The evening that Mas Selamat Kastari showed up at his brother’s flat in Tampines seeking refuge, security officers were assembling near Ten Mile Junction in preparation for an overnight search of Bukit Batok Nature Park. “A police spokesperson said. . . that the police and the Singapore Armed Forces had deployed more than 1,000 officers in the search,” reported the Straits Times two days later on 2 March 2008.
Why that park was felt to be worth combing was never made clear.
The search was called off the following morning with nothing to show for it.
A review of Straits Times’ headlines of those days left me with the impression of a panicky, kneejerk response after Mas Selamat escaped from Whitley Road Detention Centre on Wednesday 27 February 2008. Huge resources were marshalled, but the way they were deployed suggested that the authorities were at a loss where to look.
Mas Selamat is the alleged mastermind of Jemaah Islamiyah in Singapore, said to be an affiliate of Al Qaeda. He was being held under the Internal Security Act when he escaped by climbing out of an unsecured toilet window. He has never been charged in a court of law, let alone convicted.
The counter-intuitive idea we should examine is this: Having the option of detention without trial does NOT enhance security; it undermines it. Easy resort to sweeping up all and sundry with no need to prove charges in a court of law means that careful investigative work is neglected. Keeping tabs on suspects and updating information about networks and relationships become less important in the belief that the network is behind bars. The authorities are not kept on their toes. Even basic police procedures can be forgotten.
When the Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam told Parliament last Tuesday that Mas Selamat spent one night at his brother’s flat in Tampines undetected, there was a collective groan of incredulity from across Singapore. Did no one think to watch his family members during those crucial early days? How could such a basic step be neglected?
From the few public statements released so far, what happened was this: About 48 hours after his escape, Mas Selamat showed up at the door of the Tampines flat on Friday 29 February. The flat belonged to his brother Asmom, but
. . . it was not Asmom he wanted help from. The two had not kept in touch for years.
Rather, he went there seeking his niece Nur Aini, whom he mistakenly believed would be home alone. He thought Nur Aini’s parents would be in Johor.
She let him use her bedroom, provided him with food and water, and helped him destroy the clothes he had worn to the flat, including those issued to him at the detention centre.
Before Mas Selamat left, she also helped him with his disguise — she applied make-up on him and secured a tudung over his head. She also gave him several items: a set of clothes, a baseball cap, water, a snack, an illumination stick, airtight resealable plastic bags and a backpack, among other items. She also gave him a map that he had asked for showing Singapore and a part of Malaysia.
Despite her initial reluctance to let Mas Selamat in, Aisah [Asmom’s wife and Nur Aini’s mother] gave him an ez-link card, some paracetamol, and a hair net he wore as part of his disguise.
On his part, Asmom gave Mas Selamat S$100, RM100 (S$42) and some traditional medicine.
He found out that Mas Selamat was in the house only upon returning from work in the early hours of March 1. He knew it was wrong and was unhappy about it, but decided to let him stay.
Mahadir [Asmom’s son] had the smallest role among the four, and thus was let off with a stern warning.
He learnt that the family was harbouring Mas Selamat when he returned home on Feb 29, but did not render any specific help to his uncle. In fact, he was not home for most of the time Mas Selamat was there.
— Straits Times, 23 Nov 2010, Mas Selamat given shelter by his brother’s family
Three of the four members of the family were charged in court for harbouring a fugitive, pleaded guilty and sentenced on 18 November 2010. Nur Aini received the heaviest sentence of 18 months, Asmom 12 months, and Aisah three months. Mahadir was let off with a warning.
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Following the minister’s statement in Parliament,
Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) asked if the home of Mas Selamat’s brother, Asmom, was under surveillance in the manhunt that followed the escape.
Nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan chimed in: ‘Given the fact that there can’t be that many immediate members of the family, on the day of the escape, shouldn’t it have been standard operating procedure for the security forces to actually go down to the homes of the immediate family members?’
[Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam] explained that Mas Selamat’s loose network of friends, relatives and former Jemaah Islamiah (JI) associates was extensive, and included a few hundred people.
Mr Shanmugam declined to say if Asmom’s flat had been under surveillance, arguing that this was a matter of operational security and ‘not in the interest of our country for us to disclose these matters’.
— Straits Times, 23 Nov 2010, Was flat being watched, ask MPs.
Even if Mas Selamat’s friends and family members were numerous, the government was not short of resources. The day he escaped, thousands of men were sent into the forested areas around the detention centre. They were so many that tracker dogs could not be used, as then-Home Minister Wong Kan Seng told Parliament in April 2008. The dogs would have been confused by the many scent trails.
Instead, the chief impression one gains after reviewing the news stories of those two critical days is that the government was operating with no intel whatsoever. They were taking a blunderbuss approach.
On Friday, 29 February (the day Mas Selamat made his way to Tampines), the Page 1 story of the Straits Times was headlined “Fugitive hunt widens”. It told of tight security at border checkpoints. Readers may recall the massive traffic jams that built up at the Causeway linking Singapore and Malaysia as cars were thoroughly searched.
In the Home section of the newspaper was a full-page spread — “Searching for S’pore’s most wanted” — with photos and a map. The map showed the original area of interest around Whitley Road, Malcolm Road and Goldhill Estate. However, it would become apparent from the following day’s newspaper headlines that by then, the authorities had largely given up on the Whitley Road locality after combing the semi-forested area for two days.
On Saturday, 1 March (the day Mas Selamat left the flat with a Muslim headscarf as disguise), the lead story was about volunteers going about distributing 10,000 posters with Mas Selamat’s likeness all over Singapore. It went on to report that “Throughout yesterday, teams of police officers and Gurkhas were seen at different parts of the island at different times. Late last night, the action was in Upper Bukit Timah. Gurkhas and officers from the Special Operations Command were combing the undergrowth of Bukit Batok Nature Park.”
There is very little hint of intelligence. There isn’t much to indicate a systematic approach either.
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Readers may recall that the arrests of alleged Jemaah Islamiyah members in Singapore began in December 2001, but the initial leads didn’t come from any domestic police work. A certain Muhammad Aslam Yar Ali Khan was captured in or around October 2001 in Afghanistan by forces allied with the Americans, and it was he who, under interrogation, provided leads to the alleged Singapore cell of Jemaah Islamiyah.
Even the much-touted story about the Jemaah Islamiyah cell having done close surveillance of targets such as Yishun metro station had its origins in Afghanistan. The surveillance video was recovered not in Singapore but in the rubble of a house bombed by the Americans. Until the Americans told our police about what they found, our guys had no clue that a local cell had been scouting targets.
That the bombing of Yishun metro station was not eventually carried out was due more to luck than any great competence by our police. Their skills have likely atrophied.
It’s the same with youth gangs. At the slightest sign of trouble, the police threatens to use detention without trial under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, sweeping up anyone and everyone with the slightest suspicion of involvement. Without the need to prove charges in a court of law, it is only obvious that officers will tend to get lackadaisical about investigations. Good information is not sifted from bad. Clear understanding of relationships, motives and psychology become unimportant.
They are all behind bars, officers will say, and we have done our job. Only to be surprised again when another gang fight breaks out.
It’s time to ask: Does the easy option of detention without trial — whether on suspicion of terrorism or criminal gang involvement — make law enforcement officers lazy?
Ask too: Why does our government defend the use of detention without trial with the excuse that underground cells are shadowy and operate with a code of silence, making it hard to prove charges in open court, when other countries manage to convict accused persons under appropriate terrorism laws? Is the cells’ shadowy nature so impenetrable or are police skills now too sloppy to stand up to judicial scrutiny?
Consider for example the latest news about how the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) managed to plant a decoy to fool 19-year-old, Somali-born, naturalised US citizen Mohamed Osman Mohamud into thinking he had been supplied a working bomb in Portland, Oregon. And when he dialled a cellphone number to trigger what he thought would be an explosion, that was the proof needed.
It’s time to consider the counter-intuitive possibility: that having a sweeping law permitting detention without trial does not improve security for citizens, but does the opposite. Sloppy, lazy police can’t be good for us. Not to mention the many documented examples of human rights abuses that have been inflicted.