Gone in 11 Minutes Flat

Article excerpt

Byline: William J. Dobson

Singapore's top terrorist slips out of jail--revealing worrying cracks in this ultracompetent nanny state.

A visitor to Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs these days isn't greeted by portraits of the senior leaders or the country's founder, Lee Kuan Yew. Instead, one finds, taped to the wall, a black-and-white image of a nondescript middle-aged Malay man. His name is Mas Selamat Kastari. And though his face is unremarkable, his reputation is not: the 47-year-old is the reputed head of the Singapore cell of Jemaah Islamiah, a notorious Southeast Asian terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda. And his image has lately become ubiquitous in this city-state. That's because, in late February, Mas Selamat broke out of a detention facility and became Singapore's most-wanted man.

Citizens here are raised to put their faith in a state thought ultracompetent. Singapore's government has earned this reputation by achieving decades of economic growth and prosperity that would be the envy of almost any country, let alone one this small (Singapore's population is just 4.6 million). But for the past three months, since Mas Selamat's escape, authorities have been scrambling to regain that trust. Police and military units are scouring the city-state, and locals have been told to stay on high alert for a fugitive authorities think unarmed but very dangerous. The government is warning people of the dangers of complacency and arguing that all the jailbreak revealed is that even an effective government occasionally slips. "It's a blessing," says Zainal Abidin Rasheed, senior minister at the Foreign Ministry. "We need to remind ourselves we are not infallible." Yet as Singapore's alleged No. 1 terrorist remains on the lam, the people's confidence in their government's omnipotence is starting to falter.

Indeed, the details surrounding Mas Selamat's jailbreak hardly inspire confidence. During a trip to the bathroom on Feb. 27, the JI leader managed to climb through a prison window--which, incredibly, had no bars--and is believed to have then shimmied down a water pipe and broken his fall on seven rolls of toilet paper. It was then just 20 meters to a fence that could be easily scaled. At the time, the facility's security cameras were not operational. When guards started to wonder why Mas Selamat was taking so long in the toilet, rather than act immediately, they went to their superiors for permission to open the bathroom stall door. …