Indonesia Reopens old Wounds
Recently Indonesia has taken the decision to name a warship after one of the marines who bombed MacDonald House on 10 March 1965 during the period of armed confrontation (known by the Indonesian word konfrontasi) between Malaysia (of which Singapore was then a part) and Indonesia. For those who were not around and do not know the history the state of Singapore did not actually exist then.
I was born in 1959 and would then still have been a colonial subject of Her Majesty the Queen though at the time of the bombing this would have become Malaysian citizenship. I have a personal connection to that tragedy besides the geographic one. My mother, Margaret Jeyaretnam who had come over to the Straits Settlement in 1955 to marry my father later became one of the first citizens of the new republic of Singapore. She also became one of the first lawyers of newly independent Singapore . In fact she was senior to my father who was in the Government Legal Service at the time. She also later set up the Samaritans of Singapore as well as being Registrar of the Anglican Diocese of Singapore and Malaysia. In 1965 she was working for the law firm of Donaldson and Burkinshaw who were situated at MacDonald House.
Looking at that building today it is hard to believe that it was the first modern office building with central air conditioning in Malaysia and our early version of a sky scraper. Presumably the reason why it was targeted.
I was only six at the time of the bomb blast. I remember being pleased at first, because my mother came home early from work that day. She then described how there had been a loud bang, that the whole building shook and that she was evacuated via the fire escape. I still remember how upset she was over the people who were killed and particularly over the death of the lift operator, a young Malay boy, whom she said always smiled and said hello to her every morning. It was a very real tragedy and very close to home.
This is a grossly insensitive act by Indonesia. The most simplistic comparison is with the Japanese PM’s decision to visit the Yasukuni shrine but in fact those were uniformed soldiers who were waging a war, which is not to downplay the war crimes committed by the Japanese against civilians and POWs.
In the case of Osman Haji Mohamed Ali and Harun Said, the men in question may have been following orders but they committed a terrorist act that led to several civilian deaths and injuries. In order to carry out the atrocity they had to take off their uniforms and wear civilian clothes . This is what enabled Malaysia to hang them rather than treat them as soldiers and POWs entitled to the protections of the Geneva Convention, which Indonesia clearly feels they were. All of us globally have to take a hard line against terrorism. Sometimes it is hard to tell where war ends and terrorism begins but in that case I think the line was quite clear because there wasn’t actually a war on at the time.
It is curious that the Indonesian government should choose right now to bring an unpleasant episode between our two countries to the fore. A conspiracy theorist might think that the Indonesians are giving the PAP a helping hand, for motives unknown, to rally Singaporean support behind the government as the defenders of Singapore’s sovereignty. LKY always traded very heavily on external threats, the ‘danger at the gate’ theory keeping his citizens in permanent fear of imminent war. With his health in such a grave condition and a recent order for the electoral register to be revised, the conspiracists who often maintain that LKY has already passed away will say that this is a manufactured fear to bolster PAP’s standing.
Conspiracist theorists are not known for rational thought. I am grateful to my readers for suggesting more rational motivations. What is more likely is that the old wounds being opened here are the criticisms over the Haze coming from Indonesia. Indonesia is also about to go into Presidential elections so this kind of sabre rattling plays well for them at home.
What I find both unnecessary and unhelpful is that right on cue some of the Opposition parties have taken this opportunity to call for the slashing of defence expenditures. Bizarre! For the record, I believe that Singapore can easily INCREASE its defence spending AND its spending on Health Care and other safety nets. We need to increase our spending on defence not because of Indonesia’s action but because we will be better off with a professional army. Two years of National service is simply not long enough to train a really professional army. At the same time we should gradually reduce National service.
So far the Indonesian government shows no sign of backing down which is unfortunate for relations between our two countries but hopefully this is a blip and we can achieve a diplomatic solution.