My hero is your enemy

My hero is your enemy

Indonesia has, probably inadvertently at first, touched off a regional disagreement by announcing plans to deploy a new naval ship. The British-constructed frigate, now to be called KRI Usman Harun, will arrive in Indonesia in June, and enter service off Surabaya. The ship has been named to respect two national heroes. The problem is that it also shows huge disrespect for its neighbours, Singapore and Malaysia.

The “Usman” of the ship’s name is Second Sgt Usman bin Haji Muhammad Ali, while “Harun” refers to Second Cpl Harun bin Said. Both were in the Indonesian marines in March 1965, when they placed a bomb at MacDonald House in Singapore. It exploded at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building at the busiest, mid-afternoon business hour.

That bombing, during the Indonesia-Malaysia konfrontasi or confrontation, was a battle victory for Indonesia. For Singapore, it was a deadly terrorist attack against a civilian target that killed three people and wounded 33, none of them combatants. Singaporean authorities identified, captured and tried the two men. They were executed in 1968. Their bodies were returned to Indonesia where they were, and still are, celebrated as heroes.

The decision to name the new naval vessel after Usman and Harun has earned criticism as insensitive as well as diplomatically indefensible. Jakarta was aware of the problems it would cause to put the names of the convicted bombers in front of its neighbours.

Singapore last week was the first to retaliate to the ship-naming insult. It withdrew invitations to 100 middle-ranking Indonesia military officers to this week’s highly anticipated Singapore Airshow. Jakarta, in an equally predictable move, retaliated to the retaliation by ordering the Indonesian army, navy and air force commanders to give back their invitations and boycott the show entirely. Deputy Defence Minister Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, a retired three-star general, cancelled a lecture he was scheduled to give at a Singapore university.

The world at large and our region in general are familiar with these displays of nationalistic insensitivity. Less than two months ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are among those honoured. Less than two weeks ago, new NHK boss Katsuto Momii did it again, wondering aloud in front of the world what all the fuss was about the “comfort women” forced into prostitution for Japan’s World War II forces.

Thailand can be just as guilty of flaunting thoughtless, harmful nationalism. We make movies mocking our Lao neighbours and Isan citizens, and argue over territory on the Cambodian border. In the deep South, there have been decades of abuse of our citizens of Malay origin for no reason other than supposed superiority.

In recent weeks, there has been one welcome development in this case of unwarranted nationalism. The original names of many villages in the deep South are to be restored to provide a source of local history and pride. Of course, many other such unnecessary and hurtful abuses continue, such as discouragement of the use of the local Melayu language.

This is the type of unreasonable thinking that has led to the Indonesia-Singapore problem. Indonesia is, of course, entitled to its own history and heroes. So, however, are Singapore and Malaysia. In the interest of good relations between neighbours and Asean allies, Jakarta should consider finding a new and uncontroversial name for its new naval frigate. It also should keep its celebration of the convicted saboteurs more discreet out of consideration for its Asean neighbours.

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