What's in a name?

Indonesian General's apology to Singapore over gunboat naming stems PR crisis from escalating

GolinHarris and McCann Erickson operate out of the MacDonald House
GolinHarris and McCann Erickson operate out of the MacDonald House

A rose by any other name may have smelled as sweet but a gunboat by any other name, perhaps, would not have insulted Singapore so much. A diplomatic spat between this small but feisty city state and its powerful next door neighbour Indonesia erupted earlier this year after Jakarta decided to name a frigate after Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said – the two Indonesian marines who were executed by Singapore for the 1965 bombing of MacDonald House.

Last week the Commander-in-Chief of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) apologised for hurting Singapore’s national sentiments and prevented the PR crisis from escalating further. "We have no intent whatsoever to stir emotions, Not at all…I apologies," General Moeldoko told Channel NewsAsia on Monday (14 Apr). His apology was the first by an Indonesian military official. Emotions had indeed stirred when Indonesia decided to name one of its military vessel the KRI Usman Harun. The two names are synonymous with the infamous attack that killed three and injured 33 others.

The bombing of the MacDonald House happened during the so-called Konfrontasi period when Indonesia, then under Sukarno, carried out a series of black operations in Singapore and Malaysia in an attempt to sabotage the merger of the two.  Osman and Harun were convicted and executed by Singapore in 1968. Their bodies were returned and Indonesia declared them as national heroes and buried them with full military honour.  In March, a photograph showing two Indonesian soldiers posing as the bombers at an international defence conference in Jakarta went viral and resulted in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) withdrawing its delegation from the event. Earlier this month, top Indonesian defence officials pulled out of the Singapore Airshow after Singapore’s Defence Ministry allegedly rescinded their invitations.

The episode has opened old wounds between the otherwise two friendly nations. It is a sensitive subject for both sides. On 10 Mar, a memorial service was held at the site to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing. Singaporeans see Osman and Harun as terrorists while Indonesians see them as martyrs. The MacDonald bombing all but broke ties between Singapore and Indonesia and relations did not improve until 1973 until Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore visited the Kalibata Heroes Cemetery in Jakarta and sprinkled flowers over the grave of the two soldiers in a bold public relations gesture that softened Jakarta’s view of the city state.   

The MacDonald House stands today as an iconic building that has, among others, the offices of Golin Harris and McCann Erickson.   

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