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Mas Selamat Fiasco – the worst govt boo-boo of 2010

by Joshua Chiang

A recent conversation among my friends and some new acquaintances was quite telling. I was explaining how the ‘indigenous’ people of Southeast Asia are genetically not too far apart. In fact, the early inhabitants who settled along the Mekong River were proto-Malays.

“So were they Muslims?” one of the acquaintances, a local Chinese, asked innocently.

“No, Islam came to this part of the world much later,” I replied.

“Wow,” the acquaintance remarked. “Luckily they weren’t Muslims.”

The Malay-Muslim friend among us immediately responded sternly, “What’s wrong with being a Muslim?”

There was a moment of silence. Then the Malay-Muslim broke into a smile. “I was just joking!”

The acquaintance was visibly relieved. “So you are not a Muslim?”

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2010 has been a bumper year for Government mishaps and missteps. From the blunders of the Youth Olympic Games, to the handling of the flood in Orchard Road, to the fiasco over public transport, the Government’s response has been dismal.

But in my opinion, what constitutes the worst foul-up of 2010 must surely be the way the Government attempted to deflect responsibility for Mas Selamat’s escape by painting it as a racial-religious issue.

On 23 November, Singaporeans were greeted with the revelation that following his escape from Whitley Detention Centre, Mas Selamat received help from his immediate family. To the average Singaporean, the first question that comes to mind must surely be this: Why was the family not being monitored?

The public did not receive a satisfactory answer. What we got instead was a salvo of statements that said essentially the same thing: Don’t blame the Malay community.

Singapore's Deputy Mufti Fatris Bakaram said the act of harbouring a known fugitive from the authorities is against Islamic principles. In a statement issued in response to media queries, Uztaz Fatris said this is a principle within the Islamic faith that must be upheld by every Muslim even though the fugitive is a family member or relative.

- “Habouring Fugitive un-Islamic: Deputy Mufti" (Channel Newsasia  23rd Nov 2010)

"It is an isolated case of one individual, of one family, doing something that is contrary to the interest of the rest of us. So all I hope is that we will not point a finger at the community, that we will take it in isolation and measure it on that basis."

- President Nathan, “Don't point finger at Malay-Muslim community over Mas Selamat case: President Nathan” (Channel Newsasia 24 Nov 2010)

“Given the fact that Mas Selamat did escape in a tudung, will the Ministry assure the Malay community that there won’t be unnecessary scrutiny on Malay women wearing tudung in security areas and when they seek appointments for jobs?”

- MP for Hong Kah GRC, Zaqy Mohamed "Hundreds probed after Mas Selamat escape" (Channel Newsasia 22 Nov 2010)

The same, tired narrative was replayed in a recent report in Channel Newsasia

Mr Yeo believes the general response of the Malay community showed they view Mas Selamat in the same way other communities do. He said: "Looking at it on a broader scale, all segments of the community have been very supportive of the anti-terrorist effort, and I think our confidence in that is well-founded."

Singaporeans are not stupid. We all know that any right-minded person would view this case as an isolated incident of one family, “doing something that is contrary to the interest of the rest of us”.

Were they expected to do otherwise? Mas Selamat was after all, their immediate family, not some long-lost cousin.

In his article “Mas Selamat’s escape – It is about Govt incompetency, not race or religion”, TOC’s Andrew Loh raises similar questions. Why should the President, the Law Minister, and various other community leaders even mention the Malay-Muslim community? Are they implying that Singaporeans think it is somehow complicit in Mas Selamat’s escape, or that there is a potential of it being so?

Wielding the dangerous blame-thrower

The blamethrower: don't govern without it

Deflecting responsibility isn’t new. All governments do that. Some do it more often than others. In Singapore, our Government has turned it into an art form, albeit a rather crude one, like a really bad Michael Bay movie.

Nothing is spared from the blame-thrower - drain-choking leaves, citizens without spurs in their hides, even God.

But the latest round of blame-throwing takes the cake. Let’s blame the people who might blame the Malay community for the escape of Mas Selamat! Let’s just sidestep the issue of our own incompetence!

It might seem pretty harmless, taking on the role of the benevolent peacekeeper - “Hey, I know there’s a bad apple among the Malays, but let’s not blame all of them, ok?” - But it isn’t.

Now, imagine that you belong to a minority group in school. Each time someone in your group does something wrong, the teacher steps forward and tells the rest of the class the errant classmate’s action does not reflect on his group as a whole.

What happens when the individual action of a person is always mentioned in the same breath as the group to which he belongs? Over time, do people associate the bad behavior more to the individual or to the group?

The Government has always prided itself on being able to keep the peace between the various racial and religious communities in Singapore.

But racial and religious harmony is more than just a token group photo of the various races dressed in traditional ethnic clothing on Racial Harmony Day. It is more than just wielding a big fat stick at people who indulge in hate speech against people of other races and faiths.

Sure, we live in relative harmony here in Singapore. There are no racial clashes, no religious violence. But scratch the surface, and you’ll find that old stereotypes still exist. In fact, when TOC ran a series of stories on the homeless earlier this year, snide comments that the problems of poverty appeared to be confined to just one group of people (it was never obviously spelled out which) were not uncommon.

The government must ask itself whether it needs to rethink the way it views and handles issues relating to race and religion. It has to cease hiding behind the cover of stern but benign peacekeeper. It has to stop using the race card to further its own purpose. This is manipulative and threatens the very fabric of society it claims to protect.

If, as the government often claims, race and religion are fuses that can blow society apart if managed poorly, then the the Mas Selamat fiasco must surely be the worst foul-up of 2010. To me, it outranks even the overspending on the YOG, or the colossal losses from poor overseas investments. The impact might seem, on the surface, intangible. But the implications are real. It hurts the very foundation of a country – the unity of its people.

What do you think is the worst Government foul-up of 2010? Why? Do write in to us as [email protected]