Civility in the Face of External Provocation?

On learning that Indonesia had named a frigate KRI Usman Harun after the two Indonesian marines Usman Mohd Ali and Harun Said who were executed after being convicted of setting off a bomb at MacDonald House in Singapore that killed three people and injured 33 others in 1965, Singapore leaders called their Indonesian counterparts.

Singapore's Reaction

Minister for Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam spoke to his Indonesian counterpart to register Singapore's concerns and the impact it would have on the feelings of Singaporeans, especially the families of the victims.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen spoke to their respective Indonesian counterparts.


They conveyed the Government's perspective that the bombing was a wrong and grievous attack on civilians in Singapore, which resulted in deaths and injuries.

The matter was closed in May 1973 when then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew sprinkled flowers on the graves of the two marines and both countries had put the issue behind them.

The naming of the frigate KRI Usman Harun would re-open old wounds, not just among the victims and their families, but also for the Singapore public. Singaporeans would ask what message Indonesia was trying to send by naming its warship in that manner.

They asked the Indonesian government to take into account the feelings of the victims and their families, and the implications and consequences, when making their decision whether to name the warship after the two marines.

Indonesia's Response
Indonesia's reply was that its navy had the authority to name the frigates and had considered in a mature way the paying of tribute to its heroes, so that they were immortalised on its warships.

The government had its rules, procedures and criteria for determining whether to honour a person as a hero, and would not accept any intervention from Singapore.

The fact that Singapore perceived Indonesian government policy differently would not make it backtrack or be uncertain about carrying on with its policy decision and implementing it.
Indonesia's response was expected.
Indonesia considered Usman and Harun to be heroes for their act of bombing. (In reality, they were far from heroic when, like cowards and criminals, they quietly targeted innocent civilians instead of facing our armed forces.)
Once the decision was made to name the frigate, no government worth its salt would change its mind. Apparently, no one from Singapore saw this coming before the decision was finalised.
Finally, who is Singapore anyway?
Perhaps, a country does not have permanent friends nor permanent foes. Perhaps, not even real friends. Every country is our friend if its actions are in our best interest. And any country that threatens our survival or interest can hardly be our friend.

As former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew put it[1]:

"Now, are we not vulnerable? If we are not vulnerable, why do we spend 5 to 6 per cent of GDP year after year on defence?
We dug a deep tunnel for the sewers at the cost of $3.65 billion in order to use the sewage water for Newater, to be independent.

We are not vulnerable? They can besiege you. You'll be dead. Your sea lanes are cut off and your business comes to a halt. What is our reply? Security Council, plus defence capabilities of our own, plus the Security Framework Agreement with the Americans.

They stopped [selling] sand [to us]. Why? To conscribe us. As [former Malaysian Prime Minister] Mahathir [Mohamad] says, 'Even at their present size they are trouble; you let them grow some more, they will be more trouble'.

We've got friendly neighbours? Grow up."

Did the Singapore Government send a diplomatic note to the Indonesian government to protest?

Did the Singapore Government call up the Indonesian ambassador to protest?

Will the Singapore Government continue to bestow the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Tentera), or Meritorious Service Medal (Military), on Indonesian military chiefs who were involved in naming the frigate?

And what about the Singapore public? Indonesians must wonder whether the Singapore Government is speaking for Singaporeans. Does it seem that Singaporeans care? No protests at the Indonesian embassy (for the avoidance of doubt, I am not advocating one, which is unlawful). No protest note to the Indonesian ambassador. No protest at Hong Lim. No boycott of Indonesian goods. No cancelling of holidays in Indonesia.

Perhaps, Singaporeans have taken to the extreme Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's advice to deal with provocations in a civil, patient and tolerant manner, holding a stand, but remaining civilised human beings[2].

If we don't proudly and fearlessly defend our position irrespective of economic cost, we will be treated with irrelevance and contempt.

Perhaps, we can and should learn something from some East Asian countries — their governments and their people — on how to respond to external provocation.


1. LEE KUAN YEW Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going — Interview The Straits Times16 Jan 2011.

2. PM Lee Cautions Against Lynch Mob Mentality TODAY 29 Jan 2014.

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