Andrew Loh –
Almost a month ago, on 17 May, Swiss national Oliver Fricker and his suspected accomplice, Briton Lloyd Dane Alexander, allegedly breached the perimeter fence at the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) Changi Depot. The two men are alleged to have then spray-painted graffiti on one of the carriages of the trains.
A video of the incident was reportedly posted on Youtube the next day – 18 May – and the online community quickly picked it up and the video went viral on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and also on blogs and forums.
Amazingly, SMRT staff only discovered the act of vandalism two days later – on 19 May - after the act was first committed.
While online Singaporeans and netizens were shocked by the security breach, the SMRT kept its silence. And it continued to do so for the next three weeks. It was only on 8 June that it finally broke its silence on the incident with a press release (click here) which threw up even more questions about SMRT’s operational and security capability.
Many other questions have been raised by Singaporeans, both online and in the mainstream media and I shall not go into them here.
The SMRT’s three-week silence, however, is not what is alarming to me. The total absence of any comments or explanations by the Minister for Transport, Mr Raymond Lim, and the Minister for Home Affairs (MHA), Mr Wong Kan Seng, is what is more disconcerting.
Since the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001, the London bombings in 2005, and the escape of terrorist-suspect Mas Selamat Kastari from a Singapore detention centre in 2007, the government here, especially the MHA minister himself, has continually and regularly warned of the threat of terrorism in Singapore.
The government, in a 2003 White Paper on the threat of terrorism, revealed that members of the Jemaah Islamyah terrorist group had planned, as far back as 1997, to bomb Yishun MRT station in the northern part of the island.
The SMRT, in its press release about the security breach at Changi Depot, cited the London bombings as one of the reasons why it had beefed up security measures for our public transport system.
Indeed, constant daily announcements on our trains keep commuters on their toes and they are urged to keep a lookout for “suspicious articles” and to report them to SMRT staff. A video of how a would-be terrorist would carry out his plans is also shown in our stations.
Singaporeans can be forgiven if they felt a sense of siege with all these admonitions and incessant reminders.
It is in this context that the breach at Changi Depot should be seen – and why the prolonged silence of the two ministers who would be most alarmed at the security lapse at Changi is unacceptable.
While it may be explained that the ministers would be working behind the scenes to put things right, one would think that reassuring a jittery and concerned public would also be one of the ministers’ top priorities – and that they would do so promptly. After all, millions of Singaporeans use public transport each day.
The two ministers’ absence from the public eye the last three weeks reminds one of the Prime Minister’s silence for the first 11 days after Mas Selamat escaped in 2007 and the PM’s one-month absence after the minibond saga, which affected some 10,000 Singaporean investors, first came to light in 2008.
The Land Transport Authority, which owns Changi Depot, is under the purview of the Ministry of Transport. The minister thus should assume responsibility and assure the public that the security of our public transport system is sound, especially when we are told that it is a target for terrorists.
Keeping silent for such a long time brings into question the transport minister's leadership in a time of uncertainty for Singaporeans and a trying time for the staff of SMRT.
Domestic security is the domain of the Minister for Home Affairs who has repeatedly reminded Singaporeans of the terrorist threat and of the need to be vigilant. The minister was roundly castigated when Mas Selamat gave his guards the slip and escaped to Malaysia. There were even calls for the minister to resign then.
Now, his leadership in this latest incident is called into question again.
As Minister for Home Affairs, no one is better placed than Mr Wong to assure Singaporeans that the nation’s security has not been compromised and that everything possible is or has been done to make it so, in light of the Changi Depot incident.
It would seem, however, that instead of taking proactive steps to reassure the public, the two ministers by their silence are raising questions about their competence instead.
Isn’t it strange that the government would constantly raise the issue of terrorism and national security but seems to have gotten all silent when a security breach has occurred?
Besides being shocked by the security lapse at Changi, Singaporeans should also be asking: “Where are Raymond Lim and Wong Kan Seng?” And for that matter, where indeed is the Prime Minister, who has not said anything about the incident as well.
Ironically, at the moment it seems Singaporeans are taking the issue of security more seriously than the two ministers are.