The First Stone

The First Stone

Just one wrench of the wrist, and the wretched man’s life would end.

The whole ordeal was supposed to be over before sunrise. The condemned was not to see the light of another day. But the sun was already up, and Sherry Liew still could not bring herself to pull the lever. She stood at the gallows with her eyes fixed on the hooded man with the noose around his sweaty neck. Her hands trembled with fear; her soul bowed beneath the weight of the power of life and death.

Sherry was wracked with grief for her precious son, who had been bludgeoned to death by the hooded man now standing before her. Sam had been hanging out with the wrong crowd, getting into gang fights and working for ah longs, and would ignore her relentless pleas to come home. But she prayed unceasingly for the prodigal son to return.

On that fateful morning, she leapt for joy when the doorbell rang unexpectedly. But the last flicker of hope in her heart was snuffed out when she opened the door to a policeman bearing tragic news of his death.

Now, she had the power to avenge her son. For many months, she had longed to strangle the evil bastard with her bare hands. But what then of her many years preaching the forgiveness and love of Christ that covers a multitude of sins? The murderer’s mother had fallen on her knees, begging for mercy for her only son. Even that monster – she struggled to see him any other way – had written countless tear-stained letters to her, asking for forgiveness and promising that he had turned his life around in prison.

How then could she spit in God’s face?

Abruptly, she loosened her grip on the lever and walked away. No matter how much this man deserved to die, she couldn’t be the one to kill him. One mother had lost her son – there was no need for another to bear the same anguish.

She walked out of Changi Prison, weary and disoriented, but at peace.


How on earth did a sweet, unassuming school teacher become an executioner?

For years, the debate on Singapore’s death penalty was stale and predictable. The government continued to peddle the hackneyed narrative that death by hanging was an effective deterrent against egregious crimes like murder and drug trafficking. The abolitionists pointed to academic research questioning the effectiveness of the death penalty, and championed a more “merciful and humane” penal system over the country’s “ruthless and primitive” system of retribution. The vast majority of Singaporeans either accepted the government’s rhetoric, or were too busy growing their bank accounts to bother engaging in public debate.

It was clear that the abolitionists needed a new strategy. Whenever they criticised the death penalty as a “barbaric” penal system, they were accused of derisive name-calling. When they called for a more enlightened form of justice, they were ironically caricatured as naive latte liberals, completely out of touch with reality.

Tired of the impasse, one activist devised a new game plan. The government was adamant on keeping the death penalty, and there was no indication that the ruling party was going to lose power any time soon. Singaporeans had grown accustomed to the moniker “Disneyland with the death penalty”. So perhaps the way forward was not to target the substance of the policy, but its implementation instead.

This activist figured that the death penalty was carried out so effectively because the condemned was hanged by a professional executioner who was supposed to be a dispassionate agent of the state, with no emotional investment or psychological inhibitions to deal with. He was just like any other bureaucrat with a job scope and KPIs. Ultimately, this automaton was the linchpin of the entire process. Remove him, and the process would fall apart.

But how could the executioner be removed? To answer this, the activist decided to ask another question – why should the State carry out executions in the first place? Murder is certainly a crime against society in that it violates the moral sanctity of life on which society stands. And the State is supposed to carry out punishments so that there is fair and proportionate justice, not vigilantism. But it is also a crime against the ones who loved and cherished the victim. The State did not give life to the victim – a mother did. Before the victim was a citizen of the State, he was a son first and foremost.

The activist argued then that in the case of first-degree murder, the execution should be carried out by the family of the victim. As for drug trafficking, the trafficker should be hanged by family members of victims of drug abuse. The State would still play the role of a neutral third party, but instead of delegating an agent to carry out the execution, it would merely “set up the venue”.

The Government accepted this proposal because it kept the death penalty intact. And so did the abolitionists. After all, for many years, they had framed capital punishment as nothing more than a clinical, state-sanctioned form of retribution. In their eyes, this new system would clearly demonstrate their point by empowering the victims’ families to exact their revenge.

More importantly though, the new system left room for compassion and mercy to intervene. In the old system, mercy was virtually non-existent because the President (or rather, the Cabinet who advised him) almost never granted clemency. But now that the act of execution was no longer in the hands of a detached, professional hangman, would every hanging be followed through?

In first-century Judea, when an angry mob brought a woman before Jesus and accused her of committing adultery, an act punishable by death, Jesus replied, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The crowd dispersed because none of them believed they had the right to mete out the death sentence.

It was the same with Sherry Liew. She chose to show mercy because she believed mercy had been shown to her. But had she decided to pull the lever, she would have acted legitimately and lawfully as well.

Of course, this scenario is completely hypothetical. But it is worth wondering what the contours of public debate would look like if a proposed system like this really gained traction. I wonder what would change if Singaporeans were no longer detached from the gruesome act of hanging, which today is carried out secretly in the early hours of the morning behind the iron gates of Changi Prison.

Would we be willing to cast the first stone?

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CMIO+++

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Source: MySkillsFuture website (www.myskillsfuture.sg)

I’ve become so accustomed to filling in my “Race” on application forms in Singapore. Usually, I just need to choose one of four options – Chinese, Malay, Indian or Others.

But when you register on the MySkillsFuture website (www.myskillsfuture.sg), you now have a long list of “races” to choose from!

Instead of being just “Malay”, you can choose “Acehnese”, “Boyanese” or even “Bugis”.

You can identify as “Indian”, or you can be more specific and select “Tamil”, “Punjabi”, “Sindhi”, “Goan”, or others.

Depending on how nationalistic you are, you can choose “French”, “Dane”, “German”, or just jettison all these archaic labels for the more progressive “European”. For the more pedantic, instead of “British”, go ahead and choose “English”, “Welsh” or “Scot” (apologies to the Northern Irish, there’s no option for you).

If you’re only partly English, don’t worry – there are several hybrid options for you, such as “Anglo Chinese”, “Anglo Indian”, “Anglo Filipino”, “Anglo Burmese”, and “Anglo Thai”. (What, no “Anglo Uzbek”??? Sheesh.)

At the risk of sounding like a neo-Nazi, you can even choose “Aryan”. Oh man, I’d like to see who’s brave enough to do that…

If you think that “American” and “Canadian” are races rather than the more inclusive labels of civic identity that they are generally believed to be, those options are listed too. I have no idea why, but they’re there.

For our Middle Eastern friends, shalom/salam and welcome to the party. Along with “Jew” and “Arab”, “Israeli” and “Palestine” are somehow options too. Wow, this reminds me of Conflict Resolution classes back in Israel…

But if all this is too complicated, and you’d rather just put the generic and non-committal “Other”, you’re in luck. Though for some bizarre reason, that’s listed along with “Other Eurasian”, “Other Indonesian” and “Other Indian”.

So what should I choose? Normally, I would just choose “Indian”. But with such a smorgasbord of “races”, I feel like writing in and asking for “Indo-Greek” to be made available. After all, that sounds better than “Greco-Indian”.

Or I could just be a rebel, forget the whole “race” thing, and choose “Brahmin” (I kid you not, it’s actually there).

Look, I appreciate the effort to move away from the CMIO system and acknowledge the great diversity on our island, but in offering so many options, the labels have become meaningless. Or maybe that’s the whole point?

Don’t Miss the Grass for the Trees

Lime Green tree

Our eyes first catch sight of the towering, majestic tree, but we shouldn’t forget that it’s the grass that fills the landscape with vibrant colour.

A few articles have been published in the wake of Dr Nadia Wright’s recent book, William Farquhar and Singapore: Stepping out from Raffles’ Shadow, which supposedly offers an iconoclastic revisionist account of Sir Stamford Raffles’ legacy (I haven’t read it yet, but I hope to soon). This article in The Spectator, for example, highlights the superb administrative competence of Raffles’ right-hand man, William Farquhar, who is  commonly thought to have played second fiddle to the trailblazing Raffles.

On the flip side, this article in Rice paints a shocking picture of Raffles as a deceitful, hypocritical, narcissistic “monster”.

I must say at the outset that I find the writer’s tone quite vulgar and discomfiting, but I suppose such sensationalist language serves the purpose of capturing a wider audience. (It also got me wondering if being called an Old Rafflesian is such a good thing after all…)

Nonetheless, after excoriating Raffles for his scandalous behaviour and sullying the halo above his head, the writer draws a very important lesson that resonates strongly with me. In criticising the “Great Man Syndrome” – a tendency to attribute monumental social and political change to several notable individuals, such as Raffles or LKY – he writes:

“Everything good that happened to Singapore is credited to the heroes, and we choose to ignore our own part in nation-building. As a consequence, we overestimate their ability to shape the course of fate and underestimate our own agency.”

This observation is not only true of our treatment of history. I think the Great Man Syndrome still colours our vision today. We marvel at the brilliance of politicians and scholars, the business acumen of successful CEOs, the military decorations of high-ranking officers – and then we sometimes get overwhelmed by such excellence and retreat into our caves, fearful to venture out in case we stumble and fall.

Of course we should celebrate those who have achieved excellence in their fields and have made exceptional contributions to society. But they should serve as examples to inspire us, not to deflate our own ambitions (“I’ll never be as good as her”), absolve us of our personal responsibility to society (“That guy is already doing so much, I don’t need to contribute”), or minimise our own agency (“I don’t have as much influence as her, so I might as well do nothing”).

We are the nation, everyone of us. Even our most mundane decisions shape our culture everyday – when we greet or ignore each other in the morning, when we use our free time to play mobile phone games or read a book, when we say thanks for our food or complain about how tasteless it is, when we congratulate our kids for scoring a 90 or demand an explanation for the missing 10 marks, when we crib incessantly about work or appreciate our gainful employment.

But beyond moulding an amorphous national culture, we have a very distinctive and tangible effect on the people around us, whether we realise it or not. Our words and actions can demoralise or edify, infuriate or elate, attract or repel, deaden or inspire. We are all influencers, not just the social media gurus.

This vitriolic critic of Sir Stamford Raffles makes an excellent point – let us not underestimate our individual and collective agency. Don’t miss the grass for the trees.

 

Cosmopolitan from Day One

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The Maghain Aboth Synagogue – the oldest synagogue in Singapore and Southeast Asia

I recently popped into the public library for a quick browse, and a title in the Singapore Collection piqued my interest. The Jews of Singapore, written by Joan Bieder, explores the history of the Jewish community in Singapore and traces the development of its unique identity from the 1840s till today. It begins with an explanation of how Jews from Baghdad ended up in our neck of the woods, helpfully situated within the wider narrative and migratory patterns of the Jewish Diaspora.

As Baghdadi Jews fled from persecution under Ottoman rule, they found refuge and bountiful economic opportunities in the British trading posts of Calcutta and Singapore, where business interests obscured racial and cultural differences. These Jewish traders brought their families over to Singapore, petitioned the British colonial government for land to build a synagogue, and kept their traditions alive through the celebration of festivals and adherence to kosher laws.

As I was casually flipping through the pages, I chanced upon a fascinating account of an Englishman’s encounter with the patriarch of the Jewish community in Singapore in the 1840s. This Englishman was John Turnbull Thomson, a surveyor for the East India Company in Singapore from 1841 to 1853. Many Singaporeans are probably unfamiliar with this man, but they definitely know the roads, condominiums and shopping centre named after him.

Thomson was once invited to share a meal with Abraham Solomon, who was regarded as the leader of the Jewish community in Singapore in his time. Apparently Thomson was so impacted by this episode that he included a rich and vivid description of his experience in his memoirs, written years after his time in Singapore. Bieder notes, “In the 1840s, it would be unimaginable in either England or Baghdad that a young English surveyor and an Orthodox Baghdadi Jewish trader would sit down to a meal together. However, in Singapore, where trade trumped prejudice and habit, traditional barriers dissolved.”

Thomson was accompanied by one of Solomon’s friends, as well as Solomon’s brother. According to Bieder, since the Baghdadi Jews did not speak English, the four men actually conversed in Malay throughout their meal! Of course, this phenomenon must have been very common back then, but I imagine it would intrigue many Singaporeans today.

What did they speak about? Thomson wrote that his host spoke nostalgically about the dates, grapes and figs back home that he could not find in Singapore. As I learned later on in the book, another enterprising Baghdadi Jewish man made a living in Singapore by filling this gap in the market. Saul Nassim Mashal realised that the Muslims in Singapore did not have dates with which they could break their fast during Ramadan, so he imported them from the Middle East. His son, David Saul Mashal (or David Marshall), would later become the first Chief Minister of Singapore.

As Thomson’s host, Abraham Solomon, continued his walk down memory lane, he also described the oppression that he experienced under the Ottomans. According to Thomson, Solomon recounted, “The soles of my feet were beaten until they were raw; for they wished to torture me into disclosing treasures that I had not.” Bieder writes, “As a result of this mistreatment, Solomon left his father’s house and fled, first to Calcutta and then to Singapore in search of religious tolerance and economic freedom.”

Encounters like this inspired Thomson to write an evocative (and slightly pompous) description of the cosmopolitan reality of life in Singapore, which was merely in its second decade as a colonial trading post. He wrote, “Subject of nations at war are friendly here, they are bound hand and foot by the absorbing interests of commerce. The pork-hating Jew of Persia embraces the pork-loving Chinese of Chinchew. The cow-adoring Hindu of Benares hugs the cow-slaying Arab of Juddah. Even the Englishman, proud yet jolly, finds it to his interest to unbend and associate with the sons of Shem, whether it be in commerce, in sports or at the banquet.”

Singapore has been a global nexus since Day One. It still is. But whether it will remain so depends on the human initiative and creativity of successive generations of Singaporeans.

 

September Sixteenth

malaysia day

Source: National Archives of Singapore


On this day in 1923, a pioneer was born. Mr Lee Kuan Yew would grow to become a fervent advocate of racial equality, meritocracy, and the unifying power of civic nationalism.

Exactly forty years later, under the guidance of this pioneer, a new political creature would be formed (purportedly) on the basis of these values. Malaysia officially came into existence on 16 September 1963 – a federation of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore.

From this day onward, Singapore was no longer under British colonial rule. The residents of Singapore were told that they were now Malaysians, that they shared a common identity and destiny with their fellow citizens from Perlis to Johor, and that they were co-builders and co-owners of this brand new nation. The PAP and their partners in the Malaysian Solidarity Convention issued the clarion call to build a “Malaysian Malaysia”, in opposition to special privileges and quotas for Malays.

Alas, the political experiment faced a road bump in 1965 when Singapore was ejected from the Federation. The residents of this island once again experienced an identity change – they were now told that they were Singaporeans, not Malaysians or Malayans. The spirit of “Malaysian Malaysia” lived on in the new Singaporean identity, exemplified in the words famously penned by Mr S Rajaratnam: “regardless of race, language, or religion”.

A half-century later, I believe that our leaders and the vast majority of our population are still strongly devoted to the ideal of racial equality. Undoubtedly, there are worrying aberrations. Off the top of my head, I am concerned about socioeconomic inequality along racial lines, discriminatory deployment of National Servicemen, extremist views, suggestions that Singaporeans vote along racial lines, the unrepresentative nature of the upper echelons of the civil service, and homogeneity in elite/SAP schools. The idea of a Reserved Presidential Election has also been roundly criticised as an unmeritocratic form of affirmative action (let alone the fact that there was no election at all).

But I also realise that these concerns pale in comparison to the problem of emboldened white supremacists in America and the massacre of Rohingyas in Myanmar. This fact should not encourage an attitude of complacency with regard to strengthening our social solidarity. Instead, it should remind us that our society could easily slip into chaos and disarray if we do not constantly watch our words, review the intentions and content of our social policies, and weave new threads in our social fabric through interacting with people who are different from us.

Happiness in the Hermit Kingdom

nothing-to-envy-book

Is happiness a right or a privilege? Upon googling this question, almost every response is along these lines: “Happiness is neither a right nor a privilege – it’s a choice”.

This cliche self-help-book answer actually makes a lot of sense. Before we can even ask if a state should guarantee its citizens “happiness” in the same way that it guarantees economic well-being and security, we should ask if happiness is something that can be guaranteed.

The US Declaration of Independence famously proclaims that all men are entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. It is not happiness itself that is guaranteed, but the individual’s right to pursue it, in recognition of the fact that happiness is defined by the individual and not by the state. If happiness is self-defined, it cannot be guaranteed by an external agent, and thus the cliche Google answer is right after all. The terms “right” and “privilege” are irrelevant if no one other than the individual can decide if he/she is happy. Perhaps all a state can and should do is to protect the right to chase that happiness.

The North Korean regime doesn’t seem to believe that. In the Hermit Kingdom, happiness is defined by the regime – along with its pursuit, its expression, and its limits. It is the most extreme example in the world of total subjugation of the individual in the (supposed) pursuit of collective prosperity, dignity and well-being. In North Korea, the logic appears to be that the individual is happy if the collective is happy. In reality, the word “collective” can easily be substituted with the word “regime”.

While reading Barbara Demick’s journalistic tour de force on North Korea, Nothing to Envy, I couldn’t help but ponder the tragedy of the imbalance of happiness in the world. I realise that since happiness is self-defined, there cannot be a perfect basis for comparison between the happiness of different individuals, and it is theoretically possible for a poor villager in Cambodia to be as happy as a real estate tycoon in Hong Kong. But am I really to believe that a North Korean citizen who has been cut off from the rest of humanity and is treated like a cog in the world’s most repressive state machinery can ever be as happy as a middle-class American?

Through her interviews with North Korean defectors living in South Korea, Demick provides a harrowing account of the callousness, brutality and obstinacy of the North Korean regime. The book reads like a thriller and stabs like a dagger to the heart. Her raw delivery of horrific stories of famine and repression in North Korea in the 1990s dredges up the darkest emotions of the reader’s soul. Unsurprisingly, the last time I felt a similar level of anger and despair was while reading Orwell’s 1984.

Demick uses an unconventional but relatable love story between two North Korean students to ease the reader into the book. This is soon followed by a litany of agonising anecdotes about life in North Korea – or lack thereof. But a love story is a good, lighthearted starting point – even if this story involves a boy and girl separated by social class in a supposedly classless society, who resort to secret dates in the pitch-black darkness of North Korean suburbs and are afraid to hold hands for three years.

After this unnerving introduction to life in North Korea, Demick illustrates the paradoxical inequality of North Korea’s communist society through the story of Mi-ran, a girl whose life prospects were restricted by the regime simply because her father was originally from South Korea. To her dismay, she was rejected from several educational institutions despite her merit and studiousness. When she was finally offered a job as a kindergarten teacher in the middle of the famine, her job was essentially to feed starving children with scraps of food and regime propaganda. Her class size slowly shrank from 50 children to 15.

The famine remains the tragic overarching theme of the subsequent chapters. Demick’s interviewees claim that the famine was so severe that people were searching for undigested corn in animal droppings, and mixing sawdust into their meals of ground corn and tree bark. At some point, Demick writes bluntly about “tales of cannibalism” – at which point I had to put the book down momentarily.

The most intriguing chapter to me is “Mothers of Invention”, which narrates the stories of entrepreneurial women in a country dead set against individual enterprise. Sitting here in Israel, “entrepreneurship” is associated with the glitz and glamour of the cutting-edge startup ecosystem. But the author writes about innovation in a completely different context. During the famine, North Koreans had to come up with the most creative ways of making money, growing crops, and salvaging food in order to feed themselves, let alone their families. For instance, an electrician read a book and taught himself to make herbal medicines, and a textile factory worker learned how to bake cookies in a makeshift oven and sell them on the street. We’re told in Singapore that our economic growth is spurred by innovation – in North Korea, daily innovation is literally a matter of life and death.

One of the most painful stories recounted in this book is that of a young university student, Jun-sang, returning to his high school. Jun-sang loved reconnecting with his teachers, who were proud of his academic achievements. But his homecoming visits were soon overshadowed by reports of former teachers and classmates who had died of starvation. He couldn’t handle the stress and stopped going back.

That particular story tugged at my heartstrings because I’m about to head home to Singapore and catch up with old school friends. But almost every story provokes anger and dismay, whether it’s hair-raising stories of people scavenging for rotten pears in orchards, or sickening accounts of electricity being diverted from homes and factories to light up statues of Kim Il-sung. What’s even more disturbing on an emotional level is that North Koreans’ emotions are controlled as well – when Kim Il-sung died, people’s lives and career prospects depended on their ability to cry, or else their loyalty to the regime would be questioned.

Through telling the stories of North Korean defectors, Demick invites us to take a good look at our own lives. Imagine the psychological and emotional stress that these defectors felt upon learning that they had been fed a lifetime of lies. Every book they had read, film they had watched and song they had heard had been in exaltation of the regime. They had been completely sealed off from the Internet and satellite television. Of course, the fact that you’re reading this blog post means you have access to the largest repository of information in the world, but it’s still worth asking ourselves – are we truly making good use of our freedom to information? We may not be living in hermetically sealed nations, but are we limiting our intellectual horizons through fear, stubbornness, or laziness?

Even after decades of brainwashing, thousands of North Koreans have seen past the lies of the regime. I was struck by how the simplest of items could spark enormous epiphanies. Demick relates the story of a North Korean soldier who discovered America’s technological superiority in a humble American-made nail clipper. It dawned on him: if his own country couldn’t produce a simple item like that, how could their weapons rival America’s firepower? A nail accessory pushed him from caution to defection.

Another North Korean student was pushed over the edge when he saw a picture in the official media of South Korean workers on strike. The picture was meant to highlight the oppression of workers in a capitalist society, but the student was astounded that one of the workers had a jacket with a zipper and a ballpoint pen – items that we take for granted but are luxuries in North Korea.

Back to the original question: what is happiness? It’s not a right, it’s not a privilege, but is it even a choice for North Koreans? Or is it just an absurd masquerade coerced by a ruthless and pig-headed regime that teaches its citizens to sing, “We have nothing to envy in the world”?

One thing’s for sure – it is a privilege to think that the pursuit of happiness is a right.

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.