Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The COI Report - Simultaneously Fair and Frustrating to Singaporeans

These were the questions I laid out on the table previously. I will do a quick run-down on whether Minister Wong Kan Seng in his parliament speech had satisfied to a large extent our need for openness and transparency. The question of accountability is still unresolved though as the government appears defensive. So, the COI report is transparent as promised but the government's behaviour is less than satisfactory still.

1) The detailed sequence of events that led to the toilet escape.

Actually there was so much information that I have almost totally lost confidence at the competence of those on the ground. Those on duty who did not feel something was amiss when Mas Selamat took his time in the toilet - haven't we watched enough movies to know that the prisoner is always up to no good when his toilet break is taking longer than it should.

2) Who was responsible for the escape?

From the COI report which seemed transparent and detailed, those responsible for the escape were those on duty in escorting Mas Selamt during his family visit. I think this is fair to a large extent. If they were vigilant, all this circus would not have happened. Hence they shoulder the burden of the escape. For example, in a drink driving accident, blame is on the drunk driver, not the one who built the car, designed the road, the pub owner etc. The one behind the wheel is always the one most responsible.

3) Was it negligence, complacency, conspiracy?

Minister Wong Kan Seng said it was not an inside job and CID investigations confirmed it. He blamed the whole escape on complacency, an argument that MM Lee Kuan Yew set a few weeks ago. The whole thing about complacency subtly actually took centrestage since then. Note that the central argument in the escape was not about competence or complicity, other equally worthwhile controversial angles to understand the incident, but complacency.

4) Was the escape planned and did Mas Selamat have help from the outside?

Mas Selamat did not have help from the outside but he did rehearse his escape. Rehearsed his escape and the COI report was frank enough to state this. This is terrifying as it meant that it was not a fluke prison break, but one that was hatched with time. Back to the argument of complacency and the guards not carrying out their responsibilities well. The implication in this revelation on the planned rehearsed escape is that the government did not have to share this as it made them look all the more worse, but they curiously did. If we put aside our cynicism, the government actually took the promise of transparency seriously here. Let's see if the results of transparency would turn around and bite them back.

5) Could the escape have been prevented?

Without a doubt the escape could have been prevented and prevented easily at that. Murphys' Law ruled that the most inept were on duty that day. The window was not grilled. The guards allowed Mas Selamat privacy. The fence could be scaled. The CCTV was not recording as it was being upgraded.

6) What recommendations are made?

The most sensible recommendation is that ISD's detention and rehabilitative facilities would be shifted to Changi Prison. Nevertheless, this sort of recommendations is typical of those with the benefit of hindsight. If the Mas Selamat escape did not happen, ISD would have said that in all its history its current system had served it well and why change something that is working perfectly? Nevertheless the escape did happen, unfortunately for Singapore, and this recommendation to tap on prison's resources and experience is a sound one.

7) How will the government make those responsible accountable for the escape?

The Home Affairs Minister only said that disciplinary action would be taken. On whom and what we don't know yet. We can wait and watch and hold our judgement on the fairness of it all and let's hope that there are no scapegoats.

8) How much responsibility the government is going to shoulder for the escape rather than push the blame to us?

Obviously the government should be held responsible. Some agencies more than others, some personnel more than others. But as a whole, the government is to be responsible for the escape. To make a tangent that Singaporeans are to be blamed for the escape is too much.

9) What is the status on the manhunt now?

Not much new information here and Minister Wong Kan Seng repeated that the search is still on. One thing for sure, Mas Selamat is not inside his cell and that is the only confirmed information on the JI leaders' whereabouts. He could be overseas and back in Indonesia, and politically Singapore has to offer sweeteners to make the Indonesians cooperate and send him back again. If he is in Indonesia in the first place and not holed up in some HDB flat's bomb shelter.

The government also gave an account of what it did immediately after the escape to address the concerns of those who were focusing on the four-hour delay between the escape and a public alert. From what the government shared assuming that it is accurate, the processes were well in place despite what the cynics suggest.

10) What is the cost of the escape to Singapore's reputation, economy and security?

This was not dealt with explicitly but the government cannot run away from the fact that Singapore's reputation as a state which treats security threats seriously has been dented immensely. The government at least had a hope of redemption if they captured Mas Selamat but they couldn't, so now they have to live with this scar.

I rate the capture and escape of Mas Selamat as one of the most significant national security incidents in Singapore's modern history. It sits in the annals, but with a different moral to the story, alongside the Macdonalds house bombing and the hanging of the Indonesian commandos behind it, and the Laju hijack and government officials who volunteered themselves for the hostage exchange.

No comments: