Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Politics, Gladiator, Praetorians and a Missing Fugitive

While many viewers were enthralled by the epic battle scenes in the Gladiator, hardly any noticed that the plot of the film turned on a single focal point. When the Emperor Commodus was un-sworded by General Maximus in the final fight scene, he turned to his Praetorian Guards and demanded another sword. As the Guard unsheathed their swords to offer their beleaguered Emperor, the Guard Commander, Quintus, overruled the Emperor, ordering the Guard to stay their swords. General Maximus subsequently killed Commodus with the latter's own dagger in front of a shocked Coliseum. It was not the first time that the Praetorian Guards played a pivotal role in the film. In this sense, the film was unerring in historical accuracy, the praetorians were more often than not, the true Caesar-makers of Pax Romana.

The Prime Minister's explanation of the Mas Selamat escape fiasco is a lesson in politics. He perhaps more than any other recognises that the ISD is an intelligence agency, staffed by intelligence officers, whose primary job is the gathering of information of leverage, of value. Running a prison is a routine task beneath such intelligence officers, such tasks delegated to the lowly Gurkha mules. It is precisely this mindset that allowed the Mas Selamat escape to occur and this was probably what the PM meant when he singled out the mindset issue. The element of complacency.

Interestingly, the PM made one slip of tongue which did not really come out in the COI report findings, he uttered something about the unclear lines of command on the security responsibility in the detention centre. This is the nub of the issue. It is apparent that ISD intelligence officers are not prison wardens. More likely, intelligence officers are egotistical bastards who like to kick down toilet doors rather than perform lowly prison escort duties. Hence, the security of Mas Selamat was delegated by these intelligence officers to the two Gurkha mules. They made the critical mistake in thinking that two Gurkhas on one prisoner should be adequate security. But alas, the Gurkhas are good only for parades and are basically gentle savage mules with less initiative than your average Filipino maid. This was the critical failure, window or no window, fence or no fence.

If a cock-up of this scale occurs in a ministry like MICA, the PM will have much less of a headache. Essentially, ministries like MICA are politically dispensable. They have no value to the politicians. But when a cock-up happens in a intelligence agency, in Mindef or even in an elite military unit like the Commandos, especially in a regime like Singapore where institutional checks and balances are only of face value, the political ramifications are much more complex. When a cock-up happens in ISD, which has an organisational history that is promiscously intertwined with the political history of Singapore, think Coldstore, think Marxist conspiracy, it creates a hugely delicate problem for the politicians.

The Prime Minister is sharp and recognises this fact, this conundrum he is faced with. He explains to us citizens that a demoralised ISD will be detrimental to Singapore's security. That is an equivocal statement. It is not the mob reflexively baying for the blood of Ministers and politicians he is wary of. Handling the mob is simple politics, especially the Singaporean mob which has always been fairly one-dimensional.

It is evident from this Mas Selamat escape that political savvy in Singapore remains a rare commodity. Grasping and exploiting political nuances appears to be a lost art or perhaps the monopoly of the cloistered group in the ruling regime. Rather than exploiting the interstices of this ISD cock-up, the Opposition wastes the political opportunity pursuing dead hypotheses or demanding accountability knowing that accountability will always be provided for that group of conservative stoic Singaporeans who are the electoral bedrock of the regime's survival.

In the film, Gladiator, the Roman mob in the Coliseum was silenced when Emperor Commodus slumped dead at the feet of Maximus. They were further silenced when Maximus died of the earlier dagger wound inflicted by Commodus before the fight scene.

Most viewers forget or fail to recognise that it was the Praetorians that allowed this to happen.

Quote of the Day --

"Is Rome worth one good man's life? We believed it once. Make us believe it again. He was a soldier of Rome. Honor him." -- Lucilla, from the film Gladiator


Blogger HanSolo said...

In your opinion, what would a politically astute Opposition have done?

And, welcome back.


7:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

bravo, bravo!
welcome back.

loving your posts as ever.

9:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

MP(Hougang) had bravely insinuated that DPM Wong Kan Seng resign or be sacked but failed to ask the Prime Minister 'Why not?' when PM asked him(MP Low) if Wong KS should be removed. It was the Greatest anticlimax in any Parliament Session.


9:57 PM  
Anonymous Desmond Lim said...

taking the side of PM lee for a while, we cannot always have our MPs resign due to a fault or another (we all make mistakes) but WKS is not going to be punished at all? i mean, it is all true and well saying that "we all make mistakes and if we punish all who make mistakes, then nobody will want to make mistakes" is so crappy because running security is very different from running a transport system. we can try different ways to do things with a transport system, and if it fails, we can say, well let's move on. no real harm done. but this is national/international security, issue. it isn't a "oh we left the cat out in the rain last night" type of situation. and yet nothing is done.

you know when PM asked MP Low that question a lot of people believed that MP Low should have said, "No, but we would like a parliamentary reprimand" (if something like that exist in Sg that is).

because now, he gets all the carrots and no stick at all?

let's put it into a scenario that, your son slaps your daughter (for no reason whatsoever), do you just ask your son to apologise and that is it. or do you reprimand your son for doing that and also ask him to apologise?

11:19 PM  
Anonymous Gary Teoh said...

I was surprised Low did not answer PM Lee's question ? At least say Wong should take the blame,that is the best opportunity to counter back, but he missed the chance, what to do ?

12:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

best political blog in sg ... astute analysis!

1:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have utmost respect for Low Thia Khiang. To face a crowd of 80 PAP MPs and being the only one to ask such a question that all Singaporeans want to ask, but none of the PAP MPs dare to ask. Thank you Low, Sylvia and Chiam. Keep well.

6:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think Low is facing a crowd. In almost all parliamentary sessions, a quarter or a third of the MPs do not turn up due to work commitments, medical leaves, overseas trips and so on. And then some will only turn up mid way, or leave early. And then for those present another dozen or half a dozen is sound asleep. Another dozen or so will look disinterested and bored.

But I am not taking anything away from Low and the rest of the opposition MPs. To get laughed at, sneered and smirked at by the PAP mob in the house, and the house condones it, is also not exactly a walk in the park.

Singaporeans should try to attend the parliament sessions one day and see for themselves the deplorable level our politics has descended under the current regime.

8:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The guard heard the running tap water.... running tap in the toilet of the Whitley Detention Centre?

They don't use the automatic sensor or save-water tap for their toilets?

Almost all public facilities in Singapore now instal automatic sensor or save-water tap. If the centre did indeed use such device, then the report and breakout by Mas Selamat Kastari is a big cover-up.

Use your imagination.

3:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is one of your very few writings whose aura wavered due to weak analysis.

But welcome back. You've been very much missed.

5:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to like Singapore very much but after recent experience i stared to think "Is Singapore really what I believe?" Youth in Singapore can be terribly rude and disrespectful.

1:48 AM  

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