For a country to commemorate soldiers that have fallen on the battlefield is one thing, for it to celebrate those that have, by any standard, committed an act of terrorism is another. Hence it comes as little surprise that reports that the Indonesian navy intends to name a new frigate after a pair of its marines that had been executed by Singapore in 1968 after being convicted of a bombing that killed and wounded dozens of civilians have caused consternation on these shores.
The 1965 bombing of MacDonald House in Singapore, while not the first such incident during the Konfrontasi campaign from 1963-66 instigated by Indonesian founding president Sukarno to oppose the creation of Malaysia (of which Singapore was then a part of), was by far the most serious and is still held up as a salutary lesson on Singapore’s inherent geopolitical vulnerabilities. Despite this, Singapore had previously sought to draw a line under the matter by repatriating the bodies of the marines and having then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew visit their graves during a trip to Indonesia in 1973.
Four decades on, it comes as a puzzle why this issue is being given the opportunity to resurface, given that the Indonesian navy would not be short of worthy – and less controversial – historical figures to commemorate. It is possible that the navy, unlike the dominant army that has long enjoyed close ties with its Singapore counterpart, had less compunction about broaching this potentially sensitive issue. Unfortunately, given that it is an election year, the issue could gain traction domestically with Singapore being the usual target for politicians looking to burnish their nationalist credentials.
Bilateral concerns aside, the Indonesian government should have a strong interest in reining in the navy for the country’s sake. The Indonesia of the 1960s that undertook Konfrontasi was aggressively nationalistic and provocative. Led by Sukarno’s “guided democracy”, it was a destabilising and unpredictable influence in the region. Under the guise of liberating its neighbours from colonialism, it ironically spooked them with what seemed like neo-imperialist intentions.
Today’s Indonesia could not be more different. It is a peaceful, tolerant society that has justifiably won plaudits for its relatively smooth transition from authoritarianism to democracy. It is a pillar of the ASEAN community with one of the fastest growing economies in the region. At the same time, it is becoming an increasingly important and respected leader in global fora such as the G-20.
With this much to look forward to, there seems to be little need for Indonesia to remain shackled to the memory of a period when its standing was at a particularly low ebb.