Singapore Reels over a Missing Fugitive

Did you ever hear the story of Long John Dean,

A bold bank robber from Bowling Green,

Sent to the jailhouse yesterday,

Late last night he made his getaway.


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Missing 170 hours … and counting. If this were the US TV series Without a Trace, the FBI sleuths would long ago have been sacked and replaced over the astonishing disappearance of Mas Selamat Kastari, the putative jihadi terrorist. But this is the hermetically sealed island of Singapore, where leaders take much credit and little blame and where no one likes to question official versions of events – which as in other closed systems causes people to harbour inner doubts about the truth of anything they are told.

A full week after Kastari limped out at 4 pm from its most closely guarded prison, the Whitley Road Detention Center via a toilet window during a family visit, he is still at large. Is he hiding out among accomplices in Singapore itself? Has he made it across the strait to Indonesia and the safety of fellow Jemaah Islamiyah activists? Or across the Causeway, evading the dogs and dragnets the Malaysians set for him? Could it be that despite his limp he managed to swim the Johor Strait?

Although the Whitley center is replete with cameras recording every movement inside and out, there is no explanation of how Kastari could have escaped from under the noses of the Gurkha guards during a brief toilet visit, and then got hastily away from the jail. It is not in teeming downtown Singapore, where even a Malay with a limp might vanish into the crowds. Even that seems unlikely, since Malays make up only 13 percent of the Singaporean population, and they are not exactly hard to spot among the majority Chinese.

Was this a stunning solo effort worthy of Houdini himself? Or did the impoverished JI, which had only a few thousand dollars for the Bali bombing in 2002, have enough cash to bribe squeaky-clean Singaporeans or the Gurkha protectors of their top leaders and prisoners?

Or maybe he is not hiding out anywhere but dead already, having been encouraged to escape into the hands of persons unknown who were only too happy to see him “disappeared.” Or could he have been dispatched to Guantanamo for further processing at the hands of the experts at waterboarding and other forms of non-torture? Or been “rendered” to some other jurisdiction – though who would want him, given that he is a Singaporean citizen and thus the city-state’s ultimate responsibility and not known to have committed crimes elsewhere?

Or maybe he was a US agent all along and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who visited Indonesia last week, decided he had served his purpose and he could be returned to society with a new identity.

Or maybe the Singaporeans have taken a leaf out of the British book when they were dealing with communist insurgency in the 1950s. Did he sing enough about his JI pals that he has earned his release, a new identity and a fat bank account to start a new life, as did some former communist terrorists who acquired new names and became respected, wealthy businessmen? Or was he allowed to escape so that he could rejoin his JI colleagues with the promise that he would be a mole inside the organization – assuming anyone believed his escape story.

Or maybe he is The Man Who Never Was, a bogeyman dreamed up by Singaporean intelligence to frighten the population into believing that JI plots were all around. There have been enough other invented plots to give some plausibility to such creations. But in that case, why the public “escape,” which has caused such loss of face, rather than letting the mirage die a natural death?

In the absence of facts, any number of theories, conspiratorial or not, is being bandied about in an amazing outpouring on the Internet, which the authorities appear powerless to stem.

But the most common sentiment appears to be not that lives are in danger because a dangerous terrorist has escaped and may yet manage to blow up Singaporean buildings. It is growing derision at the sheer apparent incompetence of authorities usually so keen to praise their own efficiency, particularly in matters of security.

Toilet Break, based on a true story starring Mas Selamat Kastari,” read one weblog in reference to another US TV drama, Prison Break. Another satirical blog, Talkingcock, had a hilarious set of 13 photographs of Kastari taken from a wanted poster and showing the fugitive in a variety of disguises including a massive 1960s-style Afro, various mustaches, sunglasses and a blonde-female wig. Other bloggers poured scorn on the competence of the world’s highest-salaried ministers and senior bureaucrats.

Whatever else can be said about Singapore, its government has long regarded itself as the most grimly efficient and accomplished in Asia, and it does not brook any nonsense. Kastari’s escape and the subsequent inability of authorities to find him have called that into question.

Singapore’s most prized asset is competence and the willingness to pay for it with taxpayer funds. Ministers and civil servants, already by far the highest-paid public servants in the world, received a round of pay raises starting on January 1 ranging from 4 percent to 21 percent, driving Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s salary to S$3.7 million (US$2.55 million), more than six times that of US President George W. Bush. Cabinet ministers, including Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng, apologizing while under intense fire for Kastari’s escape, receive S$1.9 million (US$1.37 million).

Its civil servants are among the highest paid in the world. The government has long taken the stance that public officials should receive pay commensurate with the top of the country’s business elite, both to attract top talent and to forestall any temptation toward corruption.

Thus the ability of a crippled ethnic Malay to walk away from the most securely guarded prison on an island of only 700 square kilometers, and to remain on the loose since February 27, has not only generated a huge amount of controversy, but a growing amount of ridicule of the government, which is being recycled endlessly in cyberspace, often in the form of jokes. This is not something a government as humorless as Singapore’s is finding funny.

Whatever the truth about the escape of Mat Selamat Kastari, whether or not he is recaptured alive, this saga has all the signs of a Black Swan event – that totally unpredictable occurrence that makes nonsense of rational predictions and in the process destroys a myth. This time the myth is competence.