Laju incident: ST's portrayal of Nathan completely ignores ISD's contribution

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By: 永久浪客/Forever Vagabond

ST today published an article highlighting former President Nathan’s involvement in the Laju incident in 1974.

On 31 Jan 1974, four terrorists equipped with guns and explosives landed on Pulau Bukom. They wanted to blow up the Shell oil refinery so as to disrupt the oil supply from Singapore to South Vietnam, in support of North Vietnam communists during the Vietnam War.

Two were Arabs from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine while the other 2 were Japanese nationals from the Japanese Red Army. Some of the explosives were triggered but it caused little damage. They later hijacked a ferry named “Laju” at Bukom and held the crew members hostage.

After protracted negotiations, the terrorists agreed to release the civilian hostages in exchange for a group of “guarantors” to accompany them on a flight out of Singapore to Kuwait. Mr Nathan was appointed the leader of the group. The group of guarantors would later consist of 13 Singapore officials (9 government officials and 4 SAF commandos):

1. S R Nathan, then Director of Security and intelligence at the Ministry of Defence.
2. Yoong Siew Wah, then Director of ISD
3. Tee Tua Bah
4. Seah Wai Toh
5. Andrew Tan
6. S. Raja Gopal
7. Saraj Din
8. Tan Kim Peng
9. Gwee Peng Hong
10. Teo Ah Bah
11. Tan Lye Kwee
12. Haji Abu Bakar
13. Haji Rahman

Later, the 4 terrorists surrendered their weapons and were on the flight to Kuwait with the 13 officials.

ST reported:

All 13 officials received awards in the National Day honours list that year. Mr Nathan got the Meritorious Service Medal, the highest honour given that year. Decades later, he (Nathan) told The Straits Times: “Laju was nothing; it was just an instance. We all carry these responsibilities in public service.

“When we flew to Kuwait, they didn’t allow us to land at first – and when we landed, they didn’t allow us to get off the plane. There, literally, we could have been their hostages.”

Mr Nathan admitted that he did ask himself then why he was there. His response: “Have faith and do your duty.”

ISD was the one doing the grunt work

The portrayal of Mr Nathan as the “hero” of Laju incident by mainstream media completely ignores any contributions by the Internal Security Department (ISD), which is the agency that handles terrorism.

At the time, Mr Nathan was the Director of the Security & Intelligence Department (DSID) of MINDEF, essentially a department in-charge of intelligence gathering. It was not concerned with internal security including terrorism matters. As such, Mr Nathan was not involved in any way with the investigations or negotiations as the Laju incident unfolded.

Two years ago, MediaCorp also did a documentary (‘Days of Rage’) on Laju incident. It also featured Mr Nathan prominently and completely ignored the contributions of others.

At the time of the incident, Mr Yoong Siew Wah was the director of ISD. He saw the documentary on TV and made some comments about it on his blog (‘A MediaCorp Caricature Presentation of the Laju Saga‘).

Mr Yoong said, “After viewing the programme, to say that I was left in a state of shock is to put it mildly at the brazen self-glorification of their roles in the Laju Saga by some of the characters in the narrative.”

He explained that the terrorist incident at Bukom were terrorist activities which came under the jurisdiction of the ISD.

“The MediaCorp programme showed unmistakably that the first report of the incident was made to S R Nathan who was the director of intelligence and had no jurisdiction over terrorist activities within Singapore. So the director of ISD was non-existent, whoever wrote the script and whether this was claimed by S R Nathan in the script is significant,” said Mr Yoong.

“S R Nathan was director of intelligence, the Singapore miniature equivalence of the British MI6 which deals more with spying. How on earth the MediaCorp can portray him so prominently in dealing with the Laju terrorists is mind-boggling, to say the least. And could this be something he presented to the script-writer?”

“There is nothing wrong in wanting self-glorification but how would one describe it if it is done at the expense of riding roughshod over other well-deserving individuals? Would abject disgust be a reasonable description? Many of the roles which he (Nathan) had been portrayed by MediaCorp could be questionable.”

“Of course there was no question that he had been appointed by the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to lead the team of Singapore officers to escort the Laju terrorists to Kuwait on 8 February 1974. And again there was a story about the appointment as the director ISD and his permanent secretary were having deep personal animosity,” Mr Yoong explained.

Rightfully, Mr Yoong should have been appointed as the leader of the group because it was the ISD who was in constant touch with the terrorists during the negotiations in that whole intense week of development, right up to the flight departure. But it was not to be. Mr Yoong hinted that in those days, he had fallen out with the permanent secretary of Home Affairs.

Note that Mr Yoong had entered the civil service way before the PAP government came into power and as such, Mr Yoong was not one of those civil servants “picked” by then PM Lee Kuan Yew.

In his blog, Mr Yoong also criticised MediaCorp’s portrayal of Tee Tua Bah in the Laju incident.

“The role of the then officer-in-charge of the Marine Police DSP Tee Tua Bah in handling the Laju terrorists had also been over-hyped by MediaCorp. The Marine Police is like other normal police divisions which deal with routine police and criminal matters and had hardly the expertise of dealing with terrorists. The Laju hijack happened in Singapore waters and quite rightly came within the jurisdiction of the Marine Police in the normal way,” Mr Yoong explained.

“Had the MediaCorp interviewed former ISD officers, who were the rightful investigators in terrorism, as to what roles they had played in dealing with the Laju terrorists?” he asked.

“Their daily appearance in their negotiations with the terrorists at the scene could not have been figment of imagination in the script-writer’s mind?”

Indeed, it was Mr Yoong and his team who were working non-stop in that whole week from 31 Jan to 7 Feb, talking and dealing with the terrorists. Mr Tee later went on to become the Commissioner of Police.

Mr Nathan only came into the picture on the last day when he was appointed to be leader of the group to accompany the terrorists on the flight to Kuwait. Mr Yoong was, of course, also on the flight.

“One would have expected the MediaCorp to have more commonsense and humanistic consideration when writing out a script for a narrative, especially one like the Laju Saga. Had it not occurred to the MediaCorp to carry out a more comprehensive interview covering all the parties involved before composing the script? In the Laju Saga it is obvious that important parties had been left out for whatever reason best known to MediaCorp,” Mr Yoong wrote.

“If it is not too much of a loss of face or a blemish on its pride, the MediaCorp should have the civility of sending a letter of apology to ISD for belittling its role in the Laju Saga.”

Mr Yoong living with paltry pension

Mr Yoong belongs to the group of civil servants who worked for Singapore before PAP came into power. They were hard working and apolitical, staying neutral as far as politics is concerned.

He is in his 80s today and still living with the same pension salary he got when he retired in the 70s.

Three years ago, he wrote about the plight of these early government pensioners.

“At that time the salary scales were very low and as a result civil servants who retired during this period received pensions which could just possibly cope with the cost of living existing at that time. This was more than thirty years ago and the cost of living has risen so many folds during that time but the sad thing is that the pensions of these pensioners have not risen accordingly,” he said.

“To show the callousness of the Singapore Government, two representatives of the Singapore Government Pensioners’ Association met a former Finance Minister to seek his assistance for an increase in the pensions of Government pensioners to cope with the rising cost of living and the response they got from this former Finance Minister was too shocking to be believed. The former minister told the representatives that the pensioners had served their purpose, what they were getting was enough for them to get by and the Government was just waiting for them to die off. What kind of human being is capable of such callous atrocious utterance is beyond any human comprehension.”

He blogs regularly at http://singaporerecalcitrant.blogspot.sg.