When terrorist Mas Selamat escaped on Feb 28 from a Singapore prison, there should have been pandemonium. Allegedly one of the most dangerous men in South-East Asia was now roaming with evil intent.
However, what we encountered here in the republic was ambivalence and even mirth; there were numerous jokes surrounding the escape ranging from his name (Mas Selamat Kan-diri) to how ‘Prison Break’ should just be renamed ‘Toilet Break’.
What these jokes reveal – regardless of their actual content – is a desperate attempt to find a reason for his escape. They function in exactly the same way as conspiracy theories; bringing us a perverse comfort of knowing that there is someone in charge – some reason behind – all things that happen.
This is the same reaction that we’ve always had to terrorism - a refusal to acknowledge its status as an event – in exception to everything else, and ultimately unknowable. Instead, we have always attempted to tame it, discipline it, under a cause and effect analysis.
It is for this precise reason that you will always find an organisational chart whenever any ‘terrorist group’ is mentioned. It matters not whether the claim is that Mas Selamat is the third, fourth, or 72nd most important person in Jemaah Islamiah - it is an attempt to assure oneself that there is a structure in place.
This is simply because, if there is a structure, it can be toppled. This is the same reason why each time there is a suicide bombing, the question asked is ‘Why did he kill himself when he had so much to live for?’ Which is then usually explained via recourse to ‘he was brainwashed’ or ‘the promise of 72 virgins’. In either case, the suicide bomber is brought back under reason.
This is why hoaxes are punished severely. It is not so much that they are a waste of state resources but more pertinently they reveal that we are unable to tell the difference between a hoax and the real thing.
This inability is best captured in the fact one cannot make a joke about terrorism or even mention the word ‘bomb’ at airports. Since the hoax and the actual event has the same form, the effects are the same - after the bomb hoax in Holland Village here in 2002, there was a dramatic decrease in the number of patrons.
In fact we would rather there was an actual bomb - in that way it could be diffused or exploded – in either case, the event would end. A bomb hoax is infinite: the effects go on endlessly; all we are waiting for is for the bomb to go off.
The punishment is not so much for the utilisation of resources (they would have been used anyway in the instance of a real bomb) but that the reality principle itself has been ruptured.
In this sense, the greatest fear that haunts us is if Mat Selamat’s escape was a pure accident, without any explanation. When someone said, ‘This should never have happened,’ he touched on this precise fear.
It is not as if we didn’t know that Mas Selamat would try to escape (or even that he could) but rather ‘we shall never know why or how it happened’. For this only means that the escape – the event – remains unknowable and ultimately unsolvable.
The writer teaches at a Singaporean university.