Thu, Apr 24, 2008
The Straits Times
DPM Wong responds to host of questions from MPs

For more than two hours, 19 MPs lobbed questions at Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng on issues ranging from the Gurkha guards to Mas Selamat Kastari's rumoured death. Here are excerpts:

Mr Low Thia Khiang: Did MHA conduct regular audits at the Whitley Road Detention Centre (WRDC) prior to the escape of Mas Selamat?

The WRDC and the Gurkha Contingent guards have their respective procedures. When the detainees are in the cell block, they are watched by a significant number of guards. The ratio of guards is more than what one can see in the prison.

When they're taken to other blocks, most of those movements are in passageways that are enclosed and they're also blindfolded, to keep them from familiarising themselves with the surroundings.

The only thing that ought to have been done better is a regular system check and audit. These will now be carried out on a regular basis.

Dr Teo Ho Pin: What kind of standard operating procedures (SOPs) are in place for the guards? Why have a folding door for the urinal? Two members of the Committee of Inquiry (COI) have or had some association with the ministry. How can the minister ensure that the investigation is fair and balanced?

When the detainees are first detained, they're handcuffed. Over time, when they show cooperation, the case officer will recommend to have the handcuffs removed when they are inside. Mas Selamat was handcuffed for seven to eight months.

The Gurkha guards were told they must keep the detainee under constant supervision.

This is a family visitation block and the toilets are used by people who work there and family members who visit the detainees. Because of the structure, they decided to provide a door to the urinal cubicle for some privacy of the people using it.

When the Government appoints people to serve in these committees, the most important factor must be their integrity.

Mr Goh Joon Seng was a former High Court judge. He's now a member of the Council of Presidential Advisers and chairman of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony.

Mr Tee Tua Ba served 30-over years as a senior police officer in various positions, the last being the Commissioner of Police. He was also the Director of Prisons and now, a non-resident ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. Dr Choong May Ling is a senior Administrative Officer. She was a doctor but gave up practice. She has been posted to many ministries.

These are people who will serve the Government well by sitting on the COI, getting to the bottom of things and putting up their reports completely objectively and impartially.

Dr Lily Neo: Is Mas Selamat believed to be still in Singapore?

Based on the best available information of our security agencies, they think he is still in Singapore. Throughout the search in the last seven weeks or so, there were some findings that led to our security agencies believing that he is in Singapore.

Madam Ho Geok Choo: Is the Government satisfied with the way it communicated information to the public?

We cannot be satisfied. We can always improve.

Some have asked why it took four hours to tell the public that Mas Selamat had escaped. The first few hours were critical in making sure that all our operational units are out to look for the man, and all our border security tightened up.

The assessment was that Mas Selamat would not be of immediate danger to Singapore because it would not be likely for him to be able to plan an attack against us. That is why communication was not the first item. Could we have shortened the process? That is a valid point and we'll study this and see how to make further improvement.

Mr Inderjit Singh: Were we too lenient in treating some of these terrorists? Why was the public told what Mas Selamat wore about five days later, and a few days later they were told about his limp?

Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees are in Whitley Road Detention Centre for preventive detention. And the key to preventive detention is, apart from preventing a person from doing harm, to get information from that detainee to help prevent a terrorist attack.

So the regime in the WRDC is different from that of Changi Prison. To the extent that we want to detain them, we also need their cooperation to provide information. They were very cautious in releasing information about Mas Selamat as they wanted to be very accurate. If they didn't have the information clearly in their minds or on the records, then putting out information will simply be more problematic. It is a balance between speed in telling the public about what he was wearing, what he looked like or whether he was limping or not, and the need to have accuracy of information.

Madam Halimah Yacob: The Gurkha guard does not seem to have initiative. Is this typical? Can the DPM give an update on efforts to track Mas Selamat down?

The guards in the WRDC were told not to communicate unnecessarily with the detainees. They were to communicate through the WRDC staff. That is to prevent any miscommunication.

What the guard did not do in this instance was, even after having noted that Mas Selamat had taken some time in the toilet, he did not get into the toilet himself. He should have.

We have to be mindful that within the forested areas, it could be possible for a person to hide there for a long time.

Some of the illegal immigrants found during the search for Mas Selamat said they had been living in the forest for more than a year. There were water, nuts and berries and even illegal farms in the forest.

Our latest phase of operation is a more targeted approach based on information and intelligence, and calls by public who said they met or saw somebody who may look like Mas Selamat.

For the coastal areas around Singapore, we have the Coast Guard, sentries and observation posts to look out for people who may want to leave Singapore by sea.

Ms Ellen Lee: Why doesn't the Government offer an award for Mas Selamat's arrest?

The Government does not have a policy of offering bounties for the arrest of people, whatever the cause or crime. The public spirit of our people is very strong. Of the major arrests made by the police, 40 per cent were done with the assistance of the public. But what price for solving a heinous crime like a murder, for example? It will not end.

Mr Sin Boon Ann: Why did the Government allow family visits to go ahead when the CCTV wasn't functioning? Hundreds of soldiers lined up in a school nearby to look for the escaped fugitive. Was it a serious attempt to find him or a public-assurance exercise?

Let us be quite clear that visits by family members did not contribute to Mas Selamat's escape. What contributed to Mas Selamat's escape was a series of lapses by the officers concerned.

Family visits have been taking place for some time and when a detainee meets his family, he is always under constant watch.Nothing passes between them. Depending on the level of cooperation that the detainee has given, not all detainees have direct physical contact with the family.

For some, they would at most be able to talk to the family behind a screen.

Why do we allow family visits? It is part of the rehabilitation.

The massive turnout to search for Mas Selamat in Malcolm Park and around the schools there was not a public-assurance exercise. The Government does not resort to such gimmicks. There was information that there was a person who looked like Mas Selamat in the vicinity and who got into Malcolm Park. That was why we had police officers and SAF men standing at the site.

Mr Baey Yam Keng: Is there an SOP for the detainee to hand over his detention-centre clothes when he changed into his civilian attire? The report noted that it is believed that he was wearing two sets of clothes when he left the locker room.

A male guard should know that a man does not need to take off his pants fully while doing business at a urinal. When Mas Selamat flipped his pants on the ledge above the door, didn't that lead to some suspicion on the guard's part?

The procedure is that when the detainee changes into his civilian clothes, he's supposed to hand back his detention-centreissued clothes to the special duty operative (a junior officer) That was not done.

That was why we think he could have worn another set of clothes apart from his baju kurong. That's why even after flipping his pants over the ledge, he could still run away because he had another pair of pants.

The guard might have thought that for whatever reason, Mas Selamat needed to take off his pants while at the urinal.

Dr Ong Seh Hong: How long was it from the time Mas Selamat escaped to the time when our borders were sealed?

Even at 4.30pm, the officers who were operating at the checkpoint were already checking on people.

The 100 per cent check was instituted at 5.15. Certain things needed to be done on the ground. That's why it took a bit longer to put up that 100 per cent check.

Mr Low Thia Khiang: Is this episode also the result of the complacency of his ministry in failing to supervise the agencies under his charge? Is the DPM aware that there is speculation that Mas Selamat died inside WRDC?

Mr Wong: May I ask Mr Low whether he believes that indeed Mas Selamat has died?

Mr Low: No, I don't.

Mr Wong: I do not know why he wants to raise it here. I see no point in perpetuating a ground speculation in this House and giving credence to it.

What we do is to make sure that we find the right people to run the organisation. From time to time, problems do take place and this is one instance.

Does it mean, therefore, that the whole ministry and all the Home Team departments are complacent? I think that would be stretching the argument too far. Within individual units, there could be some slackening. I can't guarantee that that will not happen because in any human organisation, from time to time, there will be human weaknesses being displayed and, unfortunately, things do happen that we don't want to see.

Mr Chiam See Tong: Will any heads roll?

There will be disciplinary proceedings and we must let the proceedings run their course and then those who are found accountable and liable will have to answer for those mistakes and lapses.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Apr 22, 2008.


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