Reply by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen to Parliamentary Question on the Response to the Indonesian Navy's Naming of New Warship

Reply by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen to Parliamentary Question on the Response to the Indonesian Navy's Naming of New Warship

Reply by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen to Parliamentary Question on the response to the Indonesian Navy's naming of new warship

Mr Zaqy Mohamad: To ask the Minister for Defence what is the response of the Ministry and SAF to the Indonesian Navy's decision to name one of its new warships after the two Indonesian marines responsible for the bombing of MacDonald House in Singapore in 1965.

Dr Ng Eng Hen:For MINDEF and the SAF, the Konfrontasi was a violent and wrenching chapter in Singapore's history. The Indonesian armed forces, known as ABRI then, targeted non-military installations and defenceless civilians in Singapore from 1963 to 1965. In all, at least 58 people were killed or injured by the 37 bombs set off. Great suffering was inflicted on the victims and their families. The MacDonald House bomb blast killed three civilians and injured at least 33 more. They still bear the physical and psychological scars of that tragedy to this day. Just take the families of those killed: Elizabeth Choo's six children became orphans, Juliet Goh's parents lost their only child, and Encik Yasin left behind a widow and eight children.

The naming of an Indonesian Navy ship after Usman and Harun now, nearly 50 years later, would undo the conciliatory actions from both sides that had lain to rest this dark historical episode. It would, as we have said, re-open old wounds. The Singapore Government was therefore deeply concerned when we received news of the naming and reacted immediately, instinctively. Three Ministers, including DPM Teo, telephoned our counterparts. My counterpart, the Indonesian Defence Minister was in Europe on an official trip and it was 8 am there when I called him. I would not have disturbed his trip unless it was an important matter and the Indonesian Defence Minister knew it. I stated the Government's position, followed up with a written note, so that there would be no misunderstanding about our deep concern. All three Ministers respectfully asked our counterparts, on behalf of the Singapore Government, that Indonesia reconsider the name of the ship. We knew the harm it would cause to bilateral relations.

We want good bilateral defence ties with Indonesia and have worked hard to develop our friendship and military cooperation. DPM Teo related to me how he had taken part in the first ever naval exercise with the Indonesians in 1974, it was called Exercise Eagle, after President Suharto's visit to Singapore. Military-to-military relations since then have improved considerably. In fact, two years ago (2012), the SAF celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the Indonesia-Singapore Coordinated Patrols where we jointly protect the waters of both countries from sea robbery. In times of need, you will remember that both militaries also quickly stepped up to help each other. When SilkAir Flight MI185 crashed near Palembang in Dec 1997, Indonesia spared no effort in the search and rescue operations; when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck Aceh in 2004, the SAF was the first on the ground to assist Indonesia with its largest disaster assistance relief effort ever.

Such reciprocal support and close cooperation based on mutual respect strengthen defence ties when Indonesia and Singapore treat each other as sovereign equals. With closer ties, the TNI and the SAF have been able to discuss sensitive matters, sometimes behind closed doors, to find amicable solutions that meet each others' concerns and where there are disagreements; we find ways to put them on hold until conditions improve to settle them. But the naming of the ship came as an utter surprise. MINDEF and the SAF were disappointed and dismayed over 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?

On the contrary, a ship named "Usman Harun" sailing on the high seas would unearth all the pain and sorrow caused by the MacDonald House bomb blast, which had been buried and put to rest. It would be a bête noire, unleashing resentful feelings and spirits from the past, a constant reminder of the military aggression and atrocious crimes committed by the Indonesian marines who killed or irreparably damaged the lives of innocent civilians and their families in Singapore. For Singaporeans, this is the weight of the dark history of Konfrontasi - of lives tragically cut short in vain, the suffering and blighted futures of hapless victims - that this ship will always carry with her.

Singapore will not allow this military ship named "Usman Harun" to call at our ports and naval bases. It would not be possible for the SAF, as protectors of this nation, to sail alongside or exercise with this ship.  

As DPM Teo, Min(FA) and I have said to our counterparts, the naming of this ship will have consequences on bilateral relations. Already suspicions and resentments have heightened on both sides, setting back many decades of relationship building in defence ties.

We want good defence ties and close military-to-military relationships with Indonesia. But strong defence ties can only be built on mutual trust and respect, expressed through appropriate acts that underscore friendship and amity.

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