What is the Laju hostage situation that the late Mr S R Nathan played a crucial role in defusing?
Mr S R Nathan was an extraordinary man in numerous ways. His formative years were marked with hardship and tribulation. His father committed suicide when he was 8. He dropped out of school twice. He ran away from home when he was 16. He lived through the horrors of the Japanese occupation.
But through tenacity and grit, he rose above his circumstances. Although he lacked educational qualifications, the rough and tumble of life became his teacher. While many would be paralysed by tragedy upon tragedy, he kept trudging on. He eventually earned his diploma in the University of Malaya, entered the Civil Service at one of the lowest rungs and, after one of the most diverse and illustrious careers in the Singapore Civil Service, reached the highest office in the land.
In my books, Mr Nathan’s story is one of the most inspiring that I know. I don’t think many younger Singaporeans realise just how much of a hero he was. I knew nothing of his story until I read his book, An Unexpected Journey: Path to the Presidency, in 2011. And I had seen his portrait in school everyday for 12 years – literally from P1 to J2.
Mr Nathan was not only one of a kind – he was an extremely kind man. Every single tribute that I’ve read has highlighted his warmth and generosity. He has been described as grandfatherly, loyal, merciful, charitable, and most of all, selfless. According to many accounts, he demonstrated his selflessness not only in personal interactions, but in his willingness to place the needs of the nation above his own, even to the point of risking his own life during the Laju hijacking incident.
What is the Laju incident? I suspect that before Mr Nathan’s passing, many young Singaporeans had no idea about this terror attack and Mr Nathan’s role in resolving the crisis. It was never taught in Social Studies class even though it is a defining moment in Singapore’s history and a story of Singaporean heroism. I only learned about it from Mr Nathan’s memoirs.
The Laju incident is Singapore’s second experience with terrorism, the first being the MacDonald House bombing in 1965. On 31 Jan 1974, four armed men attempted to blow up a number of oil tanks at the Shell Oil Refinery on Pulau Bukom. After setting off a few explosive charges, they hijacked a ferry, the Laju, and held five crewmen hostage for the next eight days. The hijackers included two members of the Japanese Red Army (JRA) and two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The local press dubbed them “the Bukom bombers“.
Why on earth did two Japanese men and two Palestinian men team up to attack an oil refinery in Singapore? The JRA and the PFLP were closely-linked militant organisations based in Lebanon that shared a common communist revolutionary ethos. (I only recently learned that the JRA worked with the PFLP to carry out the Lod Airport massacre in Israel in 1972… Japanese terrorists in Israel?) Although the JRA focused on overthrowing the Japanese government and the PFLP focused on resisting Israeli occupation, they stood in solidarity with other revolutionary “anti-imperialist” groups. In this case, the Laju hijackers had acted in solidarity with the Viet Cong. They claimed that the bombing was an attack against imperialism, and their aim was to disrupt the flow of oil from Singapore to American-backed troops in South Vietnam.
Mr Nathan was roped into the Singaporean negotiation team as Director of the Security and Intelligence Division (SID). This must have been a very confusing and nerve-wracking situation for him and the other negotiators. Singapore was less than a decade old as an independent republic and had never faced a high-stakes hostage situation before, let alone one involving militants from such far-flung nations. The attack had been carefully planned – the men had begun planning the attack in Paris a month earlier, and then travelled to Singapore through Belgium, Thailand and Malaysia. They had meant to do serious damage – by one account, the Bukom bombing could have caused a shortage of oil in the region for a few years if the entire oil refinery had been destroyed.
Mr Nathan’s diplomatic and negotiation skills were severely tested. The hijackers had demanded safe passage to the airport and a plane to fly them to an “Arab” country. Over the next eight days, he and the other negotiators had to defuse the situation without conceding too much to the terrorists, or else Singapore would look like a pushover. They had to keep the situation within their control despite pressure from the Japanese government to intervene. In the meantime, five innocent lives hung in the balance. Mr Nathan must have known that Singapore’s international reputation was at stake.
The situation changed rapidly on Day 6. Thousands of kilometres away, the overseas backers of the Laju hijackers stormed the Japanese embassy in Kuwait and took the Japanese ambassador hostage, along with 15 of his staff. They threatened to kill the hostages if the Japanese government did not send a plane to Singapore to pick up the Laju hijackers and fly them to Kuwait. The Japanese government quickly sent a Japan Airlines (JAL) plane to Singapore.
The Laju hijackers agreed to surrender their weapons and board the plane if there were Singaporeans on board to act as guarantors of their safety. Mr Nathan was chosen to lead a delegation of 13 Singaporeans on the flight – a task he willingly accepted despite the risks and challenges involved. He did not know if the Laju hijackers could be trusted. He did know what would happen in Kuwait. Would they be allowed to land? Would they be forced to fly to another country? Worst of all, would the Singaporeans be used as bargaining chips for other exchanges?
Mr Nathan demonstrated his quick wit in the way he improvised throughout the entire operation. When the Kuwaiti air control tower did not allow the plane to land, Mr Nathan told the pilot to convince the air tower that they were low on fuel. When the plane landed and Mr Nathan was introduced to the Kuwaiti defence minister, he had the boldness to tell the minister that the Kuwaiti government was responsible for the safety of the Singaporeans – to which he received a burst of outrage. At some point, Mr Nathan spoke in Bahasa Indonesia to a Japanese diplomat – a man who had worked in the Japanese embassy in Indonesia before – so as to communicate a message in secret.
Mr Nathan had to persist in his negotiations with the Kuwaiti minister, who was more interested in his discussions with the Japanese officials on site. Eventually, the Kuwaiti authorities allowed the Singaporean delegation to disembark from the plane and leave the airport. The matter was now in the hands of the Japanese and Kuwaiti governments. Mr Nathan and the negotiating team returned to Singapore as heroes.
Throughout the episode, Mr Nathan was composed and in command. What’s more intriguing is the way he treated the hijackers with dignity and respect during the flight to Kuwait. As he wrote in his memoirs, he tried to connect to the hijackers on a personal level so as to earn their trust in case he needed their intervention with the Kuwaiti authorities or the embassy hijackers. It seems that Mr Nathan was able to win the Laju hijackers over because by the end of the episode, they apologised to Singaporeans for their actions, expressed gratitude for the way they were treated, and even hugged most of the Singaporeans on the flight before they disembarked. Such was Mr Nathan’s magnanimity that his actions could evoke remorse from four hardened terrorists. They even said they wanted to visit Singapore again as tourists!
This is one of the most fascinating episodes in Singapore’s history. More should be done to memorialise this incident – to serve as a reminder of the need for constant vigilance, and to inspire others to emulate the self-sacrificial leadership of Mr SR Nathan.