Timing of response to JI terror group was key, says former DPM Wong Kan Seng

SPH Brightcove Video
Mr Wong Kan Seng was Home Affairs Minister when the Jemaah Islamiah arrests were carried out. He spoke with The Straits Times about some of the key moments during that period.

SINGAPORE -The timing of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) arrests 20 years ago this month was crucial, and former deputy prime minister Wong Kan Seng remembers how it was a toss-up between various factors.

Reports were circulating in December 2001 about the arrest in Afghanistan of a Singaporean linked to Al-Qaeda, and there was concern his associates here would be spooked and flee the Republic.

But it was also the tail-end of Ramadan, with Hari Raya Aidilfitri looming on Dec 17.

Ultimately, the risk was too great, and not arresting the group ran the risk of their escaping, or worse, going ahead with planned terror acts.

"In the end, in the interest of national security and social cohesion, the Internal Security Department (ISD) had to arrest them," said Mr Wong in an interview.

Mr Wong, who was home affairs minister from 1994 to 2010, was in charge of responding to the country's biggest brush with terror.

On Dec 9, six JI members were arrested by the ISD. More arrests were made between Dec 15 and 24.

Altogether, 23 were picked up for questioning and 13 detained for their involvement in plans to attack Yishun MRT station and several foreign embassies, among various targets.

Mr Wong recalls three areas of concern the Government had after the JI arrests: its effects on Singapore's security, national cohesion and the economy.

Mr Wong Kan Seng was home affairs minister when the 23 JI members were arrested by Singapore's security forces in 2001. PHOTO: ST

As the ISD worked to round up the JI members, intense briefings and discussions were going on with business and community leaders.

Singapore relies heavily on foreign investment, and Mr Wong said there was a concern that such a shocking discovery could make investors think twice about putting their money here.

It was crucial that community leaders were informed.

Among the first to be briefed were Malay/Muslim leaders.

"We needed to prepare them that it was a serious operation... and these individuals talked about using their religion to conduct operations in Singapore," he said.

"So, if our Malay/Muslim leaders and the rest of the community feel that this is something targeted against their community, I think there would be a very serious reaction."

Such conversations were not easy, given how some were in shock and denial. Singapore had never faced such a threat of this scale and complexity, and Mr Wong said some thought it was a conspiracy to undermine the community.

At these engagements, he said his aim was to address concerns and provide as much information as he could.

"My policy was to answer whatever question they might have and if I did not know the answer, to just be honest about it."

This was the approach the Government adopted for the other communities too. Then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong held two dialogues at Kallang Theatre with 1,700 community leaders on social cohesion after the JI members were detained.

SPH Brightcove Video
The Straits Times interviews former Jemaah Islamiah members who were arrested in 2001 for their involvement in a plot to commit terrorist attacks in Singapore.

Mr Wong also spoke of how a low point was the 2008 escape of Singapore JI leader Mas Selamat Kastari through an unsecured toilet ventilation window at the Whitley Road Detention Centre.

Mr Wong met ISD officers that evening and remembers how their morale was low.

He told them to focus on recapturing the fugitive while he handled the public outrage and questions from his colleagues.

"The key priority was to find him," said Mr Wong. "I remember Mr Lee Kuan Yew said: 'Just find him. Life must go on.'"

The work paid off.

Through joint operations with their Malaysian counterparts, ISD managed to track Mas Selamat down and he was arrested in 2009 by the Special Branch in a village in Johor. He was handed over to Singapore in 2010, after being questioned about the Malaysian JI network.

Mr Wong said the arrests led Singapore to beef up its security infrastructure, build networks of community groups and constantly remind Singaporeans of the need for social cohesion and resilience.

Addressing the terror threat needs a whole-of-society approach, he said, stressing that trust between the Government and Singaporeans is crucial to overcome a threat or fallout from an attack.

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He acknowledged there was no "grand masterplan" two decades ago on dealing with the threat, but Singapore gained operational expertise and innovated and improvised when needed.

What guided the response back then continues to guide Singapore now, he added.

"There was a primary national objective which I believe is still the same objective today: How do we keep Singapore safe from terrorist acts? Most importantly, we have the Internal Security Act which few countries in the world have, and which allows ISD to arrest and detain terrorists before they could succeed," he said.

"In public, foreign governments would criticise us for it. But in private, they wish they could enact such a law. We also applied lessons learnt from countering the drug scourge - prevention, education, enforcement and rehabilitation. The whole community needs to get involved."

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