out information. It organises the work of government agencies.
Contact-tracing of Singaporeans in and around the crisis zone is done. This is based on data that citizens send online to the MFA through its eRegister service when they travel or live abroad.
At the centre, emergency travel arrangements are planned. Mr Sohan says the MFA has "very good networking with the local carriers - Singapore Airlines, SilkAir, Jetstar and Tiger Airways".
Taking a whole-of-government approach, the MFA alerts a number of ministries - principally Health, Home Affairs, Defence, and Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS).
"Other homefront agencies come into the Duty Office and work with us at the same location, at the same time, on the same mission," he says.
Counsellors from MCYS and Health may step into the crisis, even travelling with the families to the foreign land. They were present for the dragon boat tragedy in Cambodia in 2007, the Mumbai attack last November and the New Year's Eve nightclub fire in Bangkok.
The Defence Ministry may be asked to send a C-130 military transport aircraft or special diving units for search and rescue, as it did for the dragon boat crisis when five national rowers drowned.
While the MFA wants to help, it says it cannot meet unrealistic expectations. It is also mindful of certain constraints.
Travellers may expect embassies to step into their disputes with airlines when flights are cancelled, for instance.
Mr Sohan says: "Requests have ranged from getting refunds from the carrier to upgrading the stranded Singaporeans to a better class of hotel. We cannot intervene in such disputes."
Certainly, the sovereignty of other nations and their laws must be respected. "Just as we expect others to respect our laws, we must do likewise," he reasons.
Hence, the MFA and its missions cannot offer help in such situations: intervening in the judicial process, mediating in civil and commercial disputes, giving legal advice or acting as guarantors.
"MFA is not and cannot be the solution to all issues faced by distressed Singaporeans overseas," he points out.
Still, empathy, as much as efficiency, is clear in the interviews with Insight.
"Consular work is the human face of MFA," Mr Sohan says. "We act with utmost professionalism and empathy. As with all forms of public service, our consular officers are reminded to always be polite, patient and helpful."
He himself has dealt with crises on the ground. These include the SilkAir MI185 crash in Palembang in 1997 and the assisted departure of 10,000 Singaporeans during the 1998 Jakarta riots.
He says: "I can feel the pain and suffering which the next of kin go through. It never lessens with each passing crisis."
But only good can come out of assisting Singaporeans, he believes. Officers who have helped others in various crises have related to him how they felt a "sense of emotional well-being" afterwards.
He tells of other events that hold a mirror as much to the MFA as to Singaporeans in pain. One elderly man went to China for a holiday and suffered a stroke, Mr Sohan recounts. His family sold their flat to fly him back in a Medivac or air ambulance.
When the plane was on the runway in Singapore ready to fly to China, the family received news that their father had died.
The family turned to the MFA to speak to the Medivac operator, and see if a partial sum could be paid instead. It worked. The family was charged only 10 or 15 per cent of the total bill of $17,000.
Mr Sohan has a team of 22 officers in the consular directorate here. A Care programme - Caring Action for Response in Emergencies - prepares them and their overseas colleagues to respond to the plight of distressed citizens.
Naturally, much training is acquired on the job, with everyone thinking on their feet.
What about inner qualities? "A good consular officer should be flexible and creative, and have strong moral fortitude and character," he says.
"The 24/7 nature of the work means he must be prepared to be activated at short notice and work very long hours."
In a real-life crisis, everybody is a consular officer, he says.
"If you look at what happened in Jakarta during the assisted departure in 1998, almost everyone was in one way or another involved in manning the phones, looking after Singaporeans, preparing for the assisted departure.
"We would double up. Some will continue to do political reporting while also doing consular work."
While there are standard operating procedures in place, the response to any incident is never static. "It is a dynamic process and takes into account various factors, including the threat assessment and conditions on the ground," Mr Sohan says.
"Our response is always pretty flexible and very creative."
And you thought consular officers only issue visas?
This article was first published in The Straits Times.