ACTS OF COURAGE
They were men in a hurry.
On the morning of 31 January 1974, four intruders leapt off a boat into the shallow waters off Pulau Bukom and waded to shore. Shouldering their bags with care, they made for the Shell-owned oil refinery on the island.
At the gate leading to the tank farm, the men held up an auxiliary police officer and tried to intercept two passing vehicles, firing shots at the drivers. Amid the confusion, the gunmen planted explosives on four fuel tanks. Their goal? To disrupt the supply of oil from the refinery to other countries.
Several explosive charges were placed at the drum yard. By the time auxiliary police officers scrambled to the gate, the bombs at the tanks had detonated. The gunmen now bolted towards the jetty. And there it was, their means of escape: the Laju, a Shell-owned ferry waiting for passengers for the crossing back to Singapore.
The gunmen jumped onto the Laju and ordered the terrified crewmen to cast off. A shot was fired at the floor between the legs of the helmsman.The ferry was launched, bound for sea. So began the eight-day standoff known as the Laju hijack.
At the Marine Police headquarters at Kallang Basin, Deputy Superintendent (DSP) Tee Tua Ba was at his desk when the duty officer burst into his office and said, “Bukom is bombed! There’s shooting on the island, and they have two or three armed men! ”
Just moments before, at 11:50am, the duty officer had received a radio message from the island. An explosion had been heard on Bukom at 11:45am – that much the Marine Police knew, but the SOS was otherwise vague.
Was anyone hurt or killed? Was it an armed robbery? These questions raced through DSP Tee’s mind as he despatched the duty officer to find out more from Bukom. DSP Tee had joined the Singapore Police Force in 1967. Then 32, he’d just been appointed the Acting Superintendent of the Marine Police.
Arming themselves with sub-machine guns, rifles and revolvers, DSP Tee and his fellow officers rushed to the jetty. “We jumped into the fastest available craft and sped across the harbor on the way to Pulau Bukom,” he recalled.
As DSP Tee approached Bukom, the Laju – with two Marine Police craft close behind – came into view. A message crackled through on DSP Tee’s radio: “It is a hijack. Please stop. Marine Police, help. From Inspector Nonis of the Bukom Auxiliary Police.”
About 10 other police craft soon arrived. The radio was jammed as officers tried to talk at the same time. DSP Tee knew he had to let the other craft know that he was among them and leading the operation. He signalled to one of the two police boats in pursuit, PB30, to come near his speedboat. Vaulting across to it, DSP Tee instructed that it pull ahead of the other police boats. He then stood on the deck and gestured wildly. This caught his men’s attention and he was able to establish his command.
Then the unexpected happened: the Laju made an about-turn. Once within Singapore’s Eastern Anchorage, it halted.
As the police boats closed in tight, a hijacker waved to DSP Tee and flashed a blue container. From a distance, it looked like an explosive device. DSP Tee immediately instructed the police boats to keep their distance.
The hijacker tossed the container into the water and beckoned DSP Tee to retrieve it. Inside was a note in English, written in long hand. Two hijackers identified themselves as members of the Japanese Red Army while the other two said they were with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Claiming responsibility for the Bukom sabotage, they made these demands:
Now we want to negotiation with you.Call at once, Japanese Ambassador! Hostages are in our hand. And we have big explosives with us.If you let us carried to the airport we promise you never kill them. But if you try to attack us, we explode ourselves. We want to escape to another country.
DSP Tee relayed the hijackers’ message and told them to wait. Meanwhile, he marshaled his forces once more.
Over at the Marine Police headquarters, Mr S. R. Nathan, Director of the Security and Intelligence Division at the Ministry of Defence, had arrived at the request of the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs. “There was no time to ask ‘why me?’” recalled Mr Nathan, who was 50 at the time and had assumed the Directorship three years before. “The situation was obviously very serious.”
As the hours passed, the hijackers grew antsy and began waving their weapons in the air. “I realized that unless a channel of communication was established, misunderstanding and misinterpretation could trigger off an ugly incident,” said DSP Tee.
He instructed PB30 to inch towards the Laju. Taking out his handkerchief, DSP Tee leaned against the bow railing and held his hands high to show that he was unarmed. When he was within talking distance, one hijacker repeated the demand to see the Japanese ambassador.
Why would DSP Tee put himself in such danger?
With police boats ringing the Laju, he figured that the hijackers wouldn’t jeopardize themselves by shooting him. “It was a calculated risk that paid dividends,” he recalled. “I was able to gain their confidence and trust in me, and thereafter in the Government. I became then, because of this, the main contact.”
Plans by the task force were swiftly put into action. “We decided that we should first drain the vessel’s radio- telephone battery, which had a limited capacity,” explained Mr Nathan. “After that, the hijackers would not be able to communicate beyond the Marine Police patrol boat... It was [also] decided that the Laju should be kept moving so as to run down its fuel supply…”
That night, the Japanese ambassador was allowed to approach the Laju, which was drifting without fuel. But the hijackers had changed their minds; they refused to see him and even threatened to shoot if he came near.
After the ambassador left, DSP Tee calmed the hijackers down once more. That night, two hostages escaped by jumping overboard. From them, the task force learnt that three crewmen were left on the Laju.
On 1 February, the second day of the hijacking, the Japanese government proposed that it send a plane for the hijackers, but requested that the task force disarm them first. When DSP Tee told the hijackers, they refused. They brought up the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Palestinian terrorists had been gunned down even though they’d been promised a flight to freedom.
“This is Singapore,” DSP Tee replied with conviction. “This is not Munich.”
Over the following days, the task force put up a firm front in dealing with the hijackers. The turning point finally came on 6 February when PFLP terrorists seized the Japanese embassy in Kuwait, holding the Japanese ambassador and 15 embassy staff hostage. They threatened bloodshed if the Japanese government didn’t fly the Laju hijackers to safety.
At 2pm, DSP Tee conveyed this offer to the hijackers: Singapore would put forward a team of officials as guarantors of their safe passage, on a flight sent by the Japanese government. In exchange, the hijackers had to let the hostages go and surrender all their weapons.At first, the hijackers refused, but DSP Tee stood firm. “Now we set a time limit,” he recalled. “The hijackers wavered and finally agreed to accept the proposal in principle.”
A GUN TO THE HEAD
On the evening of the eighth day, the hijackers and hostages were taken by launch to the Marine Police headquarters at Kallang Basin. Throughout the 30-minute cruise to shore, the hijackers pressed their automatic weapons to the hostages’ heads. Once ashore, a convoy took them to Paya Lebar Airport, arriving at 11pm.
The job of disarming the hijackers fell on DSP Tee. He recalled:“The task force had already been told that the moment they heard firing inside, it meant I was shot, and the shooting could start.”
DSP Tee told the hijackers that if they didn’t trust him, they could keep one bullet and hold a revolver to his head. As he was saying this, DSP Tee directed a hijacker’s revolver to his temple.
“Brother, this is not necessary,” The hijacker replied in Arabic. “We’ll give you the guns now.”
With the disarming, the remaining three hostages were finally freed.But the crisis was far from over. At 1:25 am, on 8 February, the Singaporean team – led by Mr Nathan and comprising DSP Tee, seven officials and four commandoes – boarded the plane with the hijackers.
In contrast to the high drama of the hijack, the flight itself was uneventful, but Mr Nathan was already intent on the numerous possibilities at journey’s end. “What awaited us at the other end was something uncertain,” he recalled.As soon as the plane came to a complete stop at Kuwait International Airport, tanks, armored vehicles and armed soldiers swarmed onto the tarmac. The Singaporean team had accomplished its mission – but now found that it wasn’t allowed to disembark.
Mr Nathan contacted the control tower over the cockpit radio and asked to speak to the Kuwaiti Prime Minister. Hours passed before a group of cars, sirens blaring, appeared.Mr Nathan disembarked and met the Kuwaiti Minister for Defence, insisting that the Singaporeans be released: “We’d fulfilled our part of the deal and should be allowed to get off the aircraft and return to Singapore.”
As he had during numerous moments throughout the ordeal, Mr Nathan stood his ground. Finally, the decision came – the team could leave the plane. On 9 February, the 13 men returned home, their flight touching down around sunset.
The Laju crisis ended with no loss of life and minimal damage to the refinery. “I was personally thankful that the episode had ended without bloodshed, and regarded it as a valuable learning experience for me and all my colleagues in the ministries involved, the security service, the police and the military,” said Mr Nathan. “They all acquitted themselves well.”
The 13 members of the team that had accompanied the Laju hijackers to Kuwait received National Day awards, with Mr Nathan conferred the highest honour, the Meritorious Service Medal, while DSP Tee received the Public Administration Medal (Silver).
Four decades on, the Laju crisis remains a compelling reminder of the need to continuously strengthen our security and vigilance capabilities – and a shining example of boldness and resolve on the part of our public officers.