By Gerald Giam
While in a cab last Saturday, I recalled the newspapers reporting that within hours of alleged Jemaah Islamiah leader Mas Selamat Kastari's escape from detention, a broadcast was sent to all taxis urging them to look out for the escaped terrorist. Wanting to verify this, I asked the cabby when exactly he received that broadcast.
"They didn't tell us until the next day!" he replied in Mandarin. "And after making such a big blunder, what's the point of apologising?", he continued, ending off with, "Ta ma de!" which loosely translates to "Damn it!" in English.
With just that innocent question, I had not expected to ignite such anger in that otherwise polite taxi driver. It was then I realised that I was not alone in feeling upset at the fact that the government allowed a potentially dangerous man to slip away so easily from detention last Wednesday afternoon. An AFP report published by The Straits Times (2 March) reported that the government has come under unusually "stinging public criticism" after the escape.
But to err is human. And government officials are human after all, aren't they? So why engage in this "unconstructive and retrospective finger-pointing", as two NTU academics wrote in TODAY (4 March)? Shouldn't we "rally behind and support our security forces and not undermine them," as Mr Nicholas Lazarus advised me in a comment on my blog last Friday?
On deeper analysis, it appears that Singaporeans' anger at the government is not simply because a bunch of bumbling Internal Security Department (ISD) officials at the Whitley Road Detention Centre let slip the alleged leader of JI Singapore.
It is not because Singapore has been in the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons. It is not even because after more than a week, one thousand police officers and army personnel still haven't been able to find a limping man in this little red dot of an island.
I suspect that Singaporeans are more upset with the insufferable hubris and lack of transparency of the government despite what is probably their biggest blunder in recent memory.
Mr Tan Chak Lim put it this way in a letter to TODAY (1 March):
"When we hear of dangerous prisoners escaping from prison in Indonesia or the Philippines, we congratulate ourselves that such things can't possibly happen in Singapore. The escape of Mas Selamat should check any hubristic tendencies on our part."
Hubristic tendencies? Didn't the Deputy Prime Minister apologise in Parliament for the "lapse in security"? Wasn't that a sincere enough display of contrition for someone as high and mighty as Mr Wong Kan Seng?
The behaviour of senior government officials in the wake of the escape suggests that these hubristic tendencies are still as strong as ever.
It took four long hours for the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to inform the public that Mas Selamat had escaped? PAP Member of Parliament Dr Teo Ho Pin asked the right question the next day in Parliament: Why so long?
The Minister's answer? He posed "no imminent danger to the public" and he was "not known to be armed". The police on Sunday said that they did not want to cause "public panic".
Does the Minister really think Singaporeans are so irrational? If he is not armed and dangerous, why should Singaporeans panic if the police sounded the alarm immediately?
The public could have helped police nab the man in those crucial four hours.
In fact at about 5.15pm, 70 minutes after the escape, a bus commuter reported seeing a man, believed to be Mas Selamat, at a petrol kiosk near the detention centre. A manager of a car washing kiosk at the Esso petrol station on Whitley Road reported seeing a man struggling up a flight of stairs towards Malcolm Park at 5pm. If these people had been informed of Mas Selamat's escape, they would have called the police immediately instead of speaking to the press only a day later.
As student Lee Weijia pointed out in a letter to the Straits Times, "the authorities were hoping to apprehend him without alerting the public. It seems that the public was only alerted when the authorities recognised the fact that Mas Selamat could not be apprehended any time soon."
Lee went on to ask a very pertinent question: If Mas Selamat had been apprehended within the four hours, would this have been reported and made known to the public at all?
"We should not speculate"
The question that every Singaporean must have asked in the immediate wake of the escape was, "How could this have happened in Singapore?"
Every Singaporean, that is, except our local mainstream media journalists and editors.
As NTU don Cherian George pointed out, neither The Straits Times, nor Channel NewsAsia, nor TODAY asked that question within the first 24 hours of the news breaking. This led Dr George to conclude that the editors "must have been instructed not to raise the 'how' question publicly".
Indeed, the Home Affairs minister had told Parliament immediately after his apology, that, "An independent investigation is underway. We should not speculate now. Security at the centre has been stepped up."
How can the minister tell Singaporeans not to speculate when such a costly mistake has just been committed? Is there a presumption that the government is above public scrutiny?
Suffered a "knock" but we're still better than others
On Sunday, the Home Affairs minister acknowledged that Singapore's reputation for safety and security had "suffered a knock somewhat".
Was it just a "knock"?
The news of the escape was reported the world over by major news agencies and dailies like AFP, CNN, BBC, New York Times, Reuters, Associated Press, Xinhua, Hindustan Times, Washington Post, Sydney Morning Herald, Al Jazeera and Taipei Times, just to name a few.
NTU academics Hoo Tiang Boon and Kumar Ramakrishna assessed that Mas Selamat's escape is likely to have "wide repercussions, strategically and operationally" and that other terrorists might use this story for the own recruitment and indoctrination purposes.
The Minister went on to boast that "our reputation continues to remain high compared to many other countries". Indeed, what better way to prop oneself up than to put others down, by implying that "other countries" (read: Indonesia, Philippines, etc) still pale in comparison to us! Even if it is true, this is hardly the time to say so.
Responding in kind, the Indonesians later stated that while they are helping in the search for Mas Selamat, if they catch him, they are not going to extradite him to Singapore for the second time, because the Singapore-Indonesia Extradition Treaty has not been ratified.
See where this hubris has gotten us?
Singaporeans fed dribs and drabs of information
Last Friday, I asked on my blog why the police had not told the public what Mas Selamat was wearing when he escaped. On Tuesday, almost a week after the escape, the police finally revealed that he could have been wearing a baju kurong over a beige round collared tee-shirt and a pair of brown long trousers.
The reason given for not telling the public earlier? They did not want the public to have a "fixation" on this particular attire as the fugitive could have already changed his clothes. Now they want the public to help look out for his discarded attire.
How insulting to Singaporeans! Is it better to look out for these clothes when they are on the fugitive or when they have been taken off?
The police obviously felt the heat for not releasing basic information like his height, weight and attire earlier. Now they are trying to weasel their way out by asking Singaporeans to look out for discarded clothes. Do they really think Mas Selamat will strip off his clothes and place them neatly in the open for everyone to see?
The "independent" investigation
Singaporeans were told by the minister that there will be an "independent investigation" in to this matter. Then it was revealed that the Commission of Inquiry (COI) consists of an advisor to the President, a serving ambassador and former police chief, and the Deputy Secretary for Security at the Home Affairs Ministry.
It is already a stretch to say that the first two are independent, despite their government links and current portfolios, but having on the Commission the third-most senior civil servant in the very ministry at fault surely shatters any veneer of "independence". Like Mr Wang, I have nothing personal against any of these commissioners. In fact, I met Mr Tee Tua Ba when he was Ambassador to Egypt and can attest that he is a very pleasant and friendly gentleman. I trust that these commissioners will be impartial to the best of their ability.
Nevertheless, I do not understand why the government boasts that this is an "independent commission" when by most objective measures, it is clearly not. Have they taken the liberty to redefine the meaning of "independent"?
It remains to be seen whether the COI's report is going to be made public, just like the 9/11 Commission which investigated the failures that allowed the terrorist attacks of September 11 in New York and Washington.
I am aware that it is unfair to blame the entire Home Team for a security breach at a top- secret ISD detention centre that many Singaporeans didn't even know existed. I am in full support of the hundreds of policemen who are working overtime to nab this alleged terrorist.
It is just unfortunate that despite the gravity of the mistakes that were made by MHA officials before and after Mas Selamat's escape, Singaporeans are still expected to put up with haughty statements and lack of transparency from our government.
The most senior government leaders have been deafeningly silent on this issue since it broke. I will not be surprised if the first statements we hear from them are chastisements along the lines of Singaporeans — especially bloggers — not having a sense of proportion when criticising the government for this minor security lapse.
Singapore's international reputation for security and competence has taken a hit as a result of this blunder. Unfortunately, however, it seems the government's hubris hasn't been dented one bit.
Gerald also writes on his own blog, Singapore Patriot.