Friday, May 8, 2009

I will not begrudge the series of self-back-patting that will commence from here on. We as Singaporeans demanded that MSk be recaptured and the authorities have delivered in this.

MSK's recapture will now provide the real accounts of his escape and this will be put side by side with the COI report to be check for disprepencies. If there are more loopholes in the system, now is the time to identify them and rectify them.

Mas Selamat’s rearrest a good lesson — Zuraidah Ibrahim

MAY 8 — To the paranoid, Singapore’s Internal Security Department, or the ISD, is omnipresent. To many others, it is an organisation to be feared, respected and admired for its ability to keep Singapore safe from any untoward incident that threatens the peace here. But mostly, it is to be feared.

It knew the country's business and, if it needed to, it knew your business. So, it was with great incredulity that the public received the news on Feb 27 last year that the organisation had let one of its biggest catches escape.

That sultry afternoon, the wily Mas Selamat Kastari went into a Whitley Road Detention Centre toilet and out into the wilderness — using nothing more than his wits and the indolence of officials on his watch as his escape kit. That, plus a baju for a change of clothing.

When details of the escape emerged in dribs and confusing drabs over the immediately following days, Singaporeans were dismayed that it was complacency that had created the lax conditions that enabled Mas Selamat to bolt. For a while too, Singaporeans wondered and debated whether complacency had indeed set in to taint their national psyche.

Then, there were the conspiracy theories that abounded about how he must have been re-arrested and then beaten to death in detention. By then too, the baju had become a burqa. Hands up those of you who did not receive an e-mail with a photoshopped picture of Mas Selamat wearing a tudung.

Amidst all this, a wan-looking Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng had to tackle questions in a parliamentary debate that was less wrathful than the mood of the public, but no less intense.

He was under severe pressure and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stepped in to say that he had full confidence in Wong and the ISD chief. There was no need for Wong to resign, as was being demanded by some quarters, said PM Lee.

Since then, even as Wong and others have consistently said that they had not given up hope that Mas Selamat would be found, many other people were sceptical.

When The Straits Times' senior regional correspondent Leslie Lopez called to tell me about his scoop which we reported on today's front page, my first reaction too was of sheer doubt. Mas Selamat caught in Johor Baru? Within sneezing distance of Singapore? Not in some remote corner of Indonesia or the Philippines?

It didn't help when he said that Mas Selamat was caught on April 1. Too late for that April Fool's joke, I told him.

But his thorough checks across the region proved solid and we decided to go with the story.

So, it would appear that Mas Selamat was good, but not that good. This is the third time he has been caught while on the run. Security analysts say that fugitives eventually slip up and try to resume contact with the people they know. The challenge for security operatives is to know whom the fugitive knows and be unrelenting in connecting the dots to find a trail.

Sources said that it was the Singapore ISD that gave the Malaysians the lead on Mas Selamat's trail. If so, the department, which has come under the heaviest fire, has redeemed itself.

The recapture will clear the stain that his escape had left. Indeed the ISD had up to then been doing credible work in the arrest of suspected militants. After the first and second wave of arrests of Jemaah Islamiah (JI) members in Singapore in 2001 and 2002, the department had beavered away at finding out about others who escaped the two dragnets.

In the past five to six years, a check of published reports found that it had managed to reel in more than a dozen who had been on the run overseas. This is work that should have enhanced its reputation, but has been largely forgotten in the aftermath of the Mas Selamat episode.

Security analysts have often remarked at the high degree of cooperation among regional intelligence agencies that do their work diligently and are unswayed by the political temperature of bilateral and regional cooperation.

That the Singapore and Malaysian security agencies work closely is well-known. Mas Selamat's capture is yet another affirming signal of how such cooperation can pay dividends and how such ties must continue to be ring-fenced from the politics of the times.

The Home Affairs Minister and the ISD have reason to be satisfied and relieved. With the arrest, they have brought some closure to an embarrassing episode.

But this is not to say that there are no more questions to be asked. Once further details of his capture are released, a lot more will be asked about how it all happened.

How did he manage to get out of Singapore? Just how porous are Singapore's borders? Can there be steps taken to make them impenetrable without encumbering freedom of passage for law-abiding citizens? Did Mas Selamat have accomplices who were aiding and abetting him here? What other steps are being taken to close whatever loopholes his arrest have exposed? What punishment awaits him?

Meanwhile, if nothing else, Singaporeans may have learnt from Mas Selamat's escape the costs of complacency. His recapture should teach us the value of patience and persistence. — Straits Times

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