Wednesday, April 23, 2008

ISD: Unintelligent intelligence unintelligible

As quoted from the Straits Times on Tuesday, "the security lapse at the Whitley Road detention centre 'came as a rude and painful shock to them'".

When there is something glorious to gloat about, the pronoun becomes "us"; but when there has been a mistake, distancing takes place and the pronoun becomes "them". This reminds me of criticisms levelled against local Manchester United fans many years ago. They were alleged to be only aligned with the winning team, using a word like "us" when referring to the team; and when the team lost, the word "us" changed to "them".

The change in pronouns also reflects a shift in responsibility. The rude and painful shock, in this case, applied to the three men tasked to look after Mas Selamat, an alleged dangerous man.

The buzzword for now is "complacency". This applies not only to the three guards, but also to the entire Singaporean population. This is the lesson to be learnt.

However, does bringing forth the general moral of the story actually divert attention from the people who are essentially and specifically responsible for such a lapse? From the bottom of the chain-of-command all the way to the top?

When it comes to taking credit, the top of the chain-of-command often gets the largest slice of the pie. When it comes to taking blame and responsibility for a mistake, there is great reluctance and the chain-of-command breaks off like a farther-end train carriage in a high-speed drama you see in movies or video games. I guess accountability is all about getting the lower ranked pawns to take the fall, take one for the team.

Any way, the problem of the Mas Selamat episode is not about Mas Selamat or the three guards. The Internal Security Department (ISD), the Singaporean version of the Gestapo secret police, along with the Internal Security Act (ISA) which legitimises detention without trial, should be reexamined.

The Whitley Road Detention Centre (WRDC) is not a legitimate prison. A prison is where a charged and convicted person becomes legitimately incarcerated. Detention without trial, or responsibly and sugar-coatedly termed as "preventive detention", is partly unconstitutional (saved for the ISA) and a violation of human rights.

If there could be proof that Mas Selamat is dangerous, and has plotted to carry out terrorist activities, as so described by the media, shouldn't he be charged in the first place and rightfully incarcerated in a proper prison?

Wong Kan Seng, in response to Sin Boon Ann's query on family visits at WRDC, says that family visits help in rehabilitation. But isn't the whole existence of the ISD and its "prevent detention" initiatives about beating, threatening and torturing information out of its detainees? If you want to rehabilitate a person, put him or her in the very institution you best deem fit for rehabilitation - the prisons system (never mind its rather high recidivism rates).

There is something seriously wrong with the system here. The job of politicians is to continue to reinvent, change, update and question it - for the sake of a better and safer Singapore; not just follow orders.

Why does the government recruit so many top brains, creative minds, in the form of scholars, just so they can follow orders and be mere spokes in the wheel of the state agenda? Shouldn't the scholars actually help with the evolution of governance, rather than the maintenance and continuity of hegemonic political ideologies?

Wong Kan Seng should take one for the team this time, in order to uphold the integrity of the government. How many more "terrorists" do we have to let loose before a top government/public official resigns?

If the media can continue to provide dangerous descriptions of Mas Selamat, make him look dangerous and discredited, which are enough to warrant a libel suit from the average person, why can't he be charged and trialed in the first place?

Put him in a maximum security prison and this kind of problem would not have occurred. We must start asking more questions now. Why couldn't Mas Selamat be put in a prison? Did they want to further torture information out of him at ISD?

ISD is the undercover prison doing undercover things, and the public does not know much about it. The prison is the legitimate institution doing legitimate things, and the public knows a lot about the prison.

If Mas Selamat is captured again, provided that he is not initially and unintentionally murdered by ISD and later dumped at some remote location and be a surprise find by our hardworking police/army/Gurkhas, how will he be detained? Will he go to jail for escape? Is it criminal to escape detention under ISD? If ISD is the unofficial prison, wouldn't an escape from it also be unofficial?

ISD is a place where your basic human rights are violated, but nobody else will know. It is similar to a police interrogation where you will be physically assaulted by trained personnel who know how not to leave a mark or a bruise (c.f. Anwar Ibrahim, the alleged corrupt sodomite).

In the prison system, physical assault is legitimised by the Penal Code. You get caned. The public knows about it. You get caned more than necessary, the public will also know and the relevant lower-ranked personnel will dutifully resign.

In the ISD, there are a lot more secret activities under the vaguely-described veil of "intelligence". "Intelligence" of whom, for whom, for what purpose, what kind?

Any government will have problems addressing their secret police publicly. You could detain (without arresting) literally any one you see as a threat to national security. Furthermore, you have the power to define what is national security. Maybe political dominance is essential to national security, so you could detain people you discredit and deem as "political dissidents".

Moreover, with the ISD linked to the Home Affairs Ministry and linked to members of the ruling party, the ruling party will always have the upper hand on intelligence and can always leverage on it during the elections. They have huge divisions of civil servants working over-time, waiting and ready to be mobilised like national service reservist personnel, to provide the latest information to them so they could maintain their political competitive advantage. This is probably why we cannot have a one-party government; it's a slippery slope.

If the top dogs are able to take credit for that their pawns do, they should also be able to take responsibility for the mistakes at every level below them on the chain-of-command. The three guards, the window, the CCTVs and the urinals - Wong Kan Seng is answerable and responsible for all of them. "Them" is "us" is "Wong Kan Seng".

Sorry, Mr Wong, I just feel that way. Home Affairs is a dirty job, but you only need to be unlucky once.

-added 11.25pm-

First, Mas Selamat was alleged to be wearing brown pants. Now he was alleged to be wearing greenish grey pants. What on earth is happening? Why the inconsistency? So the eyewitness who saw a topless man, with a limp, wearing brown pants, would have been a hoax, wouldn't it?

Maybe I can follow the logic of having a safe and secure home by sawing the handles off my windows. Maybe if there's a breach due to my mistake, I could get a bunch of subordinates to conduct an inquiry.


family man said...

brilliant analysis. Thanks. My heart goes out to the family of Mas too. What is to become of the wife and kids. Can they sue the minister for misplacing their sole bread winner? As far as we are concerned, there were no cctv showing his escape, so as far as the family is concerned, could he be dead? What recourse does the family have against the government, locked up in an unofficial prison and makeing him go missing?
I feel the same for NS men who dies while in service. The government owe a duty of care to those incarcerated in NS, but the Govt is too darn cheap to buy insurance for them, but expects them to pay their own. jeeze...

Sam Ho said...

thank you. i wish all singaporeans can be proud to be singaporean, but for those who can't, it must be understood that it is not their fault.

i think one invisibilised part of mas selamat (at least in the mainstream media) is that he does have a family. we don't hear much about how they're coping. it's a good point you raised.

Without Borders said...


The buzzword for now is "complacency". This applies not only to the three guards, but also to the entire Singaporean population.


Another buzzword to add to that.

It's "an honest mistake".

Take note all Singaporeans. there'll be more of these buzzwords to come.

It's an HONEST MISTAKE everyone. Remember that.

Write it down in your exercise book a hundred times.


Sam Ho said...

haha, sorry but that almost sounds a bit deranged.

i actually genuinely think, assuming that mas selamat really escaped, it was an honest mistake. a mistake is still a mistake and people get fined or sacked for that.

brickgam said...

Thanks for bringing up the concerns on the family members of Mas Selamat. I am beginning to think about the other persons involved in this whole affair.

What about the three guards who risks their lives working in a foreign land escorting a "dangerous" personality? Do we ever appreciate their effort, and the hazards they put themselves in? Why are the guards not Singaporeans? They are carrying out an important duty to protect the safety of an entire nation, and yet they don't even possess a citizenship (perhaps not even permanent residency).

I think we should offer all of them a Singapore citizenship for the courageous work they do.

Sam Ho said...

family man did raise a very important point on the family of the alleged terrorist. we, as the audience, get to witness how we dehumanise mas selamat, which explains the lack of coverage or information on him being part of some family.

as for the gurkhas, well, their loyalty is bought by the singaporean government. in fact, they are already given housing, but are advised not to make friends with anyone outside the gurkha community. this is in order to make sure they are professional and loyal to the cause. giving them citizenship does not make a difference, because they may already have more benefits ordinary citizens don't enjoy.