Ex-ISD chief: loyalty key lesson from Mas Selamat episode

Mr Pang Kin Keong, the senior civil servant under whose watch Mas Selamat Kastari escaped, has spoken for the first time on his experience. -- FILE PHOTO: PUBLIC SERVICE DIVISION
Mr Pang Kin Keong, the senior civil servant under whose watch Mas Selamat Kastari escaped, has spoken for the first time on his experience. -- FILE PHOTO: PUBLIC SERVICE DIVISION

The senior civil servant under whose watch Mas Selamat Kastari escaped has spoken for the first time on his experience.

Mr Pang Kin Keong, who was director of the Internal Security Department (ISD) in 2008 when the terrorist leader made his prison break before being recaptured over a year later, called the saga the lowest point in his 20-year public service career.

"To have an incident of this national security magnitude happen under your leadership...that's an awful feeling," said Mr Pang, now permanent secretary for transport, in an interview with Challenge, the Singapore Public Service's magazine.

In one of the nation's most shocking security breaches, Mas Selamat, the leader of the Jemaah Islamiah terror network, broke out of Whitley Road Detention Centre on Feb 27, 2008 after climbing through a toilet window. He remained at large until he was recaptured over a year later in Johor.

In the interview published online on Wednesday, Mr Pang, 47, recalled the pressure he felt from the public criticism: "When I read the newspapers or my email, (I felt) like slumping and going back to bed, under the covers."

Mr Pang spoke of the difficulty in rallying his staff and how he worried he would be posted out of ISD before his team could recapture Mas Selamat.

"I wanted at least to be able to say, yes, the mistake happened under me, but I rectified it under my watch as well," he said.

What kept him going was the "incredible teamwork" and loyalty of his staff. Even the ISD's support division, including IT staff, volunteered to help in the island-wide search by pairing up with experienced operations officers. "That is the best example of teamwork," he said. "Thinking back about it always brings a lump to my throat."

The experience taught him to stand by good staff who make honest mistakes, just as his superiors had stood by him, said Mr Pang, who became permanent secretary for law in 2010 before moving to transport in 2012.

He said: "You can't expect your officers to be loyal to you unless you're loyal to them... When they have that confidence in you, they'll go to the ends of the world for you."

He also emphasised the importance of family life, drawing from the Mas Selamat episode during which his family's unwavering support helped him to pull through.

"If you've got family problems, parents who are ill…go attend to them first! Don't think about work," he said. "The organisation must be resilient enough to be able to cope without you."

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