Is spray-painting a subway train with graffiti a matter of national security? Yes if you do it in Singapore, and you’d better be prepared for the consequences.
Oliver Fricker, a 32-year-old Swiss software consultant working in the city-state, is on trial for allegedly breaking into a depot and leaving an elaborate work of aerosol art on the side of a carriage in May.
Police have launched an international manhunt for his alleged British accomplice, Lloyd Dane Alexander, who managed to slip out of Singapore before being found out.
The incident raised questions about the security of key facilities in Singapore, a staunch US ally that sees itself as a prime terrorist target, and the authorities are indignant.
Only last month, Indonesian officials said they found a map of Singapore’s MRT train network in the home of an Islamic extremist shot dead in Jakarta.
Singapore has long considered vandalism a serious crime and punishes culprits with jail terms, fines and caning, and reports of terrorist plots against the island have given the subway graffiti case an added dimension.
The suspects should not expect leniency — an American teenager, Michael Fay, was caned in 1994 despite US appeals for clemency after he vandalized cars and public property.
The defaced MRT train has been scrubbed clean but a clip taken by a commuter can still be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CV4JYKBEQo, attracting over 113,000 hits so far.
Some comments posted on YouTube praised the graffiti as a work of art and one hailed the two Europeans as heroes for daring to defy the government.
Others demanded that the two men be caned, a controversial penalty dating back to British colonial rule.
Martyn See, a Singaporean filmmaker who has been in trouble with the authorities for political documentaries, said he and his friends "admire what Oliver Fricker did" but wondered why the Swiss man stayed after the act.
"He is courageous but stupid at the same time," he told AFP.
See said the government was "more concerned about the embarrassment" rather than security.
John Harrison, a homeland security expert with the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the vandalism case has both legal and security dimensions.
"There is a real legal issue here. This individual committed an act in Singapore that is very serious," he said.
"But there is a broader question, there are security implications for this, that somebody was able to penetrate a depot unnoticed and then commit damage."
Harrison added: "This is not something to be taken lightly and I think the Singapore authorities are acting responsibly in this situation."
He told AFP that Singapore was a "Tier One" target for terrorists and the MRT network would always be a key area for any attack.
Last month, Singapore sent a security team to Jakarta after a map of the MRT was discovered in the home of Ahmad Sayid Maulana, an alleged member of an extremist group who was killed by an anti-terrorist squad on May 12.
The opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) said Wednesday that the incident was "yet another stupendous breach of public security" two years after an alleged extremist leader, Mas Selamat, escaped from custody.
Mas Selamat was recaptured in Malaysia last year.
The SDP said the government was "asleep at the switch" during the security breach at the train depot.
Singapore’s metro operator apologized for the "serious security lapse" and promised to install more surveillance cameras and reinforce the perimeter fences at the system’s five depots with razor wire.
The metro system serves 1.5 million passengers daily and its staff are trained to handle emergency situations including chemical, biological, radiological and explosive threats.
Local media have speculated that Fricker and Alexander could be part of an underground group of graffiti artists using metro trains around the world to display their work.