Tumultuous period of anti-colonial resistance

T-shirts emblazoned with the image of many leaders, including Megawati Sukarnoputri (L) and her father, former president Sukarno seen on at sale a roadside stall in Indonesia in 2012. Ms Megawati is the chairman of the main opposition party, PDI-P, which is in the running for this year's general election. .

FOR Singapore, the bombing of MacDonald House on March 10, 1965 was the most serious attack it suffered in Indonesia's campaign against the formation of Malaysia in 1963.

The South-east Asian region in the mid-1960s was a maelstrom of resistance against colonial powers and political agitation among newly independent states. The MacDonald House bombing was part of the fallout.

In 1963, the Federation of Malaya, the British Borneo territories and Singapore came together to form the Federation of Malaysia, a political arrangement backed by their British colonial masters.

Having fought the Dutch in a bitter war of independence, Indonesian President Sukarno saw the formation of Malaysia as a serious threat to Indonesia's newly won sovereignty.

To Sukarno, Britain was a colonial power, just like the Dutch, and as such was not to be trusted. After all, British troops had initially taken part in allied operations that attempted to restore Dutch control on the main Indonesian island of Java at the end of World War II.

As for the government in Singapore, it was simply regarded as a lackey of the neo-colonialist forces opposed to the right of Asians to self-determination.

By sponsoring the formation of Malaysia, Sukarno believed, the British were attempting to contain Indonesia and prevent Jakarta from taking full control of those parts of South-east Asia that many in Indonesia believed rightfully belonged to it.

Although Sukarno did not explicitly claim sovereignty over the whole of Borneo island, including what is now Sabah and Sarawak, Jakarta continued to call the British-held area "Kalimantan Utara", or North Kalimantan, giving it a name that reflected the nomenclature it used for its other provinces on the island.

But Indonesia did claim - and also acquire - the Dutch half of Papua New Guinea. Some Indonesian nationalists, as well as several Malay radicals, also wanted Malaya to be included in an expanded Indonesia Raya.

On Sept 16, 1963, Indonesia broke off diplomatic relations with Kuala Lumpur. This was followed by the severing of commercial and financial relations. Konfrontasi then escalated into military actions, many of which took place in Borneo.

On Aug 17, 1964, Indonesia's National Day, the Indonesian president declared the coming year "the year of living dangerously". That day, a seaborne force of about 100 Indonesian troops crossed the Malacca Strait by boat and landed in south-west Johor. In the following month, paratroopers were dropped near Labis and Pontian, also in southern Johor, in an apparent attempt to begin guerilla operations.

Both groups expected to be greeted as liberators. Instead, they were quickly killed or captured by Malaysian and Commonwealth forces. The paratroopers had the particular misfortune of landing close to the camp of a Gurkha regiment.

Seen in this context, the bombing campaign in Singapore was probably aimed at intimidating the local population into demanding that Singapore withdraw from the Malaysian federation.

Indonesia urged its nationals to infiltrate Malaysia and Singapore and sabotage key installations. Singapore responded by ramping up vigilance and defences. A Vigilante Corps was set up. Between April 22 and May 16, 1964, over 14,000 volunteered their services to protect Singapore.

For Sukarno, Konfrontasi also probably had something to do with the need to shore up political support at home. With export revenues shrinking, infrastructure crumbling and inflation rising to 1,000 per cent by 1966, the Indonesian president needed something to rally supporters and keep his political enemies at bay.

Konfrontasi was abandoned after an aborted coup derailed his leadership and the Indonesian Communist Party, an important component of the delicate political balance that ensured his grip on power. He was gradually forced to hand power to Suharto who headed Kostrad, the Indonesian army's strategic command.

As for Singapore, it went on to chart its own path, separating from the Federation of Malaysia in August 1965 to become an independent country.

Meanwhile in Singapore, the two Indonesian marines responsible for the MacDonald House bombing, Harun Said and Osman Mohamed Ali, were tried and sentenced to death. After a petition to the Privy Council failed in July 1968, Suharto, by then president of Indonesia, issued a personal appeal for clemency, as did Malaysian prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. Singapore refused, and the two marines were hanged on Oct 17, 1968.

The perceived snub to the president angered Indonesians. Organised mobs attacked the Singapore Embassy and burned the Singapore flag. The homes of Singapore diplomats were also attacked.

President Suharto responded to the execution by posthumously conferring on the marines Indonesia's highest military medal for valour - the Bintang Sakti - at a special ceremony marking Indonesian Heroes Day. Hundreds of thousands joined the funeral procession, which stretched 8km.

With emotions running high, the Indonesian Parliament adopted a resolution urging the government to take stern measures against Singapore. There was wild talk of invasion. Marine Commander Major-General Mukijat told reporters that he would like to "have the honour of leading an invasion to settle accounts".

In subsequent years, all three governments - Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore - sought to put Konfrontasi behind them in an attempt to foster regional harmony through the newly established ASEAN.

Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew visited Indonesia in May 1973, scattering flowers on the graves of the two marines. President Suharto reciprocated by visiting Singapore in August of the following year.

For president Suharto, anxious to make his mark on regional affairs, the failure to save the lives of the marines was a diplomatic slap in the face he would rather forget. And Indonesian foreign minister Adam Malik had to fend off accusations from influential student groups that he had not done enough to save the marines because he had secret bank accounts in Singapore.

With the key figures involved having long since passed from the scene, one might expect the matter to be laid to rest as well. But the naming of an Indonesian ship after the two marines suggests there are those who would like the issue to be revisited.

bruceg@sph.com.sg


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