Our Singapore Happenings
16th February 2014
Indonesia's Warships Naming: A startling reminder
Earlier this month, Indonesia announced that they will be naming new warships after their national 'heroes'- Osman Haji Mohamed Ali and Harun Said. These were names of terrorists who bombed the Macdonald House which killed 3 and injured 33 others during the 'Konfrontasi' movement where then Indonesia President, Sukarno, went on the offensive to extend the influence of Indonesia in the archipelago. Singapore's ministers have since asked their Indonesia counterpart to reconsider the move to name the new frigate after these “heroes”. Indonesia replied that 'no intent was meant, no malice, no unfriendly outlook'. They added that each nation has the authority to decide who their national heroes are and who they want to name their warships after. Sure enough, Indonesia is free to decide and regard both terrorists as their national heroes. After all, both men did indeed give their lives in service to their country's national agenda during that period, whether we agree with that agenda is another question altogether. However, what is regarded as a hero by a country may be regarded as a terrorist by another; which is true in this case. And by naming a new frigate, a warship that signifies aggression and militarily supremacy, after two men who have been part of Singapore's dark and turbulent history isn't being sensitive to Singapore. It is reasonable to assume that the Indonesia leadership knew that this decision would reopen old painful wounds that both countries have since put behind.
The reasons for their actions are unknown, we can only guess and speculate. It could be a case of oversight by ill-informed or clueless government officials where the decision was announced and cannot be retracted- though unlikely. Or it could be a naive mentality that this issue is no longer a sensitive spot in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans since it happened so long ago. Or it could be to drum up nationalistic support ahead of the April presidential elections. Any one of these three reasons is plausible.
It is a known fact that leaders from both countries worked tirelessly to improve relationship since the incident; which explains the close economic cooperation and military ties that we share today. However, over the past two years, there have been tricky test-points that have tested Singapore's relationship with Indonesia. A case in recent memory would be the haze problem Singapore faced last year caused by hot-spots in Indonesia. Though Singapore registered its unhappiness and offered its assistance to Indonesia repeatedly, Indonesia ignored Singapore's request to dampen the fire and instead some ministers went on the offensive to say that Singapore should be grateful for the oxygen Indonesia provides or that Singapore was 'behaving like a small child'. The second being the current warship naming issue where they were outright insensitive.
I believe these two cases evidently demonstrate that the 'little red dot' mentality that once dominated the Indonesia government's thinking back in the 60s is, sadly, still present in some fractions of the government. Indonesia may have since decided to establish a good relationship with Singapore with many cooperation initiatives and good will gestures but when it comes to crunch time where the government has to decide between personal political/economic gains and preserving a healthy relationship with Singapore, they will choose the former. The old mindset that the 'little red dot' is a small dot that has no means and/or would not make things difficult for a big country like Indonesia, though unspoken, may very well persist within fractions of the leadership. Though we are a stronger and more economically powerful little red dot as compared to the 1960s, is our military and economic muscle big enough to be a force to be reckoned with in the minds of the Indonesia government?
These two episodes may well serve as a reminder that we have to continue to work towards strengthening our armed forces and our position as an economic powerhouse in the region so that we will not be messed with and that neighboring countries will think twice before making insensitive remarks/decisions.
It is unlikely that the Indonesia government would retract their decision of naming the warships after the two terrorists. It does not help that both countries are on the offensive diplomatically. Singapore has stood its ground and registered its unhappiness, which is important to show that it is no push-over. Hopefully, this incident can be put behind and both countries can cautiously move on to strengthening diplomatic relationships.
In conclusion, this episode has been a good history lesson for the Singapore public for it generated curiosity about what exactly happened in 1965 at the Macdonald house and reminded Singaporeans that peace should not be taken for granted and should continue to be preserved. It is also a startling reminder that Singapore has to continue to strengthen its military competences and economic powers as we may not be exerting the level of deterrence we hope to.