Friday, February 14, 2014

Sensitivity is a two-way street

Feb 13, 2014

Be sensitive to Singapore's feelings. This is the message from two former diplomats, responding to Indonesia's decision to name a naval vessel after the two marines who bombed MacDonald House in 1965.

By Bilahari Kausikan for The Straits Times

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has told the Singapore media that "no ill intent was meant, no malice, no unfriendly outlook", when Indonesia named a new frigate KRI Usman Harun, after two Indonesian marines executed in 1968 for a 1965 terror attack on MacDonald House in Orchard Road that killed three and injured 33.

Singaporeans will no doubt be happy to know this. But I am afraid that the Foreign Minister entirely missed the point.

The issue is not Indonesia's intentions. It is something far more fundamental. Indonesians never tire of reminding Singapore that we should be "sensitive" and "neighbourly". But Indonesians do not seem to believe that they should be equally "sensitive" to their neighbours. "Sensitivity" and "neighbourliness" are to them a one-way street.

These are the facts: Between 1963 and 1966, then Indonesian President Sukarno waged a "Konfrontasi" (confrontation) of terror attacks and military action to "Ganjang (crush) Malaysia". Singapore was part of the Federation of Malaysia formed in September 1963 until August 1965 when it became independent.

In Singapore alone, there were some 40 bomb attacks over about two years. Most of the targets could by no stretch of the imagination be considered legitimate military objectives. They included schools, hotels, cinemas, bus depots, telephone booths and residences.

MacDonald House was an office building. The victims of that bombing were civilian office workers. Relatives of the victims are still alive. Older Singaporeans still remember the fear and uncertainty of that period. Are we not entitled to some "sensitivity"?

The two who planted the bomb, Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said, may have been Indonesian marines, but were in civilian clothes and sneaked into Singapore for terror attacks against civilians. They were found guilty of murder and executed after they had exhausted all legal appeals.

What would Indonesians think if the Singapore Navy were to go crazy and name one of its warships after Noordin Top, the terrorist behind bombings in Jakarta in 2004 and 2009 and who may have assisted in the 2002 Bali bombings?

The late President Suharto sent a personal emissary to plead for clemency for the two marines. But they had been convicted of murder after due legal process. On what grounds could Singapore have pardoned them?

To have done so would have been to concede that the small must always defer to the big and irretrievably compromise our sovereignty.

After Singapore refused the clemency appeals, a Jakarta mob then sacked our embassy, burned our flag and threatened to kill our ambassador.

There were actually four Indonesians on death row in Singapore in 1968 for crimes committed during Konfrontasi. Two others, Stanislaus Krofan and Andres Andea, had their sentences remitted after pleas by the Indonesian government and were sent back to Indonesia. The bomb they planted did not kill anyone.

A few years later in 1973, Singapore's then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew placed flowers on the graves of the two executed marines, thus bringing the episode to a close.

Both actions - standing firm on fundamental principle even at the risk of conflict and making a gracious gesture once the principle had been established - were equally important in setting the foundations of the relationship Singapore today enjoys with Indonesia.

The origins of Konfrontasi are complex: the political tensions and contradictions within Indonesian society of that time, Sukarno's fiery personality and grandiose ambitions for "Indonesia Raya" (greater Indonesia), among other things.

Self-righteous nationalism

THESE conditions are not likely to be repeated. But as the respected American scholar of Indonesia, the late Dr George McTurnan Kahin, wrote in 1964 while Konfrontasi was still ongoing, that episode of aggression towards its neighbours was the consequence of the "powerful, self-righteous thrust of Indonesian nationalism" and the widespread belief that "because of (the) country's size… it has a moral right to leadership".

Time may have given a more sophisticated gloss to this attitude but has not essentially changed it.

This attitude lies, for example, behind the outrageous comments by some Indonesian ministers during the haze last year that Singapore should be grateful for the oxygen Indonesia provides; it is the reason why Indonesians think Singaporeans should take into account their interests and sensitivities without thinking it necessary to reciprocate.

Indonesians and Singaporeans need to understand this.

Of course, Indonesia has the right to name its ship anything it pleases, as some Indonesians have argued. But that is beside the point.

Why choose a name that is bound to cause offence? That the Indonesians did not even think of the implications, as Foreign Minister Marty's comments to the media would suggest, is exactly the point.

[To quote Minister Shanmugam (article below):
"At the most benign, it could mean that Indonesia did not take into account our sensitivity, how Singaporeans would interpret the naming given what the marines actually did in Singapore. At the other end of the range, much less benign, is that Indonesia glorifies their actions in Singapore..." ]

I do not expect the Indonesians to change the name of the ship. But would any Indonesian leader be prepared to emulate Mr Lee Kuan Yew and place a wreath at MacDonald House?

[The building is just a building. It is just where the bomb took place. There were lives lost. They and their families were the real victims.]

It was not Singapore that started this incident. And Singapore has no interest in seeing relations with a close neighbour strained.

But Singaporeans cannot let this episode pass without signalling our displeasure.

The foundations laid for the bilateral relationship in 1968 and 1973 are still valid. Mutual respect is the essential condition for good relations.

My father was ambassador to Indonesia [P. S. Raman] when Singapore's embassy was sacked. He was on leave in Singapore when the decision was taken to turn down the appeal for clemency. He went back to Jakarta to be at post when the execution took place.

After the mob attacked our embassy, he and all our staff remained at post, operating from Hotel Indonesia.

I was a schoolboy studying in Singapore at that time. But shortly after the attack, he summoned me to Jakarta to join him and my mother. I now realise that it was to show that we were not intimidated. It was my first lesson in diplomacy.

I spent a boring month holed up in Hotel Indonesia.

The only "entertainment" was the daily demonstrations in the square in front of the hotel, which included a seemingly endless stream of red-bereted KKO (Navy Commando Corps) commandos marching by, shouting threatening slogans.

But after a while, I realised that it was only a few units marching round and round in circles because I came to recognise the faces of individual soldiers. And that too is a lesson that Singaporeans should understand.

The writer is ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he was, until May last year, its permanent secretary.


13 February 2014

What naming of warship means to Singapore

13 February.

Yesterday, Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam spoke to the Singapore media on the disagreement between the Republic and Indonesia over the latter’s decision to name a warship after two marines, who were convicted and hanged in 1968 for the MacDonald House bombing three years earlier. The attack killed three people and injured more than 30 others. This is the transcript: 

Why Singapore raised the issue in the first place 

I think, to answer that question, we have to look at what happened in 1965/68 and what it meant then, as between our two countries; and what the naming of the warship means to us now.

It is well known. Indonesia was under President Sukarno. The Marines used civilian disguise. They planted a bomb in MacDonald House. It was targeted at civilians. Killed and injured civilians. It was part of a campaign of terror. And you know, it was totally contrary to the laws of war. I saw some opinions in the media: That it depends on which shade of history. Really, with respect, there is nothing subjective about Geneva Conventions. What happened was illegal under international law. Period. If it happens now, if people plant bombs to kill civilians, historians won’t be debating on how to characterise it. There are no shades of grey here. It was a part of a campaign of terror attacks on schools, other civilian institutions; bombs were planted across the island. These two men were tried in the Courts. They committed a serious crime. People died. One of the ladies who died had six children. All were orphaned immediately. The case went up to the Privy Council in London. They were found guilty. They were hanged in 1968. 

What the event meant at that time 

By the time the two men were tried and before they were hanged, President Sukarno had lost power. Confrontation had stopped. President Suharto was in power. We were forging a — or we were seeking to forge a — new relationship with Indonesia. Indonesia asked for these two men, as well as others, to be released. We released 45 — not many people appreciate, we released 45 — including two men who had actually been sentenced to death because they had a bomb, which exploded but no one died. We took into account the relationship, what we were trying to do and so we pardoned those two because no one had died in that particular explosion. The execution took place three years after the bombing and the killings. How could we have answered to the victims and their families and to Singaporeans if we had set these two men free? The other two who were set free had not killed anyone. And it is significant that the second incident with the other two men happened — that incident, that bombing — occurred in April 1965, barely a month after the attack on MacDonald House. So, there must have been a perception that the first attack was successful and therefore, you know, the second attack. And there must have been plans for more. Yet, we set them free. So we were also balanced.

Not pardoning Usman and Harun was actually a defining moment for Singapore in terms of our foreign policy. If we had agreed to release them, then that could have set the precedent for our relationships with all bigger countries. And what is that precedent? That we will do — or we should do — what a bigger country asks us to do even when we have been grievously hurt. That would be a different concept of sovereignty. It is definitional that almost every country that deals with us would be bigger than us. So we decided that that is not good for us. The men were hanged. It was not an easy decision because the British forces were withdrawing in two years. We are talking about 1968. Almost non-existent defence capability. But Mr Lee Kuan Yew stood firm. It was our sovereign decision. The Indonesian public was very upset. Our Embassy in Jakarta was sacked. I’m not sure how many people know that, but it was sacked. But within a few years, there was some closure. Both countries put aside the events of Confrontation. Our relationship improved. We took active efforts — President Suharto and Mr Lee Kuan Yew — and today, if you look at the relationship it is excellent, it is mutually beneficial. We were the second-largest investor in Indonesia last year. We have regular consultations. 

In fact, last week, I was in Indonesia. We keep taking steps to strengthen our relationship — keep the momentum — because Indonesia and Singapore have to live together. Indonesia has really provided the stability that has allowed the entire region to prosper. 

What the naming of the warship after the two convicted marines means to Singapore 

It was last week that we found out that the warship was going to be named after the two marines and it was going to be called Usman Harun. It is, of course — as many people in Indonesia as well as some other commentators have pointed out — Indonesia’s sovereign right to name the warship as it chooses, after whoever it chooses. But that really is not the total answer nor is it the end of the matter. Sovereign decisions can of course have an impact on other countries. In this case, Singapore. 

Why do I say it? You know, when you name a warship like this, there is a range of interpretations possible. At the most benign, it could mean that Indonesia did not take into account our sensitivity, how Singaporeans would interpret the naming given what the marines actually did in Singapore. At the other end of the range, much less benign, is that Indonesia glorifies their actions in Singapore rather than simply treating them as heroes who carried out their orders. Right? A range of interpretations. 

This is, therefore, an area where Indonesia’s sovereign right to name a warship intersects with a part of our mutual history and the Singaporean and Indonesian mutual decision to put that history behind us. 

There has to be sensitivity on the part of both countries to make sure that it is behind us and not reopen it, that is why we asked Indonesia to reconsider the naming of the warship. It is one thing to name a building in Indonesia, or bury them in the Heroes’ cemetery. It is quite another to name a warship — the signal is very different because the ship sails the seven seas, carrying that message to every land that the ships goes to as it carries that nation’s flag. What is that message? So, it would have been difficult for us to proceed as business as usual, as if nothing had happened. As a result, the TNI chiefs and officers did not attend the airshow. 

What next

We have said what we think should be done. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa made some very helpful comments on Tuesday. He has made clear that there was no ill will or malice intended. That is very constructive. We welcome his comments. In that context, it is quite important for us to know the marines are not being honoured for killing Singaporeans. It is also important that it is understood and acknowledged that the naming of the ship impacts on us and impacts on our sensitivities.

Comment from

The “crush Malaysia” campaign was wrong, a product of Sukarno’s megalomaniac Beatles-banning dictator phase, when he was carried away by his own rhetoric about oldefos and nekolim. Main results included the collapse of Indonesia’s internationally-funded economic stabilization program, leading to higher inflation and food shortages, and the rapid growth of communist influence in, culminating in the demand for an armed communist militia with inevitable destabilizing effects.

The strategy employed in “konfrontasi” was wrong, almost non-existent. Indonesia never had a defined military goal and never committed their strongest units, resulting in a military effort built around “terrorizing the Dayak communities of the interior [of Borneo] in the hope of making the British position untenable” as Jamie Mackie puts it[J.A.C.Mackie].pdf

Sukarno viewed trade disruption, “breaking the grip of the Singaporean bloodsuckers upon Indonesia’s livelihood”, as a key component of strategy, but inevitably inflicted more damage on Indonesia’s poor peasants than on Singaporeans.

Bombing civilians in Singapore was a wrong tactic, although a logical outcome of the mistaken notion that if Indonesia could be a nuisance for long enough, Commonwealth and local forces would just give up and allow Indonesia to occupy North Kalimantan, as it had West Papua. The result was to discredit Indonesia in the eyes of Malaysians and to strengthen the resolve of Singaporeans to resist bullying.

It is wrong to compare, as some have, the actions of Usman and Harun with those of wartime partisans. If we consider, for example, the Czech fighters Kubiš and Gabčik, who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, we can note the following. First, they were in a military-occupied territory in the middle of an all-out war; second, they were natives of that territory; third, they attacked a well-guarded military target.

Usman and Harun sought to escalate fear and death in order to destabilize a newly-independent country, were not fighting a military occupation, were not Singaporean or Malaysian and targeted defenseless civilians. While the appropriacy of their execution might be questionable, the terrorist nature of their act is not.

It was wrong to make Usman and Harun national heroes. A national hero should be a person who has given exceptional service to their country or shown outstanding valor. The killing of Singaporean bank staff was a rotten outcome to an ill-conceived operation. It did not require extraordinary courage in combat. The “heroism” stridently eulogized by some Indonesians consists in getting arrested, tried and punished for committing state-sponsored terrorism.

It is wrong to name a ship after Usman and Harun. It shows insensitivity to the feelings of outsiders andrefusal to recognize and learn from historical errors, two traits pervasive among Indonesia’s political classes. Moreover, by presenting a terrorist act as heroism, it glorifies self-righteous aggression, a further trait seen too often in modern Indonesia.

Those who want to express sympathy for the family members of dead soldiers would do better to offer a discreet apology for the errors of the nation’s former leaders, together with a promise to adopt a more prudent and constructive foreign policy in future.



Feb 16, 2014

MacDonald House bombers: Batam told to scrap plan for heroes statue

JAKARTA (JAKARTA POST/ANN) - Riau Islands Governor Muhammad Sani told the Batam chapter of the Indonesian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Kadin) to scrap its plan to build a statue in honour of former marines and national heroes Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said to prevent further friction with Singapore.

“With the current situation, please reconsider (the plan) and do not add more problems,” Mr Sani was quoted as saying by the Antara news agency on Sunday.

He said there was no doubt both Osman and Harun were national heroes as their names had been immortalised on street signs and the recently christened warship that has drawn the strong condemnation of Singapore, where the two are considered terrorists for carrying out a bombing on a civilian target, the MacDonald House, there in the mid-1960s.

Mr Sani said that Batam Kadin should not add fuel to the fire and should bear in mind that Batam is a stone's throw away from Singapore.

"What is the benefit for us?" Mr Sani asked.

Currently, the Batam Free Trade Zone Management Agency (BPK- FTZ) is still reviewing the building permit for the Osman-Harun statue.

BPK-FTZ spokesman and One Roof Integrated Services (PTSP) director Dwi Djoko Wiwoho previously said that there were several factors to consider regarding the permit for the statue: aesthetics, maintaining good relations and Batam's location.

He noted that there were many Singaporean businesspersons investing in Batam.

Mr Dwi said, however, that both Osman and Harun were national heroes who should be remembered and respected.

Meanwhile, a Batam resident, Mr Parulian, said that the plan to build statues for Osman and Harun was weird because it touched on political issues that should only be dealt with by the central government.

"Kadin is a group of businesspeople, so they should just deal with business,"
he said.

"What if Singaporeans pull their investment?"


Feb 19, 2014

Bone of contention in Osman-Harun row

By Johannes Nugroho

TENSIONS are running high between Indonesia and Singapore over the former's decision to name a naval vessel after two convicted members of the Indonesian Marine Corps who carried out the bombing of the MacDonald House office building in Singapore on March 10, 1965.

The bone of contention lies in how Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said, the two Indonesian commandos, are seen by both countries.

In Singapore, they are the perpetrators of the bombing of a civilian target, while the Indonesian government sees them as national heroes who carried out their duty during Konfrontasi (1963-1966) with Malaysia.

The disparate labels for the two men are understandable considering Singapore, still part of Malaysia at the time, and Indonesia were locked in a dispute that stemmed from the latter's objection towards the formation of the federal state of Malaysia, encompassing large swaths of territory on the island of Borneo that Indonesia had laid claim to.

But, objectively speaking, were Osman and Harun terrorists or war heroes? Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines terrorism as "the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal". By this definition alone, what the two men did qualifies as an act of terrorism.

Singaporean police records state that when they were arrested floating at sea, the two men said they were a fisherman and a farmer, before later confessing to the bombing. It was not, however, until later during their trial for murder that the two revealed they were members of the Indonesian Marine Corps with express orders "to cause trouble in Singapore" as part of confrontation with Malaysia.

Apparently, the two men chose to reveal their status in the hope of being treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention. When the presiding judge denied them POW status, because "members of enemy armed forces, who are combatants and who come here with the assumption of the semblance of peaceful pursuits divesting themselves of the character or appearance of soldiers and are captured, such persons are not entitled to the privileges of prisoners of war", Osman and Harun retracted their statements that they were members of the Indonesian military.

Despite lobbying by the government for their release, Osman and Harun were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Yet, when their bodies were brought back to Jakarta after their execution in 1968, the two were interred in the National Heroes Cemetery with full military honours.

It could well be argued that the granting of national hero status to the two men was Indonesia's way of "saving face" after a failed diplomatic attempt to have the two released.

The hero status for both men was also anomalous even by Indonesian standards as people given this recognition are usually those who perished in combat against enemy forces.

Osman and Harun never actually met this criteria as never during Konfrontasi did the Indonesian government nor its Malaysian counterpart officially declare war on each other.

So, essentially, both were perpetrators of a state-sponsored act of terrorism. Hence, the adamant position by the Singaporean government that Osman and Harun were terrorists.

By the same token, Indonesians should look at the incident as a lesson in how not to conduct bilateral relations. To this date, it remains obscure why Sukarno instigated the "unofficial war" against Malaysia in 1963. Some historians have argued that his earlier success in wresting Papua from the Dutch emboldened him to try a similar tactic with the former British Malaya, though Sukarno always publicly denied any territorial ambitions.
In many ways, his model for the state of Indonesia was the ancient Majapahit Empire, which encompassed Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and parts of Thailand and Indochina.

Whatever his motives, the border skirmishes and acts of sabotage against Malaysia during Konfrontasi appeared to be designed to provoke the British, who had granted independence to Malaysia in 1957, into declaring war against Indonesia.

Had they done so, Sukarno would certainly have obtained his evidence that Malaysia was simply an extension of British imperial powers.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer and businessman from Surabaya. The article was first published in the Jakarta Globe on Feb 15.

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