The Bukom Bombers of 1974

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.






Four Civilisations?

If you watched the National Day Parade a few days ago, you would have noticed that Act 2 of the performance segment was titled “Our Four Civilisations“, featuring four performers in 8-metre tall costumes representing the “Chinese”, “Malay”, “Indian”, and “Western” civilisations. While the theme of the Act wasn’t extraordinary, I was intrigued by the choice of the word “civilisations”.

The performance segments of previous NDPs have always portrayed the “four main ethnic groups” of Singapore since its establishment as a British port in 1819. (As far as I can recall, though, the last “ethnic group” has been quite fluid – sometimes it is “British”, other times it is “Eurasian”…). In fact, the NDP is just one of many expressions of the “Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others” (CMIO) idea, alongside the four national languages, community-based assistance groups, and children’s artwork featuring Chinese, Malay, Indian and European kids smiling and holding hands.

Of course, this portrayal is a simplification of the true diversity on this island because it obscures the linguistic, religious and geographical diversity within groups. That is just the nature of social labels. Furthermore, individuals of mixed heritage do not fit neatly into such a rigid classification system. For instance, official documents callously brush aside my mother’s Greek heritage, declaring that she is Indian. Which means my Greek heritage is completely ignored as well.

Moreover, these labels are not defined consistently. One of the arguments of NUS Professor Chua Beng Huat in this journal article published in 2009 is that the Chinese, Malay and Indian groups are “not constituted on a singular and similar criterion but on a set of convenient elements”. He argues that the “Chinese” group is defined through the Mandarin language, “Malays” are grouped together by religion, and the term “Indian” is applied to people from the geographical region of South Asia.

Further inconsistencies can found in the 2010 Census of Population. The Census organises demographic statistics according to the CMIO system, but then further subdivides the three main groups according to different criteria. The “Chinese” population is sub-divided according to dialect groups – Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, etc. The “Malay” population is sub-divided according to geography – Malay (from the Malay Peninsular), Javanese from Java, Boyanese from Bawean Island, and others. The “Indian” population is mostly divided according to language – Tamils, Malayalees, Hindis, Punjabis, Urdu, Gujaratis, etc. I say “mostly” because “Sikh” is also included, which is a religious and not linguistic group.

Putting aside the shortcomings of the CMIO classification system, it is an intuitive framework that Singaporeans are extremely familiar with. But while the “four ethnic groups” discourse is nothing new, NDP 2016 is the first time that the word “civilisations” has ever been used in the annual retelling of the Singapore Story. In fact, I have found only one other reference to Singapore’s “four civilisations”. This reference was made by Professor Kishore Mahbubani, who said at a forum in 2014 that Singapore is the only city in Asia in which four major civilisations interact – the Chinese, Indian, Islamic (rather than Malay), and Western civilisations.

This is a grandiose statement to make of a little red dot! The term “civilisation” conveys the idea of a rich and illustrious history, filled with stories of glorious battles, golden eras, revered heroes, instructive myths and legends, and groundbreaking technological advancements. It is the product and progenitor of honourable social values, expressed through unique customs and traditions and profound philosophies.

Furthermore, Singapore is depicted as the heir of not one but four distinct civilisations! What an inheritance! The message seems to be this: despite Singapore’s miniscule size, we have layers upon layers of cultural heritage to explore and learn from. And much to defend as well. To the naysayers who consider Singapore a superficial, heartless corporation, the response is this: Singapore is a dynamic, living, breathing hybrid of civilisations.

The use of this word represents a larger effort to extend Singapore’s national narrative as far back as possible – before 1965, even before 1819 – to present Singapore as a nation rooted deeply in world history – not an anchorless luxury cruise ship. But if we are going to start discussing “civilisations” that have contributed to the fabric of this nation, we could go even further. For Singapore has been built by the descendants of other ancient civilisations.

Arab traders, most of whom were from Yemen, came to Singapore in the 19th Century and developed successful businesses – these include the Aljunied and Alsagoff families. Prominent members of the Jewish community such as Sir Manasseh Meyer and David Marshall have also contributed to Singapore’s economic and political life. The establishment of the Raffles Hotel and the Straits Times is attributed to Armenians in Singapore. John Little, the children’s ward of Singapore General Hospital, and the Dyslexic Association of Singapore were established by Parsis – Zoroastrian Persians who fled to India in the 7th Century.

Maybe next year, we could have a few more 8-metre costumes representing these other civilisations?

Train 202: Armenia to Georgia

“Sorry, my English is not good, but where are you from?”

Cue the nervous smile. Whenever I’m asked this question, I always wonder what my interlocutor’s reaction to my response will be. It’s often a puzzled look with a comment about how I don’t look Singaporean. Or I may be asked more questions about whether Singapore is part of China, what the capital of Singapore is, and which city I’m from in Singapore.

My brother, Craig, and I were on the train from Armenia to Georgia. We were sitting with an elderly Georgian man and his wife, who were both intrigued by the curious sight of two bearded Asian brothers on a Soviet-era train in the Caucuses. When we replied that we were from Singapore – probably the first Singaporeans he had ever met in his life – he gave us a tentative smile and wished us a pleasant journey.

Our new Georgian friend probably wanted to ask more about us, but the language barrier was too high. I really wished that we could continue the conversation, but there was no common language between us besides the few words of English that he knew. At least that’s what I thought.

I was soon proven wrong. After the aborted conversation with our new acquaintances, Craig pulled out his iPad and left it on the table, hoping to read an e-book. Our Georgian friend promptly walked toward us and poured out a handful of roasted sunflower seeds on the iPad! We were surprised by his unusual choice of tablemat but grateful for his generosity.

To me, this was more than a gesture of kindness to fill our stomachs. I saw it as an act of accommodation and inclusion into the culture of the region. It was as if he was saying: “Come join my wife and me in an age-old Caucasian custom of snacking on sunflower seeds while looking out the window and watching the world go by.” I quickly understood why sunflower seeds are appropriate for train journeys – eating them is a very hypnotic and time-consuming activity. This is not a chocolate bar that you can wolf down in seconds. You have to break each shell open, which is often a struggle, and then pop each seed individually into your mouth. Soon you develop a soothing and therapeutic rhythm, broken by short pauses to give the jaw a break.

The sunflower seeds occupied us for at least half an hour. As my hands were breaking shells and my jaw was getting a workout, my eyes beheld the spectacular undulating terrain of the Armenian countryside. I daydreamed blissfully about the impressive Armenian monasteries I had seen, in which countless generations of monks not only studied the Scriptures, but developed the Armenian language, demonstrated their architectural prowess, studied the natural world through experiments, and mastered their feelings and temptations. I eagerly sought out one last glimpse of the formidable Mount Ararat, the resting place of Noah’s Ark and the national symbol of the Armenian people – a symbol that is so important that it sits at the heart of the Armenian state crest although it lies in Turkish territory. I solemnly reflected on the tragedy of the Armenian Genocide, and then smiled as I thought about the resolve of the Armenian people to emerge from the ashes, guard their rich heritage and build a brighter future.

My train of thought and mechanical eating were interrupted as our train pulled into the next station. Two new passengers joined our cabin – a sweet Georgian grandmother and her six-year old granddaughter, Anna. Unfortunately, the grandmother was even less confident in English than our first Georgian friend, so we were unable to talk throughout the journey. But I suspected that food would eventually break the ice again – and it did later on at dinner time. Meanwhile, the adorable Anna eyed us suspiciously but then broke into a smile each time we grinned at her – after which she would whisper something to her grandmother in Georgian, as if we understood. 🙂

Soon, Anna made friends with the girl from the next cabin. Their giggles added to the already jovial environment of strangers sharing stories, food, music and much laughter. It was heartwarming to see the pure and simple joy of making new friends, unadulterated by the urge to impress and put up false pretenses. I longed to participate in some way!

I got up to stretch my legs and walked to an open window to soak in more of the stunning Armenian landscape. Glorious mountains as far as the eye could see, overlooking quaint villages at their feet. An endless blanket of lush greenery against the rich gradient of the dusk. What a picturesque countryside!

Armenia mountains

We pulled into another train station in a small town close to the border with Georgia. The children of the town were playing on the railway platform. That’s probably their daily ritual, I thought. They probably gather at the train station every evening and frolic around the platform while eagerly awaiting the arrival of the 7 o’clock train. The wheels grind to a halt, the engine heaves a sigh of relief, and new faces emerge from the cabins. The new passengers watch the carefree children with delight, and the children revel in the attention. After five minutes, the train resurrects and pulls away from the station, while the children wave excitedly to the visitors who must now continue their journey to a faraway land.

As the sun sank slowly beneath the horizon, everyone pulled out packed meals from their bags in almost perfect synchrony. As I had expected, the grandmother kindly offered Craig and me some pastries. We politely declined but she insisted. After the pastries, our first Georgian friend offered us some delicious fried chicken, which we now accepted without question. Then he offered us a swig of vodka – with a refill – followed by a glass of beer. The look of gleeful mischief in his eyes was too much to resist.

After dinner, Anna entertained us with a few games and “magic tricks” until her grandmother said that it was time for her to sleep. “That will take a miracle,” I thought. “She’s pepped up on Coke and M&Ms!” What was even more miraculous was that Craig and I managed to heave ourselves onto the upper bunks. Fortunately for Anna and her grandmother, who were sleeping below us, the upper bunks held our weight all the way till Tbilisi, where we bid our friends adieu.

I had an unforgettable and priceless experience on Train 202. I was really touched by the generosity of our fellow passengers. But more than that, I was encouraged, inspired and even edified by the joie de vivre that I experienced on that train.

History, Her Story, Our Story

I wrote this piece for the LSE Student Union Singapore Society (Sing Soc) 2015 Year Book, just before Singapore’s 50th National Day. I decided to publish an edited version of the article in the run-up to SG51 🙂

Over the past three years in the LSE, I have developed a deep fascination for the study of History. It is an academic discipline rich in debate, investigation, and even imagination as the Historian weaves narratives out of the fabric of past events. It involves the study of all three periods of life – the past, present and future – because our perception of yesteryears influences our understanding of today, on which we base our predictions of what is to come. Indeed, the key to the Future lies in the Past. That is why we must each investigate Singapore’s history if we want to understand and influence our society, our identity and our destiny.

My interest in History was piqued during my favourite course in the LSE – the History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Needless to say, this topic is rife with controversy. Underlying the many Arab-Israeli wars is a battle of ideas about the past – about legitimacy of actions, responsibility for conflict and ownership of territory. Through wrestling with these debates, I have learnt how to disentangle different narratives and evaluate their origins, evolution, implications, and most importantly, validity. In a sense, I have learnt to work like Sherlock, but without his insane memory and inexplicable powers of resurrection – essays become a lot more exciting when you get to pretend that you’re a super sleuth solving a mystery.

I think that image provides a neat summary of the study of History – it involves searching for clues to establish not only a chronology of events but a flow of causation. It is like a detective who assesses the scene of the crime, interviews witnesses, and interrogates suspects so that he has enough information to catch the culprit, deduce the motive and create a timeline of events leading up to the crime. But then the plot thickens – every historian (detective) records and relays history differently. Every historical account carries value judgements about the importance of events, morality and legitimacy. Moreover, no historian is able to examine every clue, and so no historian will ever obtain a full understanding of any historical event. Thus, historians study how history is written (historiography) to identify the biases and agendas of other historians – like detectives checking on one another – thus fuelling the debate even further.

I came to appreciate the importance of history and historiography this year, not just in understanding the present Arab-Israeli conflict, but also in understanding present-day Singapore. I now recognise the need to analyse Singapore’s history in the context of developments in South East Asia and the world’s dominant power networks. For example, the racialisation of politics in Singapore needs to be situated in the context of British colonialism, while the merger of Singapore with Malaya, the vilification of communists, and the Indonesian Konfrontasi need to be studied within the larger picture of Cold War dynamics. More importantly, I’ve recognised the need to analyse different historical narratives of Singapore, i.e. historiography. We are all familiar with at least one version of historical events – the one taught not just in Social Studies classes, but also in National Day Parades and Rallies, school learning journeys, National Service, minister’s speeches, politicians’ memoirs, and monuments. But there are other narratives to be analysed, especially concerning controversial points in our history.

One such controversy is the events surrounding the Merger of Singapore and Malaya. The orthodox narrative is that communists in Singapore were plotting to overthrow the government in the early 1960s, that the Internal Security Council detained communists in the 1963 Operation Coldstore because they posed a threat to constitutional democracy and the survival of the state, and that the merger was the express will of the Singaporean people. But there is a contending narrative as well – that Lim Chin Siong was never proven to be a communist, that the Barisan Sosialis did want a merger but only after independence from the British, that the detention of alleged communists was a desperate attempt by Lee Kuan Yew to halt the rising Barisan Sosialis, and that the Merger Referendum was skewed in favour of merger. These debates are crucial because they influence our beliefs about the legitimacy of the PAP, the Internal Security Act, and the Merger of 1963, which is arguably one of the most important historical events of both Singapore and Malaysia. In fact, these debates are still ongoing. Consider how the Government responded to a revisionist narrative – the film To Singapore, With Love – with the traditional narrative – publishing The Battle for Merger and erecting a memorial in Esplanade Park to honour Singaporeans who fought against communist insurgents.

Recognising the importance of the Merger to our present perceptions of the Singaporean identity, I worked with a few Singaporean and Malaysian LSE students to organise the “1963 Merger of Singapore and Malaya Crisis” in December 2014. The full-day event began with a brilliant lecture by Dr Thum Ping Tjin, who spoke about the ongoing effects of colonialism on Singapore today. The main activity was a simulation of merger negotiations between a Singaporean Cabinet and Malayan Cabinet, sitting in two different classrooms. The simulation was meant to critically analyse the orthodox historical narrative – not because it’s “invalid” or “wrong”, but simply because things are not as clear-cut as they are presented to us. Through research for the crisis event, participants and organisers studied competing narratives. Furthermore, through imagining an entirely new counter-factual narrative, we came to appreciate that history could have turned out differently.

There are many other Singaporean events and debates that are worth analysing. I’m certain that more Singaporeans will develop a greater appreciation for this fact as we approach our 50th National Day. In fact, the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew has already prompted Singaporeans to analyse Singapore’s history. I hope that Singaporeans will not only study Mr Lee’s contribution to this nation, but also that of S. Rajaratnam, Goh Keng Swee, David Marshall, Lim Yew Hock, J.B. Jeyaratnam, Chiam See Tong, S.R. Nathan, Lim Chin Siong, and others. I hope that the renewed interest in the history of our island will spur an informed and inclusive debate amongst Singaporeans which will strengthen the notion of a collective history and energise the Singaporean spirit. As we explore our history, we often find that different accounts can be valid at the same time, and an awareness of these different narratives adds richness to our understanding of the past and present.

Moreover, I hope that future batches of LSE Singaporean students will also take part in this exercise, either through events like the Merger Crisis, or through informal discussions in the creatively-named Fourth Floor Restaurant. My advice to Singaporeans in the LSE is to be inquisitive about Singapore’s history, to evaluate different historical accounts critically and fairly, and to capitalise on this opportunity to evaluate Singapore from the outside for the first time. These three years in university are the best time to ponder these issues – you have time on your hands, access to educational resources, and plenty of intelligent friends to learn from. Analysing the historical narratives of Singapore is a truly meaningful application of the education that we’ve been privileged to receive.

In short – why scrutinise, evaluate and debate the history of Singapore? In the words of the LSE motto – Rerum cognoscere causas.