Shocking Intelligence Failure and Shocking Transparency

The news that Mas Selamat sought refuge with his brother after his dramatic escape is shocking and it is without doubt a case of intelligence failure. ISD, the police or other relevant agencies might reason that there was information that he was hiding somewhere else. Hence, they placed their limited resources there and they could not stake out every family member, friend or acquaintance of Mas Selamat which numbered in the hundreds. Perhaps valid reasons to an extent. I am not in their position so I cannot refute how strong their sources and why they conducted their searches in the forests and along the coast, besides other potential routes and hideouts.

However with the benefit of hindsight from an armchair blogger, the hunting parties should have just focused on his family and his reliance on kinship for a desperate man on the run. The Chinese idiom accurately described this paradox – “the most dangerous place is the safest place”. The authorities took a risk and expected that Mas Selamat might have made a lone breakaway, or sought refuge among his JI family rather than biological family according to speculation in the newspapers. Nevertheless, it was simply intelligence failure, not on a scale of an intelligence failure if an attack happened in Singapore, but an indisputable cocktail of lack of good information, too much bad information and uninspiring judgment.

Is the intelligence failure systematic or a once in 50 years event? Again, we would never know the extent of failures or successes the secretive ISD has to make a conclusion but the court of public opinion would be rightly cynical of the intelligence prowess of the local version of the MI5.

Apart from the shocking intelligence failure that is clear to everyone, it should also be clear to everyone that the level of transparency is shocking. Instead of sweeping the news of the arrest of those who abetted in Mas Selamat’s escape using the ISA and blanketing the news, the authorities actually went to town with it. The Asmon family were tried in court when the regime could have cunningly charged them under the ISA to cover up the mess. Since the milestone White Paper on JI terrorism early this decade to the recent COI on Mas Selamat’s escape, we can only hope that the authorities’ transparency on their ups and downs is here for the long term. That is the silver lining in the latest twist on the fugitive’s escape drama.

Hundreds probed after Mas Selamat’s escape
By S Ramesh | Posted: 22 November 2010 2205 hrs

SINGAPORE: A few hundred people including Mas Selamat Kastari’s own extended family – numbering nearly a hundred – were investigated following the escape of the Jemaah Islamiah leader from detention on 27 February, 2008.

The others included the fugitive’s friends and ex-JI associates, said Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in Parliament on Monday.

He was responding to questions from MPs following his statement to the House that Mas Selamat had sought shelter at his brother Asmom’s flat in Tampines from February 29 to March 1 and had help also from his sister-in-law and niece, to facilitate his escape out of Singapore to Malaysia.

Uppermost on the minds of Malay-Muslim MPs were concerns of a backlash against the community.

“Given the fact that Mas Selamat did escape in a tudung, will the Ministry assure the Malay community that there won’t be unnecessary scrutiny on Malay women wearing tudung in security areas and when they seek appointments for jobs,” asked Zaqy Mohamed, MP for Hong Kah GRC.

In reply, Mr Shanmugam said: “Whether someone is picked up for scrutiny, whether he or she is wearing a tudung, really depends on security assessments. It’s really difficult to answer these questions in a vacuum. If there is an intelligence assessment and if there is a necessity to check, there will be a check. If there is no reason to check, there will be none.

“As to the broader question, the government has consistently stated over the years that the actions of a few are not a reflection of the Malay-Muslim community as a whole.

“Our position remains unchanged. Over the years, the actions of the Malay-Muslim community have borne that out. They have been very supportive of our efforts to build a tolerant, united community. They have consistently spoken out against violence in the name of any religion.

“There is no reason for employers or anyone else to shy away from employing members of the Malay-Muslim community or for anyone to use this incident as an excuse to target members of the Malay-Muslim community.

“In the civil service, the recruitment policy is based on a system of meritocracy. I can state categorically that this incident will not affect the government’s recruitment policies. Employers in the private sector, (too), should hire based on the individual’s suitability for the job.”

Mr Shanmugam also stressed that the threat Mas Selamat posed was to Singapore as a whole.

“His actions put all Singaporeans at risk. As such, all Singaporeans across the communities will feel disappointed with the actions of Asmom and his family. Their actions should not be projected on the Malay community at large.”

Also raised in Parliament was the gravity of the sentences meted out to those who had harboured Mas Selamat.

MP Maliki Osman wanted to know, given the seriousness of the offence, if the sentences to Asmom and his family members were too lenient.

Under the law, a person who knowingly harbours or conceals any such fugitive is liable to life imprisonment or a jail term of up to 15 years, and be fined as well.

Mr Shanmugam said the sentences were based on submissions from both the prosecution and defence.

He said: “The sentences in our view reflect the different degrees of involvement of the family in harbouring and aiding Mas Selamat. Nur Aini was obviously the most culpable, (so) she has been given the longest jail sentence. The other two were given shorter sentences because of their lesser involvement. The court is likely to have given weight to the fact that the assistance was not pre-meditated, rather the three persons appear to have acted on misguided instinct on family ties, on the spur of the moment.”


6 responses

  1. Yes I too was surprised they chose to put them in civilian court and not use the ISA. The latter would certainly have allowed them to hide many if not all the details of his escape. I wonder which is more scandalous, the escape or Shamnuwhatshisnname choosing to come out and take it on the chin unlike his predecessor.

    November 23, 2010 at 3:13 pm

  2. SM Goh

    “…number nearly a hundred…” is just an excuse to make it sound like he had a lot of relatives, when it is not. Just count your extended family (including your uncles/aunties/cousins/nephews but do not include your spouse’s) and you will see that it is not really the case. I got to 91, and that is not including those nephews/nieces which were born but I had no idea since I do not keep in touch with them.

    November 23, 2010 at 4:37 pm

  3. Ted

    The priority on JI members as the first stop rather than his family in their search is partially convincing only. Not a terrible excuse as some people like to unfairly think, but neither is it a good explanation.

    November 23, 2010 at 9:33 pm

  4. Jimmy the Hand

    Hmmm interesting insight on the transparency part as it was overshadowed by the lapses. The level of transparency on lapses is unprecedented. I guess that transparency can be seen as a good thing.

    November 24, 2010 at 1:54 am

  5. Watchmen

    SM Goh and Ted

    Intelligence failure but in could be seen in context. They likely had information overload and if there were limited resources, they would focus on decisions with higher chances of success. They probably had rooms of analysts and computer models on where Mas Selamat might have gone and followed those cold leads. From Indonesian cases and their intell, they thought he would have fled to JI family members rather than a brother he is not closed to supposedly.

    Makes sense then, but not now in hindsight for them. Anything in hindsight becomes clear. What they did was put all resources in one basket. Not intelligence failure per se but terrible resource planning. However, still no excuse for the failure to catch him before he left Singapore.

    November 24, 2010 at 9:35 am

  6. chemgen

    Chao Seng – They are trying to minimise the use of the ISA and restrict it only to terrorist cases. That can only be good.

    SM Goh – Some families are bigger than others so you and I can’t really say.

    Ted – On the contrary, I think it is convincing that the authorities would focus on who they think can help Mas Selamat more and who Mas Selamat thinks can help him more. Asmon and gang were approached later, but too little too late by then.

    Jimmy the Hand – They are increasingly transparent and we have to give credit where it is due. They could have hushed it up and we would be none the wiser.

    Watchmen – Perhaps I was a bit harsh when I said it was intelligence failure, and poor planning is the better explanation maybe. The ISD probably had successes that it can’t reveal and they might be more than the failures, but that’s too bad. We know about the recent blunders and would naturally focus on them.

    November 25, 2010 at 1:46 am

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