Row over warship’s name: What went wrong?

Row over warship’s name: What went wrong?
The warship KRI Usman Harun (right) with other new Indonesian Navy frigates at a shipyard in Britain.

SINGAPORE - Last week an Indonesian presidential hopeful came to Singapore to pay respects publicly to the Singaporeans who died in the bombing at MacDonald House in 1968.

His gesture comes a week after two Indonesian marines posed as Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said – the two Indonesian marines responsible for the heinous act – at an international defence event in Jakarta, to make a mockery of the recent uproar over the naming of an Indonesian warship after them.

While both governments have made their positions clear on the issue, the two events are a reminder that the naming of the Indonesian frigate is far from a closed chapter and will continue to be a thorn in relations for some time.

The MacDonald House bomb blast killed three civilians and injured at least 33 more at the height of Indonesia’s Konfrontasi. Osman and Harun were captured, convicted and hanged for the attack. The issue had been considered closed by both sides in 1973, when then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew sprinkled flowers on the graves of the men in a symbolic gesture to repair relations.

In Parliament last month, Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen made it clear that the Government was taken by “utter surprise” by news of the naming of the frigate.

This was unexpected as ties had improved and strengthened after decades of co-operation between Indonesia and Singapore.

“The naming of an Indonesian navy ship after Osman and Harun now, nearly 50 years later, would undo the conciliatory actions from both sides that had lain to rest this dark historical episode,” Dr Ng said, and “would reopen old wounds”.

As I sat through the half-hour debate in Parliament, question after question was directed at what impact this had on our relations with Indonesia and our position in South-east Asia.

Important questions all of them. But I wonder, could the whole episode have been avoided?

What if it had not taken us by utter surprise because our intelligence had picked up on this earlier? Could some active and quiet diplomacy behind the scenes have helped to avoid a very public dispute between the two countries? Could Singapore have had more time to react and handle the situation with our neighbours?

The result may still not have changed. Indonesia has indicated on several occasions, and Singapore has acknowledged, that the naming of the ship is its sovereign right, and the intention was to name the vessel after heroes, as has been the tradition.

But nobody seems to have addressed the question of how a decision that led to the situation escalating to such seemingly irrevocable proportions, and that the Indonesians said had been made as far back as December 2012, could really have come at us completely out of left field.

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