IT WAS about two years after I was commissioned as an officer in 1961 that Konfrontasi broke out.
Konfrontasi, or the “Crush Malaysia” campaign, launched by then Indonesian President Sukarno in 1963 to oppose the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, saw Indonesian troops engage in raids, bomb attacks and acts of subversion across the federation states.
At that time, Singapore was part of the Federation of Malaysia, and a target.
In 1964, I was sent to Sebatik Island, south of Sabah, and later, to the Kota Tinggi area in southern Johor as part of the 1st Battalion Singapore Infantry Regiment (1 SIR) to repel Indonesian infiltrators.
Those of us in 1 SIR did not suffer any casualties in our fights. However, our comrades in 2 SIR in Kota Tinggi were less fortunate, and several of them were killed. These are painful memories that can never be erased, particularly for those of us who have lived through the conflict.
In Singapore, at least 42 bomb explosions occurred, culminating in the bombing of MacDonald House that killed three people and injured 33 others on March 10, 1965.
It is crystal clear to me as a former military officer that such attacks – conducted by non-uniformed military personnel and directed at non-military targets, resulting in the loss of innocent civilian lives – were clearly illegal under the laws of armed conflict and went against every principle that I stood for.
It was thus with surprise and immense disappointment that I read about Indonesia’s decision to name a warship after the two men responsible for bombing MacDonald House. Despite protests from Singapore, Indonesia has decided to stick to its decision.
When the perpetrators of the bomb attack were later executed in Singapore on Oct 17, 1968, relations between Singapore and Indonesia were fraught with tension and unease.
It was only years later that then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew sought to bring closure to the difficult episode during his trip to Indonesia in 1973.
People may have forgotten, but when then President Suharto visited Singapore in return in 1974, he signalled a major change in attitude towards Singapore by publicly accepting Singapore as an equal, independent state.
This set the tone for Singapore and Indonesia to move on and build a normal, healthy bilateral relationship that benefited both sides.
In the years since, our two countries have cooperated in many areas of mutual benefit, including in trade and investment, and military cooperation, as well as in Asean.
BECAUSE of this healthy state of affairs, in my 33-year career in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF),
I have had the good fortune to build many strong and close friendships with many TNI
(Tentara Nasional Indonesia, or Indonesian National Armed Forces) counterparts, including the TNI leadership.
From my personal experience, this episode of naming a warship after the two bombers of MacDonald House which caused the death of innocent Singaporean civilians is not characteristic of the way the TNI would have handled matters back in my time.
It was clear to me that both sides understood the importance of maintaining a good degree of understanding and stability between our militaries, as a ballast to Singapore and Indonesia’s bilateral relations, which may see ups and downs at the political level.
From a point before 1974, when the SAF and TNI hardly had any bilateral interactions, we took careful and deliberate steps, and worked hard to build up our ties to a level where our military leadership could easily pick up the phone and call each other.
This helped greatly in reducing any potential misunderstandings, as our commanders were able to consult in private and resolve sensitive issues quickly before things got out of hand.
Later, the close relationship saw an expansion of military-to-military cooperation, leading to more bilateral exercises and joint naval operations to keep our contiguous waters safe, like the Indonesia-Singapore Coordinated Patrols, which witnessed its 20th anniversary in 2012.
This level of cooperation was possible only because of the strong foundation of trust and understanding that we had built up through different generations of SAF and TNI leadership.
Times of crisis
IN TIMES of crisis, both countries have also come to each other’s aid without hesitation. When the Indian Ocean tsunami struck in 2004, the SAF was the first to reach and lend a hand, deploying an unprecedented amount of manpower and assets in its history of disaster assistance.
The close ties and familiarity between our armed forces were evident during the operation. The SAF and TNI regularly send our officers to each other’s training courses, and the SAF officers who had graduated from the Indonesian military academies could speak fluent Bahasa Indonesia and had experience with the Indonesian way of doing things.
When Singapore was in need in December 1997, when SilkAir Flight MI185 crashed into the Musi River near Palembang, killing all 104 passengers and crew, the Indonesians came swiftly to our aid.
They spared no effort in supporting the search and rescue operation, deploying several ships to help locate survivors and recover the two black boxes.
It saddens me to think that those in the Indonesian establishment who decided on the name KRI Usman Harun for the warship – after the two convicted bombers – could have so quickly forgotten the deep relations that both countries have painstakingly built over the years, on so many fronts.
What Indonesia does not seem to realise is that such actions, taken without due consideration, not only disregard the sensitivities of a neighbouring country, but also undermine the decades of peace and friendship both our militaries have built in partnership, by reopening a closed chapter that both nations have agreed to lay to rest.
There are surely many other deserving warriors and soldiers in Indonesia’s illustrious history, so why choose to name the warship in a manner that reflects the violence and callousness of Indonesia’s past actions?
It appears that when decisions need to be made for one’s own interests, the concerns of a small country like Singapore can be disregarded. The “little red dot” mentality is still alive and entrenched in the minds of many Indonesian officials.
This incident comes as a poignant reminder for those Singaporeans who believe that Singapore is no longer as vulnerable as before, and that a strong SAF is no longer necessary because relations are rosy and peace has prevailed in the past few decades.
There is no better moment than now for us as a nation to recognise that the peace and security of Singapore can never be guaranteed.
I have witnessed for myself how hard-won our recent decades of peace are. We have now witnessed how quickly things can turn sour overnight.
A small country like ours will face situations where others do not take us into account when they make decisions. If we do not have a strong and capable SAF, we leave ourselves open to being cowed, intimidated and vulnerable to pressures from larger states.
If we do not want this to be the reality for us and our children’s generations, all Singaporeans must take on the collective responsibility of protecting our way of life and play our part for the defence of our nation.
Only then will we be able to stand up to challenges, shape our present and plan for the future that we most desire.
This is our only reality.
Lieutenant-General (Ret) Winston Choo was the first and longest-serving chief of the Singapore Armed Forces (1974-1992). He is currently chairman of Metro Holdings’ board of directors and non-resident ambassador to Israel.