Ship’s name ignites Singapore-Indonesia spat

Indonesian decision to name vessel after men involved in deadly bombing causes waves of anger in Singapore.

The Usman Harun warship (right) is named for two men who set off a bomb in Singapore [Indonesian Navy]

Singapore – Donald Wyatt was puzzled upon learning that Indonesia planned to name a ship after two navy sergeants who bombed an office building in Singapore in 1965, killing three people.

Wyatt, a 78-year-old Singaporean, has witnessed many key moments in the island nations history, from independence in 1965 to the dark days of social unrest and racial riots that followed.

But the aftermath of the bombing, in Singapore’s main shopping area on Orchard Road, is something that is clearly etched in his mind. At the time, he was working at the local university. A day after the bomb blast, he went to Orchard Road to view the carnage. The two Indonesian marines, Usman Haji Mohamed Ali and Harun Said, had set off an explosion with 11 kilos of nitroglycerine. Three people died and 33 were wounded. 

“These days I don’t really get angry,” the retiree told Al Jazeera. “But I just keep on asking myself: What’s the motive behind Indonesia’s decision to select the terrorists’ names for the ship? What do they have to gain by doing this?” 

Singapore is protesting the naming of the boat by Indonesia, which is the city-state’s third-largest trading partner. Singapore maintains the two men were “terrorists”, but Indonesia considers them national heroes after they were convicted and hanged by Singaporean authorities in 1968.

Inflammatory move

It is tradition for the Indonesian Navy to name its vessels after national heroes, and the countrys leaders argue other countries should stay out of its internal affairs.


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willing to create political tension as and when they desire, and are willing to sacrifice the good political and trade relations between the two countries.”]

Singapore’s Second Minister of Defence Chan Chun Sing expressed his disappointment over Indonesia’s decision on his Facebook page. 

“I have made many Indonesian friends over all these years, especially during my two-year stint in Jakarta as the army attache,” he said. “Indonesians have shown me that they are able to appreciate the fine sensitivities of a relationship. I hope the Indonesian leaders will not sacrifice our bilateral relations, so carefully built up, to domestic politics or through carelessness.” 

Chan was supposed to meet with Indonesia’s Deputy Defence Minister Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin last week, but the meeting was cancelled. Singapore also rescinded the invitations of the Indonesian navy chief and some 100 delegates to the Singapore Airshow last week. The event was Asias largest trade show for the defence and commercial aviation sector.

Singapore’s defence minister announced on Tuesday that the ship would be barred from entering ports in Singapore.

Meanwhile, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has been reported as saying there was no ill intent, “no malice, no unfriendly outlook” behind the ship’s naming.

Indonesian military chief Moeldoko said: “I cannot accept it if Usman and Harun are represented as terrorists. They were marines.”

Sabotage campaign

The bombing at Orchard Road was one of several explosions in Singapore during Indonesia’s policy of “Konfrontasi”, or confrontation, from 1963 to 1966. The then-Indonesian president, Sukarno, was vehemently opposed to the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, which merged Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah in September 1963.

Singapore – now one of the wealthiest countries in the world and which will celebrate 50 years of independence next year – was booted out by the new federal government in August 1965 after disputes with the Singapore state government.

Never openly declaring war, Sukarno – concerned that the new federation would act as a puppet state for Britain – said he would “crush Malaysia”. Groups of special-ops soldiers were sent to infiltrate Malaysia to carry out acts of terrorism and sabotage. But Sukarno was put under house arrest after a coup brought General Suharto to power in Jakarta. A peace treaty was then signed with Kuala Lumpur in 1966. 

But tensions still festered, especially after Singapore hanged the two marines in 1968. A special gesture by Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was required to mend fences. 

In a recent statement to the media, Singapore’s foreign ministry said, “Singapore had considered this difficult chapter in the bilateral relationship in May 1973 when the then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew visited and scattered flowers on the graves of the two marines.” 

“The naming of the ship is a signal to Singapore that simply because past Indonesian leaders may have accepted the truce or Lee Kuan Yew’s offering and visit to the shrine does not mean that current or future leaders will accept it,” said Antonio Rappa, head of management and security studies at Singapore Institute of Management University. “There is almost no chance that the Indonesians will rename the ship, and if they do, it will make history.”

Rappa added there was speculation the naming was a signal to Singapore that Indonesia cannot forget its past. It also shows that they are willing to create political tension as and when they desire, and are willing to sacrifice the good political and trade relations between the two countries.”

History of tensions

Singapore and Indonesia have had several previous spats, mostly over the annual forest fires that cause thick smog to envelop Singapore and other parts of the region. Last year, Indonesian authorities were upset over allegations that Singapore spied on certain countries in the region, including Indonesia. None of these previous diplomatic rows have become long-term disputes. 

“The protestations will taper off, if they haven’t already,” said Eugene Tan, a non-elected member of parliament. Singapore has to make its disappointment and displeasure known. It has no choice and politically; it is the right thing to do. It cannot be expected to take the naming issue lying down, or be seen to be weak or helpless against Indonesia.

Although the Indonesians say the decision to name the boat was made in 2012, some have speculated the upcoming Indonesian elections might have something to do with it. 

The fact that Indonesia is in election mode makes it politically challenging for the government in Jakarta to look weak, and for politicians to appear conciliatory, said Tan. In the current exuberant political climate in Indonesia, nationalist fervour is easily aroused and is politically expedient, and useful for politicians on the campaign trail. So the ante is easily upped in Indonesia. 


Indonesia has said Singapore is overreacting to the naming of the ship, and – possibly miscalculating the amount of anger the decision would create – has so far downplayed the controversy.

In a sense, matters are exacerbated because of the abang-adik [elder brother-younger brother] framing of relations by the Indonesians, said Tan.This may well have contributed to a less nuanced reading of how Singapore would react to the naming issue.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian island of Batam has been advised by local officials not to go ahead with plans to build a statue of the two controversial marines, to prevent escalating the diplomatic row with Singapore. 

As for Donald Wyatt, this latest brouhaha has brought back memories of the unpredictable and unruly 1960s. But he remains confident the soured relations will be sorted out soon, as the two countries are bound together by important historical, economic and family ties.

But Wyatt said he will never be able to accept one thing. The two of them [Indonesian marines] killed innocent people. They were terrorists, not heroes.

Source: Al Jazeera