Singapore Media Watch

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

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