The late former president S R Nathan's role in Laju incident: 7 things to know

SINGAPORE - Many Singaporeans know Mr S R Nathan as the country's friendly former president.

But they may not know that in 1974, he - and 12 other Singapore officials - flew with terrorists to Kuwait, not knowing if they would return alive.

Here are some things to know about the Laju hijacking incident.

1. How did it start?

A hijacker telling the Marine Police their demands on the third day of the drama. PHOTO: ST FILE

Four terrorists, equipped with sub-machine guns and explosives, landed on Pulau Bukom on Jan 31. Their plan: to blow up the Shell oil refinery to disrupt the oil supply from Singapore to south Vietnam in support of communist north Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

Two were Arabs from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The other two were Japanese nationals from communist militant group Japanese Red Army.

They planted explosives at three oil tanks but the blasts caused little damage, and the rest of the explosives failed to detonate.

Chased by police, the terrorists hijacked a ferry at Bukom jetty - Laju, or "fast" in Malay - and held five crew members hostage.

2. How did S R Nathan get involved?

The attackers are taken to Paya Lebar Airport in a police van. PHOTO: ST FILE

After protracted negotiations, the bombers agreed to release the hostages in exchange for safe passage out of the country.

So on Feb 7, they were taken to Paya Lebar Airport where they surrendered both their weapons and the remaining hostages (two had already escaped). In return, they would board a special flight to Kuwait on a plane on loan from Japan.

Initially reluctant to loan the aircraft, Japan had relented after another group of terrorists stormed the Japanese Embassy in Kuwait and took hostages.

But the terrorists demanded a group of guarantors to accompany them on the flight. So 13 Singapore officials, led by Mr Nathan, then the director of the Security and Intelligence Division at the Ministry of Defence, left with them early the next morning.

Then Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee had entrusted Mr Nathan with the task himself.

3. How did he feel then?

Almost four decades later, Mr Nathan broke his silence on the incident.

He told The New Paper in 2011 that returning alive was no certainty.

Mr Nathan said: "I was not sure. Because what awaited us at the other end was something uncertain.

"Whether we'd be allowed to land, whether we'd be refuelled and sent off somewhere, whether we'd be roaming around the world looking for a haven to land, there was uncertainty."

Despite that, he put on a brave front as he said goodbye to his family, especially his wife Urmila.

"I just looked at her and told her, 'I'm going'," Mr Nathan said.

"I knew it'd be very emotional for her and for my children." He added that he did not want to upset or worry his family. "I had to display some confidence."

In his memoirs, An Unexpected Journey: Path To The Presidency, Mr Nathan said that when he left for the airport, he avoided looking at any of his family members in the eye.

4. What happened next?

The man believed to be the leader of the terrorists. PHOTO: ST FILE

On the plane, which took off early on Feb 8, Mr Nathan tried talking to the hijackers, aware that he might need their help later with the Kuwait authorities or the terrorists at the Japanese Embassy in Kuwait.

He found out that they had stayed at a rented flat just across the road from the Botanic Gardens. The leader, Hiroshi Kimura, told Mr Nathan that he would miss the tranquillity of the gardens.

When the plane touched down in Kuwait, it was surrounded by tanks, armoured vehicles and soldiers with automatic weapons. It "looked like the middle of a war zone", Mr Nathan wrote in his memoirs.

It became clear after a while that getting the Singapore delegation off the plane was not one of the Kuwaitis' priorities. It seemed likely that the group of terrorists in the country would be bundled onto the plane, before it flew off somewhere else with the Singaporeans on board.

5. How did he secure their return?

Mr Nathan radioed to the control tower, claiming that he was a special envoy of the Singapore prime minister and that he had a special message for the prime minister of Kuwait.

Hours later, he finally got the chance to speak to "a hulk of a man with piercing, bloodshot eyes" who came on the tarmac in a Cadillac. He was "somebody of equal importance" to the prime minister - Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, governor, defence minister and a member of the royal family.

He told the man - who became visibly angry - that the Singapore officials were now under his protection and safety until they returned to Singapore. After the minister had cooled down, Mr Nathan asked repeatedly when they would be able to get off the plane. "Haven't you given me enough trouble?" was the response.

The sheikh continued discussions with the Japanese ambassador. Yet again Mr Nathan persisted in reminding him that the Singaporeans had to get off the plane.

"After I repeated the point a few times, he lost patience and told me to shut up, or I would be arrested."

After yet more time had passed, Kuwait's Foreign Minister arrived. Finally, he told Mr Nathan: "All of you get down and get lost." The Singapore delegation did as they were told.

6. When did they get home?

The minister told Mr Nathan that the Singaporeans should make themselves scarce until their flight home, in case the hijackers demanded their return in the event negotiations with the Kuwaitis did not go well.

So they did what Singaporeans do best - go shopping. "We had to get lost for a while," Mr Nathan wrote. He gave each of them US$100 and they disappeared into a bazaar.

A Kuwaiti Airlines flight to Bahrain and a subsequent Singapore Airlines flight later, they were home. It was by now sunset on Feb 9, not yet two days since they had set off.

7. What did he say after?

Mr S R Nathan speaking to reporters upon his arrival at the Singapore airport. PHOTO: ST FILE

"I was personally thankful that the episode had ended without bloodshed, and regarded it as a valuable learning experience for me and all my colleagues," Mr Nathan said.

On his reluctance to comment on the incident throughout the years, he told TNP: "It was a job I did. It was an episode we all wanted to forget."

Publicising how the incident was handled "would be like a show-off", he said.

All 13 officials received awards in the National Day honours list that year. Mr Nathan got the Meritorious Service Medal, the highest honour given that year.

Decades later, he told The Straits Times: "Laju was nothing; it was just an instance. We all carry these responsibilities in public service.

"When we flew to Kuwait, they didn't allow us to land at first - and when we landed, they didn't allow us to get off the plane. There, literally, we could have been their hostages."

Mr Nathan admitted that he did ask himself then why he was there.

His response: "Have faith and do your duty."

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