So Indonesia has decided to name a naval ship after the two Marines convicted of bombing the MacDonald House in 1965, during Indonesia’s confrontation with the Federation of Malaysia.
What is missing from the mainstream media reports is an important detail: on 9 October 1968, Singapore informed the Indonesian Embassy that the two men, Osman Haji Mohammed Ali and Harun Said, were scheduled to be executed in around a week’s time. On 11 October 1968, President Suharto made a personal request that the sentence either be commuted to life imprisonment or for it to at least be delayed. Even Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak sent in supporting appeals.
(Why this request for clemency? After Suharto seized power in 1967, his aim was to rebuild Indonesia from what he deemed as the excesses of the Sukarno years, which included a seemingly belligerent foreign policy. In some ways, the Marines were seen as people who were loyal to the nation, but ‘misguided’ by Sukarno’s ‘folly’. To be able to gain amnesty for the Marines would bolster Suharto’s domestic popularity–as someone who had managed to secure Singapore’s goodwill and who literally saved Indonesian lives abroad.)
However, Singapore went ahead to execute the two Marines on 18 October 1968. We know the story: the Singapore government, as insecure as always, did not want to seem to be ‘bullied’ or ‘intimidated’ by big powers.
Suharto lost his standing among his people. Protests were held, and the Singapore embassy in Jakarta was stormed. As a major face-saving measure, the President declared the Marines national heroes and awarded them the Bintang Sakti, the highest military decoration. They were then buried at the Heroes’ Cemetery in Kalibata.
The big what-if: if Singapore had entertained the request for clemency, would the two Marines have been hailed as heroes? Especially since they were Sukarno’s soldiers, not Suharto’s? Would they have served out their life sentences quietly and into obscurity? We’ll never know. What we do know is that this denial of amnesty set off a chain of events leading up to the names ‘Osman Harun’ now chosen for a naval ship.
The mainstream media should stop perpetuating this absurd notion that the men were considered heroes just for blowing up civilian targets. Heroic martyrdom was also foisted on them because Singapore refused to accommodate and ended up making Suharto look impotent. Now the Singapore media claims that Indonesia’s naming of the naval ship is an act of ‘unfriendliness’ or ‘insensitivity’. The Indonesians can always claim it as an act of sovereignty, the same kind of sovereignty the Singapore government chose to exercise when it hung the two men in 1968.