SINGAPORE – Renowned for its strict and tight government controls, Singapore’s Orwellian reputation took a hit on February 27 when terror suspect Mas Selamat Kastari escaped from the island state’s Whitley Road Detention Center.
The escape, and the government’s subsequent handling of the manhunt, have called the island nation’s terror-fighting credentials into question. Mas Selamat is the alleged leader of the Singapore cell of the regional terror network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which is believed to have links with al-Qaeda.
According to government sources, Mas Selamat had in early 2002 planned for a commercial plane from Bangkok to be hijacked and crashed into Singapore’s Changi Airport, in apparent imitation of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Prior to that, in 2001, Mas Selamat and his JI associates had also allegedly planned to plant bombs at a train station, the US Embassy, the American Club and other targets, as well as poison Singapore’s water system.
The main target of the US’s “war on terror” in Southeast Asia, JI is believed to operate across at least three countries in the region – Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. The radical group stands accused of orchestrating a number of terror attacks, including the 2002 Bali blast in Indonesia which killed 202 people.
The group is also believed to have links and share training facilities with Islamist rebels active in the southern Philippines, including the allegedly al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf. While many JI operatives have in recent years been apprehended by their respective governments, no country, including the United States, has declared victory over the underground network.
Mas Selamat was a particularly high-value detainee. His involvement in Islamic militant activities dates to 1990, when he first joined the Darul Islam, an Indonesia-based radical movement considered by many as the forerunner of JI.
According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), by 1992 Mas Selamat was a member of the religious council of JI’s Singapore cell. He traveled to Afghanistan for military training in 1993, and again in 1998, to observe the Taliban’s austere and strict fundamentalist rule, of which the ICG reports he was “deeply impressed”.
Around 1999, Mas Selamat was reportedly promoted to Singapore commander by the group’s Southeast Asian operations chief Riduan Isamuddin, or Hambali, who was captured in Thailand in August 2003 and is now in US custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
A full week after Mas Selamat’s dramatic escape, details are still sketchy as the government has reverted to damage-control mode. The authorities have remained tight-lipped about the embarrassing security breach. Their silence has allowed all manner of conspiracy theories to flourish over the Internet.
What is known is that Mas Selamat was being taken by guards for a scheduled visit with his family when at 4:05 pm he requested to use the toilet. That apparently was the last time he was seen by his prison minders. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng told the media four days later there had been a “physical breach” at the facility, but refused to elaborate. “An independent investigation is underway and we should not speculate on what and how it happened,” he said.
Thousands of police have flooded the area in the vicinity of his escape, setting up roadblocks and conducting house-to-house searches. It wasn’t until after 8 pm the day of the escape that the government announced that the leading terror suspect was on the loose. The four-hour lag between the escape and the public announcement has stoked speculation of a government cover-up.
Every day and night since, police, army personnel and tracker dogs have combed forested areas for the fugitive – to no avail. The authorities have stated their belief, without pointing to specific corroborating evidence, that the suspect is still on the island and has not fled to a neighboring country, such as Muslim-majority Malaysia or Indonesia.
Urban areas are now covered with police posters showing the face of the wanted man. Authorities have alerted the population that Mas Selamat walks with a limp and police have released information about his height and weight. It was only on the sixth day that the media were told what clothes Mas Selamat was wearing at the time of his escape.
The government’s schizophrenic impulse, simultaneously calling on the public to help, but not trusting people with specific information about the suspect, is characteristic of the Singapore government’s nanny-state ways. Mas Selamat’s escape is particularly embarrassing not only because the Singapore citizen had eluded capture before, but it was the Indonesians who had originally caught him and handed him over.
Thirteen suspected members of JI’s Singapore wing were hauled off to indefinite detention without trial under the Internal Security Act over their alleged roles in plotting the 2001 attacks. Mas Selamat, however, managed to slip through the dragnet and fled to Indonesia, where the terror group has deeper roots and is suspected to maintain a wide sanctuary network.
Indonesian police arrested him in 2003 on Bintan, an island near Singapore, when they discovered he was carrying fake immigration papers. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison on immigration charges, during which he attempted to escape by jumping off a high floor of the detention facility. He broke his leg in the failed attempt, and the injury apparently developed into a permanent limp.
Where Mas Selamat went after serving that sentence is unclear. However, he was arrested for a second time on immigration offences in Malang, Java, in 2006. He was deported to Singapore in February that same year and was held under the Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial if the state has cause to believe a suspect is a threat to the state. Mas Selamat was held at the Whitley Road Detention Center until his escape.
Singapore prides itself as a trusted and reliable partner to the US in matters of regional security. The US Navy regularly makes port calls and it is believed the two sides have been sharing counterterrorism-related information. It is because of that special relationship, apparently, that JI chose to scout out American targets for attacks in Singapore in 2001.
Mas Selamat’s escape calls into question the reliability of Singapore’s own security arrangements, as well as how much Western allies can and should depend on them. There have been similar breaches in the Philippines, where high-value terror suspects have escaped, allegedly through police corruption. Unless Mas Selamat is caught and a full accounting of the lapses that led to his escape are publicly disclosed, foreign confidence in Singapore’s counterterrorism credentials will be hard to restore.
Noises have already been made from Indonesia that if their police again capture Mas Selamat in their country, they will keep him in their own custody rather than deport him to Singapore. The US, too, could be prodded to reconsider its security cooperation with Singapore if and when the details of the mysterious escape finally emerge.
Alex Au is an independent social and political commentator, freelance writer and blogger based in Singapore. He often speaks at public forums on politics, culture and gay issues.