Since the occurrence, the immediate priority has rightly been placed on his recapture. Our security forces have been hard at work in an island-wide manhunt, and Singaporeans too have put up with various inconveniences at checkpoints and other areas to facilitate this massive operation.
Many questions have been raised about how this incident could have taken place in a country which prides itself on safety and security. In seeking to reassure Singaporeans, the Minister for Home Affairs has established a Committee of Inquiry under the Prisons Act “to discover how the escape occurred and to recommend appropriate actions to prevent such an incident from occurring again”. (MHA letter to media dated 7 Mar 08).
As Whitley Road Centre is gazetted by law as a prison, the government’s decision to convene the inquiry under the Prisons Act is not wrong. The problem is that the Prisons Act states that such inquiries shall not be open to the public. The Committee will submit its report to the Minister, and no part of the proceedings may be released to anyone except with the Minister’s written permission.
This raises important questions as to how much the public will eventually be told, since the Minister retains the discretion to release the findings as he sees fit. In a matter of such high public interest as the escape of a high-risk terror suspect from a government-run facility, what assurances or checks are there that the public will be given full information? In the interest of transparency, other governments have conducted public hearings into sensitive matters such as intelligence failures.
One option is for the President to appoint a Commission of Inquiry under the Inquiries Act. He can do so when he considers that having a Commission to inquire into any matter would be for the public welfare or in the public interest. This regime will allow the inquiry to proceed in public as the President shall direct. If there is concern that release of certain sensitive information will jeopardize the national interest, the President may direct that certain information not be made public.
Moreover, since Singaporeans have been marshalled to assist the authorities to hunt for Mas Selamat, the least the government could do is to keep us fully informed of the inquiry and its findings.
11 Mar 2008