Blame the Guards, Window and Fence

The COI findings are out. Minister for Home Affairs sorted out the blame portion and pointed out three factors leading to the great embarrassment –  unprofessional unalert guards, an open inviting window and a maybe a low fence or at least a fence that could be surmounted. Tomorrow, the PM would deal with the delicate issue of responsibility.

As I have stated before, blame and responsibility are not necessarily the same thing. The entire account of the events which led to the escape is unbelievable. At least the government is open about how the escape took place. Their unprecedented candour is appreciated but there is still a need for reckoning. Will the political masters be equally forthcoming tomorrow about responsibility in the escape? I hope they carry the onus. With great power comes great responsibility, as the cliche goes.

Three critical factors led to Mas Selamat’s escape

21 April 2008 1547 hrs
SINGAPORE: A confluence of three critical factors led to security lapses that resulted in Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) detainee Mas Selamat Kastari’s escape from detention in February.

This was the conclusion of the Committee of Inquiry (COI) on Mas Selamat’s escape from the Whitley Road Detention Centre on 27 February this year.

The findings of the three-member panel were presented by Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng in Parliament on Monday afternoon in a Ministerial Statement.

First, there was a physical security breach as the ventilation window in the toilet – from which Mas Selamat made his escape – did not have grilles.

Second, the guards watching Mas Selamat allowed him to close the door of the urinal cubicle when they should not have done so.

And third, there was a physical weakness in the perimeter fencing outside the Family Visitation Block, where the toilet was located, which made it easier for Mas Selamat to get out of the detention centre’s premises.

On the day of his escape, Mas Selamat was escorted by two Gurkha guards and a Special Duty Operative – who is an Internal Security Department (ISD) officer – from his cell to a locker room to change into civilian clothes for his family’s visit.

At the locker room, the guards lost sight of him when he stood behind a column of lockers to change. He was then escorted to the Family Visitation Block, where he used a toilet, renovated in 2007, to shave and comb his hair before meeting his family members.

He then entered a urinal cubicle, closed the door and turned on a water tap inside the cubicle. One guard stood outside the cubicle door, while the other was outside the main toilet door.

After a while, the guard outside the cubicle felt Mas Selamat was taking too long. But instead of checking, he alerted the second guard outside the toilet, who alerted the female Duty Operative.

The Duty Operative then alerted a male Assistant Case Officer, who ran in, kicked open the door and found Mas Selamat gone. The ventilation window in the cubicle was left open.

Mr Wong said the delay by the guards and their failure to keep Mas Selamat in sight was the second most critical security failure which led to the terrorist’s escape. By this time, 11 minutes had lapsed since he first entered the toilet.

The COI found that during renovations in 2007, grilles had not been fixed to that particular toilet window due to a misunderstanding between the ISD and the contractor.

The superintendent of the centre, who was alerted to this weakness in May 2007, asked the contractor to saw off the window handle as a security measure instead, which Mr Wong said was a bad judgement on the superintendent’s part.

In addition, the CCTV coverage of the area was being upgraded to add motion-detectors, but the cameras were not yet operational.

While there is no conclusive evidence as to how he had escaped from the centre after that, the COI believes Mas Selamat may have climbed onto the roof of an enclosed staircase which converges with the perimeter fencing. He could then have jumped over the fencing out of the centre.

The COI also believes that the JI leader had planned his escape over time.

DPM Wong said: “Prior to his escape, during previous family visits, Mas Selamat had partially closed the urinal cubicle door on some occasions.

“On 5 February 2008, he had closed the urinal cubicle door completely and turned on the water tap. The COI believes that these actions by Mas Selamat could have been done to test how the guards would react. This could also have helped him prepare for his actual escape attempt.

“This planning had not been noted by the guards, possibly because the guards are frequently rotated to avoid over familiarisation or fraternisation with detainees.”

The COI – comprising Mr Goh Joon Seng, a retired High Court Judge; Mr Tee Tua Ba, a retired Commissioner of Police; and Dr Choong May Ling, Deputy Secretary of Security at the Home Affairs Ministry – was given full access to all information in its investigations of Mas Selamat’s escape.

This included highly classified and sensitive information on operational systems and processes, as well as access to interviews with ISD intelligence and field personnel.

The committee submitted its report on 10 April and Mr Wong said he is “satisfied” that it has “held nothing back” in its conclusions and recommendations.

He added that in view of the keen and valid interest of MPs and the public, an Executive Summary has been released on the COI’s findings.

In response to a question from opposition non-constituency MP Sylvia Lim, Mr Wong said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is expected to make a ministerial statement in Parliament on Tuesday on government responsibility for Mas Selamat’s escape.


PAP’s Co-Opting Strategy: Slowly Softly Surely

If you are a tired cynic of the Singapore political scene, you would say that this is another stage of the co-opting process of critics of the ruling party. Walter Woon was an academic and then a NMP, then an ambassador and then into the civil service.

The PAP is supposed to have lured its vocal critics into the fold. The clear example in this theory would be Raymond Lim, Minister for Transport and formerly founding member of The Roundtable, a non-partisan think tank poised to challenge the government’s policies in the 1990s. The PAP sizes up its critics and attempt to hook them into the consultation process through various avenues and become a PAP cadre, NMP, senior civil servant.

These people who are lured by the siren’s call to public service are not sell-outs as the hotheaded would denounce, but are probably seduced into the intricacies of the party machinery to change from within. The co-opting strategy shrinks the opposition’s potential talent pool as well as legitimises the PAP and its supposed quests for reform.

I like NMP Siew Kum Hong, and most bloggers would share my view I think. Ten years down the road, will he be co-opted by then?

‘Groomed’ to be AG
Hands on and on his feet, that’s Walter Woon

Weekend • April 12, 2008
Ansley Ng

This is the job for which he has been primed for years. That is what observers say about Professor Walter Woon’s (picture) appointment this week as Attorney-General.

From his time in academia to his stint in Parliament and, subsequently, in diplomacy, he has impressed, say those who have seen him in action.

Now, at 52, Prof Woon has been made AG. Justice Chao Hick Tin took office at 64 and held it for two years, while Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong served as AG for 14 years, starting at 55.

“Prof Woon was a brilliant academic, a very respected member of the NUS law faculty and many of us knew that he would go on and do something beyond the university,” NUS law faculty dean Professor Tan Cheng Han told Today.

As a student taking part in inter-school debates decades ago, Prof Woon already caught the attention of his seniors. One of those who had been impressed was former judicial commissioner KS Rajah, who said: “When I was sitting as a judge in the secondary school and university debates, he was a participant. He was first-rate material all the way.

“He may not have been an advocate in court as much as some other lawyers, but he has shown that when he participated in debates, he is capable of putting forward cases as forcefully as anybody else,” said Mr Rajah, now a senior counsel and consultant at Harry Elias Partnership.

Prof Woon began his legal career by topping his law class in 1981. He then taught at the NUS. In 1992, he was selected as Nominated Member of Parliament and served till 1996. He then spent nine years as an ambassador to Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Last year, he was a member in the high-powered task force behind the Asean Charter.

“He has been very nicely groomed for this job,” said Mr Rajah, who described Prof Woon as more “outgoing” than his predecessors, probably due to his posting as a diplomat.

As the Solicitor-General, the affable prosecutor was known to take on a hands-on approach, squaring off against defence counsels.

In his latest appearance in the High Court, Prof Woon was involved in an appeal against the sentence of a reckless driver who was given a year for a fatal hit-and-run case. The sentence was enhanced to four years.

And some expect him to be just as hands on as AG, the government’s chief legal adviser who also decides on which cases to prosecute. Typically, AGs have not been known to argue cases in court but are instead represented by the Solicitor General and deputy public prosecutors.

“He is likely to want to be on his feet and that will be a good thing,” said Mr Rajah. “When you are on your feet, you see the work that is done by enforcement agencies.”

According to observers, Prof Woon is unlikely to make many changes to the legal service.Issues would change, said Prof Tan, but the approach the AG’s Chambers takes is likely to stay largely untouched.

“I don’t see a different spin or different approach. The issues will change, with the attempt to liberalise the Singapore legal services sector,” said Prof Tan. “These are issues that Walter would have to deal with.”

Criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan, who heads the Association of Criminal Lawyers in Singapore agreed.

“With K Shanmugam as Minister of Law and Prof Woon as AG, we have a very strong combination,” said Mr Subhas. “I think we can expect better things.”

Responsibility and Blame, Shame Shame

Minister Wong Kan Seng must be thankful for the breathing space and the respite that MM Lee has bought for him. From where I am lurking, dear MM Lee has started another storm by saying what he thinks and wants. His son, Lee Hsien Loong the Silent, has remained wisely quiet in the background as he knows that anything said will only makes things worse. The court of public opinion now is an angry lashing one. Any word, phrase or sentence would be met with extreme rancour as no amount of sugar coating can cover government complacency, negligence and incompetence.

Why can’t the government understand that they are responsible for this Mas Selamt mess and its far reaching implications? The home affairs minister already apologised (+1 public relations) that this happened. But they have this blank face when fingers point at them to step up more. I am not blaming the top leaders or the entire government for the escape, I am just asking that as leaders, highly paid ones at that, they should accept responsibility for the escape.

Responsibility is not the same as blame. Acceptance of blame is for negligence which led to the escape. Acceptance of grave responsibility is for leaders enlightened enough to shoulder the onus and rewards of being up there. Taichi-ing blame for the escape to custodians first (largely valid argument) and then to Singaporeans as well (totally invalid argument) just reflects unenlightened lost leadership

If Singaporeans are to be blamed for anything, it is our complancency to vote this government in over and over again.