History is never singular. There will always be various versions of a single event running parallel to one another. After all, there is an element of subjectivity when history is recorded. How an event is perceived has a lot to do with the angle from which the event is viewed. Whether we like it or not, we will always put on tinted eyeglasses when trying to understand an event. And this is very much coloured by our socio-political circumstances.
Each country has a history of its own. Sometimes other countries may take umbrage at how an event is perceived by a particular country. The Yasukuni war-shrine is a good example of this. China and South Korea have always been against the annual visits by Japanese politicians to the shrine. They can’t accept Japanese’ reverence towards war criminals. The Japanese on the other hand, say that they are only paying their respects to their war heroes.
Similar dissonance could be seen between Singapore and Indonesia with regard to the McDonald’s House bombing in 1965. Singapore viewed it as an act of terrorism while Indonesia saw it as an act of heroism. Between terrorism and heroism is a gap seemingly too wide to bridge. But where idealism failed, realism prevailed. Both countries soon began to realise that it would make more sense for them to put their differences aside for the sake of the bigger picture. So after some posturing from both countries, they decided to agree to disagree. Both sides kept their version of history without either one of them trying to impose their own version on the other. The two terrorists were executed and the bodies flown to Indonesia to be venerated as heroes. For years after that, relationship between the two countries flourished.
Fast forward to the present day. Indonesia decided to name a frigate after their two heroes. But Singapore viewed it as glorification of two terrorists. It saw it as an insensitive attempt by Indonesia to open an old wound. An attempt to impose its version of history onto Singapore. In response, Singapore reacted to defend its own version of history by posturing. Diplomatic notes were exchanged. Official protestations were issued. Indonesian generals were uninvited from the Singapore Aerospace show. The frigate was banned from visiting Singapore ports and military co-operations were put on hold. The Indonesians meanwhile said that they meant no harm and the act was not malicious. But they stopped short of apologising or rescinding the naming decision. Relations became frosty.
Then came what looked like a desired response from Indonesia. The Indonesian top military brass offered what clearly was an apology to Singapore in a TV interview. Immediately Singapore seized on the occasion and announced that relationships between the two countries could now move forward. And then came the bombshell that the apology was not actually an apology. It was just an expression of regret.
So what’s next?
Singapore Defence Minister’s most recent response was telling. He downplayed the apology retraction and said that relationships between the two countries must move forward. Apparently realism had triumphed over idealism again. Ideally, Singapore would want Indonesia to rescind the naming decision. In reality however, Indonesia will not do that, and Singapore, being an open economy, is dependent on having good relations with the world, particular with a vast hinterland like Indonesia.
We have made all the right noises and calibrated our actions to suit the circumstances. We have made known our unhappiness and disappointment and Indonesia has acknowledged that. So now is indeed the time to move on. Posturing is tiring. And frankly, prolonged posturing is bad for business. And this is the reality. Indonesia is one of our biggest trading partners. That’s a fact. And we are not where we are now by making enemies. We must never lose sight of the bigger picture and we have to remain open and sensible because realism dictates this to be how a small country should behave to survive no matter how unfair it may seem.
But that is not to say that we have to kowtow to the bigger countries. When push comes to shove and when our very survival is at stake, we will no doubt stand and fight. But the right of another country to call an act of terrorism as an act of heroism, an act that happened many years ago, will not impact on our survival as a nation. It does not warrant any action more than what we have done and that is to show to the world that we have our own version of history that we cherished and we resent any attempt by any country to change that.
So between terrorism and heroism, there must always be a place for realism.