Conversations with Azfer A. Khan

By Bong Dick and Estella Zhang Qiming

Photo Credit: Singapore Police Force.

Azfer A. Khan is a Staff Officer at the Cyber Coordination Office of the Singapore Police Force. In this article, conducted when Azfer was an Investigation Officer, Azfer shares about the nature of his work, and his opinions on how his industry will continue to develop. He also describes his experiences studying Law at the University of Cambridge and Harvard Law School, and his current role teaching at Singapore Management University as Adjunct Faculty. He also gives advice to students who are thinking about studying abroad, based on his experiences doing so.


We don’t really have normal days here in the police force. Investigation Officers are rostered for duties and when an incident occurs where a criminal offence is disclosed, we have to go to the scene and take over investigations. In this regard, there are some similarities to the typical American detective shows that many of us watch!

Investigation Officers handle all kinds of cases – from petty theft to serious incidents, for example, stabbing, so it can be a really wide variety of different things that we get to explore and handle. We also have to get used to working with different tools that people use. For instance, a number of cases involve the usage of technological devices, and officers will need to access them for information, and so we as Investigation Officers really need to have a good understanding of what people use on a day-to-day basis.

I think at the end of the day, it’s about trying to find out what the truth is. Different people have different stories to tell, so our job is to find out what exactly is the truth so as to ensure that justice prevails. This is my industry’s overarching goal.

I find two things most rewarding.

First, I get to help people. Somebody somewhere has been hurt, either having suffered a monetary loss or sustained some form of injury. It’s my job to find out what the truth of the matter is, so that they get justice at the end.

Second, I get to meet a lot of people from all kinds of backgrounds in the course of my work.

One of my more memorable cases was in 2019 when we had to handle a case where a taxi driver was suffering from some symptoms of schizophrenia, so he didn’t really fully have a grasp on reality, or what he was doing. He was causing public nuisance by going around and insulting passengers, threatening them and throwing stuff at them. However, at the end of the day, my job was to make sure that he got the help that he needed. So after he was arrested, we actually brought him to the Institute of Mental Health, where he was treated for schizophrenia. After weeks of observation and treatment, he actually left in a much better state than he was in before he came in. I think that that’s quite a memorable case even though it’s not a major investigation. While it’s not necessarily the police’s job to make sure that people with mental health needs get the help that they deserve, we did what we could to help the man.

It hasn’t been the easiest to keep up to pace with developments in technology because criminals also evolve their methods in step with technology and they constantly come up with new ways of committing crime. It’s not as easy for us to just pivot the whole organization to fight crimes in the online space so it has been quite a big organizational challenge. However, we are happy to say that we have been moving quite rapidly in that direction.

Let’s answer the second question first, which is easier. The police force doesn’t mandate any requirement for any degree or education pathway. I think that’s one of the best parts of joining the police since we are quite open to accept anybody from any kind of educational background. Doing law then doesn’t necessarily mean that I get to do different things or more things, but knowing legal concepts and frameworks has been helpful since the police force works to enforce the law.

For my undergraduate degree, I basically made the decision to apply to Cambridge by discussing it with my close friends. It was much more on the spot like, “Oh, my friend is applying, so maybe I should give it a go as well” and I didn’t particularly expect that I would get it, but all things fortunately turned out well. My masters’ degree was a more considered choice because I wanted a different experience in a different educational system so I went ahead with studying in the US.

It will be helpful to know how to cook, because food is something that will take up a fair bit of your time. If you don’t know how to cook, then you have to go out and buy food and that can rack up quite a bit of expenses.

One thing I would say, on a more serious note, is that it is super important to spend as much time as you can outside and travelling because that’s the whole point of those educational experiences – for you to explore and learn things! Get out of your comfort zone, go to places that you don’t think you’ll go and I think that’s the most important piece of advice that I would give you. And obviously, at the end of the day, consider coming back to Singapore!

I think it’s very important for us to obtain ideas or knowledge from well renowned institutions outside of Singapore, and once we have done that, we have a moral obligation to ensure that that knowledge is passed on. We owe it to the next generation to make sure that they know more than us so we have to set a solid base for them to build up from. I also wanted to share what I’ve learnt from my experiences overseas from two different countries here.

Generally, we are moving towards embracing and adopting technology for our own use. This involves making sure that we use technology in everything that we do from internal processes to our external, public-facing processes. It really does involve a revamp of the whole structure, because policing has always involved quite a fair bit of physical infrastructure, in order to bring the police closer to the community. As technology advances and more and more crimes are being committed online, we need to move in that direction.

I wouldn’t say that it has particularly affected our line of work in a great sense because at the end of the day policing is about solving crime and there’s always going to be crime.

However, there have been some trends that have popped up, which are observable, like there’s a shift in the type of crimes such as an increase in the number of family violence cases. There has also been a decrease in other types of crime so I think we need to slowly adjust to the changing crime landscape.

Most importantly, we need to be curious people. A police officer is only as good as their curiosity towards the world – their willingness to ask questions, willingness to learn from others and from their experiences. I think that’s the most important quality and it doesn’t require any particular degree or strong knowledge in any field or anything; it’s just purely personality. Our whole job is to try to understand things comprehensively, so I think that’s the most important trait I would say to look out for in a police officer.

I think another trait which is important is flexibility. Each situation is different and each incident is different so it’s very complex. If you treat everything as the same, and inflexibly apply the same set of rules to everything, you might end up making things worse than they were before.

Especially in this COVID-19 environment, where there’s all kinds of situations and challenges coming up, it’s important to just keep going and that we make an effort to pull through, despite the circumstances that are being presented to us.