'Play by my rules'

Deckhand Amat Awang Chik, then 45, was one of the five crewmen taken hostage during the 1974 Laju hijacking. He was also one of two who managed to escape on the first night.
Deckhand Amat Awang Chik, then 45, was one of the five crewmen taken hostage during the 1974 Laju hijacking. He was also one of two who managed to escape on the first night.ST FILE PHOTO


The bizarre episode ended unexpectedly well.Crisis past, the nation took stock. The Straits Times summed it up on Feb 9, 1974: "The fact that Singapore was not involved does not guarantee the Republic's safety. But the fact that Singaporeans can and do look after themselves will minimise chances of another Bukom-Laju emergency. Singapore was caught by surprise this time, but it has shown it is no pushover."

The incident, said Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister then, demonstrated how impossible it was for Singapore to "isolate ourselves from conflicts in which we are really spectators". But he added: "We will minimise the reasons of any group to pick any quarrel with us."

Mr Leslie Fong, the newspaper's editor from 1987 to 2002 and currently senior executive vice-president of SPH's Marketing and Digital Divisions, was then a 24-year-old reporter deployed to cover the story. "It was a big story and everyone was excited," he recalled.

Between the press briefings, there was a lot of waiting, he said, adding: "There was nothing you could actually see from a distance. Other reporters tried to hire bumboats to go out but were turned back by police."

Still, there was plenty of drama at the nightly press briefings led by Mr Tay Seow Huah, the Home Ministry's top civil servant then. The international press was fierce, demanding answers and the "right to know" how the Government would handle itself.

"Mr Tay would not bat an eyelid," said Mr Fong. "He would say, 'You know what I choose to tell you... You are in my country, you play by my rules. And if you cross the line, I will not hesitate to deport you.'

"You could see his mastery of the details. He opened my eyes to how a self-confident civil servant in a developing country could conduct himself with dignity and confidence."

Noted Mr Tee Tua Ba, then officer in charge of the marine police and now the chairman of the Singapore Red Cross: "It was only then that the Government realised that all vital installations were unprotected."

The Laju lessons were not forgotten. Security was stepped up at critical infrastructure installations and public places. A crisis machinery was put in place.

Nearly two decades later, when SQ117 was hijacked while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Changi on March 26, 1991, there were no hiccups. A team of commandos stormed the plane after it landed and rescued all 129 passengers and crew - after shooting dead the four Pakistani hijackers. It was almost textbook perfect, done in 30 seconds. • ST



Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) is formed with the merger of three publishing companies: Singapore News and Publications with the Straits Times Press and Times Publishing. It brings all English, Chinese and Malay newspapers under one umbrella. SPH is incorporated as a public company on Aug 4.



Launch of the Straits Times Weekly Overseas Edition, which rounds up the week’s news for overseas readers. It is discontinued in 2003 with the availability of digital alternatives.



The Straits Times celebrates its 150th anniversary and goes online by launching SPH’s website AsiaOne on June 15 and The Straits Times Interactive website on Dec 1.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline ''Play by my rules''. Print Edition | Subscribe