Alex Au: Let others have their heroes

Singapore is behaving like a petulant child again, throwing a temper tantrum over the Indonesian Navy’s decision to name a warship after two Indonesian marines whom Singapore hanged. Harun Said and Osman Haji Mohamed Ali bombed MacDonald House on 10 March 1965. Three people died and many more were injured.  The frigate KRI Usman Harun is named after them.

pic_201402_04That was the time when Indonesia was waging Konfrontasi — a sort of low-level conflict — against Malaysia, of which Singapore was then a part. Indonesia saw newly-formed Malaysia as a neo-colonial project, designed to block the advance of “progressive nationalist” forces. Depending on how you want to read history, there is some truth to that. Even today, an outspoken political observer might call Singapore a bastion of robber-baron capitalism, complete with regressive social policies and fascist tendencies, always eager to kowtow to America.

When Usman and Harun were caught, they were not in uniform. Under interrogation, it was reported (by our government-friendly media — credibility alert!) that they gave conflicting accounts of their military status. Our government then chose to ignore the obvious and treated them as civilian murderers, and chose to hang them.

I am told that even then, within government, there were voices arguing against the move, but then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew hated the idea of appearing soft (and I think he still does).

Indonesia accorded the two marines hero status; they are both buried at Jakarta’s Kalibata Heroes Cemetery.

pic_201402_06Every country has heroes. Most times, those heroes are heroes because they fought some foreign power. George Washington, so beloved of Americans, was a traitor to the British crown, destroying the first British Empire. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, so beloved of Indians, was another extremely disloyal British subject who through leading a campaign of civil disobedience detached the jewel, India, from the second British Empire. Jose Rizal (left), hero to Filipinos, fought the Spanish and was eventually executed by firing squad. Genghis Khan, inspiration to all Mongolians, conquered China. Charles XII of Sweden was a scourge to Denmark, Poland and Russia.

A town in Cambodia is called ‘Siem Reap’, which means ‘Siam Vanquished’, celebrating a victory in that area by Khmer King Ang Chan over the Siamese. Trafalgar Square in London commemorates Lord Nelson’s defeat of the combined French and Spanish navies during the Napoleonic Wars. Waterloo Street in Singapore likewise rubs salt into French wounds, being named after the place where Napoleon was finally defeated. Mountbatten Road is named after the chap who was Britain’s chief of Combined Operations against the Germans and the Japanese during the Second World War.

Should the Spanish ambassador in Manila never set foot on Rizal Park? Should the German and Japanese ambassadors to Singapore never drive on Mountbatten Road? Should the UK refuse a port call by the American aircraft carrier USS George Washington? We’d say they were childish if they all did that.

But Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen might not think so.

In an impassioned speech to the Singapore parliament on Tuesday, Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said the Indonesian ship, which is still being prepared at a British shipyard, would be barred from its ports and naval bases.

“Singapore will not allow this military ship named Usman Harun to call at our ports and naval bases,” Ng said as quoted by AFP. “It will not be possible for the SAF [Singapore Armed Forces] as protectors of this nation to sail alongside or exercise with this ship.”

He added his office and the SAF were “disappointed and dismayed at this inexplicable move.”

“Even without ill intent, how can the naming of the ship after two bombers build good ties or enhance mutual respect and regard with both our countries?” Ng said.

– Jakarta Post, 20 Feb 2014, No ill intent or malice over ship’s name, Marty stresses. Link.

Oi, how can temper tantrums over tiny details build good ties?

* * * * *


We should never have re-opened this matter. In May 1973, six years after hanging the two men whom we refused to recognise as prisoners of war, Lee Kuan Yew was made to lay flowers at the graves of Harun and Usman. Astute observers would have read this act of contrition as the price Singapore had to pay to normalise relations with Indonesia post-Konfrontasi.

By bringing this up again, current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong not only looks thin-skinned, but risks being made to make another trip to visit the graves on his next official visit to Indonesia.

The trouble with Singapore is that every time we throw a fit like this, we look terribly immature and petty as a country, and paint ourselves as too self-important by half. Our government does us no favours.

* * * * *

Even more sickening through this whole episode was the behaviour of our mainstream media. Lengthy columns were generated to re-milk every last drop of anguish over our victimhood. A two-page spread appeared on Sunday, the eve of Ng Eng Hen’s bombastic parliamentary announcement. Perhaps this editorial focus was at the behest of the government, for it occurred to me that the thumping of old news stories also served to drum up nationalistic solidarity.

I am highly suspicious of government-orchestrated nationalism. Such flag-waving is often meant to rally people behind the ruling party, or distract citizens from the real issues of the day. Such efforts too sacrifice the longer-term interests of the country (peace and good relations with neighbours) for the short-term boost to party popularity.

Did the People’s Action Party see the Indonesian Navy’s naming decision as a godsend? If so, then, for such foolish, self-serving short-sightedness, let the man lay flowers on graves again.

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