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MacDonald House attack still strikes home in S'pore
Publication Date : 13-02-2014
The bombing of MacDonald House by two Indonesian saboteurs might have taken place 48 years ago, but that event long ago casts a shadow that still falls over today's Singapore.
This explains the intense reaction of Singapore to Indonesia's recent decision to name a navy ship after the two men executed for the bombing incident.
Those old enough remember the shock of the event when the pair of Indonesian marines bombed the Orchard Road building on March 10, 1965.
At 3:07pm, a bomb went off at the 10-storey building.
The explosion ripped off one lift door and shattered windows right up to the ninth floor. The wall separating the staircase and the adjoining room of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank housed in the building was completely demolished, exposing a view of the carpark on the other side of Orchard Road.
It was raining and Rosie Heng of Malaya Borneo Motors in the building thought the explosion was a loud thunder clap, according to news reports then.
On the ground floor, plaster and bricks rained on bank employees busy closing their accounts.
After the blast, office worker Lim Chin Hin, 45, wiped the blood off his face, picked up his spectacles which had been knocked off, and groped his way out of the room filled with twisted steel.
Thirty-three people were injured. Three people died.
The bodies of Elizabeth Suzie Choo, 36, private secretary to the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank manager, and Juliet Goh, 23, a clerk in the bank, were found buried in the rubble. The third victim, Mohammed Yasin Kesit, 45, a driver, slipped into a coma after the blast, and did not come out of it.
Recalling the incident, Barry Desker, dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said: "At that time, MacDonald House was an iconic building as it was the tallest in Orchard Road. The other buildings were single- or double-storey buildings and the land at Ngee Ann city was a burial ground."
The choice of MacDonald House for the bombing was significant as it was about 1.4km from the Istana, the official residence of the president of Singapore.
Lee Khoon Choy, now 90, was even more directly involved. Singapore had caught and tried the two Indonesian saboteurs, Harun Said, 21, and Osman Mohamed Ali, 23.
They were convicted of murder and hanged in 1968.
Tempers in Indonesia were raging after Singapore turned down appeals for clemency from President Suharto.
Lee, who became ambassador to Indonesia in 1970, used his understanding of Javanese culture to pave the way for smoother ties.
The veteran diplomat persuaded then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to do two things on an official visit to Indonesia in 1973.
One was to wear the Indonesian attire of a batik shirt, a gesture that surprised his hosts. The other was for PM Lee to scatter flowers on the graves of the two dead men.
The following year, President Suharto visited Singapore, in a further sign of the strong ties developing between the two countries.
What is needed now, said Lee Khoon Choy, is for today's leaders and diplomats to make a similar gesture to soothe wounded feelings.
Singapore leaders have raised their concerns over the naming of an Indonesian frigate KRI Usman Harun after the two bombers.
But Indonesian leaders are sticking to their stand that their decision is final and in line with the country's tradition of honouring heroes. They also say that the ongoing row will not affect bilateral relations.
Lee Khoon Choy believes the recent row is the work of either a group that is "ignorant of history" or a group of extremists.
Asked whether Lee Kuan Yew's act of scattering flowers could be seen as Singapore apologising for executing the bombers, he said no.
"The flowers were scattered as the Javanese believe that the souls of the dead will be pacified through this gesture," he said.
"It was a matter of Singapore showing its big heart. It said 'I forgive you'. But that doesn't mean 'I approve of your bombing of MacDonald House'.
"Don't link the two events, as Singapore, and countries that respect the rule of law, cannot allow terrorists to become heroes."
The two saboteurs had arrived in Singapore from Java at 11am on that fateful day, wearing civilian clothes.
They had been instructed to bomb an electric power house but, after lunch, they headed to MacDonald House.
They placed a blue travelling bag containing explosives near the lift of the mezzanine floor of the building. After lighting the fuse at 3pm, they boarded a bus and fled the scene.
Three days later, a bumboat pilot found the two men in Singapore waters, holding on to a floating plank. The vessel they had been travelling in had capsized.
The bumboat pilot rescued them and handed them to the marine police.
When captured, the pair were in civilian clothes, not army uniforms. This became an issue during their trial.
They claimed to be prisoners of war, but Senior Crown Counsel Francis Seow said they were merely "mercenary soldiers" who had been paid S$350 (US$276.13) to carry out a particular assignment.
As they were in civilian clothes and had targeted a civilian building, the men were tried for the murder of the three people who died in the blast.
They were sentenced to death on Oct 20, 1965.
For Desker, the bombing still holds lessons for Singapore today. Now, as then, Singapore remains vulnerable to such an attack.
MacDonald House, built in 1949, was gazetted a national monument on Feb 10, 2003.
Today, it houses various offices, including a large Citibank branch.