A Terrorist Escapes and Singapore Freaks Out

SINGAPORE, March 14, 2008 : The big mistake, officials here say, was letting the terrorist suspect make a trip to the bathroom.

Mas Selamat bin Kastari, alleged by the government to be the leader of a terrorist group here, escaped from a high-security prison two weeks ago while taking a bathroom break, in a major embarrassment for this efficient, tightly battened city-state.

In a furious response, the government put the entire country on alert, setting up checkpoints, sealing its borders, patrolling its parks and its shores, even urging people to keep an eye on their bicycles in case the wanted man decided to pedal to freedom.

With each new empty-handed day the embarrassment deepens as Singapore confronts its Tora Bora moment, its most-wanted terrorist suspect melting into the urban terrain, as Osama bin Laden evaded American troops in Afghanistan.

For some people here, this noisy, flailing search — even more than the escape itself — has cast Singapore in an unfamiliar light of haplessness.


Wanted Poster of Mas Selamat

“We had all bought into the image of a well-organized government machinery,” wrote Alex Au, author of a popular political Web site called Yawning Bread. “Suddenly, our picture of Singapore as a kind of Big Brother state is, well, full of holes.”

All around the city, police officers are on patrol and their checkpoints have delayed traffic for as much as 15 hours in some places, according to newspaper reports.

Security officers on boats and Jet Skis are patrolling the coastline and the police have removed keys from the ignitions of unattended motor boats.

In what one newspaper called “extensive land, sea and air searches,” military officers in jungle fatigues and Nepalese Gurkha paramilitary forces have scoured the city for the runaway inmate.

Wanted posters are everywhere, mug shots have been transmitted to millions of cellphones and the entire nation of four million people has been deputized to look out for a round-faced man who is 5-foot-2, weighs 139 pounds and walks — or at least runs — with a limp.

Newspapers here say it is the biggest manhunt in Singapore’s history. Mr. Mas Selamat, 47, who is said to be the chief of operations in Singapore for the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network, is accused by the government of being the coordinator of a failed plot to bomb the United States Embassy and several other targets in Singapore. Officials also say he planned to crash an airplane into Singapore’s airport.

He had been in detention here since 2006 under the Internal Security Act, which allows the government to hold suspects without trial, and his escape shocked terrorism experts in the region.

“Everyone thought Singapore had the tightest security system of anyone around,” said Sidney Jones, a leading terrorism expert for the International Crisis Group.

As a nation, Singapore is as lean and mean and flexible as the rapid-response military the Pentagon dreams of, and it reacted with impressive speed and agility to recent Asian outbreaks of bird flu and SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.

But for the moment it seems to have met its match in Mr. Mas Selamat. His disappearance challenges the government’s basic promise to its citizens that it will keep them safe and comfortable.

The authorities have released little information about his escape on Feb. 27, but they say that he acted alone and on the spur of the moment and that he is probably still in Singapore.

The official account is that the prisoner asked to go to the bathroom while waiting for family members to visit, then simply disappeared from the Whitley Road Detention Center.

If this is true, said Lee Kin Mun, a leading political blogger who calls himself Mr. Brown, the government should “take a leaf from school exams, where security seems to be tighter” and where students must be escorted to the bathroom.

The country’s founder and former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, boiled the whole debacle down to one word: complacency.

He used the episode to strike again with his frequent warning that Singaporeans must work hard to protect the modern but fragile country he created from a social or economic explosion.

“It shows that it is a fallacy, it is stupid, to believe we are infallible,” he said. “We are not infallible. One mistake and we’ve got a big explosive in our midst. So let’s not take this lightly. I think it’s a very severe lesson on complacency.”

His son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said, “It is definitely a setback, and it should never have happened.” And then, echoing his father: “It’s the danger of complacency, of thinking that everything is all right.”

In Singapore, words like that amount to marching orders, and government agencies seem to be rushing to demonstrate that whatever else they are, they are anything but complacent.

Wong Hong Kuan, the assistant police commissioner, is at the center of the storm, commanding both his security forces and the public response.

“He knows machines, so keep an eye on your car,” said the newspaper Today, reporting on a recent briefing by Mr. Wong. “Anyone who discovers their vehicles, including motorcycles and bicycles, missing, should make a police report immediately.”

“Err on the side of caution,” the paper quoted Mr. Wong as saying. “Every second counts.”

The public has swung into action, as it has with previous nationwide campaigns — to have fewer children, to have more children, to keep toilets clean, not to throw things off balconies, to speak good English, to smile and to commit “spontaneous acts of kindness.”

More than a thousand people have telephoned the police with tips. Concerned citizens are stopping people on the street who fit the fugitive’s description. This is not a good place to be a man with a limp.

“Mas Selamat” seems to be everywhere.

He has been seen running into a park wearing only a pair of shorts monogrammed with the initials of the detention center. He has been spotted at an outdoor food stall, “but it turned out to be the man is Chinese,” according to a witness quoted in the news media.

Someone followed his footprints up a flight of stairs to a rooftop, where the footprints disappeared. Someone else saw him running down a highway toward a causeway linking Singapore to Malaysia.

A comedian, Ahmad Stokin, 51, said he had been stopped eight times, but did not seem to find it funny. He said he might look a bit like the picture on the wanted posters and he may have a limp, but it is in his right leg, not his left.

Two weeks into the search, these fruitless sightings are about all the papers have to report about the biggest news story of the day.

The top headline on Thursday about the search in the country’s main newspaper, The Straits Times, read: “I Think I Saw Mas Selamat.”

An unidentified woman, the paper reported, had just recalled seeing someone who fit the description two weeks ago near the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped.

Pondering this report, the newspaper left its readers with what is now a pointless question.

“Was Fugitive Limping Along This Road?” it asked in a headline, and displayed a photo of an empty, rain-slick road where the witness had been standing.

Copyright The New York Times