Singapore’s most-wanted still at large two months after escape, AFP, 23 Apr 2008

SINGAPORE (AFP) – Two months after an alleged Islamic militant leader escaped from custody, Singapore is the object of ridicule and admits the country’s reputation has been damaged by its failure to capture him.

Despite a massive manhunt, Southeast Asia’s most technologically advanced nation has been unable to track down Mas Selamat bin Kastari since he escaped by climbing out of a toilet window on February 27.

Observers say the incident has embarrassed the country that prides itself on rigorous anti-terrorist measures. Coordinating minister for national security S. Jayakumar has called the escape “a dent in Singapore’s reputation.”

The government accuses Kastari of plotting to hijack a plane in order to crash it into Singapore’s Changi Airport in 2001. He was never charged, but was being held under a law that allows for detention without trial.

Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng told parliament on Monday that security agencies believe Kastari is still in Singapore, the smallest country in Southeast Asia with a population of 4.6 million.

But terrorism expert Clive Williams thinks otherwise, suspecting Kastari is somewhere in the vast archipelago of Indonesia, whose nearest islands are clearly visible from Singapore.

Williams, from the Australian Defence Force Academy, said that for Singapore to maintain Kastari is still in the country only adds to the embarrassment.

“It’s been a long time now and I would think that they would’ve searched every place that he’d likely be in Singapore,” Williams told AFP.

“It’s not a good reflection on the internal security system, is it?”

He called for an independent review of Singapore’s entire terrorism-related security structure.

The government has drafted in counter-terrorism units, the military and paramilitary Nepalese Gurkhas to search for Singapore’s most wanted man, whose face stares out from wanted posters on public buses, the walls of buildings, petrol stations and the subway system.

“Here we are seeking one man everywhere, and we can’t still find him,” J.B. Jeyaretnam, of the new opposition Reform Party, said with a smile.

Internet commentators responded with mocking humour to a government statement this week that the alleged Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) leader fled through an unsecured toilet window as guards stood outside the door.

Authorities blame JI for a string of regional attacks including the 2002 bombings on the Indonesian resort island of Bali which killed 202 people.

Wong described Kastari as “a key figure in the terrorist network” and warned that if he could link up with other JI leaders they could plan an attack on the city-state.

Singaporeans do not seem so worried, but say his escape has shaken their faith in the country’s security system.

Tan Soo Eng, 32, a research associate, said the security lapse “shows that we are not really as safe as we think we are.”

Tan Hui Ching, an account executive, thinks Kastari has fled Singapore but adds: “Maybe Singapore is not that safe after all.”

The Straits Times reported that opposition member of parliament Low Thia Khiang asked Wong about “speculation that Mas Selamat died” inside the Whitley Road Detention Centre where he was held.

Wong replied that he saw no point in giving credence to such speculation, the newspaper said.

A committee of inquiry found that Kastari, who walks with a limp, escaped through the window of a bathroom where he was taken before a regular visit by his family.

Surveillance cameras that were not working, and a slow reaction from guards, contributed to Kastari’s flight, Wong said.

The report prompted much derision on the Internet, where popular Singapore blogger Mr. Brown posted pictures of toilets perched on a tricycle and motorised carts, saying he had thought Kastari might have escaped on something similar.

“But I was wrong. It was nothing THAT sophisticated,” he wrote.

The home affairs ministry has said Kastari fled Singapore in December 2001 following an Internal Security Department operation against JI. He was arrested in Indonesia in 2006 before being handed back to Singapore.

“Just as we found him the last time… so we will eventually again track him down, arrest him and detain him,” Wong vowed.