By S R Nathan, Published The Straits Times, 21 Mar 2012
I WAS 26 years old when the Maria Hertogh riots erupted in December 1950. I was then working with the Public Works Department in Johor Baru but I came to Singapore regularly as I had enrolled as a part-time student at the Institute of Commerce at Middle Road for the London Chamber of Commerce examinations. My fellow classmates used to share with me concerns over the rising tension within the Muslim community over the controversy.
On the day the riots broke out, I went as usual to the Institute of Commerce as our classes usually started at about 6pm. But when we reached the school, we were told to go home because of the disturbances. So I went to the nearby Green Bus terminal at Queen Street to take a bus back to Johor Baru. The bus terminal and surroundings were almost deserted, with people rushing in a hurry to leave.
Political activists played a major role in the agitation over the High Court judgment and Maria's stay in the convent. The leading figure was Karim Ghani, an Indian Muslim community leader with a history of political activism in Burma and Malaya. He came to Malaya during the war and became the information minister of the 'Indian independence government of Subhas Chandra Bose' who aimed to liberate India from British rule.
In Singapore, Karim Ghani was the editor of a Tamil daily newspaper, Malaya Nanban, which ran strongly worded articles over the Hertogh issue. He was also editor of an English-language weekly, Dawn. There were also critical articles and editorials on the Hertogh case in the daily Jawi newspaper, the Melayu Raya.
Unrestrained and explosive press coverage of the issue by both the English-language and Malay/Muslim press aroused strong emotions among the Muslims. The Singapore Standard, for instance, published a picture of Maria holding hands with the Reverend Mother of the convent and an article stating that Maria had knelt before a Virgin Mary statue. Melayu Raya on its part published articles which portrayed the Hertogh case as a religious issue between Islam and Christianity.
On the day the riots broke out, Karim Ghani had published an open letter to the judges in the English language, asking to postpone judgment on the case. Karim Ghani declared that he was prepared to be hauled up for contempt of court or be expelled or detained. The letter was forcefully argued and a very emotional challenge to the judges.
The controversy and open defiance stirred up a lot of emotions on the ground and aroused strong anti-Dutch and anti- British feelings among the Muslims. The Dutch government was prominent and actively involved in the case, with the British seen as helping the Dutch. There was also sympathy for (Maria's adoptive mother) Cik Aminah, because she had taken care of the child since the Japanese Occupation, until the case was brought up in court for Maria's return to her Dutch parents.
One of the most important lessons to be drawn from the Hertogh riots is the imperative need to manage issues of race and religion with sensitivity. Action should have been taken to prevent the custody case from being exploited and turned into a religious issue.
The British basically misread and mishandled the furore badly - they were not sensitive to the emotions that were being aroused on the ground. They also viewed the Hertogh case legalistically and underestimated the gravity of the situation.
The British should have managed the press, which should also have exercised restraint in reporting the issue. Action should also have been taken to caution or rein in the agitators. Following the riots, the press came under heavy criticism. The police also detained many of the activists behind the agitation.
The Hertogh riots revived my memories of the communal violence I had seen in Johor in May 1945, when I was working as an interpreter for the Japanese civilian police there. I was privy to first-hand accounts of serious racial clashes between Malays and Chinese in the Batu Pahat and Pontian areas of Johor state. Law and order had broken down in several places, villages were deserted, houses were vacated in a hurry, livestock were abandoned, and people were seeking refuge in the two main towns, Batu Pahat and Pontian Kechil.
As I wrote in some detail in my book An Unexpected Journey: Path To The Presidency (2011), the disastrous events left a deep impression on me. I recognised that people would resort to violence if emotions were aroused on matters of race and religion - discarding the importance of the longstanding bonds established between races over the years.
After the Hertogh riots, we had three more outbreaks of communal violence, twice in 1964 following exploitation of communal issues, and again in May/June 1969 when riots in Kuala Lumpur spilled over into Singapore.
The outbreaks of communal violence underscore the fragility of communal relations. From time to time, sensitive issues will crop up and pose a challenge to racial and religious harmony. These will require careful handling and management by the authorities as well as community leaders and the media, especially in this age of the Internet when mischievous and insensitive comments can be disseminated quickly and widely and cause widespread disquiet and unrest.
This is an edited version of a commentary which had first appeared in The ISD Heritage Centre: A Decade Of Security Education 2002-2012. The book was launched yesterday to commemorate the centre's 10th anniversary. The writer is Singapore's former president.