Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Guards Made me do it.

You have to hand it to Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minster and Minster for Home Affairs, Mr Wong Kan Seng for being able to look so cool amidst the pressure of his political office. The man should have a great career in front of him as a poker player. Not only did he manage to read the report of the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the Mas Selamat affair without batting and eyelid, the man was also able to claim that there had been no hint of complacency in his ministry despite providing the evidence of his ministry’s complacency. .

To the credit of the COI, a factual report was given. There was very little emotion and a good deal of detail into how Singapore’s most prominent terrorist was allowed to escape from prison with comical ease. Three facts were given for his escape:

  • The window of the toilet had no grill.
  • The guards had slipped by letting him out of their sight.
  • The Whitely Road Detention Centre was poorly designed – the fence was not high enough thus allowing Mas Selamat to run across a roof top before jumping over the fence.

To the credit of the Minister, the superintendent of Whitely Rd Detention Centre was removed and he did mention that those in supervisory and managerial positions within the detention centre would be dealt with – thus providing a shred of decency by not blaming everything on the Ghurkhas who were guarding him. “Corrective Measures,” would now be put into place and Singaporeans, as both the government and press seemed to say – should forget the matter and concentrate on more important things. This was, as one newspaper reporter pointed out – “A small stain on an otherwise sound record of the Ministry of Home Affairs.”

Unfortunately, the Minister seems to have forgotten that Singaporeans have become more educated and although the major questions seemed to have escaped the main press, they did not escape the minds of a few chattering heads. This became particularly so when the Minister claimed without a trace of irony that there was no culture of complacency in his ministry (which by his very actions proved that his ministry was complacent.)

Take a look at Singapore’s most famous window! One has to ask how a facility meant to keep people inside would have a window so wide that a human being, even one as small as Mas Selamat, could leave it so easily. Public toilets in MRT stations have better security. I’ve visited enough public toilets to notice that large spacious windows are not built over urinals and the urinal area is not cordoned off in a cubicle.

Perhaps this design flaw would not have been so bad on its own. However, this turned out to be a window without a window grill. Once again, Singapore is filled with HDB flats with window grills and even the most primitive army camps have window grills. So, once again, how is it possible for a facility meant to hold people in not to have an iron grill on its windows.

It was comical to see the picture of the sawn off window hinge. I’m not sure what type of security measures the superintendent was thinking about when he had the hinge sawn off. However, as one thinks back to this situation, it becomes rather less funny when you consider that these measures are supposed to ensure national security.

Sure, the Minister cannot be held responsible for everything that goes on in the Ministry. Did he let Mas Selamat go to the toilet? You can’t blame him for that nor can you blame him for taking action against various members of the Detention Centre.

However, what the Minister must be responsible for is structural and procedural faults within the Ministry and its subunits. As the leader of his Ministry, the Minister is also responsible for the culture that permeates that ministry. Yes, it’s hard to change cultures. Even absolute monarchs cannot change cultures with a flick of a switch. However, Mr Wong is not a newly installed minister. He has held his position for the past fourteen years, a time frame that most reasonable people would assume is long enough to leave your mark on the culture of the organisation. Mr Wong’s claim that there was no complacency on his ministry’s part is an ingenious exercise in shifting the blame.

Allot of the Minister’s supporters have argued that Mas Semalat’s escape is just one small incident. However, they seem to miss a major point. Mas Selamat was incarcerated for a good reason – namely the fact that the government felt he was too much of a risk to be allowed to roam free. In fact the man was such a risk to society that the government didn’t even bring this to trial and arrested him under the Internal Security Act.

So, here’s the question. If Mas Selamat is so dangerous that we need to incarcerate him under ISA, how is it possible that people can now claim that his escape is a “small” or “single” incident? Why bother to incarcerate him in the first place if he was just a small time crook? Why not wait for the evidence to accumulate and bring him to trial? Who was the person who had the power to decide on arresting Mas Selamat under ISA and keeping him in detention for two-years? If that person found it so necessary for Mas Selamat to be arrested and detained under ISA, surely he or she would realise that his escape is not just a single incident.

Then one has to ask, how it was possible for the both the ISA and Ministry of Home Affairs to have no knowledge of the possible flaws within the Whitely Road Detention Centre. Yes, the superintendent was guilty of complacency, but it seems strange for someone who has been through external audits during national service, that neither the Home Affairs Ministry nor the Internal Security Department (ISD) found any of these faults during audits of the detention centre. The Whitely Detention Centre has been in operation for 42-years (since 1966), and Mr Wong Kan Seng has been Minister of Home Affairs for 14-years. In all that time, I’m surprised that nobody conducted audits of the detention centre or pointed out the obvious structural flaws to the people who had the power to do something about them.

Perhaps one has to be charitable to the Minister in this incident. Perhaps it was spotted but somebody or some groups of people in between the Minister and the ground felt it was best to hide the facts from him. It’s easy to suggest spending $100 million on high tech goods but rather unglamorous to suggest there should be more window grills and barbed wire in a detention facility. Even if this were the case, the Minister must take responsibility for creating a culture where nobody tells him the truth.

Some people have argued that the residents of Whitley Detention Centre are merely political detainees and not prisoners. As such, it would have been wrong and self-defeating to make the detention centre out to be a prison. But then again, what exactly is a political detainee and why do we need to incarcerate them? Allot has been said about rehabilitating people in the detention centre and not wanting them to “Ideologically Contaminate” others. Then again, why do terrorist or potential terrorist need to be treated better than other criminals. Mas Selamat allegedly planed to crash a plane into Changi airport and to kill as many people as possible. Surely that has to make him and others like him mere criminals. Yes, by all means keep him away from other prisoners and try and gather intelligence, but don’t give the bugger any more kudos by making him out to be something special other than a common criminal.

Seriously, any discerning individual can see that the Mas Selamat affair has poked a rather large hole into a culture of complacency within the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Minister has conveniently blamed a few individuals at the detention centre. Then the Prime Minister has argued quite eloquently that removing the Minister does not solve the fundamental problem – which once again is blamed on the culture of complacency.

Then again, if one takes the Prime Minister’s defence of the Minister into account, it seems that even the PM is not immune to the culture of complacency. Did the PM ask any hard questions of the Minister or even the Director of ISD? Or was it just a case of – I know him, he’s good bloke, I have blind faith in him.”

Personally, I think that anyone who asks enough questions will find that the culture of complacency is deeply entrenched. Yes, the PM is right, we need to get to the fundamental problem and change the culture of complacency – and to that, we either need to change the culture or change the man responsible to the development of the culture within the Ministry and its subunits.

My name is Tang Li and my NRIC is S7439818I. I live at Block 27 Marine Crescent, #22-03, Singapore 440027 and I can be contacted at 90256957.

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