Those who wonder why sensitivity radars failed over the misnaming of an Indonesian frigate - despite decades of close ties between neighbours - need look no farther than the flip-flop apology of Indonesia's armed forces commander, General Moeldoko.
Indeed, the symbolism is larger than life when a warship is involved; and a painful reminder of erstwhile aggression against innocent civilians is projected beyond Indonesia's shores. Some contend that a mitigating factor might be that the central figures in this unhappy saga are seen as terrorists by one side and heroes by the other. But let's be plain about one thing: the two Indonesian marines attacked and killed civilians under the cloak of carrying out orders in the name of their state. Repeat that anywhere today, and they would be universally condemned as terrorists, without question or justification. That, apparently, is still not quite appreciated by some in Jakarta.
So, is it a case of no ill will or malice being intended, as Gen Moeldoko had plainly emphasised earlier? Pride dictates that the frigate's name will remain unchanged. But the absence of malice has once again been left in doubt by the manner in which he has qualified his earlier conciliatory statements which had been broadcast, officially posted on Facebook and tweeted. The on-off "apology" now joins the unfortunate series of acts linked to the frigate's naming, like the insistence of senior Indonesian figures who felt Singaporeans do protest too much and the prank - what else to call it but silly? - of marines ordered to pose as the bombers at an international defence conference in Jakarta.
There are ample pragmatic reasons for both nations to close this sorry chapter and resume a path of cooperation. But picking up the threads of military-to-military ties, painstakingly fostered since the 1970s, is never a straightforward matter as the latest events have shown. The influence of politics can undo the positive intentions of fair-minded and well-disposed leaders even at the best of times.
Even if a younger generation had wanted to leave behind the acrimony of the 1965 MacDonald House bombing, they now find the old hurts resurfaced and reinforced by the slight upon slight in the recent Usman Harun episode. Forgotten, too, might be the past experience of bilateral cooperation and the statesmanship of former president Suharto and prime minister Lee Kuan Yew who ushered in an era of regional peace. Singaporeans might well conclude that they are best off not worrying too much about any apology, since none will come with sincerity or real regret. The damage to ties might thus be lasting, and deep. That would be a pity, and something everyone will be sorry for.
This article was published on April 19 in The Straits Times.
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