We can forgive, but we should never forget

Indonesia's decision to name a navy ship KRI Usman Harun, in honour of two Indonesian marines who bombed a Singapore building in 1965, has drawn ire from Singaporeans. A Cabinet minister says the lesson is that Singaporeans must never forget history, while a defence blogger says the ship is not welcome in Singapore.

NEXT week, we remember the fall of Singapore on Feb 15, 1942, by commemorating Total Defence Day.

It is a reminder that we do not take our peace for granted. And that we must ourselves defend our own home because no one else will. When we failed then, the consequences were tragic.

To this day, it is unclear how many perished during the occupation of Singapore. We all know of the cruelty and atrocities committed by the Japanese.

My grandfather was rounded up to be executed. It must have been part of the Sook Ching. But he was released at the last moment because a "local" Japanese knew him.

My father, who was only a boy then, to this day remembers the horrors of seeing dismembered bodies due to the bombings.

Over the years, there have been other threats. A date that has been recently thrust back into our consciousness is March 10, 1965.

On that day, Indonesian marines Harun Said and Osman Mohamed Ali planted and detonated a bomb at MacDonald House, killing three Singaporeans and injuring 33.

This was part of the Konfrontasi (Confrontation), when President Sukarno sought to undermine the formation of Malaysia by stirring racial tension as well as targeting key installations and fomenting fear via an indiscriminate bombing campaign.

I have known of this event since I was young because my father worked in Metal Box, and his office was in MacDonald House.

He told me that he hardly ever took medical leave, but happened to be off that day.

When he heard the news over the radio, he was shaken but hugely relieved as the bomb had gone off in an area where he could have been at.

While these seemed like fascinating stories when growing up, as I got older, I began to realise that we should never let these things happen to us again.

As Dr Toh Chin Chye, then Deputy Premier, said: "This incident should make us realise that our own survival must depend on our determination and resolve to protect our own independence."

The two Indonesians were caught, tried and executed.

Their hanging on Oct 17, 1968, sparked off an attack on the Singapore Embassy in Jakarta by a mob. They then attacked our consul's residence and the homes of two other Singaporean diplomats. They also burnt our Singapore flag.

In 1973, then PM Lee Kuan Yew visited the graves of the two marines. It was a gesture of reconciliation that brought closure and allowed both countries to forge a close relationship.

Over the many years of interaction, I myself have found many friends in the Indonesian military and have also worked closely with them while providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief in Aceh, in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

Remarkably, the Indonesian navy is now naming one of its ships KRI Usman Harun in honour of the two marines.

When Ms Elizabeth Suzie Choo, 36, died, six young children no longer had a mother.

Mr and Mrs Goh lost their only child when Ms Juliet Goh, 23, died in the blast.

Mr Mohammed Yasin Kesit, 45, did not awake from his coma and left behind a widow and eight children.

Many more Singaporean lives have been permanently scarred.

It is one thing to remember your heroes from your wars of independence or those who have built your nation.

But it is another thing altogether when you celebrate those who had acted in a brutal and cowardly manner. There is nothing heroic about killing innocent civilians.

Our neighbours have insisted that it is their right to name their ships as they see fit. That may well be so. But it is also our right to state categorically that this very act reflects callousness and disrespect.

As neighbours and friends, we can and should forgive.

But by the naming of this ship, the message is clear. We should also never forget.

The writer is Acting Manpower Minister. This is reprinted from a post on his Facebook page.

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