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Posted by theonlinecitizen on April 25, 2008


The Government’s Great Getaway

The government’s mishandling of the Mas Selamat case reveals a worrying lack of political acumen

The release of the key findings of the Committee of Inquiry’s (COI) report into the escape of Jemaah Islamiyah member and alleged terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari on 21st April 2008 was awaited in Singapore with the kind of anticipation normally reserved only for major football matches.

Thus it comes as no surprise that many people – outside of the mainstream news media, of course – were disappointed by the report as well as the subsequent speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on the matter.

The report showed up some real complacency and systemic failures in Singapore’s security agencies. Yet this was partly overlooked as the mainstream media elevated the question of whether Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng should stay in his job into a saga about the government’s stoic determination to stand firm against a mob which it imagined was baying for blood.

Whether Mr Wong should resign is debatable, but Singaporeans would surely have resented what appears to be Mr Wong (and his senior officials) getting away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist for what might have been the worst national security breach in Singapore’s history while their subordinates pay with the loss of their livelihoods. Mr Wong would have to shoulder some responsibility for the laxness of the security agencies under his charge as well as the lack of coordination between them. He has been the Home Minister for 14 years, so one might conceivably argue that such complacency had been bred under his tenure. Barring that, surely the flip-flopping manner in which the search for the suspect was conducted warranted condemnation.

But against the tide of government self-righteousness these considerations were swept aside as the government lashed out against an imaginary mob that it thought it was being besieged by. Even the hapless Opposition MPs were not spared. They were lampooned as being nothing better than opportunists seeking to take advantage of the situation. Yet they were just doing their jobs in trying to holding the government accountable, which sadly is a word that has been missing from the government’s lexicon for some time.

Accountability is one of the cornerstones of a government’s legitimacy. In a democratic polity, a government’s legitimacy becomes questionable if it seen as being unanswerable to the electorate, as the people are supposed to be sovereign over the government. To make up for its accountability deficit, the Singapore government harps on its other virtues such as its good performance (depends on which income group you ask) and the strong support it enjoys (if the results of the last elections are anything to go by), but its hubris lies with its unflappable belief that these merits can negate the need for genuine accountability.

Part of the problem is the government’s conviction that it is a political elite for which the privilege to rule is a birthright. It says that the process of selecting such an elite is rigorous and meritocratic. Probably true to much extent, yet which selection process is without weaknesses, such as favouritism or irrational biases? And if there is a process of selection then there has to be a mirror process of de-selection, but it seems that the elite of Singapore hardly ever sheds members. They merely move up and down the ranks of the elite itself. It’s a jolly little old boys’ club, and there is no need to be accountable to anyone outside the circle.

Faced with the Mas Selamat mess, the government did the predictable thing and closed ranks. It patted the chaps at the Home Ministry and the Internal Security Department reassuringly on the back. Personalities tightly linked to these agencies were appointed on what was supposed to be an independent COI. The media glare on the escape gradually receded, as the media switched to trying to prepare the electorate for the inevitable, through various media stories exulting the courage and achievements of the security agencies. After the findings, a few lower echelon staff will be sacked, and the illusory mob hopefully pacified.

No escaping public opinion

Well and good perhaps, but the damage has already been done because the government’s entire handling of the issue smacks of evident political naivety. It should have realised from the start that, with its accountability deficit and its dubious base of support within the electorate, its legitimacy was overly-dependent on the element of performance.

The Mas Selamat case badly undermined its claims to competency, particularly on the matter of national security over which it has a monopoly (the Opposition has hardly ventured into questioning the government about security matters until now). It should have moved more quickly to address the security breach, but instead crucially delayed its announcement of the escape, and then ended up looking lame when it had to repeatedly change details of the information that it had released. In doing so it had committed the cardinal sin of showing that it did not trust the public enough to give them information that might have allowed them to better protect themselves. Subsequently the government’s attempts to reassure the public by stating categorically that it would soon have the suspect in custody also backfired after it kept raising expectations that went conspicuously unmet.

When the government did finally manage to meet public expectations, it was to meet their expectations of disappointment. This took the form of Mr Lee’s speech – a defiant, punchy tract that came across as stubbornly self-righteous – which would no doubt grate further on the electorate. Mr Lee must have known that matters had reached a head by the time he had to make his speech, and that nothing short of some bloodletting would have salvaged some perception of accountability. A more astute politician might have changed the game by doing something that the public did not expect, but Mr Lee was not such a politician.

In the end Mr Lee, hemmed in by a mindset created and reinforced by the old boys’ system he had been bred in, made a decision that sunk the perception of the government’s lack of accountability to new lows. The government is perhaps fortunate in that the current screw-up is confined to national security matters, not the more critical bread-and-butter issues, but the whole incident might have undermined public confidence in the government’s competency in general.

But more worrying for Singapore’s ruling cabal is that the poor handling of the Mas Selamat case comes in a series of high profiled gaffes instigated by Mr Lee, which includes his comments about “fix[ing] the Opposition”, drawing public ire over Ministerial pay hikes as well as taking 11 days to say something about Mas Selamat (and doing so only after his father had made his comments). Having spent his entire life in the old boys’ club, Mr Lee’s political instincts are, to put it mildly, not well-honed. Growing up in that club, he may have been taught how to rule but certainly not how to lead. Expect more such howlers ahead.


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23 Responses to “Farquhar”

  1. Commonality said

    This is the Gabramen’s Great Escape from the Mas Selamat’s Great Escape. Both of them have something in common:

    1. Both are limping.
    2. Both are great.
    3. Both use intelligence and cunning.
    4. Both are due to system failure.
    5. Both put the lives of the people in grave danger.
    6. Both need a real independent Commission of Inquiry to establish the Truth.

  2. Whitley-Gate said

    To quote what J Gomez said, its a W A Y A N G ! !

  3. Anon said

    It’s easier to believe that Mas Selamat died while in custody. If the government wanted to extract full political mileage from his death, then this story of his escape was necessary to: a) Absolve themselves of his death (however it occured) – b) Create a national concensus on the impact of his ‘escape’ and a forced sense of patriotic unity. This episode would also enable PAP to easily justify further draconian policies and ‘anti-terror’ legislation which continues to trample of human rights and political freedoms.

  4. Jackson said

    I beliee Mas Selamat might have already died inside the detention centre. Just pondering…49secs to break out of the toilet window, climb over the fence and disappear into the jungle, which is followed by media notification 4HOURS LATER and not caught despite ‘intense’ searching for more than 2 months in a SMALL RED DOT like SINGAPORE. So hard to believe the report was made independently, since the people were picked by govt.

    If there were a public poll on this, I’m sure most people will not accept the COI report.

  5. Daniel said

    Judging at the nonsensical report from the ShittyTime, I come out a ‘plausible’ reason that equivalent to same standard of reporting as ShittyTime.

    Did Selamat might have died in centre and return as a ghost to haunt the centre ?

    Judging at the abnormal human capability, it is hard not to think Selamat is anything but ghost.
    “Just pondering…49secs to break out of the toilet window, climb over the fence and disappear into the jungle, which is followed by media notification”,

    only a ghost is capable of doing that and escaping without detection, and army could not capture him in almost two months… Can anyone capture a ghost ?

    But worry not, Selamat ghost will disappear soon and return next year because the Seventh Month Ghost period will be over.

    He be back next year to pay LKY, LHL, WCS a visit soon. “I’ll be back with more adventure” Selamat says.

  6. ordinaryman said

    jackson,no need to “if”, i can just tell u straight here, no one really belived…

  7. Andrew Loh said

    “Lack of political acumen” is exactly right.

    I would say that the only person in the PAP who’s showed an acute sense of accuracy in reading the ground throughout the years is Lee Kuan Yew – and the Old Guards.

    The new batches are faulty – as far as political acumen is concerned. People – ministers and MPs – who go through elections after elections shielded from real contests and are “guaranteed to win an election” – to paraphrase Goh Chok Tong – end up lacking the ability to read the ground, or more significantly and importantly, to understand the ground.

    In fact, Lee Kuan yew himself voiced exactly such sentiments once before.

    It is now being displayed in all its ugly glory.

    When you have a media which is totally and completely cowed into singing your tune, whitewashing any shortcomings you have done, you cannot but end up with a sense of invincibility, of deep-seated hubris.

    “I don’t have to worry about saying the wrong things, or insulting people, or worry about doing the wrong things. I have the media – and everyone else – to cover it up for me. Or at least to play it down for me.”

    This is, sadly, what our electoral process has produced.

    Ultimately, such arrogant hubris can only be corrected by the people – through registering their disapproval through the ballot. (Which itself has many yet-to-be-corrected faults.)

    Reading what PAP MP Lam Pin Min’s reply to readers comments on the P65 blog tells me just how severe the hubris is – or if not, then the lack of understanding of what people are feeling.

    If Lam is representative of the PAP as a whole, then I am truly saddened.

    Catherine Lim is right. A gesture goes a long way.

    Wong Kan Seng should resign.

  8. LimChuKangGRC said

    When there’s an election, PAP reminds the public on how responsible they are and the importance of stability to attract investors into Singapore which somehow works in their favour in the end(GE results).
    However, how has the Mas Selamat fiasco proven stability in terms of investor confidence?
    How has the lack of government accountability beneficial for Singapore? In fact if Wong Kan Seng had stepped down at least further damage to the republic’s reputation would have been avoided.

    It’s something to ponder about even if you are PAP fanboy.

  9. Weijia said

    What do you make of this? more lack of accountability?

    THE wife of a Singapore tycoon accused of slapping a Singapore Airlines stewardess was cleared on Thursday after the prosecution withdrew the charge of causing hurt against her.

    Madam Tan Siew Hoon, 61, was given a discharge amounting to an acquittal.

    No reason was given by the police prosecutor who told District Judge Ong Chin Rhu that she had been given a warning.

    ST report

  10. Ned Stark said

    Oh I wont go so far to say that Wong should resign or anything. I am however rather baffled by the seeming disconnect. Furthermore there are quite a few loopholes in the report; the nature of the toilet for one among other things. Unfortunately it seems that the Mainstream is turning their big guns on us. But i foresee more smoke bombs coming our way.

  11. logicalman said

    Thanks for a well-written and articulated piece, TOC.

    While your comments are certainly valid, may I suggest that they are completely irrelevant to the Government. The Government is not naive; the electorate is. With the next GE at least 3 years away, the Government can afford this saga. What’s more, barely 4 days have passed since the COI’s incoherent findings were presented, and the national media is already littered with inconsequential headlines like “Every fourth Saturday of May is Family Day Out” and “Senior police officer heads newly-formed Casino Regulatory Authority”. As far as the Government is concerned, this case is closed. Period. They have moved on, and so has the majority of electorate whose main staple still comprises SPH publications. Only netizens are still fuming and again, this is irrelevant to the Government. Unlike Malaysia or US, where electoral boundaries rarely change, Singapore’s electoral boundaries are a mystery unto themselves until election time. What threat can the blogosphere unrest pose to the Government? Little, going by past election results and the most recent one.

    The Government, as far as I can see, is a seasoned performer with many supporting cast members, knowing when to dangle the carrot, when to wield the stick, when to tease and when to punch. What damage has this Mas Selamat episode done to the Government? Hardly any. On the contrary, they got away with answering questions concerning the budget surplus and inflation, not as if they can’t without this saga, but it makes things a whole lot easier. It gave them the license to invest further in security resources and make pre-emptive measures more pre-emptive. What’s more, come next year, the bill from this whole “Catch Mas Selamat” episode will be reflected realistically in the budget, and the electorate will have no choice but to accept, as GE would still be 2 years away.

    Unless the electorate vote with their heart and not their stomach, unless they see a real need for change for the sake of their future generations who may not be part of the elite even if they are (or close enough), unless they see the points being presented here and elsewhere, and remember them firmly when the time comes for them to cast the vote, there will be many more good years for this Home team. And I dare say come GE2011, if Malaysia flounders, the Home team will capitalise on that too, to whip the electorate into shape.

  12. Daniel said

    “Wong Kan Seng should resign.”

    To be more specific, WKS should resign and not take up any government responsibility and title anymore. He should boot out of the legistrative and work into the private world. He can then tell us how he compete with foreigner for a job of his bad reputation, and get a feel of government policy that is ‘for your own good’

    It is clear how the government who think they are infallible works. Instead of demoting high senior government figure, they tend to simply retransfer them into another area of serious responsibility, and giving excuses that they do so not because of incompetence but to give “better service and make use of talent”. We see it from time to time. Inept ministers who has no experience at all in a certain field trying to run a particular ministry and when failed to deliver, just shift into another ministry. A tour of duty ? Rather , I say a tour of incompetence ! Such a experiment waste taxpayer’s time and money. Been academically good doesn’t imply that they are talented and learnable in all areas. But these clowns believe otherwise. In the real world, no one will pay top dollars for veteran executive who although senior but has no experience and talent in assigned area of responsibility.

    We should put a stop to this nonsense practice of Singapore government for the good of Singapore. And it begin from the utter useless PM Lee who don’t even know what is the meaning of responsibility, transparency and accountability. Such a basis traits of leadership can’t even be found in this joker ! No wonder, no ministers or ministry ever responsible for anything, anybody because JOker Lee set the precedence for such inept leadership. You know of bad leadership when after decades in government office, he still can’t do anything good to nation but to themselves.
    Pay them millions to deliver peanuts.

  13. Daniel said

    Many people do not understand why Wong Kan Seng should resign. Rather I believe many are somehow focusing on the wrong aspect.

    Now, many people like PM Lee, and PAP supporter say that WKS is not responsible because “superior should not be responsible if his staff refuse to follow his order and required procedure”.

    This I agree. Afterall, if I am a CEO of a company, I will not resign just because of some sex scandal happening to operational staff.

    However, we are misleaded by the statement because that is not the focus. The focus rather is the notion of TIME and CULTURE.

    Did WKS just take over the responsibility of security a day before Selamat happily escape without his pant ?

    Nope. Rather WKS has ample time to beef up security, overseeing that procedure, training etc is up to highest standard possible that commensurate with his pay. We are not talking about days, we are talking about years. Obviously, the culture of complacency and ineptness of those in the detention centre is built over years. And the questions are why aren’t WKS doing anything about it after all these years ? Why even start doing at when Selamat escape and his million dollars job jeopardised ?
    Remember the famous phrase in Army, “You can do anything as long as you don’t get caught”

    Now, due to WKS’s incompetence and nonchalent attitude towards security over the years, Selamat had escape, and WKS get caught (with his pant on), but Selamat (with his pant off) not caught. Isn’t WKS need to resign ?

    If WKS just took over the security, I agree it is not his responsibility but the previous in-charge officier, but the fact is that he is in charge of this for many years and the result is accumulation of complacency and incompetency over the years.

    So do not fall into the trap lay by Joker Lee’s statement that “no minister should be responsible for offence or negligence committed by his staff.” He want everyone to focus and judge on this aspect alone.

    The notion of TIME and CULTURE (and time breeds culture) should be focus of issue not whether who should be responsible for this and that. WKS, with his authority and leadership, is simply given sufficient time to brush up security and enforce stringent measurement but he didn’t , and he fail, and end up Selamat (or ghost of his) escaping (WKS now trying to escape with responsibility and accountability)

    Now, with this perspective, do you think WKS deserve to resign ? You can answer that because I am not Joker Lee and you are not Low Thia Khiang.

  14. Fever Guy said

    Next stop, WKS for Education Minister? Changing the musical chair again? I believe that our ministers are no better than any DICK TOM and HARRY on the streets. Their so called top civil servants are also of the same kind. They have shown their value to the society which is very base.

    Those 66% sinkies look at the MPs you have voted, what have they done for you that truly is warm and touching? Ask yourself whether they are worth your vote? Ask your MPs hard question during meet the people sessions? If they cant answer you very basic question it shows how “good” they really are.

  15. logicalman said

    Ever wondered why The Happiest Person in Singapore title didn’t go to MM, PM or even HAM? Afterall, they have every reason to be happy and more.

  16. Daniel said

    “Ever wondered why The Happiest Person in Singapore title didn’t go to MM, PM or even HAM? Afterall, they have every reason to be happy and more.”

    It is the same reason the Wealthest Person in the world doesn’t go to Lee family.
    Please tell me which country or individual in the world is as wealthy as the Lee who own and run Singapore Inc and control CPF to nobody business ?

    They did not enter in the ranking because they need to be secretive to enjoy their wealth and status quo.

  17. Robert HO said

    1. The Director ISD and WKS cannot be punished because they know too much. Director ISD personally did many illegal crimes for LIE KY LHL. Do you think they can antagonise him? More likely to promote him to chief of SPH like a previous Director ISD or even the Presidency like another.

    2. Similarly, no Minister can be antagonised because they, too, know too much. So can only pasture them in another multi-million cushy job without real work or responsibilities.

    3. This incest has been going on for 49 years.

  18. Fever Guy said

    If not for MSK escape all these misdeeds that has gone unnoticed for decades and will never be exposed. So much for check and balance system that needs a Terrorist to uncover. What a joke!

    People of Singapore must open their eyes and ears to witness all these events. We must not be senile again come GE2011. Enough is enough.

    As for WKS he better have guts to stand for GE2011 not through a walkover or anything else(retired). He is an elite right so we people will show him how elite are treated in an election. Nothing less than a complete failure for him.

    Also all those Pappy MPs who are good for nothing will be shown the exit door too. Same for useless oppostion MPs who cant ask intelligent questions too.

  19. George said

    You know, come next GE, if no terror action explodes among us, the govt will take credit for it too – by saying, that its security agencies has effectively kept MS and his JI out, even though he had excape! Such is the barefaced nature of the govt!

  20. Logicalman said

    Dear TOC,

    Thanks for this great portal and all that you are doing.

    Can I suggest that the Mas Selamat saga be tracked under Classics section of this site? It will be easier for the electorate to recap how things were handled 3 years from now.

    Best regards.

  21. MSK:Am I dead yet ? said

    whats worse is to claim you are world class and when theres a major negative event, you look to dig a hole and hide their head in the ground.

    Where did MR BLAME go ? Elites: I think he went that way 🙂

    Besides I think MSK is DEAD.

  22. […] The Mas Selamat Scandal: Its Impact on the Government-People Relationship – The Online Citizen: The Government’s Great Getaway – Winter Is Coming: The MSK/WKS Saga – Singapore Patriot: My Response to MP Lam Pin Min’s […]

  23. […] Scandal: Its Impact on the Government-People Relationship [Recommended] – The Online Citizen: The Government’s Great Getaway – Winter Is Coming: The MSK/WKS Saga – Singapore Patriot: My Response to MP Lam Pin Min’s blog – […]

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