Friday, November 26, 2010

Enemy of the state: Security issues following Mas Selamat's escape

Singapore was abuzz this week with talk on how fugitives from the law should be brought to justice swifly and decisively.

In the name of national security, some Singaporeans seem willing to pay any price to secure life and property and there were calls in the national press for tougher measures against would-be terrorists and their supporters.

Singaporeans must consider carefully how these safeguards will be policed because the proposals that will keep the Lion City from harm are the same instruments that a future despot could wield against his citizens with impunity.

Without an impartial check-and-balance to weed out potential abuse, the measures proposed by Singaporean parliamentarians and civic-minded citizens could lead to frightful consequences for people unfairly branded enemies of the state.

The trigger for this week's security debate was the revelation by Singaporean Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on how terror suspect Mas Selamat Kastari eluded the law after he escaped from a high security detention centre in February 2008. We learned that his relatives gave him safe harbour and sheltered him from Singapore's largest manhunt.

The fugitive's relatives could not have missed the thousands of posters of the wanted man circulated in Singapore. Indeed, there were more posters of Mas Selamat distributed than pictures of Singapore's own President or prominent politicians. Yet, they were not deterred and Mas Selamat dropped out of sight in Singapore's urban jungle.

Mas Selamat's relatives were jailed for sheltering him and for helping to disguise him as a women with the help of a tudung, or headscarf commonly worn by Muslim women in Southeast Asia.

The security implications from the Mas Selamat incident must be seen along with calls for stronger action against gang violence. Police launched an islandwide crackdown against gangs after 19-year-old Republic Polytechnic student Darren Ng was hacked to death by suspected gang members at the Downtown East entertainment facility in early November.

Darren's death prompted calls to give the police more sting against gangs.

Taken together, the improved security measures allow Singapore's national security apparatus to wield a heavy hand against troubemakers. 

In the case of Mas Selamat, we've seen how a citizen was detained without trial for involvement in terror cells and plotting attacks against Singapore.

Following his escape, it has become socially acceptable - indeed expected - for authorities to keep an eye on family, friends and known associates of an enemy of the state. Just what such close surveillance could involve has not been detailed for operational security reasons. One would imagine that it could conceivably go beyond having a plainclothes cop with sunglasses standing outside one's door and could include mail intercepts, phone taps and other electronic eavesdropping techniques.

And in the wake of Darren's death, Singaporean society appears to have given police the nod to take a no nonsense stance against street hooligans. This includes detention without trial and pre-emptive action to break up potential troublemakers.

The newspaper story that described street gangs as being different from the secret society-type social groups of yesteryear is a timely reminder of how intepretations and perceptions change according to circumstance.

It could thus lead to the scenario where a public assembly is deemed a security threat, with the full weight of post-Mas Selamat and post-Darren Ng security measures brought to bear against rogue elements.

One would hope the authorities get the right man or nail the real terror elements. In the current climate, I have little doubt such power will be abused. At the same time, no one can say for sure a despot won't arise in future who will run this country into the ground using such powerful security measures to muzzle dissent.

Problems may crop up years from today after society gradually surrenders more of its civil liberties. Ironically, many of these would be given up willingly as one crime incident or terrorist-inspired near miss after another leads Singaporeans to reason that authorities need to be given a free hand to get the job done.

In the hands of rogue elements in command, the extensive powers to detain without trial, monitor citizens at will and crackdown on public gatherings as and when one deems appropriate could be viciously abused.

Should that day come, would you then sleep well at night?


Anonymous said...

Little doubt? Freudian slip?

Anonymous said...

All this just proves the efficiency of the Home Minister. Period

NIGEL ICHI said...