Reviewing Mas Selamat’s escape

By Benjamin Cheah

Mas Selamat has been on the run for twelve days and counting, as of the time of writing.

The initial outrage that greeted his escape has simmered, cooling into opinions cast in concrete. The media has moved on, covering other events.

But, if we as a nation are to move on, we must first re-examine past events and perspectives, and correct our mistakes.

In this post, I would examine three of the most contentious questions raised in the aftermath of the escape.

How did Mas Selamat escape?

The only way we are going to know how he escaped is by capturing him. We cannot pin down his escape on any one factor. It is reasonable to assume that, having undergone training in an Afghanistan terrorist camp, Mas Selamat has been trained in escape and evasion skills, as well as prisoner-of-war strategies.

He would therefore have the skills to probe for weaknesses inside a prison, manipulate whom he needs to manipulate, make the actual escape, and then evade the authorities. He may also have a network of supporters inside and outside Whitley Road Detention Centre to aid him.

Furthermore, the architects who designed the prison may have overlooked the possibility that a detainee might escape through the toilet, unwittingly implementing a design flaw. The guards themselves bear the heaviest burden, for letting Mas Selamat escape despite being one of the region’s most dangerous men. The Criminal Investigation Department is already looking into the matter, but I do not believe that we would be able to accurately retrace Selamat’s footsteps without drawing out his side of the story. After all, he was the one who made the great escape.

What we should do now is to focus our energies on locating and capturing Mas Selamat, and any supporters he might have. Speculating on what had happened, and what could have happened, is useless after the point where it could help lead the authorities to him. This is especially so since civilians usually have the least information regarding this aspect of the situation. We don’t know how Selamat escaped. To find out, we need to find him, and interrogate him.

Could critical information be released earlier?

One of the biggest contentions surrounding this event is the four-hour time lag between Mas Selamat’s escape and the notification of the media. Before we point fingers, we must first think through what could have happened.

The first step in this train of consequences is the discovery of Mas Selamat’s disappearance. At this point in time, the guards, and their commander, would only know that he has eluded the guards. The first step would be to sound the alarm, and lock down the facility. At the same time, neighbouring police posts, and the regional police headquarters, would be alerted. As the guards search the detention centre, the police would begin to set up a cordon around the area. This would require dozens of police officers, all of whom need to be diverted and directed to their positions by their superiors.

But before that can happen, they need to swiftly decide how and where to position their men, which takes time.

After the perimeter has been established, the police would have to wait for the guards to complete their search. Meanwhile, the police commanders need to inform their counterparts at the airport, Causeway, and other points of egress from the country, in case Selamat is on his way there. The national police headquarters would also be alerted as well. The Ministry of Home Affairs would be called up, and then a Cabinet meeting called. More policemen would probably be called up at this point, to reinforce the hasty cordon and to expand the perimeter. When Selamat is declared to have escaped, the dragnet must expand. But this means the police needs reinforcements.

A national call-up of police officers would ensue. The police commanders would have to call upon the Special Operations Command. The SOC would then mobilise the Police Tactical Unit and the Police National Service Key Installation Protection Unit. At the same time, the Gurkha Contingent was activated to aid in the search. Later, Guards and Army Developmental Force soldiers were called up to aid the search.

The train of information has now split into several branches, each carrying a massive amount of raw data and communications as everybody tries to coordinate with each other. A minimum of six organisations would have to work together, leading to a lot of friction owing to different operating procedures and mindsets.

Somewhere amidst this maelstrom of information, the police would judge that Mas Selamat has breached the cordon. News of this would have to travel up the line, possibly all the way to the Cabinet. Someone higher up would then decide to alert the media, and gather the essential information the media crews need. Once the media stations get that information, they would need to set up before going live. The media would not have been informed any earlier, in case Mas Selamat was found within the detention centre, in the area cordoned by the police, or some distance near the cordon — in which case, there would be no national bulletin to broadcast.

Could this system have been streamlined? Maybe. Until and unless an insider tells us what happened that day, we wouldn’t know who said what to whom, and how much information was being traded. I do believe, however, that the four-hour delay could have been cut short, to perhaps an hour or two, or three at most. It is better to send a false alarm than to risk an escape.

The trickle of information the media received following his escape, however, was disgustingly sparse. Drab by drab, day after day, the media released crucial information about Selamat’s description. It began with his name, inferred race, and height. Then came his limp — but a man has two legs. Only after that were we told to look out for someone who limps along on his left leg. Some time after that, the police revealed that this limp was only noticeable when he runs or walks briskly. By now, there have been hundreds of calls to the police, all of which have yielded nothing but wasted time and energy.

What should have been done was full disclosure. When the decision was made to announce Selamat’s escape, the media should have been given Selamat’s physical description. Every media organisation should have been given his name, height, weight, distinguishing features, and a description of the clothes he last wore. Television media and government agencies should have received his photograph to broadcast on air and on the Internet.

The following day, news agencies should have broadcast a notice to watch for suspicious activities and people, such as a neighbour suddenly buying more food than usual or curtains being drawn even at night, in case someone were to live near a possible Selamat confederate. Had this information been released earlier, Selamat could have been captured earlier.

Lest we forget, the blame is not entirely on the media. We must also consider that the media only broadcast what information it was given. In this case, we must also examine why our security agencies failed to release this information in a timely manner. Stinginess with information in this scenario would hinder Selamat’s successful capture, and could indeed aid his escape. In any event, our media and security agencies have lost their credibility in the eyes of the world.

Should Wong Kan Seng resign?

In the short term, no. Wong does not have a designated successor that the public can identify with, if he indeed has one. Should Wong step down, the Ministry of Home Affairs, among other things, would be shaken up. Wong’s subordinates would need to adjust to his replacement’s style in a very short period of time, while handling Selamat’s escape. Such a hasty transition could well hinder the flow of information crucial to capturing Selamat, and any sympathizers he may have.

What about in the long term, after this event has passed? Should Wong resign because of this affair, he would have effectively taken responsibility for the escape. But that, I believe, is not just. As far as I know, Wong did not have a hand in the security procedures of Whitley Road Detention Centre, nor was he involved in its design. Neither was he involved in ensuring that Selamat remains in custody, nor should he: as a minister, he has many things to worry about, the least being a terrorist whom everyone believes is safely detained.

The chain of responsibility should not extend to Wong because he is not involved in it; consequently, resignation over this does not serve the interests of justice. We cannot commit the fallacy of the spotlight, of believing that Wong is at fault simply because of his high profile.

People have argued that Wong should resign as a matter of honour. That, in the end, is up to Wong, and whether or not his definition of honour extends to something like this. It was not his job to take care of Selamat while in custody; then, he had to attend to domestic affairs like encouraging population growth. Wong’s current job, in addition to his existing duties, is to ensure that the security agencies do their job properly, and to reassure the public, to deal with the aftermath of the escape.

Should he fail at this job, then he should resign, for failing to fulfill his duty as a public servant. But taking the rap for something he was only vaguely associated with is a question of personal honour and ethics, one that cannot, and should not, be forced upon him.

The people who should resign, after appropriate punishment, are the people directly responsible for Selamat’s security. That would come after a trial to determine negligence — or treason. This would naturally mean the guards and the guard commander. Any other persons would be unearthed by a full investigation, and hopefully, the CID would conduct it fairly and professionally.

I do not believe that Wong Kan Seng should resign over this issue alone. Whether or not he should resign, in addition to other failings, is something else altogether.

Would have, could have, should have

Right now, I see discussion on this event as organized around three questions: what would have Selamat done, what could have been done, and what should have been done. Many people online are speculating on the escape, and how Selamat would have done to escape. They are also talking about what could have been done to capture him. People are also arguing that Wong Kan Seng should have resigned. In the face of this, I recall some advice I was given: we can worry about the woulda-coulda-shoulda, but they aren’t relevant right now.

Our main priority remains the capture of Mas Selamat. Should he be returned to custody, we would have the answers to the first question. The second one can be answered in the future, after a review of current procedures. The last can also be answered in the future, after the situation has stabilized. While these questions are important, worrying about these questions right now would only waste time and energy. We should instead devote our energies to capturing Selamat first, before tackling the other questions.

But we should never forget them, either.

Picture from Singapore Daily

Visit Benjamin’s personal blog here – The Lionheart.


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