A good jailbreak story is easy to get caught up in. Whether it’s a real-world escape like the drug lord El Chapo’s underground motorbike getaway in 2015, or Andy Dufrais crawling out of a sewage pipe in the Shawshank Redemption, there’s something about them that really captures the imagination.
That’s the kind of story I’ve got for you today. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let me point out that you’re not gonna be able to get behind the main character of this unlikely escape. At no point was his life narrated by Morgan Freeman, and on top of that he belonged to one of Asia’s most notorious terrorist organizations.
That’s how today’s criminal mastermind found himself rotting in a jail cell in Singapore; a place among the most secure and strict countries on earth. So how in hell did one of its most notorious criminals manage to break out of one of its famously super-secure prisons?
Well, I can tell you now that the answer is surprisingly ridiculous. Without giving anything else away, let’s dive right into the story of Man Selamat, Asia’s most-wanted man.
First, a little bit of background. Everyone knows Al Qaeda, everyone knows the Taliban, but few outside of Southeast Asia will be familiar with JI — Jemaah Islamiyah. In short, they’re basically an Al Qaeda-adjacent group of radicals who dream of setting up their own caliphate across Asia (what’s now commonly known as “doing an ISIS”).
Joking aside, these guys really are no laughing matter; they were responsible for some terrible bombings in Bali in 2002, and they reportedly had some even bigger plays in the pipeworks throughout the years that followed. That’s where ol’ Mas comes in.
Born in Java, Indonesia in 1961, his family moved to Singapore during his early years. By his late 20s he was heavily involved with terrorist figures in the region, and in the mid 90s, his aptitude for terribleness saw him promoted to head of operations in Singapore. To prepare, he went off to Afghanistan for several years to get his PhD in being a total bastard (and a diploma in bomb making alongside).
A few years after his return to Singapore, a certain definitive event in US history occurred, which caused a ramping up of security efforts around the world. With the heat piling on, Mas Selamat decided to up sticks and leave Singapore for Malaysia with his wife and kids, before seeing a good chunk of his terror cell arrested.
It’s a good thing authorities cracked down when they did, as Mas had been in discussions with the head of JI about his plans to A — hijack a plane and crash it into Changi Airport, B — blow up a bunch of trucks simultaneously around town, and C — overthrow the entire Singaporean government itself.
But despite all that awful potential, it was something extremely simple which eventually led to his arrest: a fake ID. Yep, the evil plots of Singapore’s most notorious terrorist leader were undone by the same flaw as your attempts to get into Wetherspoon’s when you were 15.
In 2003, he was arrested in Indonesia for using a fake Indonesian passport, and jailed for a year and a half. Unfortunately, he was allowed to walk free after that, because Singapore and Indonesia didn’t have an extradition treaty at the time. Never mind though, because in 2006 he made the exact same damn mistake in Java, and was then handed over to the Singaporean authorities.
Now, I don’t know how you feel about anti-terror legislation, but Singapore’s is some of the most draconian in the world. That meant that the counter-terrorist police could detain Mr Selamat indefinitely without a trial, or even any official charges. You can debate the morality of that in your own time, but for now all we have to know is that Mas was safely locked away, and not scheduled for release any time soon.
The Escape: Part 1
Okay, so that’s the prelude done — here’s the meaty part, the escape. Obviously you saw it coming because… well, I told you it was coming. But you have to ask, why didn’t the Singaporean prison guards foresee it? I say that because Mas was no stranger to escape attempts; during that 18 month stint in Indonesia he carried out two of them.
The second involved a pretty daring jump from a window ledge, which resulted in a shattered leg bone and permanent limp (I never said he had a particularly successful track record). The injuries meant he’d be playing his next escapes on hard mode — or so he thought. In truth, he was probably surprised with just how easy it turned out to be…
On the 27th of February 2008, at around 4pm, the guards at Whitley Road Detention Center let Mas Selamat out of his cell for family visitation. His wife and kids were coming, and the prisoner was allowed to change into his regular clothes to meet them.
The guards took him to the bathroom to prepare, and one waited right outside the stall. Around 10 minutes passed, and Mas was taking a while to finish his business. The water was still running, and the guard could still see his legs when he looked under the stall, so he gave a knock on the door and told Mas to wrap it up.
But nothing happened. Another few minutes passed before the guards forced open the toilet door, to find an empty stall with just a pair of trousers hanging from the door. Mas Selamat was nowhere to be found.
Okay, that was pretty brief — hardly an epic prison break tale. Let’s rewind a little to find out exactly what happened on the other end of the toilet door — how did The Magnificent Mas Selamat pull off this disappearing act?
Well, after hanging his trousers on the door to buy himself an extra few minutes, he climbed up on top of the toilet and wriggled out of a narrow window. It’s not like he had to spend weeks sawing off the window bars or anything like that, because there weren’t any! It was just a regular old window which anyone could have opened.
After that, it was just a short limp through the prison yard under the absent gaze of the armed guards and unattended CCTV cameras, to the feeble perimeter fence, which he scrambled through before making off into the city. All in all, there was just an 11 minute window between Mas entering the toilet and the guards breaking down the door, after which he was long gone.
Of course, a massive manhunt was launched instantly. The government didn’t release any statement straight after the event itself, so the public only found out about 4 hours later, but the police were on high alert. Maybe the authorities were hoping to spare themselves the embarrassment by catching old Mas just a few blocks from the prison before anyone noticed. I mean, surely he couldn’t have limped very far.
But no such luck: he really did seem to have disappeared. The main phase of the search began, which would turn out to be the most expensive in the country’s history, roping in police agencies from around the region. Images of the escapee were sent to millions of citizens’ phones — the same images which were plastered on posters every 5 meters around the city. Singaporeans were even encouraged to lock up their bicycles so public enemy number 1 couldn’t BMX his way to freedom.
Now, if you’re a fan of the show, you’ll know that we’re a little ambivalent towards that kind of mass-media frenzy. Our skepticism really bears out in this story, because the tip lines were flooded with thousands of responses, all claiming they had spotted Mas Selamat around Singapore. If they had all been correct, then Mas must have picked up the ancient art of teleportation alongside his studies in terror. The torrent of information potentially did more harm than good.
So as the days went by, and turned into weeks, then months, the sightings thinned out and gave way to rumors. Surely the only explanation for Mas’ total disappearance was that he had died during the getaway, or been picked up by his allies, people thought. They swapped third-hand stories from friends of friends who swore his body had been found in a patch of woodland, or that he had escaped to Indonesia on a speedboat.
Schoolkids even adopted old Mas as an urban legend for a while, saying the creepy terrorist leader would approach young ones to ask for their help. Don’t laugh it off so easily; I still remember the time Bin Laden waited outside my school to ask if I could help him escape to Pakistan. That was a crazy few months…
The Escape: Part 2
But never mind all that. With the magic of retrospection I can show you exactly how wrong all of this wild speculation turned out to be. See, Mas was very much alive and well. After squeezing out of that window and strolling to freedom, he had made his way to the Pan Island Expressway, where he hid out under a bridge for five days. Hardly as glamorous as a speedboat getaway.
He survived off little cubes of butter which he had stowed away and accumulated over the month prior without the guards noticing. Now, I know how people typically smuggle stuff in and out of prison, and… how the hell does that work with butter? It’s not an image we want to be dwelling on for long.
Anyway, the tactic got him through those critical first few days of his escape, after which he put phase 2 into play. Mas made his way to the north coast of Singapore through a storm drain, where he inflated a makeshift pool float — made from empty water bottles he had been saving up in the lead-up — and set out to sea, where he still floats around, preaching jihadism to fishermen and cruise ships to this very day.
No, of course not. He actually just used his plastic bottle life vest to swim to Johor, Malaysia, which is connected directly to Singapore by a road bridge. Still, the total swim was over 1km, which definitely deserves a Blue Peter badge in my opinion. The city of Johor has its own issues with terrorism, and Mas was able to link up with the local terror cell to secure a spot in one of their safe houses, where he safely hung his hat for the next year.
That’s the official story from the Singapore authorities anyway, but the Malaysian counter terrorism police actually insist that Mas was aided by some family members along the way, including his brother and niece. We can’t quite verify any of that though, so let’s just stick with the slightly more bizarre motorway bridge story, shall we?
So what happened next? Is Mas Selamat still out there, plotting his next big move? Is he in your neighborhood? Is he in my neighborhood? Is he behind me right now? No, let’s calm down, everything’s fine — let me wrap this up to put all our minds at ease.
The authorities continued their search throughout the following year. Interpol issued a worldwide alert for the suspect, and his face became known to border guards all across Asia and beyond. A couple of Singaporean citizens even forked out a $1 million reward for any information leading to his capture. Surely Mas Selamat’s wings were well and truly clipped with all that attention heaped on him.
Regardless, from his new base in Johor, Mas Selamat and his accomplices were dreaming up fresh schemes for his big comeback. Namely, they planned to kidnap Singaporean Chinese people working in Johor, and hold them ransom in exchange for the release of all their terrorist buddies back home.
Thankfully the plot never came to fruition, thanks to the Singapore anti-terror squad’s favorite play: threats of indefinite detention. They picked up three ex-members of Mas’ terror posse, and took them in for questioning. Interrogating them led the police to a tiny village to the northwest of Johor, called Kampung Tawakal.
During a raid on the 1st of April 2009, authorities found the man who had eluded them for over 13 months (and caused Singapore no end of humiliation on the world stage). Around 40 officers from the Royal Malaysian Police descended upon the village of just 100 residents to kick down the door. They found Mas hiding out in the basement of a house where an accomplice named Johar lived upstairs with his family.
Mas Selamat had been living a deservedly miserable little existence there, hidden from the other villagers and not even leaving his hidey-hole to pray. The villagers were oblivious to the terror kingpin living among them, but Johar didn’t have quite the same level of plausible deniability. He was arrested too, along with several others suspected of helping the escapee throughout his year on the run.
And then, on the 24th of September 2010, Mas Selamat himself was finally sent back to resume his indefinite detention at a Singaporean prison, where he still wanders around, preaching Jihadism to drug runners and murderers to this very day.
And that’s the end of the story of Singapore’s most wanted criminal in recent memory. Well, it’s probably the end. I mean, it’s unlikely that ol’ Mas will be escaping again any time soon, as the authorities are now far more strict when transporting prisoners around the detention centers — shackles and chains now come as standard. Nine guards and officers got a good thrashing the last time it happened, so they’re pretty damn determined not to become the laughing stock of the criminal justice world again any time soon.
So what can we take away from this story of penal mishaps and bizarre getaways. Well, if you frequented jihadist internet forums at the time, first of all what the hell, and second: you might have seen Mas’ fans bigging up his escape as divinely blessed. Surely only God himself could have facilitated such a farce!
In reality though, you just have to have a brief look at the facts to see that it wasn’t down to the will of God. Nope, this was just plain old human incompetence at work, allowing one of Asia’s worst criminals to break out as easily as a wayward pensioner wandering out of their retirement home. Is that fact utterly terrifying, a bit hilarious, or perhaps a mix of both?
I’ll let you decide.