Not business as usual for Indonesia-Singapore defence relations

Maybe it was a cheap shot directed at unsettling Singapore.

Maybe it was another example of Indonesian behaviour that should be seen at face value with no ill intent, no ill will and no malice intended.

Or it may have been staged because Indonesia’s Korps Marinir (Marine Corps) has absolutely no other national heroes in its long history.
Whatever the case, Indonesia’s decision to have two of its marines walk side by side, dressed up in 1960s-era uniforms this past week emblazoned with the names “Usman” and “Harun” indicates that the Usman-Harun warship naming episode is, quite literally in this instance, far from dead.

The act of bringing the duo back to life caught the attention of the Indonesian press, who photographed the re-enactors at the Indonesian Navy booth at the Jakarta International Defence Dialogue. This event, held this past week at the Jakarta Convention Centre, attracted a global audience, many of whom saw a model of the warship named KRI Usman Harun alongside the marines dressed up as convicted terrorists.

Coming so close on the heels of the atmospherics over Jakarta’s decision to name a new warship after two Indonesian marines convicted and hung in Singapore for murdering civilians during the 10 March 1965 MacDonald House bombing, the picture is understandably newsworthy.

More than anything, that single image published by Tempo says succinctly – in far less than a thousand words – that the twin ghosts of insensitivity and disrespect that haunt Indonesia-Singapore defence relations have yet to be exorcised.
The lack of sensitivity that plunged defence dealings between Asean’s largest and smallest members into deep freeze are an unfortunate and recent phenomenon.

If you visit the National Museum in downtown Jakarta, you will find an exhibit on the MacDonald House bombing therein that tells Indonesia’s perspective to a dark episode in Indonesia-Singapore relations that claimed three civilian lives and injured many other civilians. Blood was shed – pointlessly and without warning – after the marines bombed the office building during Konfrontasi, the undeclared war with Malaysia, of which Singapore was then part of.

Usman and Harun were convicted and hung for murder in 1968, but were feted as heroes when their bodies were flown back to Jakarta. Bilateral ties went into limbo until 1973, when then Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Indonesian President Suharto agreed that it was time to move on. Accepting the advice from then Singapore’s Ambassador to Indonesia, Lee Khoon Choy, former PM Lee sprinkled flower petals on the graves of the two marines as a gesture that ties should move forward.

The MacDonald House bombing has, nonetheless, been recognised by generations of Indonesian leaders in the political and defence spheres as a sensitive episode best left in the past. Why? It remains tender ground because heralding one’s perspective to this issue would inevitably affect the feelings and sensitivities of the other neighbour. The individuals hailed by Indonesia as heroes for following orders are viewed by Singapore as murderous terrorists. If Korps Marinir re-enactors want to be historically accurate, their caricatures of Usman and Harun should have worn civilian attire as this was how the two dressed in their cowardly attack on a non-military target during an undeclared war. In the eyes of civilised nations, this is an undeniable act of terrorism. It is a big deal when a neighbour openly celebrates such blood lust as there is nothing to suggest history would not repeat itself.

For decades, defence and political officials from both sides pledged to move on as the issue had been closed in 1973. Singapore sought to see the Tentera Nasional Indonesian (TNI, Indonesian armed forces) in a different light, despite international condemnation throughout the decades that echoed TNI abuses from one end of the archipelago (Aceh) to the other (Irian Jaya). For years, the TNI was an international pariah, arms sales to Jakarta were banned by some countries and TNI officers were shunned by others.

But the SAF was prepared to engage with the TNI, as the armed forces the SAF had first hand experience working with showed us a different side from the butchered image painted by human rights groups.

An official from Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) recalls how a MINDEF entourage was whisked quickly past the Usman-Harun exhibit during an official visit, with semi-apologetic exhortations of “This way Pak” as their Indonesian hosts hurried them to other parts of the museum. This gesture was noted as an effort on the part of the Indonesians not to unnecessarily agitate the Singaporeans, even unintentionally.

In decades past, our two countries have benefitted immensely from close and meaningful relations, which include interactions that take place aware from the media’s limelight such as specialised training for TNI warships and close collaboration with successive generations of high-ranking Komandan Gugus or Dangus (Force Commanders) from the Indonesian Navy’s various commands.

The Usman Harun episode has, alas, made many in Singapore see the side of the TNI that we hoped we would not be forced to see. Recent theatrics engineered by some players in Indonesia are textbook examples of statecraft that is insensitive, petty and bullying. Such behaviour is perhaps fuelled by a massive inferiority complex arising from Singapore’s success story. We should expect more mischievous stunts as some elements in Jakarta turn a blind eye to the hard work of many TNI officers, men and women at nurturing defence ties by exploiting the Usman Harun episode for their own agenda.

Indeed, none other than Indonesian defence minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro was quoted by the Indonesian media for commenting that there was “no problem” with the presence of the two marines at the event.

The relationship between the TNI and SAF is in limbo. Ties that took decades of joint effort to establish and mature have now been set back many years.

It is not business as usual.

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