Witness to ups and downs in S'pore-Indonesia ties

It was way past midnight, on a day in October 1968.

Mrs Emilie Kee was in her office in Wisma Indonesia working on an important note - a last-minute clemency plea for two Indonesian marines sentenced to death for bombing the Orchard Road landmark, MacDonald House.

It was just days before Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said were due to be hanged.

Wisma Indonesia housed the Indonesian Embassy in Orchard Road, where Wisma Atria now stands. Mrs Kee did secretarial work at the embassy and was not only stressed that night, but also a little scared.

"The other staff had gone home and I felt it was eerie," Mrs Kee, now 77, told The Sunday Times.

The two men's clemency plea failed, and they were executed on Oct 17, 1968.

Wisma Indonesia, with its Balinese-style roofs and carved murals, was completed in 1962 and meant to house the Indonesian consulate. The premises were taken over by the Malaysian government in July 1965 during the Confrontation, the period of armed hostilities sparked by Indonesia's opposition to the formation of Malaysia from the merger of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore.

Singapore became independent in 1965, Confrontation ended the following year, and Singapore and Indonesia established full diplomatic ties in 1967.

Wisma Indonesia then housed the embassy. Mrs Kee remembered that relations were tense after the hanging of the marines. Indonesian students ransacked the Singapore Embassy in Jakarta, and their Singaporean peers demonstrated outside the Indonesian Embassy here.

Relations gradually recovered, and the Wisma building went on to host its fair share of Indonesian national day functions.

Besides housing the embassy, the building had other occupants, including restaurants, the office of the Indonesian national carrier Garuda and a hotel popular with Indonesian visitors.

"There was a theatre behind at the carpark, Wisma Theatre, which had live shows from China or Taiwan," Mrs Kee recalled.

A special feature that helped make the building a landmark was a set of Indonesian murals on its facade. These were taken to the current Indonesian embassy premises in Chatsworth Road after the Wisma building was sold in the early 1980s.

Mrs Kee was an embassy employee for 33 years and secretary to nine ambassadors before she retired in 2000.

She remembered many stray cats - "easily 20" - in the Wisma building and putting food out for them, but they would eat only after she left. "They were afraid of people. They snarled all the time out of fear," she said.

She also remembered shopping at CK Tang when the store was just a squat building, not a skyscraper.

Mrs Kee, who has two children and two granddaughters, said Orchard Road is very different these days. "So many people. They walk so fast now, it reminds me of Tokyo. Last time, it was very leisurely."

And there was no Electronic Road Pricing either, she said. "You could drive so easily."

Ho Ai Li

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 28, 2015, with the headline 'Witness to ups and downs in S'pore-Indonesia ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe