Thursday 13 February 2014

MacDonald House Bombing 1965 - Konfrontasi

MacDonald House attack still strikes home
Those old enough remember shock when iconic building was bombed
By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 12 Feb 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.

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 Mrs 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 Mrs Elizabeth Suzie Choo, 36, private secretary to the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank manager, and Miss Juliet Goh, 23, a clerk in the bank, were found buried in the rubble. The third victim, Mr Mohammed Yasin Kesit, 45, a driver, slipped into a coma after the blast, and did not come out of it.

Recalling the incident, Mr 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.

Mr 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.

Mr 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 Mr 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.

Mr 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 Mr 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 $350 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 Mr 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.


Series of explosions in Singapore
The Straits Times, 12 Feb 2014

"KONFRONTASI" or confrontation refers to the period between January 1963 and August 1966 when Indonesia used military, economic and diplomatic means to break up the newly formed Federation of Malaysia of which Singapore was a part.

Indonesia broke off ties with Malaysia and went on to instigate its nationals to infiltrate and sabotage key installations in Malaysia and Singapore.

One attack carried out in Singapore was on March 10, 1965, at 3.07pm, when a bomb exploded at MacDonald House, Orchard Road's tallest building at that time. A lift door was blown off. Windows of buildings 100m away were shattered, as were windscreens of cars across the road.

Three people died and 33 were injured. Two Indonesian marines, Harun Said and Osman Mohamed Ali, were caught, tried and hanged for murder.

Other incidents included an explosion on April 13, 1964, which caused extensive damage at 21 Jalan Rebong off Changi Road, killing a woman and her daughter and injuring six.

Three days later, on April 16, another explosion completely wrecked a telephone booth at the junction of Jalan Betek, Jalan Timun and Jalan Badarah. Four men and a woman were injured.

Indonesian saboteurs are reported to have caused at least 42 explosions in Singapore from September 1963 to May 1965. In August 1966, Konfrontasi ended with the signing of a peace treaty between Malaysia and Indonesia. The toll in Singapore: seven killed and more than 51 others injured.

Coming as it did soon after the racial riots in July 1964, the bombing of MacDonald House cast a dark shadow over the fledging country's future, a situation made worse after the island was expelled from the Malaysian federation in 1965.

Independent Singapore, however, went on to become a successful city.

The days when bombs went off in my kampung
By Salim Osman, The Straits Times, 12 Feb 2014

WHEN a bomb went off one Sunday night in April 1964 at Jalan Rebong in Kampung Ubi, the impact was so large that I could feel it from my home in Geylang Serai a kilometre away.

A 50-year-old Malay widow and her only child, a 19-year-old schoolgirl, who were at a neighbour's house were killed when the bomb exploded nearby.

Three days later, another bomb went off about a kilometre away, at the junction of Jalan Betek and Jalan Timun, at a public telephone booth. Five people were injured, including a 62-year-old Chinese woman and three Malays who lived near the booth.

As a 12-year-old boy who had just entered secondary school, I was curious as to why a bomb had gone off in my kampung area.

I cycled to Jalan Betek, the scene of the second explosion, to see the mayhem. Only the concrete base of the phone booth was left; the booth and its roof had been blown to bits. The house next door was in shambles, its sitting room badly damaged.

Months earlier, terrorists had planted a bomb at Katong Park in front of the Ambassador Hotel in Meyer Road. That park by the beach was a favourite picnic site for many of us who lived in Geylang Serai.

The series of bombings in Singapore occurred at the height of Indonesia's "Konfrontasi" - "Confrontation" - against the Federation of Malaysia formed in September 1963. Singapore was then a part of this federation.

We were told that it was the work of Indonesian soldiers who had infiltrated the island to launch a campaign of terror in line with its "Ganjang Malaysia" - "Crush Malaysia" - campaign against the fledgling federation.

It was an act of military aggression without a formal declaration of war against Malaysia, which then President Sukarno considered a "British puppet".

For the Malays in my kampung, Konfrontasi was a campaign of terror against civilians. The series of bombings against targets such as telephone booths, public parks and beaches targeted ordinary people.

Soon, people were afraid to visit these places.

The biggest attack was the bombing in March 1965 of MacDonald House in Orchard Road, which killed three civilians and injured 33 others.

Indonesian marines Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said were arrested, tried and convicted of murder and hanged.

Konfrontasi was a source of disappointment to my late father, who was Javanese, and his Javanese friends.

They had come to see Sukarno as a leader who had united the sprawling archipelago, and were disappointed that he had launched the campaign of terror against Malaysia, a newly emerging nation in the Nusantara, the Malay world.

Konfrontasi also became the first test of our loyalty to Singapore - and to then Malaysia of which we were a part.

The Indonesian soldiers who infiltrated Singapore to carry out the bombings were all of Malay stock. Some could have well been relatives of Malays who had migrated to Singapore from Java before the Japanese invasion in 1942.

I recall the swirl of talk in the kampung then: What should the Malays do if the saboteurs came to them to seek refuge? Should we provide food and shelter, or should we surrender them to the authorities?

Those conversations inevitably ended with the same decision: To hand over any infiltrator or wandering saboteur to the authorities.

This was no easy decision, given our kinship ties.

My father's only sister lived with her family in Indonesia. But he lost contact with her because of Konfrontasi; they renewed contact years later, in 1971.

All that was over four decades ago. Now, the Indonesian military plans to name a navy ship after the two marines who had bombed MacDonald House and struck terror in Singapore.

We may not be the families of those who died or were injured in the bombing, but as Singaporeans, we feel outraged by the move to honour two terrorists by naming a vessel after them.

According to Indonesian Armed Forces chief General Moeldoko, the decision to name the ship was made in December 2012 with no intention to stir emotions.

But surely there are hundreds of Indonesian heroes whose names can be chosen for the vessel. Why pick the names of the two marines, when this would only open up old wounds?

Survivor of 1965 MacDonald House bombing tells his story
By Rennie Whang, The New Paper, 12 Feb 2014

When a bomb went off at MacDonald House on March 10, 1965, Mr Zainal Kassim, then 26, was badly injured.

He said: “I was bleeding all over... My head had swelled to double its size, like a watermelon."

Last week, he was stunned to hear news of Indonesia naming a navy ship after the two men responsible for the attack.

Mr Zainal, now 75, said: “I was hurt because these men planted a bomb and other people were killed and injured. These are innocent people.”

Three people died and 33 were injured in the incident.

'I screamed for help and prayed for someone to rescue me'
23-year-old theological student was steps away from MacDonald House in March 1965 when a bomb blast flung him across the road
By Joyce Lim, The Sunday Times, 16 Feb 2014

Reverend Yeo Suan Kim remembers the day 49 years ago when he lost his right eye.

It was the afternoon of March 10, 1965.

He was 23 years old and was at Orchard Road, on his way to a bus stop after attending his theological college on Mount Sophia.

He stopped for a drink from a makeshift stall steps away from MacDonald House and just as he walked past the building, there was a blast that flung him clear across the road.

"I screamed for help and prayed for someone to rescue me," recalled Rev Yeo, now 72. "I heard a voice beside me saying, 'Young man, I am a doctor, I will help you', and I was lifted up and carried to the pavement."

But he could not see anything. His right eye had been shattered. "I lay there in total darkness," he said, in an interview at his flat in Sengkang. "I could hear people screaming in pain, footsteps rushing past me, cars honking and glass shattering."

The bomb which went off at 3.07pm in the 10-storey building, which housed the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, had been planted by two Indonesian marines - part of Indonesia's Confrontation campaign against Malaysia from 1963 to 1966.

Three people died, and 33 were injured.

Mrs Suzie Choo, 36, a private secretary to the bank manager and 23-year-old Juliet Goh, a filing clerk, died inside the building. A man who was sitting outside, driver Yasin Kesit, 43, died in hospital from his injuries.

MacDonald House was back in the news two weeks ago after Singapore expressed its unhappiness to Indonesia about the decision to name a navy frigate the KRI Usman Harun after the two marines.

The two men were convicted and hanged in Singapore in 1968.

Rev Yeo remembers lying in a Singapore General Hospital bed next to Mr Yasin. "The flesh on his back was ripped open by the blast. It was heartbreaking to hear him screaming out in pain every day," he said.

Rev Yeo spent two weeks in hospital, but needed multiple operations for his injuries. Aside from losing his eye,he also suffered multiple cuts all over his body from glass splinters, some of which pierced his liver and diaphragm.

Even years later, he said, a glass fragment would fall from his skin.

His 74-year-old wife, Soh Fong, was his girlfriend at the time. She said he was supposed to have attended a wedding dinner on the night of the blast but did not show up.

"He was the wedding photographer and everyone was puzzled. After the wedding we went to look for him in church but he was not there," she recalled. "It was only when we heard the news about the bomb that we decided to search for him at the hospital and eventually found him there."

By then it was past midnight.

"He had just come out of the operating theatre and the surgeons told us that he might not survive," she said. "Two days later, the man lying on the bed next to him died. I was so scared. I didn't dare tell him. He didn't know, as his eyes were bandaged."

The dead man, Mr Yasin, had been reading a paper outside MacDonald House when the bomb went off.

Another blast victim, 75-year-old chauffeur Zainal Kassim, told The Sunday Times that he was entering the building that afternoon and saw Mr Yasin. "If I had stopped to talk to him, I would have been killed," he said.

Mr Zainal was 25 at the time and working as an office assistant at the Australian High Commission, which was in the building too.

His boss, Mr Barry J.O'Donnell, who was waiting for the lift with him, was flung several metres when the bomb went off. Mr Zainal was thrown against a wall. He was kept under observation in hospital for five days before he was discharged.

Rev Yeo, now a retired pastor who conducts the Hainanese service at The Peoples Presbyterian Church, got married on the year of the blast while he was still recovering from his injuries. He and his wife have two children and two grandchildren.

It took him some years to adjust to his prosthetic eye and before he was able to walk past MacDonald House without fear. When his grandchildren came along and they drove past the place, he would point out: "That's where Grandpa lost his eye!"

But some shadows remain.

He has suffered from claustrophobia - the fear of enclosed spaces - ever since the incident.

"I will not enter a crowded lift. I would rather take the stairs even if it means climbing 23 storeys," he said.

Documents serve as grim reminder
The Sunday Times, 16 Feb 2014

For more than four decades, Reverend Yeo Suan Kim has held on to a bundle of documents and black-and-white photographs that serve as a reminder of what happened to him on March 10, 1965.

The documents are from a 1965 appeals court hearing of the two Indonesian bombers convicted of the MacDonald House blast.

Rev Yeo, 72, said that a church friend had found the bundle discarded in a rubbish bin outside the courthouse and thought he might be interested in keeping it. Rev Yeo cannot remember exactly when he received the documents, but he has looked after them well.

The bundle includes statements given by the two bombers and details of the extent of the injuries of the three people who died and of at least five others who were hurt.

There are also photographs of the two bombers, the three deceased and of MacDonald House shortly after the blast.

Renewed media interest in bombers' graves after furore
By Zubaidah Nazeer, The Sunday Times, 16 Feb 2014

About 100m from the entrance of the Kalibata Heroes Cemetery, plots 50 and 51 look no different from the 9,500 graves in this sprawling complex. But they have seen more visitors than the rest in the last 10 days.

Mention "Osman" and "Harun", and Pak Mudji guides you through the maze of graves, each with a metallic silver helmet at the foot of the gravestone, symbolising heroic status. "I only found out where they are buried recently, when a lot of people began asking to see the graves," said the cleaner, who has worked there for 30 years.

Indonesian marines Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said, convicted and hanged in Singapore in 1968 for bombing MacDonald House in 1965, are buried there.

Osman, 25, and Harun, 21, were declared national heroes and given final resting places in the 25ha heroes' cemetery. Their simple headstones state their names, ranks and dates of birth and death.

The recent row between Singapore and Indonesia over Jakarta's plan to name a naval warship after the two men prompted renewed media interest in Indonesia in the long-forgotten marines.

Cemetery caretaker Agus Hadipurnomo told The Sunday Times: "We've certainly seen a lot more visitors asking about their graves, but almost all are journalists. Before this, only their families visited."

The two men were so little known that hardly anyone noticed the decision last May to rename Central Jakarta's Jalan Prapatan as Jalan Usman Harun, based on the navy's recommendation in November 2012. "No one has objected so far," Jakarta governor Joko Widodo told reporters.

A series of inner roads around a military complex in East Jakarta are already named after the two men.

Back in their home towns, their family members did not know about the warship at first.

"I see it as part of a tribute to these two men who died in Singapore while serving their country," Madam Siti Rodiah, 75, Osman's older sister, was quoted saying in Tempo.

Plans to build a museum in his name at her Tawangsari village, in the Purbalingga sub-district of Central Java, have been delayed. The Usman Janatin City Park, which includes an entertainment centre, is abandoned and undergoing a revamp.

In the East Java village of Bawean, there is no trace of where Harun used to live. His sister, Madam Aisyah, 70, told that Harun left for Jakarta in his early teens to look for work and lost touch with the family.

Born to farmers, Harun had four siblings, of whom two remain - Madam Aisyah and a brother, Mr Nawawi.

The family learnt that he had joined the military only when he was about to be executed, and were in shock at his burial. His nephew, Mr Salim, said: "After that, my grandmother banned anyone in the family from joining the army. She was traumatised."

Building was one of Singapore's tallest at 10 storeys
By Joyce Lim, The Sunday Times, 16 Feb 2014

MacDonald House was a prominent Orchard Road landmark during the period of Konfrontasi, from 1963 to 1966, when then-Indonesian President Sukarno waged a "confrontation" campaign to crush the newly formed federation of Malaysia which Singapore was a part of briefly.

At 10 storeys, it was one of Singapore's tallest buildings. The Cathay building nearby was also an Orchard Road landmark at the time, recalled pioneer tour guide Geraldene Lowe-Ismail, 75.

Ms Lowe was living in an apartment above the Wearnes Brothers motor showroom next to MacDonald House, but she was not in Singapore when the bomb went off in March 1965.

She said Orchard Road then was nothing like it is today.

"Back then, Orchard Road was a two-way street with parking on both sides of the road," she said,

Instead of gleaming shopping malls and skyscrapers, shophouses lined the famous strip all the way from where Tangs is today, to the Istana.

"There were cinemas, embassies, boarding houses, antique shops. Where Ion Singapore is now, was a police station."

The area around MacDonald House was also very different then.

"Where Dhoby Ghaut MRT station is today, there was a Cycle and Carriage car showroom. Next to it was a Jewish cemetery surrounded by high walls. You couldn't see the cemetery from the footpath. But I could see it from the windows of my apartment opposite," recalled Ms Lowe.

"Next to it was Singapore's oldest Hindu temple. It was later demolished to make way for the MRT."

Ms Lowe, who started conducting tours in 1965 and became well known for her walking tours of heritage areas, moved with her family to Perth in 1985 but has continued to shuttle between her homes there and here.

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