Dangerous times

Maria Hertogh riots left an indelible lesson

(From left) Protesters gathered at the Padang on Dec 11, 1950, the day the riots broke out; Maria Hertogh and her foster mother Aminah Mohamed on May 19; a vehicle on fire during the riot.
(From left) Protesters gathered at the Padang on Dec 11, 1950, the day the riots broke out; Maria Hertogh and her foster mother Aminah Mohamed on May 19; a vehicle on fire during the riot.ST FILE PHOTOS

The KLM plane stood silently on the tarmac at the Calcutta airport, wraithlike, in the cool December afternoon. A ring of armed police kept a small group of reporters at bay. In 1950, there were yet no television camera crews jostling to record what was a major news story. Inside the plane sat a terrified 13-year-old girl with her mother, fleeing a personal tragedy that had ballooned to engulf Singapore in a riot. Her name, familiar to any secondary school student in Singapore today, was Maria Hertogh. Or, Nadra Ma'arof for eight years of her life.

Maria's story became a defining moment in a Singapore moving towards independence from British rule. The lessons it taught about the power of religious and racial issues to polarise a diverse society are today ingrained in the Singaporean consciousness, although the twists and turns of Maria's own story have been forgotten. The tragedy also provided a cautionary tale on the media's ability to exacerbate divisions and inflame passions. For The Straits Times, which too had participated in the breathless coverage of the Maria story, though perhaps with more restraint than others, the lessons were to become indelible.

Maria's journey to Calcutta that Dec 12 had been carefully planned by the authorities, acutely conscious that they had failed to detect an ugly turn in public mood and prevent a riot that in three days left 18 dead and 173 injured as well as 72 vehicles burnt and 119 damaged. The violence, which broke out on Dec 11, halted only after the army was called in and the country placed under curfew.

The violence that broke out after she was returned to her biological mother, instead of her Malay foster mother, became a powerful message that religious and racial issues can polarise a diverse society, something which has become ingrained in the Singaporean consciousness.

When the news of her arrival in Calcutta appeared in a Page 1 article in The Straits Times, Singapore was reported to be back to law and order. But only just. A Straits Times reporter travelling in an armoured car described the "strange silence" that enveloped the area around Sultan Mosque. "In the still smouldering wreckage of dozens of private cars and army vehicles, shattered glass from windscreens, brickbats and broken timbering lay everywhere. But above all was the strange silence. Not a sound of life as our mobile arsenal came to a halt at every street corner."

Maria had been raised a Muslim from age five by Malay divorcee Aminah Mohamed. But after the war, her biological parents, the Hertoghs, launched a legal effort to reclaim her, saying they had asked Madam Aminah to look after their daughter, not given their child to her. The Singapore Chief Justice ruled on May 19, 1950 that Maria should be given into the care of Dutch diplomats who would return her to her parents in Holland.

Madam Aminah appealed and won on a technicality. Maria was married four days later to 22-year-old English teacher Mansoor Adabi. Her Dutch parents challenged the marriage and another court battle began.

"Maria with nuns" was The Straits Times' Page 1 headline on Dec 3, a day after the court ordered that she be returned to the custody of her biological mother. The judge also declared the marriage invalid, sending ripples of shock through the Muslim community, which viewed it as properly solemnised. Maria slept that night in the lodgings of a convent school, where The Straits Times said her re-education was to begin right away. Red-eyed and still dressed in Malay attire, she asked The Straits Times reporter who met her: "How is my foster mother?" A day later, the reporter spotted her running hand-in-hand with a friend at the convent and wrote another Page 1 story: "Maria is a little girl again."

DANGEROUS TIMES continued...

In September, 60 Straits Times Press staff members go on strike for better pay and working conditions, to which the management agrees on the fth day. In December, 870 workers go on strike to protest against their small bonus. The management and union take 13 days to reach an agreement, during which time there is no newspaper.



The company’s name is changed to The Straits Times Press (Malaya) Bhd under a new Companies Act passed in 1965. Having accepted the probability of a long-term separation, the board of directors begins its review of whether The Straits Times can continue serving two territories. The paper has a fraught relationship with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who thinks the paper’s editorial staff is not adequately supportive of the nation-building imperative after separation from Malaysia.

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