A psychological perspective

Anthony Yeo

Since the news of the escape of Mas Selamat Kastari, there has been a lot of attention given to not only his escape but the need for everyone in Singapore to get involved in looking out for him.

This has also generated a lot of discussion, debate and some form of dissension amongst many through interpersonal encounters, sms and the internet.

It was further exacerbated following the disclosure by Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and the debate that followed in parliament.

Inasmuch as views and news have been circulated, there has also been the appeal to leave the matter behind and move on.

Even Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has urged us to move on as there are other more urgent matters to deal with, such as inflation (ST April 27). Likewise Political Editor of Straits Times Chua Lee Hoong appealed for the same highlighting that there are “Crucial issues aplenty, so let’s move on” (ST April 26).

As I ponder over this escape that has become a national pre-occupation since it happened, I do wonder if we can adopt another perspective to what happened and how it has affected people.

We may need to begin with the acknowledgement that this incident is no ordinary occurrence and that it has virtually no parallel to anything that has happened before.

What we have been confronted with is the escape of a man who is not only identified as an alleged terrorist but deemed as a very serious threat to not only Singapore, but whichever place or people he may decide to target and destroy.

Mas Selamat Kastari is also known to have links with a network of terrorists that the world, let alone Singapore regard as a current threat.

Furthermore, Singapore seemed all too gratified that he was arrested and assumed that his detention would pose minimal or no threat as we managed to capture the “big one” – the alleged head of the Singapore branch of Jemaah Islamiah, a terrorist organisation. He was no “small fry” that we can easily disregard.

This clarification should set the context for appreciating and understanding the reactions of people regarding his escape and the difficulty of simply leaving the matter behind to move on.

The psychological perspective

From a psychological perspective, there was the shock element.

This is akin to the initial impact of a traumatic experience like the Asian tsunami or any other unexpected cataclysmic incident.

It cannot be denied that people were probably shocked to read of the escape. If he poses a low threat to the nation, like an ordinary prisoner who escapes from detention, we would probably be just upset.

Then there was the widespread publicity of his escape and the swift response of Government and people in spreading information of his possible whereabouts.

In quick succession, posters of Mas Selamat Kastari’s face were put up at every nook and cranny of Singapore, then there were awareness gatherings organised to alert people to be on the lookout for him.

This would have had a powerful psychological impact as it sustained the shock element, and generated a possible mass hysteria of the mind, and possibly widespread paranoia as well.

Such a heightened consciousness of his escape, coupled with constant reporting of the search by police and army personnel, as well as the gradual disclosure culminating in the revelation and debate in parliament of his escape could have magnified people’s concerns over what happened.

As with any traumatic experience, shock is often accompanied by anger.

Such shock and anger can be elucidated by our Government’s frequent extolling of itself of being efficient and always delivering, or exceeding, its promises.

Likewise, people in Singapore had obviously anchored their trust in our proclaimed impeccable system.

We can easily postulate that with such a mindset, this escape and the manner in which it happened would have shattered people’s confidence momentarily.

It would also disrupt their belief that lapses of the kind that was made public could even have occurred before.

As we think of it, drug abusers who pose no threat to national security when caught are kept under high security detention in Changi Prison.

Therefore, in the minds of many, it was utterly incredulous that a man who is such a great threat is detained in a building that is more easily accessible than many other public buildings in Singapore.

This would obviously pose a severe damage to people’s beliefs and sense of safety.

Somehow we cannot deny the possibility that this would have lead to heightened anxiety and fear.

The aftermath of the escape saw schools and homes in the vicinity of the detention centre being heavily guarded and under constant surveillance by armed police and soldiers.

In addition, the way apology was rendered could have contributed to the anger experienced and expressed by many.

Somehow, people would have expected a clearer, direct assumption of responsibility and apology by the highest authority without qualification.

Instead, what people heard from parliament amounted to some kind of dissociation from responsibility and accountability.

I believe what mattered was not whether Mr Wong should have been dismissed or be asked to resign.

What mattered was the need to accept responsibility and apologise unreservedly before seeking to engage in lengthy exposition of the lapses connected with the escape.

In fact, the more explanations were offered, the greater the cognitive dissonance in people, as they had to grapple with information that triggered more questions in their minds.

If we do want to get on with other matters, we may need to acknowledge that this incident resembles a traumatic experience of grave magnitude. It is difficult to simply leave this episode behind and just move on.

Like all healing processes in traumatic experiences that may have features of post-traumatic stress disorder, it takes effort and time.

Healing comes from the need to express thoughts and feelings about the incident. This is part of the remembering process, which includes the recounting and re-experiencing of the incident.

Such remembering should be given space and time for expression, and with time this remembering will soon subside.

Expression of thoughts and feelings in healing from trauma should be unfettered. The more we try to suppress or disregard such thoughts and feelings, the longer they will linger and fester.

Of course, when we let this happen, we may need to be ready to absorb and accommodate such expressions no matter how vitriolic they may be.

It is also wiser not to try to explain further, or worse, attempt to defend.

Anger being anger is often a manifestation of hurt and pain that needs expression to avert the possibility of explosion.

Of course healing from traumatic experiences also comes with action in redressing mishaps and mistakes to restore a sense of safety and confidence.

This is where the assurance from the Government that it will improve the security of detainees in future would be one step towards healing.

Meanwhile, a high level of tolerance for further discussion and debate would help instead of constant reminders to leave this behind and move on.

All said and done, in the meantime, it may still not be possible to leave this matter behind for the obvious reason that Mas Selamat Kastari is still at large.

We still harbour uncertainty with lingering anxiety, wondering if he would do anything to threaten our security.

Much as we do not wish it, we must still deal with the possibility that there will be no closure to this incident as long as we do not know his whereabouts.

This leaves us with an ambiguous situation that cannot be resolved no matter what corrective measure is made to the future detention of terrorists.

The most we can do is to bear with the ambiguity whilst nursing the injury from the incident.

We can try to leave it behind, not by leaving it alone, but by focusing on other matters that concern us whilst living with this ambiguity.


Anthony Yeo is the Consultant Therapist at the Counselling and Care Centre.

TOC thanks Anthony for contributing the above article.


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May 2008