JOHOR BAHRU: Almost every step the crown prince of Johor Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim takes outside his palace, Singaporean Mr Prem Singh strides close by.
Mr Singh is a towering figure – 1.87m tall – with bulging biceps and puffed pecs. Alongside the prince, he is ever-present but low profile.
He wears a stern expression, alert and focused. But he keeps a respectful distance to not interfere with the royal member’s interaction with foreign dignitaries, government official and the people of Johor.
For the last nine years, this 40-year-old who grew up in Hougang has become a key member of the security detail for one of Malaysia’s most influential figures.
During a recent interview with Channel NewsAsia, Mr Singh recalled how his professional journey started as a police officer with the Singapore Police Force during his national service.
After his basic training in 1999, Mr Singh was deployed to Hougang Neighbourhood Police Centre doing patrol duties and guarding rooms where accused criminals are charged.
The Singapore Polytechnic graduate enjoyed serving with the SPF, and signed on as a regular in 2001.
SERVING SENIOR SINGAPORE POLITICIANS
But soon after, Mr Singh felt his skills could be better served elsewhere, and he signed up to be part of SPF’s Security Branch in 2005, which has now been renamed the Police Security Command.
The unit is tasked with ensuring the personal safety of all of Singapore’s cabinet ministers and visiting foreign dignitaries.
After four months of intense training, he says he was deployed to protect a number of senior politicians.
From his time with the Security Branch, Mr Singh said he was taught to be professional and disciplined, and this later made his job across the Causeway “much easier”.
But Mr Singh preferred to serve in a “one man operation” (OMO) and he was given a chance to escort foreign dignitaries, such as former US president Bill Clinton and former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd when they visited Singapore.
It was during one of these duties when Mr Singh came across Tunku Ismail, who was attending a dinner event in Singapore.
After settling the crown prince’s security and seating arrangements for the event, Mr Singh was approached by Tunku Ismail’s personal aide who informed him that the crown prince wanted to hire him to be part of his security detail.
“It did not take much thought and I said yes. Who in their right mind would turn down such an offer? Escorting a member of the Johor royal family – and that member being the crown prince – is a dream for anybody,” said Mr Singh.
His decision was affirmed when he went for his interview, where Tunku Ismail greeted him in his Royal Johor Military Force uniform.
“It assured me I made the right choice. His aura surpasses anything I have come across thus far,” he said.
Since then, Mr Singh has become an important part of Tunku Ismail’s daily schedule.
He joins the crown prince for his daily morning workout, meetings with government officials and accompanies him when he works with his football club Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT).
Mr Singh has also accompanied Tunku Ismail on overseas trips to countries including Singapore, the United Kingdom, Argentina and Spain.
CROWN PRINCE ‘STANDS IN THE LINE OF FIRE’
In a recent post on Facebook, Tunku Ismail cited how he, Mr Singh and Leftenan Kolonel Samsyawal Muhamad from the Malaysian Special Forces are able to work effectively together as a team.
He cited this as an example of how Singaporeans and Malaysians work well in the same organisation and expressed hope that both countries find a “win-win situation”, as they continued to tussle in ongoing maritime and airspace disputes.
Mr Singh regards Tunku Ismail forthright manner as a show of courage, and this is something he can learn from his “role model”.
“He speaks from his heart and sometimes this is very difficult for people to accept, but that’s the way he is. He stands in the line of fire when it comes to his dear ones, his family, his state and his people.”
Work aside, Mr Singh explained how he has learned “valuable life lessons” from the prince, who has a military background with the 61st Calvary in India and the Johor Military Force.
“One lesson that he taught me has become an ethos I live by – that our greatest weapon in life is our attitude,” said Mr Singh. “(Tunku Ismail) is very disciplined and expects the people around him to be the same. I have matured after working with him.
“He is not only my boss, but someone I look up to as a human being,” said Mr Singh.
PROTECTING THE ROYAL FAMILY ‘WITH MY LIFE’
Even though he is a Singaporean, Mr Singh considers it “an honour” to protect the crown prince and his family, but he acknowledges that his task is “no easy feat” and has little room for error.
His job scope includes protecting the lives of Tunku Ismail, his wife Che Puan Khaleeda as well as their two infant children Tunku Khalsom Aminah Sofiah and Tunku Iskandar Abdul Jalil Abu Bakar Ibrahim.
“I am sure a lot of people envy my job, but the responsibility is great. Now that (Tunku Ismail) has two children, my responsibilities have expanded. Ensuring their safety and security is also my duty.
“But that’s what I have sworn to do from the start. I am dedicated to protect the royal family of Johor with my life,” said Mr Singh.
Despite his preference of working individually, Mr Singh acknowledged that protecting the Johor royal family is a task that requires teamwork.
The crown prince’s security detail includes officers from the Johor Military Elite Forces, the Malaysian Commandos as well as the Malaysian police’s Special Operations Command.
“It is very interesting to work with these units to see how differently we function. But in the end we all have only one duty – to protect the crown prince of Johor and his family,” said Mr Singh.
Even with many years of experience, Mr Singh is open to learning from his Malaysian teammates.
“We all share our different working experience with each other and we learn from one another. There is an ethos I live by – ‘There is no perfect bodyguard. Every day is a learning lesson.’”