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

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Singapore gov't butt of jokes after prison escape

SINGAPORE (AFP) — Terrorism is usually no laughing matter, especially not in security-conscious Singapore, but the escape from custody of a limping Islamist extremist suspect has led to scorn on the Internet.

Barbed jokes and irreverent spoofs have sprouted up on websites five days after Mas Selamat bin Kastari, the alleged Singapore chief of regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, escaped with apparent ease from a detention centre.

"Toilet Break, based on a true story starring Mas Selamat Kastari," read a mock post on one wesbite by a blogger inspired by the hit US television drama "Prison Break".

Blogger Philip Chua wrote: "Singapore has now dropped the ball big time and really is an international laughing stock."

"You don't see prisoners escaping from terrorist detention centres in the West or Guantanamo. More so a leader of the terrorist network in the country next to you!"

Kastari, who was arrested in neighbouring Indonesia in 2006 and turned over to Singapore, remained at large Monday and officials said he was likely to be still hiding in this multiracial island republic of 4.7 million people.

Accused of plotting to hijack a plane in order to crash it into Singapore's Changi airport in 2001, Kastari managed to escape after asking to go to the toilet during a family visit, security officials said.

Direct criticism of the government is rare in the mainstream media, forcing dissatisfied Singaporeans to resort to the Internet to express their views.

Teoh Khengze, a Singapore-based author and journalist, wrote on his blog that the circumstances of what he called "The Great Singapore Escape" were "as incredulous as the escape is audacious.", a popular satirical site, said Kastari's escape underlined the need to give cabinet ministers another salary hike even though they were already among the highest-paid in the world.

"We need to equip our Mini-stars with everything they can to deal with this crisis... and as we know in Singapore, public service and legislative influence are all not sufficient incentives," it said.

"Only the highest salaries in the world will do," the humour site said.

It showed 13 doctored photographs of Kastari in various possible disguises -- in a blonde woman's wig, a 1960s-style Afro hairdo and aviator sunglasses, a handlebar moustache and a beard and turban in Osama bin Laden style.

A popular Singaporean blogger who has previously irked the government with attacks on high living costs said the city-state need not worry about losing cabinet ministers.

"They won't be asked to resign or even take a pay cut," wrote the blogger known as Mr. Brown.
"We are not like those free-wheeling and chaotic governments from Western democracies that make their leaders accountable for every little thing."

Source: AFP

Monday, March 03, 2008

Singaporeans question escape of alleged militant leader

SINGAPORE'S government has come under stinging public criticism after the escape of an alleged militant leader from custody dented the country's reputation for airtight security.

Letters to the editor and Internet blogs by Singaporeans took officials to task for the escape on Wednesday of Mas Selamat bin Kastari, alleged leader of the Singapore wing of the militant Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah.

Open criticism of the government is rare in tightly ruled Singapore, but the apparent ease with which Kastari managed to slip out of a detention centre raised questions about the authorities' anti-terrorist measures.

Since his escape, security forces including paramilitary Nepalese Gurkhas employed by the police have been combing the island and keeping a tight watch on its borders with Malaysia and Indonesia.

Kastari was accused of plotting to hijack a plane in order to crash it into Singapore's busy Changi Airport in 2001, but never charged in court. He was being held under an internal security law which allows for detention without trial.

The Ministry of Home Affairs said Kastari escaped after he was permitted to use the toilet during a visit by family members.

'I am sure Singaporeans would like to know the details of the escape - what happened from the time the terrorist left for the restroom while his family members were waiting for him,' said a letter from reader Rosemary Chwee published on Saturday by Singapore's leading daily, The Straits Times.

'Such a slip is professionally unforgivable... As a citizen, I am deeply concerned, especially if Mas Selamat continues to be on the loose,' she wrote.

Police flyers seeking public help in recapturing the 47-year-old Kastari say he is 'not known to be armed' and walks with a limp.

'What puzzles me is how a middle-aged man who has difficulty walking can leave the detention centre with such ease,' wrote another reader, Siow Jia Rui.

Another letter writer, Lee Beng Hai, suspected Kastari could have been helped by 'sleepers and sympathisers'.

Internet blog sites - the usual refuge of Singapore government critics who are denied space in the mainstream media - were full of chatter and conspiracy theories on the escape.

Even the Straits Times, which is closely identified with the government, said in an editorial that the authorities had to confront the question of whether Kastari had help.

'It stretches credulity to imagine this was an opportunistic solo effort... The escape was too easy, too neat,' it said.

If he had help, it would mean 'terror cells are still morphing and sympathisers are being drawn into the network', the newspaper said.

If he acted alone, 'the system breakdown was egregious', it added.

'Security incidents like this one... will shake confidence in the anti-terror system.'

The editorial said complacency may have set in because Singapore has been spared from terrorist violence so far.

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, Singapore has implemented tough security measures and rounded up suspected militants and sympathisers of the Jemaah Islamiyah.

The group has been blamed for a series of attacks including the 2002 bombings on the Indonesian resort island of Bali which killed 202 people, mostly tourists.

Kastari, a Singaporean citizen of Indonesian ancestry, was handed over by Indonesian officials after his second arrest there in 2006.

Singapore is a predominantly ethnic Chinese city-state which has a Malay Muslim minority and hosts hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, many of them Malaysians and Indonesians. -- AFP

Source: AFP

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Shame on the State Media's coverage of the JI militant's escape

The escape of a limping terrorist, Mas Selamat, who is the most dangerous man in Southeast Asia from a high-security detention centre this Thursday had dealt a major blow to the reputation of the Singapore Police Force and made us a laughing stock amongst our neighbors.

This was the biggest screw-up by the Singapore government since independence with serious ramifications for both Singapore and the region. It is not merely a security lapse, but a failure, an abject failure of the entire security apparatus in Singapore akin to the FBI's failure to pre-empt the 911 terrorist attack.

In other first world democracies, one would expect the Minister in charge to resign immediately to assume responsibility for such a disastrous mistake; the government to form an independent inquiry panel swiftly to investigate the matter and the media to provide a balanced, unbiased and even critical coverage of the entire hiatus.

Not so in Singapore where Mas Selamat's escape was revealed by the media only 3 hours (or maybe longer than that) after it took place almost in an nonchalant, business-like manner. The Home Affairs Minister, Mr Wong Kan Seng was half-grinning when he "apologize" for the "security lapse" in Parliament the next day and to further ameliorate the gravity of the situation, he proceed to assure the public that Selamat is not known to be a "public threat" as he was unarmed.

And this is a man who received training from the Jihadists in Afghanistans in the craft of bomb-making and guerilla warfare; who had plotted to bomb the American Embassy and to hijack a plane to crash into Changi Airport, a hardcore terrorist who will not hesitate to jeopardize the lives of innocent parties to achieve his goals. All of sudden, based on one word from our minister, the threat posed by him is completely neutralized.

The Straits Times' coverage of this matter has been completely shamelessly biased, one-sided and favored to the government which will certainly guranteed a further drop from its latest 141st ranking on Reporters Without Borders' ranking of the world's press freedom.

Let's take a look at the ST articles today:

1. Search for JI man goes to the grassroots: frontpage.

2. Community leaders help with search: home 6

3. Prank caller claims to be escaped terrorist: home 6

4. Police search leaves no stone unturned: home 7.

5. Illegal immigrant hiding in coach arrested: home 7.

6. Whitley Road area back to normal: home 7.

7. Posters and leaflets of fugitive helpful, say S'poreans: home 7.

8. Unlikely he's left coutnry, say security experts: home 7.

With a little spin, a massive catastrophe was turned into another publicity gimmick for the police force - illustrating how hard the security forces are working overtime to apprehend the fugitive, the situation being under control by the police, the return of normalcy, the support given by the community and most dangerously, the continued underestimation of the threat posted by Selamat.

Does the Straits Times editors serve the interests of the public or the government ? They have failed miserably in their role as an institution to reflect the sentiments of the people and to serve as a check on abuse of power by the executive arm of the government.

Without an independent media to expose mistakes in the administration, the government's self-proclaimed calls of transparency and accountability will forever be founded on shaky and hollow grounds. Do you trust the government to self-monitor and regulate itself ? Can we be sure that mistakes are not covered up and important leaders protected ?

In spite of the mounting criticism and calls for him to resign in cyberspace, Minister Wong should emerge from this boo-boo unscathed with the state media on his side and phoney opposition MPs in Parliament inflicted with a greater limp than Selamat himself who will never dare to even question him let alone ask for his resignation. We can be assured that the state media will continue to protray the Police Force in a positive manner with more letters from ghost writers pledging their support to appear in the ST Forum (there is already one today written by a 18-year old Indian lady titled "We should unite, rather than cast blame").

In the meantime Singaporeans should pray that Mas Selamat is caught sooner or later and if he was never to be found, to hope that either he drowned in the Straits of Singapore or somehow after all the "re-education" he received from the ISD, he had a change of heart and renounced violence forever.