KRI Usman Harun issue: Why the past matters

Visitors paying homage to civilian victims of the Japanese occupation at the memorial service in 2013. Held at the War Memorial Park on Feb 15, the event was part of Total Defence Day.

AT NOON on Saturday, the blast of air raid sirens will be heard again. It is a reminder that the fall of Singapore to the Japanese imperial army occurred on this date, Feb 15, in 1942. This year, for the second year, the Singapore Armed Forces will hold the Total Defence Commemoration Ceremony at the War Memorial Park on Feb 15.

As part of this event, recruits from the 3rd Battalion Singapore Guards will be handed their rifles in a weapon presentation ceremony at 6.20pm. This recalls the exact time of the surrender of allied forces to the Japanese at the old Ford Motor Factory on Upper Bukit Timah Road.

For a generation of Singaporeans now passing away, the Japanese occupation was the single most significant formative experience of their lives. The sense of helplessness, the fear of a new set of colonial overlords, the loss of close relatives and the dislocation of families resulted in many a story being told over dining tables as Singaporeans were growing up.

People in Singapore did not see themselves as one people in 1942. At most, you took care of those nearest and dearest to you. Beyond the family, clan and ethnic loyalties were probably most significant.

By contrast, over the past 50 years, there has been a gradual coming together of Singapore society. There is a sense of nationhood and an identification which goes beyond clan, race, language or religion.

Ties are emerging which link Singaporeans wherever they are, even if it is Singlish, celebrating Chinese New Year with lo hei, eating roti prata or satay and complaining about the educational system. But shared perspectives go beyond food or celebrations. We are now a more resilient society, with the ability to withstand challenges and to respond effectively.

Today, many Singaporeans have little exposure to riot, revolution and mayhem. It is difficult to believe that Singapore formed part of a region which was seen as the Balkans of Asia, a cockpit of war and conflict in the 1960s.

The Vietnam War spilled over into Laos and later Cambodia, while Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Burma, as it then was, were confronting major communist insurgencies.

Victims of MacDonald House bombing

A turbulent neighbourhood

NEVERTHELESS, Singaporeans are reminded from time to time that they live in a turbulent neighbourhood. The events of the past few days are one such reminder. Singapore reacted strongly to Indonesia's decision to name a naval vessel after Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said, two Indonesian marines who were executed by Singapore in 1968 for the MacDonald House bombing of March 1965. Three people were killed and 33 injured.

While the Indonesian armed forces appear to be seeking to limit the fallout resulting from the naming of the ship, there have been populist moves by politicians seeking to build their base as the April elections approach.

The MacDonald House bombing was the most serious incident in Singapore during Indonesia's Confrontation with Malaysia, an undeclared war from 1963 to 1966 which saw several hundred casualties across the archipelago.It included Indonesian paratroopers landing in Labis and seaborne landings in Pontian, as well as cross-border raids in East Malaysia. Singapore also faced a series of bomb attacks mounted by infiltrators.

The Indonesian decision on the naming of the ship was a surprise. It revived painful memories of an Indonesia which sought deference from its neighbours and was prepared to use force to implement its desires.

Singaporeans thought such memories had been banished by Indonesia's role in building ASEAN. In the 1960s, Indonesia sought to stride the global stage even as it antagonised its neighbours. Its leaders from Suharto onwards, however, have sought to increase their regional influence by more peaceful means.

Today, Jakarta's insensitivity towards its neighbours could have a costly impact on Indonesia's desire to play a role as a rising middle power in global affairs.

Most Singaporeans thought the MacDonald House bombing had receded into history, especially after then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew sprinkled flowers on the graves of the two Indonesian marines. He did this at the Heroes Cemetery in Jakarta in September 1973 during his first visit to Indonesia since independence, a move which led to Mr Suharto's first state visit to Singapore in 1974.

Victims of MacDonald House bombing

At least 42 bomb explosions in Singapore during Konfrontasi

What this latest incident reveals is that in times of stress in bilateral relations, old grievances come to the fore.

In Indonesia, social media sites in recent days have gleefully referred to Singapore as a little red dot. They accuse Singapore of benefiting from Indonesia's travails and allege that Singapore provides shelter to corruptors and capital fleeing the country.

Bilateral relations have been smooth, but there is always a risk that Indonesia's highly competitive political system could lead nationalist politicians to stoke popular sentiments for domestic political gain.

For 30 years, when Indonesia was under the leadership of President Suharto, Singapore enjoyed excellent relations with Indonesia.

But with today's more democratic system, Indonesian leaders have to take greater account of public sentiments. Inevitably, this will lead to periodic tensions in bilateral ties. Fortunately, they have generally been well managed by Mr Suharto's successors.

While Singapore has prospered and now has an enviable standard of living, the island remains vulnerable as a city state. Creating a sense of security is vital as it underpins Singapore's economic prosperity, social equilibrium and political stability.

Events such as the commemoration of Singapore's surrender in 1942 remind us of Singapore's past experiences and raise awareness about the challenges that Singapore could face in the future.

In the same way, the response to the ship-naming incident highlights that just as Singapore is expected to be sensitive to its neighbours, there is also a need for them to be alert to issues which have caused unhappiness to Singaporeans in the past.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Singapore's independence, Singaporeans should remember the troubled history of foreign invasions, communist subversion and communal riots that undermined our stability and well-being, and tested the unity of our forefathers.

With confidence born of a growing sense of shared values and identity, Singaporeans should also reflect on how much better prepared the country is today to face the challenges of the future.

The writer is the dean of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He was Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia from 1986 to 1993.

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Victims of MacDonald House bombing

At least 42 bomb explosions in Singapore during Konfrontasi