Real life CSI is nothing like the TV show

Shawn Foo
Senior Crime Scene Specialist, Singapore Police Force

Alumnus
NUS Science

When one thinks of a crime scene specialist, scenes of the hit TV series, CSI, invariably come to mind.

Shawn Foo, a senior crime scene specialist at the Singapore Police Force and an alumnus from National University of Singapore (NUS), is often amused by the comparison because the truth is pretty far removed from fiction.

While there are similarities in the general routine of investigation and chain of custody, he said the show was more concerned with entertainment value than factual accuracy, and perpetuates some misconceptions and myths. In reality, solving a crime is a much longer process.

Said Shawn: “Unfortunately, crime cannot be solved in an hour. You cannot rush a crime scene. You need time to process, analyse and interpret things. We are often always working against time.”

Another common question was whether he was inspired by the popular TV show. Shawn answered with a firm “no”. The 28-year-old NUS Bachelor of Science (Hons) and King’s College London Master of Science in analytical toxicology graduate became enamoured by the world of forensic science not because of a TV series, but a book.

At the heart of his story is a simple, tiny book recommended by his English teacher.

Then just a secondary two student, he was introduced to forensics through his teacher’s Encyclopedia of Forensic Science. He recounted: “It was just a little book that goes from A to Z, with each letter introducing an item. For instance, A for Arsenic, B for Ballistics, each dealing a little bit more about the world of forensics.”

Intrigued by the snippets and brief insights the book provided, he went on to borrow more books on the subject to delve deeper into the field. When he reached a fork in the road after junior college, he knew he wanted to study at a university with not just the physical facilities but also a programme that could pave the way towards a successful career in forensic science.

At the NUS Open House, the Science Faculty talks left a deep impression. Unlike other open houses he had attended where aspiring undergraduates were mostly left to their own devices, an opportunity to speak to top members of the faculty further sealed the deal.

Controlled House Burning @ Midhurst with University of Toronto course mates and lecturers.

Shawn said: “At the Science Faculty’s talk, much time was devoted to the forensic science programme that it was offering.” It made him wonder why so much emphasis was placed on the programme.

“I spoke to the then Dean of Science, Professor Tan Eng Chye (who is currently NUS Provost) and he shared about several NUS graduates who were subsequently hired in key positions in agencies such as the Health Sciences Authority, Singapore Police Force and Attorney-General’s Chambers. It was then that I knew NUS was the choice for me.”

The encounter foretold the close mentorships that students such as Shawn went on to enjoy with their lecturers and tutors, further inspiring their quest for learning. As fate would have it, he is now applying his skills in the field rather than in a laboratory.

Shawn admitted: “While I have always been interested in forensic science, it was always centred around laboratory work and I had geared my academics towards being a forensic scientist.”

As his graduation approached, Shawn reconsidered his options and consulted his then professor and mentor, Adjunct Associate Professor Stella Tan who was also Director of Legal Policy and Prosecution at the Health Sciences Authority. Encouraged by her, he decided to apply for a position at the Singapore Police Force and step into the world of field work.

He has not looked back. One-and-a-half years into the job, Shawn remains fascinated by field work.

The position of responsibility in preserving evidence as best as possible is what Shawn counts as most rewarding. He acknowledged: “Everything starts with the crime scene. It is where the purest evidence is found. The techniques and process are very important. If the evidence is not protected and preserved properly, its integrity will deteriorate over time and no matter how sophisticated the laboratory analysis is, it cannot recover what is already lost.”

A past recipient of the Concurrent Degree Programme at NUS, Shawn spent his final year at King's. He believes the practical knowledge and skills that he picked up prepared him for his dream career. He enthused: “During my summer research programme at King's, I was fortunate to work on real forensic cases with forensic toxicologists when the Drug Control Centre, a World Anti-Doping Agency accredited lab, was deployed at the 2012 London Olympics for routine drug testing on athletes. It was both fascinating and inspiring to interact with the professionals whom I aspired to emulate.”

Course mates at King’s College London.

Further, he also credits the training received in his education at NUS for a seamless transition from laboratory to field work. “The holistic scientific training in general – in terms of how you create hypotheses, test them and come up with a theory, this scientific endeavour is also applicable to crime scenes,” he said.

The real world, however, taught him much darker lessons. He has encountered crime scenes that are often grisly and a shocking reminder of the violence that humans are capable of. He said: “I have come to really appreciate life, as well as the fragility of life. Having done quite a few scenes, I see the brutality and violence that people inflict on themselves and to others, and I feel that we should really treasure our loved ones.”

Regardless, Shawn remains steadfast in his commitment to solving each case and bringing closure to the family. “That is also my motivation and what drives me when I first came into the field – to be part of law enforcement and to make Singapore safer.”

Other than his burning passion for forensic science, Shawn also spoke with fervour on sharing his knowledge with juniors curious or interested in this field. Without hesitation, he said that his most memorable experience as an undergraduate was a stint as a teaching assistant in his third and fourth year.

Assessor for a practical exam.

Recounting his own experience, Shawn said his journey to his current occupation is the result of a scientific endeavour and a series of hypothesis testing. “At different moments, I would ask myself – is this job for me? There has never been a single time in which the answer has been ‘No’.”

And with that, he said with confidence: “Trust me when I say, one day you will find the purpose that excites you to wake up and it will become the fuel that propels you through your everyday life.”