Need to ensure history is not reopened

The minister gave a detailed explanation of Singapore's position on Indonesia's decision to name a navy ship after two men hanged here for a fatal bombing during the Confrontation.

QUESTION: What did the event mean at that time between the two countries, Singapore and Indonesia?

SHANMUGAM: By the time the two men were tried and before they were hanged, President Sukarno had lost power. Confrontation had stopped. President Suharto was in power. We were seeking to forge a new relationship with Indonesia.

Indonesia asked for these two men, as well as others, to be released. We released 45, including two men who had actually been sentenced to death because they had a bomb which exploded but no one died. We took into account the relationship, what we were trying to do, and so we pardoned those two because no one had died in that particular explosion.

The execution took place three years after the bombing and the killings. How could we have answered to the victims and their families and to Singaporeans if we had set these two men free? The other two who were set free had not killed anyone.

And it is significant that the second incident with the other two men happened - that bombing - occurred in April 1965, barely a month after the attack on MacDonald House. So, there must have been a perception that the first attack was successful and therefore, you know, the second attack. And there must have been plans for more. Yet we set them free. So we were also balanced.

Not pardoning Osman and Harun was actually a defining moment for Singapore in terms of our foreign policy. If we had agreed to release them, then that could have set the precedent for our relationships with all bigger countries.

And what is that precedent? That we will do - or we should do - what a bigger country asks us to do even when we have been grievously hurt. That would be a different concept of sovereignty.

It is definitional that almost every country that deals with us would be bigger than us. So we decided that is not good for us. The men were hanged.

It was not an easy decision because the British forces were withdrawing in two years. We are talking about 1968. Almost non-existent defence capability. But Mr Lee Kuan Yew stood firm. It was our sovereign decision.

The Indonesian public was very upset. Our Embassy in Jakarta was sacked. But within a few years, there was some closure. Both countries put aside the events of Confrontation. Our relationship improved.

We took active efforts - President Suharto and Mr Lee Kuan Yew - and today if you look at the relationship it is excellent, it is mutually beneficial. We were the second largest investor in Indonesia last year. We have regular consultations. In fact, last week I was in Indonesia. We keep taking steps to strengthen our relationship - keep the momentum because Indonesia and Singapore have to live together. Indonesia has really provided the stability that has allowed the entire region to prosper.

QUESTION: What does the naming of the warship now mean to us?

SHANMUGAM: It was last week that we found out that the warship was going to be named after the two marines and it was going to be called 'Usman Harun'. It is of course - as many people in Indonesia as well as some other commentators have pointed out - Indonesia's sovereign right to name the warship as it chooses. But that really is not the total answer, nor is it the end of the matter. Sovereign decisions can of course have an impact on other countries. In this case, Singapore.

Why do I say it? You know, when you name a warship like this, there are a range of interpretations possible. At the most benign, it could mean that Indonesia did not take into account our sensitivity, how Singaporeans would interpret the naming given what the marines actually did in Singapore.

At the other end of the range, much less benign, is that Indonesia glorifies their actions in Singapore rather than simply treating them as heroes who carried out their orders.

This is therefore an area where Indonesia's sovereign right to name a warship intersects with a part of our mutual history, and the Singaporean and Indonesian mutual decision to put that history behind us. There has to be sensitivity on the part of both countries to make sure that it is behind us and not reopen it, that is why we asked Indonesia to reconsider the naming of the warship.

It is one thing to name a building in Indonesia, or bury them in the Heroes' cemetery. It is quite another to name a warship - the signal is very different because the ship sails the seven seas, carrying that message to every land that the ship goes to as it carries that nation's flag. What is that message?

So it would have been difficult for us to proceed as business as usual, as if nothing had happened. As a result, the TNI (Indonesian Armed Forces) chiefs and officers did not attend the (Singapore) Airshow.

QUESTION: What next?

SHANMUGAM: We have said what we think should be done. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa made some very helpful comments yesterday. He has made clear that there was no ill will or malice intended. That is very constructive. We welcome his comments.

In that context, it is quite important for us to know that the marines are not being honoured for killing Singaporeans. It is also important that it is understood and acknowledged that the naming of the ship impacts on us and impacts on our sensitivities.

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