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  • Singapore in 2008:Negotiating Domestic Issues, Confrontations and Global Challenges
  • Terence Chong (bio)

The Escape

Singapore began 2008 in high drama. On the early evening of 27 February, Singaporeans were told of a breakout from the Whitley Road Detention Centre (WRDC). Mas Selamat bin Kastari, an Indonesian-born Singaporean, held under the Internal Security Act, sparked the largest manhunt ever launched in Singapore. He was allegedly the head of the Singapore branch of militant group Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and, according to the Singapore government, was suspected of plotting to attack Singapore Changi Airport in 2002 by crashing a plane into it. Arrested in January 2006 by Indonesian anti-terror squads in Java, Mas Selamat was then deported to Singapore. He was never formally charged with any terrorism-related offences but was held by the state under the Internal Security Act. A nation-wide search involving the Singapore Police Force, the Gurkha Contingent, the Police Tactical Unit and the Police National Service Key Installation Protection Unit was conducted. They were later joined by the Singapore Guards and the Singapore Armed Forces Military Police Command.

Response from the public ranged from mild alarm to anger, the latter of which was manifested largely on Internet blogs and forums. Public criticism was directed at several levels. Many were critical of the way a supposedly dangerous terrorist suspect could have so easily slipped out of a high security detention centre and at the misinformation given out to the public by the police. Initial news alerts informed the public that Mas Selamat walked with a limp; later alerts noted that the limp was only visible when he ran. Critics also accused the pro-government [End Page 289] media of trying to play down the incident and skirting key issues. One political commentator, observed "The mainstream media did its job of trying to play down the most shameful part of the incident", while a media academic wrote about the mainstream media not asking the most immediate question of "how" Mas Selamat escaped: "The question is so natural and so obvious that you'd think anyone barely paying attention would ask it. Unless, apparently, one worked for the national news media."1 Lastly, criticism was also directed at Wong Kan Seng, the Minister for Home Affairs over the fact that news of Mas Selamat's escape was not disseminated to the public until four hours after it happened. Singaporeans were only provided some details at a parliamentary session the next day.

A Committee of Inquiry (COI) was duly set up. But even the choice of individuals appointed to the committee aroused disapproval in some quarters. The three members of the COI, announced on 2 March 2008, were retired judge Goh Joon Seng, ex-police commissioner Tee Tua Ba, and deputy secretary at the Home Affairs Ministry, Choong May Ling. Some questioned the inclusion of Choong, a high ranking officer within the Home Affairs Ministry, to an inquiry that was investigating a department under the very ministry she belonged to. The opposition Workers' Party also suggested that President S.R. Nathan appoint a Commission of Inquiry under the Prisons Act instead so that investigations could be made public. The COI, nevertheless, proceeded with its task and produced a report that was made partially public by Wong Kan Seng in a ministerial statement in parliament on 21 April. The COI identified three critical factors that allowed Mat Selamat to escape. Firstly, there was a physical security breach because the ventilation window in the toilet from which Mas Selamat escaped did not have grilles; secondly, the guards watching him allowed him to close the door of the urinal cubicle when they should not have done so; and thirdly, there was a physical weakness in the perimeter fencing outside the Family Visitation Block, where the toilet was located, which made it easier for Mas Selamat to get out of the detention centre's premises.2

The incident led to questions over government complacency and accountability. Famed for its efficiency and readiness, the government and its agencies were now described as being complacent by members of the public. To make matters worse, on 11 June, in a separate case, two detainees awaiting their...


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