Gone In 11 Minutes Flat

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. By the time they got it open, Mas Selamat was gone, having escaped in less than 11 minutes. Singapore's Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng admits the string of lapses and errors were "silly and incredible."

As much as the government is trying to spin the prison break as a cautionary tale, the episode is revealing shortcomings in Singapore's nanny state. "[The escape] shows some of the strengths of Singapore and some of the weaknesses," says a Western diplomat, who did not want to give his name because of the nature of his work. Singapore does an excellent job mobilizing its resources and directing them at recognized problems. But there are few external or independent checks on the system—and this lack of scrutiny, combined with the government's generally successful record, has produced serious blind spots. Past circumstances have made it "easy to become smug," says the Western diplomat. But this smugness has now proved dangerous. In this case, security at the detention facility had been designed to prevent raids intended to break out inmates. Several weeks ago, the Home Affairs minister admitted of the authorities that had "never in their imagination thought that anybody would attempt to escape."

Since Mas Selamat got out, moreover, the government's actions have done little to bolster public confidence. Despite the fact that the first hours of any manhunt are the most critical, the authorities took five days to tell the public what the terrorist was wearing at the time of his escape. And only a few days after that did they bother to inform citizens that the fugitive also limps on his left leg.

The government's hesitation may reveal the fact that Singapore's leaders, like any semiauthoritarian regime, are uneasy with the thought of the people taking too active an interest in security matters. The government has worked hard to make sure citizens "see Singapore's place [in the world] as being very precarious," says the diplomat. "It is a very useful political tool" that the government has used to persuade the public to leave things to the experts. But for such a deal to work, the state has to get things right every time. All is well so long as the system keeps working. But when it doesn't, as Singapore just discovered, the country's most dangerous criminal ends up walking out the door.