Terrorists have killed one of our own

I am very saddened to learn that 28-year old Singaporean lawyer Lo Hwei Yen has been killed by terrorists who attacked the Indian city of Mumbai. This is the first Singaporean in recent memory who has been killed by terrorists – probably since the MacDonald House bombing in March 1965.

After reading about repeated terror attacks in Iraq, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India, it is easy to numb your mind to all these senseless deaths. That is, until a fellow Singaporean falls victim to these evil doers.

I don’t know Ms Lo personally, but she is just a year younger than my wife. She was a lawyer and obviously a promising one, to be sent on overseas assignments alone at such a young age. In short, she was one of our nation’s best and brightest. I understand that she was recently married. I cannot imagine the pain her husband and family must be going through. May God grant them strength to persevere through this difficult time.

I utterly condemn these terror attacks. Over 140 people have been killed, many of them machine gunned down while in their hotels or places of worship. To me, that is even more unconscionable than exploding a bomb. How does one’s conscience get seared to the extent of squeezing the trigger, emptying out magazine after magazine and gunning down defenceless civilians? This all proves that the evil in humans knows no bounds.

May these terrorists face the full wrath of justice, whether in this life or the next.

Protecting their own kind

The PM and Home Minister have given their statements in Parliament regarding Mas Selamat’s escape.

I am glad that although the Committee of Inquiry (COI) report was not released, at least the details of how Mas Selamat escaped — complete with pictures — were. I’m also glad to learn that this wasn’t an inside job. And I think it’s fitting that not just junior officials, but even the Superintendent of Whitley Road Detention Centre (WRDC) will be punished for this lapse.

That’s the good stuff. Now for the not so good.

The Escape

I wonder what was going on in the mind of the Gurkha who accompanied Mas Selamat into the toilet. Didn’t he find it a bit odd that the water was kept running for 11 minutes? Couldn’t he have banged on the door and asked Mas Selamat what was taking him so long? Or looked under the door? Or heard him opening the window and squeezing himself out? Why did he go OUT of the washroom to look for the female ISD officer to alert her, leaving the prisoner completely unattended. Maybe it was during those few seconds that Mas Selamat was able to escape from the window undetected.


Next the leap over the fence. The COI said it was most likely that he jumped on top of the covered walkway and lept across the fences to freedom. I find that quite incredible. The photo shows a double row of fencing, each with barbed wire on top, and separated by at least 2 m. The ground on the other side is filled with shrubs. Even if Mas Selamat lept across it, he would have broken his ankle when he landed.

The alleged escape across the fence is uncannily similar to the method used by NSF Dave Teo, who went AWOL from his army camp with a SAR21 assault rifle and several 5.56mm ammunition rounds. Teo lept from a parapet situated near a fence to escape. Did our security agencies not learn a thing from this very recent incident — that you should never have any fixed platforms near a fence?


Responsibility

I am shocked to learn that the punishment for allowing Mas Selamat to escape will be limited to only officers in the WRDC. Surely there are others in the ISD and MHA who are partially responsible.

It was reported that the toilet Mas Selamat escaped from was usually used by visitors and staff of WRDC. These visitors must, at one point or another, have included senior officials from ISD and MHA like the Director ISD, the Permanent Secretary (Home Affairs) and even the Minister himself. The Deputy Secretary (Security) who sat on the COI must have seen the same window design in the women’s toilet.

Did it not occur to any of them that there was a huge, ungrilled window with a ledge below it? Why did they not sound any alert? Were they complacent too? If so, do they not share part of the responsibility?

High security installations like these usually have regular security audits by another higher unit. If these audits were carried out, why didn’t the auditors discover the ungrilled window and the fence with a covered walkway beside it? These auditors should also be punished for their negligence. If no such audits took place, why not? ISD and MHA then bear some responsibility for not instituting these external audits.

PM’s speech today in Parliament and his responses to MPs’ questions were most disappointing.

He put up a stout defence for his Home Minister and Director ISD, saying they are “ultimately accountable” but “were not to blame”. This is a contradiction in itself. If you are accountable for something and that something goes wrong, you are to blame. That is what leadership is about.

I’m not asking for any resignations. But for everyone up the chain of command beyond the Superintendent of the WRDC to get away scot free is breathtaking! No one is going to even get fined, forfeit leave, sign extra, do push ups?

The PM said: “(T)his does not mean that if a lapse occurs down the line, every level in the chain of command, up to and including the Minister should automatically be punished or removed.”

In that case, no Minister will ever be punished for anything, because Ministers never do anything with their own hands. Everything that they do in the course of their work is actually carried out by a battalion of civil servants working under them.

PM chose to trot out the “we are not like other countries” argument, when he pointed out that we should not have a culture where Ministers “fall on their swords” whenever something goes wrong, just for political expediency. This is playing back like a tired old record from his father’s era. Most Singaporeans with half a brain will know it is less about being different from other countries, but more about protecting their own kind — the tight-knit network of elites who run this country.

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Escape has yet to dent govt’s hubris

While in a cab last Saturday, I recalled the newspapers reporting that within hours of alleged Jemaah Islamiah leader Mas Selamat Kastari’s escape from detention, a broadcast was sent to all taxis urging them to look out for the escaped terrorist. Wanting to verify this, I asked the cabby when exactly he received that broadcast.

“They didn’t tell us until the next day!” he replied in Mandarin. “And after making such a big blunder, what’s the point of apologising?”, he continued, ending off with, “Ta ma de!” which loosely translates to “Damn it!” in English.

With just that innocent question, I had not expected to ignite such anger in that otherwise polite taxi driver. It was then I realised that I was not alone in feeling upset at the fact that the government allowed a potentially dangerous man to slip away so easily from detention last Wednesday afternoon. An AFP report published by The Straits Times (2 March) reported that the government has come under unusually “stinging public criticism” after the escape.

But to err is human. And government officials are human after all, aren’t they? So why engage in this “unconstructive and retrospective finger-pointing”, as two NTU academics wrote in TODAY (4 March)? Shouldn’t we “rally behind and support our security forces and not undermine them,” as Mr Nicholas Lazarus advised me in a comment on my blog last Friday?

On deeper analysis, it appears that Singaporeans’ anger at the government is not simply because a bunch of bumbling Internal Security Department (ISD) officials at the Whitley Road Detention Centre let slip the alleged leader of JI Singapore.

It is not because Singapore has been in the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons. It is not even because after more than a week, one thousand police officers and army personnel still haven’t been able to find a limping man in this little red dot of an island.

I suspect that Singaporeans are more upset with the insufferable hubris and lack of transparency of the government despite what is probably their biggest blunder in recent memory.

Mr Tan Chak Lim put it this way in a letter to TODAY (1 March):

“When we hear of dangerous prisoners escaping from prison in Indonesia or the Philippines, we congratulate ourselves that such things can’t possibly happen in Singapore. The escape of Mas Selamat should check any hubristic tendencies on our part.”

Hubristic tendencies? Didn’t the Deputy Prime Minister apologise in Parliament for the “lapse in security”? Wasn’t that a sincere enough display of contrition for someone as high and mighty as Mr Wong Kan Seng?

The behaviour of senior government officials in the wake of the escape suggests that these hubristic tendencies are still as strong as ever.

It took four long hours for the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to inform the public that Mas Selamat had escaped? PAP Member of Parliament Dr Teo Ho Pin asked the right question the next day in Parliament: Why so long?

The Minister’s answer? He posed “no imminent danger to the public” and he was “not known to be armed”. The police on Sunday said that they did not want to cause “public panic”.

Does the Minister really think Singaporeans are so irrational? If he is not armed and dangerous, why should Singaporeans panic if the police sounded the alarm immediately?

The public could have helped police nab the man in those crucial four hours.

In fact at about 5.15pm, 70 minutes after the escape, a bus commuter reported seeing a man, believed to be Mas Selamat, at a petrol kiosk near the detention centre. A manager of a car washing kiosk at the Esso petrol station on Whitley Road reported seeing a man struggling up a flight of stairs towards Malcolm Park at 5pm. If these people had been informed of Mas Selamat’s escape, they would have called the police immediately instead of speaking to the press only a day later.

As student Lee Weijia pointed out in a letter to the Straits Times, “the authorities were hoping to apprehend him without alerting the public. It seems that the public was only alerted when the authorities recognised the fact that Mas Selamat could not be apprehended any time soon.”

Lee went on to ask a very pertinent question: If Mas Selamat had been apprehended within the four hours, would this have been reported and made known to the public at all?

“We should not speculate”

The question that every Singaporean must have asked in the immediate wake of the escape was, “How could this have happened in Singapore?”

Every Singaporean, that is, except our local mainstream media journalists and editors.

As NTU don Cherian George pointed out, neither The Straits Times, nor Channel NewsAsia, nor TODAY asked that question within the first 24 hours of the news breaking. This led Dr George to conclude that the editors “must have been instructed not to raise the ‘how’ question publicly”.

Indeed, the Home Affairs minister had told Parliament immediately after his apology, that, “An independent investigation is underway. We should not speculate now. Security at the centre has been stepped up.”

How can the minister tell Singaporeans not to speculate when such a costly mistake has just been committed? Is there a presumption that the government is above public scrutiny?

Suffered a “knock” but we’re still better than others

On Sunday, the Home Affairs minister acknowledged that Singapore’s reputation for safety and security had “suffered a knock somewhat”.

Was it just a “knock”?

The news of the escape was reported the world over by major news agencies and dailies like AFP, CNN, BBC, New York Times, Reuters, Associated Press, Xinhua, Hindustan Times, Washington Post, Sydney Morning Herald, Al Jazeera and Taipei Times, just to name a few.

They featured unflattering headlines like “A Jihadi Limps Away from Singapore Jail”, “Singapore: Terror suspect fled toilet” and “Embarrassed Singapore hunts escaped terrorist”.

NTU academics Hoo Tiang Boon and Kumar Ramakrishna assessed that Mas Selamat’s escape is likely to have “wide repercussions, strategically and operationally” and that other terrorists might use this story for the own recruitment and indoctrination purposes.

The Minister went on to boast that “our reputation continues to remain high compared to many other countries”. Indeed, what better way to prop oneself up than to put others down, by implying that “other countries” (read: Indonesia, Philippines, etc) still pale in comparison to us! Even if it is true, this is hardly the time to say so.

Responding in kind, the Indonesians later stated that while they are helping in the search for Mas Selamat, if they catch him, they are not going to extradite him to Singapore for the second time, because the Singapore-Indonesia Extradition Treaty has not been ratified.

See where this hubris has gotten us?

Singaporeans fed dribs and drabs of information

Last Friday, I asked on my blog why the police had not told the public what Mas Selamat was wearing when he escaped. On Tuesday, almost a week after the escape, the police finally revealed that he could have been wearing a baju kurong over a beige round collared tee-shirt and a pair of brown long trousers.

The reason given for not telling the public earlier? They did not want the public to have a “fixation” on this particular attire as the fugitive could have already changed his clothes. Now they want the public to help look out for his discarded attire.

How insulting to Singaporeans! Is it better to look out for these clothes when they are on the fugitive or when they have been taken off?

The police obviously felt the heat for not releasing basic information like his height, weight and attire earlier. Now they are trying to weasel their way out by asking Singaporeans to look out for discarded clothes. Do they really think Mas Selamat will strip off his clothes and place them neatly in the open for everyone to see?

The “independent” investigation

Singaporeans were told by the minister that there will be an “independent investigation” in to this matter. Then it was revealed that the Commission of Inquiry (COI) consists of an advisor to the President, a serving ambassador and former police chief, and the Deputy Secretary for Security at the Home Affairs Ministry.

It is already a stretch to say that the first two are independent, despite their government links and current portfolios, but having on the Commission the third-most senior civil servant in the very ministry at fault surely shatters any veneer of “independence”. Like Mr Wang, I have nothing personal against any of these commissioners. In fact, I met Mr Tee Tua Ba when he was Ambassador to Egypt and can attest that he is a very pleasant and friendly gentleman. I trust that these commissioners will be impartial to the best of their ability.

Nevertheless, I do not understand why the government boasts that this is an “independent commission” when by most objective measures, it is clearly not. Have they taken the liberty to redefine the meaning of “independent”?

It remains to be seen whether the COI’s report is going to be made public, just like the 9/11 Commission which investigated the failures that allowed the terrorist attacks of September 11 in New York and Washington.

Conclusion

I am aware that it is unfair to blame the entire Home Team for a security breach at a top- secret ISD detention centre that many Singaporeans didn’t even know existed. I am in full support of the hundreds of policemen who are working overtime to nab this alleged terrorist.

It is just unfortunate that despite the gravity of the mistakes that were made by MHA officials before and after Mas Selamat’s escape, Singaporeans are still expected to put up with haughty statements and lack of transparency from our government.

The most senior government leaders have been deafeningly silent on this issue since it broke. I will not be surprised if the first statements we hear from them are chastisements along the lines of Singaporeans — especially bloggers — not having a sense of proportion when criticising the government for this minor security lapse.

Singapore’s international reputation for security and competence has taken a hit as a result of this blunder. Unfortunately, however, it seems the government’s hubris hasn’t been dented one bit.

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Mas Selamat’s prison break: Some questions for Home Affairs Minister

I have a few questions for the Minister for Home Affairs regarding the escape of alleged terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari.

1. Why has Singapore not asked the Malaysian police for help in tracking him down? Malaysian police chief Musa Hassan was quoted in the International Herald Tribune yesterday saying, “We have not received any special request from Singapore as yet.”

Doesn’t the Government think that there is a very high likelihood that Mas Selamat could have escaped to Malaysia immediately after his prison break?

2. How could Mas Selamat have escaped from the toilet in the ISD Detention Centre? Was there a hole in the toilet wall or an open window that he could have got out from? If so why wasn’t this fixed, given the need for such high security at such a facility?

3. How long did it take for the alarm to be sounded? Surely if there was a warden outside the toilet waiting for him to finish his business, that guard should have gone in to check on him if he didn’t come out in 2 minutes. How far could a limping man have run in just 2 minutes?

4. Once he got out of the toilet, how did he manage to get through the perimeter fence which is guarded by Gurkhas and CCTV cameras? Was there a hole in the fence?

5. Has MHA ruled out the possibility of an inside job?

6. So far the MHA has only released two face shots of Mas Selamat. Wouldn’t it be more useful to tell the public what he was wearing when he escaped, so that people can look out for him? This was pointed out by HWZ forummer knave.

7. The Home Affairs Minister has said that an “independent investigation” is underway. Will the public be informed of the details of the investigation, or will Singaporeans be told that it was an honest mistake and to trust the MHA to know what they are doing? If operational security is a concern, at a minimum, the full report should be released to all MPs, including Opposition MPs.

Terrorist leader escapes from Singapore detention centre


The alleged leader of terrorist network Jemaah Islamyiah, Mas Selamat Kastari (above), escaped from the ISD detention centre in Whitley Road in Singapore on Wednesday 27 February. A massive manhunt is on to find him.

Anyone who sees him should call the police at 999 immediately.

While the priority now should be to first find him, I think serious questions will follow later about how an extremely dangerous man with a limp could escape from jail in, of all places, Singapore.

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Terrorist doctors and radical lawyers

UK shock: Most bomb suspects are doctors
Worryingly, the eight held are professionals linked to the National Health Service By Mark

Rice-Oxley, For The Straits Times

LONDON – THE terrorist threat confronting Britain has taken a disturbing new twist, with the revelation that almost everyone arrested over last week’s car bomb attacks were foreign-born doctors working in the National Health Service (NHS).

The BBC reported yesterday that of the eight people detained over the failed bombings, seven are thought to be doctors or medical students and the eighth a lab technician.

Read the full article here.

Reading this just makes you throw up your hands in despair and wonder: who is not susceptible to Islamist radicalisation? The poor with nothing to lose? High flying lawyers who are supposed to have been trained in the art of reason? Now doctors who are supposed to save lives are instead plotting mass murder.

I hope there is a really deep investigation into the route that these doctors took on their path to radicalisation. There must be a lot more than meets the eye. In the case of Abdul Basheer, the young lawyer detained in Singapore, I think Singaporeans deserve more answers regarding how he got convinced of this destructive cause that he felt was worth dying for. Frankly I don’t buy the simplistic “radicalised by Internet” postulation. I’ve obtained a list of some of the radical websites that are being tracked, and I really don’t see anything remarkably convincing there. And it’s not because I don’t sympathise with the plight of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

Latest "terrorist" detentions: Some questions

On June 9, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) made a shock announcement that it had detained a young lawyer, Abdul Basheer s/o Abdul Karim, and 4 alleged Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) operatives under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in February. Information from the press release is scant, and raises many questions. DPYadav has asked his questions on his blog. Here are mine:


1. According to MHA, in Oct 2006, Abdul Basheer “left Singapore for a Middle-East country” where he had made plans to fly to Pakistan, contact the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), train for “militant jihad” and the cross over to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban. But before he could do that, he was arrested there and repatriated to Singapore.

Which Middle East country was Abdul Basheer arrested in? This has revealed a very close state of cooperation between Singapore and that country for the latter to be willing to arrest someone who had legally committed no crime, and “render” him to Singapore. Do we have an extradition agreement with this country? If not, did Singapore and the Middle East country act within international law in executing this rendition? (Recall the scandal that the US was embroiled in with its CIA renditions of terrorism suspects from Eastern Europe to Guantanamo Bay.)


2. There has been much emphasis by the Government that these latest arrests must not be allowed to harm race relations in Singapore. The implicit concern is that the Chinese majority may suspect their Malay neighbours (including the educated ones) of being extremists too. Several Malay community leaders and academics were quoted in the press condemning Abdul Basheer for his actions so as to ally any fears felt by the other communities. However, it was never mentioned that Abdul Basheer is not Malay. He is an Indian Muslim.

Even Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng seems to have missed this fact, when during a grassroots event on June 9, he was quoted as saying, “We must not over-react…Our Malay-Muslim community in general are moderate people.”

An article in TODAY on June 9 stated that “the arrest took the Malay community by surprise”. Unwittingly, an Asia Sentinel article wrongly referred to Abdul Basheer as a “Malay lecturer”.

Why was there no effort by the Government and the media to point out that he is not Malay? The numerous articles written about how this well-educated lawyer could turn out to be a radical is has probably reinforced in many people’s minds that even the Malay community’s best and brightest are not spared from problems of radicalisation. These are the kind of things stick in people’s minds, whether consciously or sub-consciously. It is therefore quite unfair to the Malay community that Abdul Basheer isn’t Malay but has been widely assumed to be so.


3. From a legal perspective, Abdul Basheer has not broken any law, a point that Brother Michael Broughton of the Singapore Inter-Religious Organisation raised. He was legally in that Middle Eastern country studying Arabic and he had bought an air ticket to Pakistan. Based on MHA’s statement, he had not contacted the militant LeT yet, and even if he had, that in itself would not be a criminal offence.

So why the rush to arrest him without any evidence of criminal wrongdoing? Was it just to save Internal Security Department (ISD) officers (and their external spy counterparts) the trouble of tracking him and gathering evidence on his alleged planned militant activities? Or was there a genuine reason to believe that was the last chance they had to apprehend him? Would they have arrested him so soon if the Government didn’t have the ISA, which gives the Home Affairs Minister almost absolute power to detain someone indefinitely, even without evidence that can stand up to scrutiny in an open court?

I don’t disagree with DPM Wong’s argument that someone who has gone on a jihad in Afghanistan poses a threat when he comes back home. Neither do I think it is ok “if a Singaporean kills or plans to kill others in terrorist acts abroad, so long as those who die are not Singaporeans”. But the intention to “make contact” with LeT does not automatically mean that he will become an Afghan jihadi. Would LeT have even accepted some unknown Singaporean with no jihadi credentials into their fold in the first place?


4. There is much speculation about how the Internet played a significant role in radicalising Abdul Basheer. Yes, there is a lot of extremist stuff out there which can be quite mesmerizing — scenes of “martyrs” blowing up US troops in Iraq with Arabic music playing in the background, compelling essays (in English) of how the “Zionists” (i.e., Israelis) are killing Palestinian women and children, online communities of radicals feeding off each others’ hate, etc. But is this really what can turn an intelligent, educated Singaporean into a terrorist? According to a New Paper article, a former classmate said she bumped into him sometime in 2005 and he had grown a beard and was clad in a religious outfit. He also had a bruise on his forehead which he said was caused by pressing his head hard to the ground while praying. That speaks of a deeply spiritual experience that he had gone through — something that does not simply happen by surfing the Net in your bedroom. There must have been someone or several people who were closely “discipling” him through his spiritual transition. Have these mentors been identified and are the authorities monitoring them to ensure they do not produce more disciples like Abdul Basheer?


5. The Straits Times article “extremism.net” (June 16) pointed out that psychologists believe the transition of a Netizen from terrorist sympathiser to terrorist stems from the state of mind of the individual even before he enters Cyberspace. An expert said that it was likely that an episode in his life caused him to “lose faith in the innate rightness of the status quo”.

I recall a dorm-mate in my freshman year in university in the US who was an Iranian born Briton. He spoke with a crisp English accent, but had nothing but expletives to describe the Brits. He told us how in boarding school he was ragged and abused on the basis of his national origin. This experience was evidently the cause of his intense anger against the Brits, whom he said were “all f****** racist”. Could Abdul Basheer have gone through something like this growing up as a minority in Singapore, that personally hurt him and caused him to want to take up arms to fight against “infidels”?


I don’t expect that there would be ready answers to any of these questions. But I hope readers can share their views on this issue.

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Related reading:

Lack of Critical Thinking Not Internet is the Problem by Bernard Leong