Raoul Alwani / Guest Writer
The previous week’s attacks on Mumbai have once again demonstrated that terrorism is a dangerous and enduring threat that we are still living with. People have short memories, and it is easy to forget the quick succession of 9/11 in 2001, the 2002 Bali Bombings, the Madrid Train bombings in 2003, the London bombings and the attacks on Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt in 2005, the high profile attempt to bomb transatlantic planes in 2006 (which led to the current restriction on carrying liquids on flights), and countless other violent acts against civilians in many areas around the world.
Frame Singapore in this backdrop, and some important questions need to be raised. In 2003, the Indonesia authorities arrested the high-ranking Jemaah Islamiyah member Mas Selamat on Bintan, and he was in Indonesian custody until he was handed over to Singapore in February 2006. There, he was imprisoned under the Internal Security Act until February 2008, when he made a daring escape and presumably fled the island.
All this is nothing new to Singaporeans, having seen the furore firsthand once details of his escape were released to the public. What needs to be brought up again was the government’s handling of the situation. Why the public was not informed immediately. Why were details of his appearance released in such a pathetic trickle of information that prevented alert Singaporeans from effectively being a part of the nation-wide manhunt.
Why the Home Affairs Minister did not even offer to resign on the principle of moral responsibility. Why the entire affair was quashed in the mainstream newspapers with quotes from our Prime Minister saying, “What to do, it’s happened” and the political editor of the Straits Times, the widest circulating English daily in the country, to write a piece about there being “crucial issues aplenty”, so we must move on.
Why our Minister Mentor talked about there being an issue of “complacency” yet no one senior in the ministry responsible for our security was made culpable for a culture of complacency?
Shockingly, this incident was followed by several other lapses in Singapore security, with the attempted escape from the courts of two men, and another Singaporean making it all the way to a foreign country on someone else’s passport!
Terrorism is not something that is just going to go away. It isn’t as simple as to wish for the public to “move on”. Last week a Singaporean was killed in Mumbai, a tragic event for her family and for us as Singaporeans. The bigger tragedy will be if we don’t use this sad event as a reminder that we all need to be vigilant in making sure the people who are tasked to protect us are doing their job. It isn’t enough to say after the fact that there was a failure of intelligence, as the Indians are now doing. The Indian Home Minister has resigned, claiming moral responsibility. What did our Home Minister do after Mas Selamat escaped? What did our journalists do to probe the matter? What did our MPs do when the results of the Commission Of Inquiry report were released?
What did happen after the escape were two more incredible blunders that were thankfully harmless, but could have been much worse. In fact, the whole issue of the escape of a dangerous man intent on killing civilians in Singapore has been reduced to redundant posters around the island and a plethora of jokes on the internet.
We must demand what is right from the people we have elected to govern us. In the end, when intelligence fails (and it only needs to fail once), it is the ordinary people who suffer the most.
There is a quote from Plato: “Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber”.
Let us not realize this only when it is too late.
The threat of terrorism is real, and while we cannot always directly act to affect the multiple and complex root causes of terrorism, we can be directly responsible for making sure we are as hard a target as can be hit. Mumbai is not far from us at all, and many of us travel often. We cannot be cowed, and we must not be afraid. What we must do is be resolute, firm, and demand what we deserve. As citizens of a democracy, we hold our government accountable both for the good situations and the bad ones. It is time to revisit the issue of our security, and ask the questions necessary for our own safety.