Singapore Media Watch

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Singapore arrests opposition members over protest

Several Singapore opposition party members were arrested on Saturday after a rare protest outside the city-state's parliament house led to a tense standoff with police.

About 20 protesters wearing red T-shirts that said "Tak Boleh Tahan" - which means "cannot take it" in Bahasa Malay - gathered outside parliament house, holding placards and shouting slogans decrying the rising cost of living in Singapore.

Protests in Singapore are rare and an assembly of five or more people requires a permit from the police.

Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, and several protesters were arrested outside a nearby shopping mall as they attempted to stage a rally walk from parliament house.

"We want to draw attention to these unbearable price hikes," said Chee in front of the parliament house. "Our objective is to continue to encourage Singaporeans to speak up."

Singapore's annual inflation rate hit a 25-year high of 6.6 percent in January with food prices rising 5.8 percent in that month from a year earlier.

The police could not immediately confirm how many people were arrested on Saturday or what they were charged with.

According to a Reuters witness, about 10 plain clothes police surrounded the protesters outside a shopping mall and arrested them after a tense 15-minute standoff that drew crowds of curious onlookers and tourists.

Singapore defends its strict laws on public assembly citing the need for public order and safety.

Source: Reuters

Friday, March 14, 2008

Singapore given 'severe lesson' in complacency

By Seth Mydans

Published: March 13, 2008

SINGAPORE: Lock up your bicycles. There is a dangerous terrorist on the loose.
Mas Selamat Kastari, alleged to be the leader of a terrorist group here, escaped from a high-security prison two weeks ago in a major embarrassment for this efficient, tightly battened city-state.

In a furious response, the government put the entire country on alert, setting up checkpoints, sealing its borders, patrolling its parks and its shores, even urging people to keep an eye on their bicycles in case the wanted man decides to pedal to freedom.

With each new empty-handed day the embarrassment deepens as Singapore confronts its Tora Bora moment, its most-wanted terrorist suspect melting into the urban terrain just as Osama bin Laden evaded U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

For some people here this noisy, flailing search - even more than the escape itself - has cast Singapore in an unfamiliar light of haplessness.

"We had all bought into the image of a well-organized government machinery," wrote Alex Au, author of a popular political Web site called Yawning Bread. "Suddenly, our picture of Singapore as a kind of big brother state is, well, full of holes." All around the city, police officers are on patrol and their checkpoints have delayed traffic for as much as 15 hours in some places, according to newspaper reports.

Security officers on boats and jet skis are patrolling the coastline and the police have removed keys from the ignitions of unattended motor boats.

In what one newspaper called "extensive land, sea and air searches," military patrols in jungle fatigues and Nepalese Gurkha paramilitary forces have scoured the city for the runaway inmate.

Wanted posters are everywhere, mug shots have been transmitted to millions of cellphones and the entire nation of four million people has been deputized to look out for a round-faced man who is 1.58 meters tall, or 5 feet 2 inches, weighs 63 kilograms, or 140 pounds, and walks - or at least runs - with a limp.

Newspapers here say it is the biggest manhunt in Singapore's history.

Mas Selamat, 47, who is said be the head of operations in Singapore for the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network, is accused of being the mastermind behind foiled plots to set off bombs in Singapore or crash an airplane into its airport.

He has been in detention here since 2006 under the Internal Security Act, which allows suspects to be held without trial and his escape was a shock to terrorism experts in the region.

"Everyone thought Singapore had the tightest security system of anyone around," said Sidney Jones, the Asia director for the International Crisis Group.

As a nation, Singapore is as lean and mean and flexible as the rapid-response military the Pentagon dreams of, and it reacted with impressive speed and agility to recent Asian outbreaks of bird flu and SARS.

But for the moment it seems to have met its match in Mas Selamat.
His disappearance challenges its basic promise to its citizens that the government will keep them safe and comfortable.

The authorities have released little information about his escape on Feb. 27, but they say that he acted alone and on the spur of the moment and that he is probably still in Singapore.

The official account is that the prisoner asked to go to the toilet while waiting for family members to visit, then simply disappeared from the Whitley Road Detention Center.

If this is true, said Lee Kin Mun, a leading political blogger who calls himself Mr. Brown, the government should "take a leaf from school exams, where security seems to be tighter" and where students must be escorted to the bathroom.

The country's founder, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, boiled the whole debacle down to one word: complacency.

He used the incident to strike again with his frequent warning that Singaporeans must work hard to protect the modern but fragile country he created from a social or economic explosion.
"It shows that it is a fallacy, it is stupid, to believe we are infallible," he said. "We are not infallible. One mistake and we've got a big explosive in our midst. So let's not take this lightly. I think it's a very severe lesson on complacency."

His son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said: "It is definitely a setback, and it should never have happened." And then, echoing his father: "It's the danger of complacency, of thinking that everything is all right."

In Singapore, words like that amount to marching orders, and government agencies seem to be rushing to demonstrate that whatever else they are, they are anything but complacent.

Source: International Herald Tribune

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Singapore faces blogging ire over militant escape

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's state-controlled media and government have come under fire from critics and Internet bloggers for failing to give the public important answers on the escape of a suspected Islamic militant.

With a cynical eye cast on local newspapers such as the pro-government daily, the Straits Times, critics say media coverage has skirted key issues and so more people were turning to alternatives such as blogs for a differing viewpoint.

"The mainstream media did its job of trying to play down the most shameful part of the incident. It is a blow to Singapore's image as being efficient," Seah Chiang Nee, a political commentator and former Singapore newspaper editor, told Reuters.

"The more Internet savvy would not depend on the mainstream media for news of what's happening in the country, they would go to the Internet," said Seah.
Mas Selamat bin Kastari, the alleged leader of the Singapore cell of al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah, a group blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, escaped on Wednesday last week from the toilet of a detention centre.

Security experts said the escape was embarrassing for a country that prides itself on tight security. The escape sparked an unprecedented manhunt in the small island and a rare apology from the government, who blamed a "security lapse". But few further details of his escape have since been released.

Cherian George, an ex-Straits Times journalist and media lecturer, wrote on the Internet that the Singapore media had not answered the "immediate" question of how Kastari 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," George wrote.

Read rest of article here

Singapore reels over a missing fugitive

The Island Republic’s fugitive terrorist runs circles around authorities

Did you ever hear the story of Long John Dean,A bold bank robber from Bowling Green,Sent to the jailhouse yesterday,Late last night he made his getaway.

Missing 170 hours … and counting. If this were the US TV series Without a Trace, the FBI sleuths would long ago have been sacked and replaced over the astonishing disappearance of Mas Selamat Kastari, the putative jihadi terrorist.

But this is the hermetically sealed island of Singapore, where leaders take much credit and little blame and where no one likes to question official versions of events – which as in other closed systems causes people to harbour inner doubts about the truth of anything they are told.

A full week after Kastari limped out at 4 pm from its most closely guarded prison, the Whitley Road Detention Center via a toilet window during a family visit, he is still at large.

Is he hiding out among accomplices in Singapore itself? Has he made it across the strait to Indonesia and the safety of fellow Jemaah Islamiyah activists?

Or across the Causeway, evading the dogs and dragnets the Malaysians set for him? Could it be that despite his limp he managed to swim the Johor Strait?

Although the Whitley center is replete with cameras recording every movement inside and out, there is no explanation of how Kastari could have escaped from under the noses of the Gurkha guards during a brief toilet visit, and then got hastily away from the jail.

It is not in teeming downtown Singapore, where even a Malay with a limp might vanish into the crowds. Even that seems unlikely, since Malays make up only 13 percent of the Singaporean population, and they are not exactly hard to spot among the majority Chinese.

Was this a stunning solo effort worthy of Houdini himself?

Or did the impoverished JI, which had only a few thousand dollars for the Bali bombing in 2002, have enough cash to bribe squeaky-clean Singaporeans or the Gurkha protectors of their top leaders and prisoners?

Or maybe he is not hiding out anywhere but dead already, having been encouraged to escape into the hands of persons unknown who were only too happy to see him “disappeared.”

Or could he have been dispatched to Guantanamo for further processing at the hands of the experts at waterboarding and other forms of non-torture?

Or been “rendered” to some other jurisdiction – though who would want him, given that he is a Singaporean citizen and thus the city-state’s ultimate responsibility and not known to have committed crimes elsewhere?

Or maybe he was a US agent all along and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who visited Indonesia last week, decided he had served his purpose and he could be returned to society with a new identity.

Or maybe the Singaporeans have taken a leaf out of the British book when they were dealing with communist insurgency in the 1950s.

Did he sing enough about his JI pals that he has earned his release, a new identity and a fat bank account to start a new life, as did some former communist terrorists who acquired new names and became respected, wealthy businessmen?

Or was he allowed to escape so that he could rejoin his JI colleagues with the promise that he would be a mole inside the organization – assuming anyone believed his escape story.

Or maybe he is The Man Who Never Was, a bogeyman dreamed up by Singaporean intelligence to frighten the population into believing that JI plots were all around.

There have been enough other invented plots to give some plausibility to such creations. But in that case, why the public “escape,” which has caused such loss of face, rather than letting the mirage die a natural death?

In the absence of facts, any number of theories, conspiratorial or not, is being bandied about in an amazing outpouring on the Internet, which the authorities appear powerless to stem.

But the most common sentiment appears to be not that lives are in danger because a dangerous terrorist has escaped and may yet manage to blow up Singaporean buildings.

It is growing derision at the sheer apparent incompetence of authorities usually so keen to praise their own efficiency, particularly in matters of security.

“Toilet Break, based on a true story starring Mas Selamat Kastari,” read one weblog in reference to another US TV drama, Prison Break.

Another satirical blog, Talkingcock, had a hilarious set of 13 photographs of Kastari taken from a wanted poster and showing the fugitive in a variety of disguises including a massive 1960s-style Afro, various mustaches, sunglasses and a blonde-female wig.

Other bloggers poured scorn on the competence of the world’s highest-salaried ministers and senior bureaucrats.

Whatever else can be said about Singapore, its government has long regarded itself as the most grimly efficient and accomplished in Asia, and it does not brook any nonsense.

Kastari’s escape and the subsequent inability of authorities to find him have called that into question.

Singapore’s most prized asset is competence and the willingness to pay for it with taxpayer funds. Ministers and civil servants, already by far the highest-paid public servants in the world, received a round of pay raises starting on January 1 ranging from 4 percent to 21 percent, driving Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s salary to S$3.7 million (US$2.55 million), more than six times that of US President George W. Bush. Cabinet ministers, including Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng, apologizing while under intense fire for Kastari’s escape, receive S$1.9 million (US$1.37 million).

Its civil servants are among the highest paid in the world. The government has long taken the stance that public officials should receive pay commensurate with the top of the country’s business elite, both to attract top talent and to forestall any temptation toward corruption.

Thus the ability of a crippled ethnic Malay to walk away from the most securely guarded prison on an island of only 700 square kilometers, and to remain on the loose since February 27, has not only generated a huge amount of controversy, but a growing amount of ridicule of the government, which is being recycled endlessly in cyberspace, often in the form of jokes.

This is not something a government as humorless as Singapore’s is finding funny.

Whatever the truth about the escape of Mat Selamat Kastari, whether or not he is recaptured alive, this saga has all the signs of a Black Swan event – that totally unpredictable occurrence that makes nonsense of rational predictions and in the process destroys a myth.

This time the myth is competence.

Source: Asia Sentinel