SINGAPORE: He was the director of the Internal Security Department (ISD) when former Jemaah Islamiyah leader Mas Selamat bin Kastari escaped from detention in February 2008.
Now the Permanent Secretary for Transport, Mr Pang Kin Keong, has finally come out to talk about the event that sparked a massive manhunt for a fugitive wanted on both sides of the Causeway, and the lessons he learnt.
In an interview with Challenge — a magazine by the Singapore Public Service — published on Wednesday, he spoke candidly as he revisited the event that marked the lowest point of his 20 years in the service.
“To have an incident of this national security magnitude happen under your leadership… that’s an awful feeling,” he said as he recounted the public criticism that ensued.
“I’ll be honest: When I read the newspapers or my email, (I felt) like slumping and going back to bed, under the covers.”
Mr Pang also spoke about his difficulty in rallying his staff.
“This difficulty of keeping up the morale intensified over time.
“After eight, nine months, and we still have absolutely no trace of him, how do you keep on telling them, ‘It’s okay, you need to keep plugging away’?”
He feared that he would get posted out of the 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.”
Thirteen months after the escape, Mas Selamat was recaptured.
Reflecting on the lessons learnt from the episode, Mr Pang spoke about how the way his superiors had backed him taught him the importance of standing by good staff who have made honest mistakes.
“Loyalty is a two-way thing,” 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 recalled how the ISD’s support division staff, such as IT personnel, volunteered to help in the hunt for Mas Selamat, pairing up with experienced operations officers on nights and weekends.
“That is the best example of teamwork,” he said.
“Thinking back about it always brings a lump to my throat.”
He said his family’s unwavering support helped him pull through the episode; now he stresses to his staff at the Ministry of Transport the importance of placing their loved ones first.
“If you’ve got family problems, parents who are ill, go attend to them first! Don’t think about work,” he insisted.
“The organisation must be resilient enough to be able to cope without you.”