THE narrow, some 1km strip of water separating Singapore and Malaysia is known for its fast-flowing currents, rocky outcrops and deep waters. Not many dare to swim across the Johor Strait and few live to tell the tale. And one of those few is Singapore’s infamous fugitive Mas Selamat Kastari.
Soon after he escaped from the Whitley Road Detention Centre here on Feb 27 last year, Mas Selamat travelled at least 14 km — it remains unclear how — and ended up at an unknown location somewhere on Singapore’s northern shore.
The Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) leader, who walks with a limp due to an earlier fall, then used an improvised floatation device to swim across the strait. This is a well-known technique used by some illegal immigrants to enter Singapore.
Although the Police Coast Guard had stepped up patrols of the waters after his escape, security experts say it is impossible for their efforts to secure the border to be water-tight.
Once Mas Selamat reached the other side, he disappeared into the sprawl of Johor Baru and managed to stay one step ahead of the authorities for more than 12 months. Until April 1.
On that day, acting on a credible lead uncovered and developed by the Internal Security Department (ISD), the Malaysian Special Branch (MSB) swooped in on Mas Selamat, now 48, and arrested him in the outskirts of Johor Baru.
According to Bernama, Mas Selamat was arrested near Skudai, about 25km from Johor Baru. “We know that he has relatives staying in Skudai,” a source said.
Photographs and fingerprints provided earlier by the Singapore authorities were used to identify Mas Selamat.
His arrest was first reported by Singapore media on Friday, and was later confirmed by both governments in Singapore and Malaysia. He is now being held at an unknown location.
Details of how Mas Selamat managed to make his way to Johor remain sketchy, although the authorities believe, for now, that he did not receive any help in the process.
Addressing the media on Friday, Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng said the authorities here “don’t know all the details” of Mas Selamat’s escape, as he is still being questioned by the Malaysian authorities. “Until he is brought back to Singapore and ISD interviewed him, we do not have much information on that,” he added.
While many questions remain about his escape, his arrest put paid to at least one conspiracy theory that had been circulating on the Internet.
Then, many claimed that Mas Selamat had died while being detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA). The Government, the theory went, had spun an unbelievable story about how he escaped from the high-security detention centre — by squeezing through a toilet window that had no bars and climbing over a fence — to cover up his death.
Mas Selamat’s arrest also marks the third time that the ISD – which incurred both public wrath and ridicule over the escape – had tracked him down. The other two occasions were when he was on the run in Indonesia between 2003 and 2006.
Mr Wong, who is also the Deputy Prime Minister, said that the ISD had begun developing some leads late last year and had shared them with its Malaysian counterparts.
He paid tribute to the ISD officers on Friday. “ISD officers worked very hard, even after the setback last year,” said Mr Wong.
Given that Mas Selamat’s capture is a cause for rejoice, why did it take the Government more than a month to make public the arrest?
There was a need to maintain secrecy, Mr Wong explained, adding that the Government had been told of the capture “soon after” April 1.
Mas Selamat’s arrest occurred around the same time that the Malaysian authorities captured three other people for suspected activities linked to the JI terrorist network.
WEEKEND TODAY understands that only a few people within the Government and the ISD knew of the capture. Even the Home Team’s rank-and-file learnt about it only on Friday, like most Singaporeans.
One terrorism expert said the authorities probably did not want to alert Mas Selamat’s accomplices, if any, of his capture.
“The time could also have been spent getting operational information from him on plans, identities of accomplices, evidence of links with other JI cells in Indonesia,” said Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
Some terrorism experts believe that Mas Selamat had made the wrong move by staying put in Johor for the past 13 months, rather than venture further to Indonesia, or Thailand.
“I would have thought he would have been caught in southern Thailand,” said RSIS senior fellow Antonio Rappa. “If he were smart, he would have gone there.”
His RSIS colleague, Dr John Harrisson, also felt that Mas Selamat “clearly misjudged his personal security by remaining in the area for any length of time”.
Mr Wong, asked when Singapore will gain custody of Mas Selamat, replied that the Malaysian authorities still want to interview the JI militant.
“We will let them do the job and when they feel that it is time to send him back to us, we will be happy to receive him back.”
Will Mas Selamat be detained once again at the same detention centre where he made his headline-grabbing escape?
Mr Wong replied: “Today, Whitley Road Detention Centre is very different from the one on Feb 27, 2008. Many security measures have been put in place and that is the place we are going to put him in.”