Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Row over warship's name: What went wrong?

Mar 29, 2014

One area of concern is that Jakarta's move caught S'pore by surprise

By Robin Chan Assistant Political Editor

THIS week an Indonesian presidential hopeful came to Singapore to pay respects publicly to the Singaporeans who died in the bombing at MacDonald House in 1968.

His gesture comes a week after two Indonesian marines posed as Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said - the two Indonesian marines responsible for the heinous act - at an international defence event in Jakarta, to make a mockery of the recent uproar over the naming of an Indonesian warship after them.
While both governments have made their positions clear on the issue, the two events are a reminder that the naming of the Indonesian frigate is far from a closed chapter and will continue to be a thorn in relations for some time.

The MacDonald House bomb blast killed three civilians and injured at least 33 more at the height of Indonesia's Konfrontasi. Osman and Harun were captured, convicted and hanged for the attack. The issue had been considered closed by both sides in 1973, when then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew sprinkled flowers on the graves of the men in a symbolic gesture to repair relations.

In Parliament last month, Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen made it clear that the Government was taken by "utter surprise" by news of the naming of the frigate.

This was unexpected as ties had improved and strengthened after decades of co-operation between Indonesia and Singapore.

"The naming of an Indonesian navy ship after Osman and Harun now, nearly 50 years later, would undo the conciliatory actions from both sides that had lain to rest this dark historical episode," Dr Ng said, and "would reopen old wounds".

As I sat through the half-hour debate in Parliament, question after question was directed at what impact this had on our relations with Indonesia and our position in South-east Asia.

Important questions all of them. But I wonder, could the whole episode have been avoided?

What if it had not taken us by utter surprise because our intelligence had picked up on this earlier? Could some active and quiet diplomacy behind the scenes have helped to avoid a very public dispute between the two countries? Could Singapore have had more time to react and handle the situation with our neighbours?

The result may still not have changed. Indonesia has indicated on several occasions, and Singapore has acknowledged, that the naming of the ship is its sovereign right, and the intention was to name the vessel after heroes, as has been the tradition.

But nobody seems to have addressed the question of how a decision that led to the situation escalating to such seemingly irrevocable proportions, and that the Indonesians said had been made as far back as December 2012, could really have come at us completely out of left field.

It leads me to four possible scenarios.

The first is that the Indonesians deliberately kept the naming under wraps from Singapore officials, knowing that it would cause such concern and consternation. And that it came to light only because an intrepid journalist working at Kompas newspaper decided to break the story.

The second is that Singapore's diplomatic and military channels of intelligence are perhaps not as strong and deep as we want to believe they are. Therefore our officers simply did not pick up on it till the newspaper report.

The third is that someone from Singapore - be it in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Mindef - did know about the naming. But whoever had the information, perhaps a junior officer, did not realise the full weight of its implications, and therefore failed to bring it to the attention of those above him.

The fourth is that as the Indonesians have claimed, they were simply going about their normal process of naming a new vessel and therefore no one in the military or government thought it important enough for scrutiny by high-level officials. Or perhaps it did get top-level attention, but whoever saw it did not think Singapore's reaction warranted paying attention to.

[That's 5 scenarios actually. I'm inclined toward 4th and 5th scenarios.]

Any of these scenarios, or a combination of them, suggests a few things. One is that there may be a need to review our intelligence-gathering so that episodes like this one do not recur.

Two, it is a reminder that relationships between countries are never static but evolve constantly, especially with an Indonesia that is emerging quickly geopolitically. In his book Diplomacy, former foreign minister S. Jayakumar said presciently of this particular bilateral relationship: "On Singapore's side, we will need to recognise that it is a changed Indonesia. This means acknowledging that the dynamics of politics and decision-making have changed."

Three, if a junior officer did know about it but did not realise its implications, that suggests a need to refresh in the minds of young civil servants the lessons from our history, not just domestically, but also regionally and internationally, when they enter the service.

Nominated MP Nicholas Fang lamented in Parliament this month that much of the historical significance of the Usman Harun episode "is actually lost on the younger generation".

He added: "It is important that all of us bear in mind the need to look outwards, even as we look more deeply inwards."

A closer examination of these four scenarios might help us diagnose what went wrong, and allow us to strengthen not only our relations with our neighbours, but also our own security in the future.

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