Maria “Bertha” Hertogh (aka Nadra binte Ma’arof) died of leukaemia on 7 July 2009 in her home in Huijbergen, Netherlands, at the age of 72.
Hertogh’s name has been indelibly been printed on the minds of all Singaporeans, particularly those in the post-independence generations, as being synonymous with racial riots. Rarely is her name mentioned in local history and social studies textbooks, or National Education lessons, without the accompanying phrase, “We must never take our racial harmony for granted.”
The Maria Hertogh affair was a sad story of a private custody battle that ballooned up into an international controversy, with reverberations as far as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and of course Europe where Maria’s natural parents were from. On the surface, it appeared to be a “Muslim vs Christian” battle, but in fact many factors and hidden agendas were at play, not least the struggle for freedom from colonial rule in Malaya and Southeast Asia.
There is no denying that the British colonial government failed miserably in containing the wider fallout from this custodial battle, through their insensitive handling of the situation and their failure to foresee trouble brewing when the judgment was made in the High Court that fateful day of 11 December 1950.
The press also was to blame for pouring fuel on the fire, with headlines like, “Bertha knelt before Virgin Mary Statue”, as was the role of extremist Muslim organisations and individuals who stirred up tensions among the largely uneducated populace.
The Hertogh Riots bogeyman
Many things have changed since 1950. The struggle for independence is over. We have our own elected government in place. Singaporeans are much better educated and informed, and less easily swayed by “ultra” views. The press and media have been brought under effective government control. Even without those controls, our mainstream media organisations are well aware of the impact their words and images have on the population and know better than to irresponsibly stir up mass racial unrest. Even among bloggers, who are not subject to the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act, there is broad agreement that stirring up racial tension is a big no-no.
In addition, we have numerous laws to prevent anything like the events of 1950 from ever recurring, from the Sedition Act, to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, to the Penal Code and its punishments for hurting others’ racial and religious sensitivities, to the recently revised Public Order Act. Our police are also much better trained to deal with unrest, and are more racially diverse than during colonial times.
Yet the government continues to use the Maria Hertogh riots as a bogeyman to justify its severe restrictions on civic activism, public gatherings and political activities.
As recently as June 2009, the Deputy Public Prosecutor flogged the Hertogh riots bogeyman when he called for jail terms for a couple for distributing “seditious” publications that insulted Muslims and Catholics.
On 28 February 2008, in justifying the continued ban on peaceful outdoor and street demonstrations, Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng said: “Our experiences in the past have taught us to be very circumspect about outdoor and street protests. The 1950 Maria Hertogh riots and the 1964 race riots, both started as peaceful assemblies, but eventually ended up with 54 dead, 736 injured, and significant damages to property. I think many Members in this House are either too young to remember these incidents or not even born yet.”
On 27 February 2007, PAP MP Zaqy Mohamad blamed a “single picture published in a newspaper” for starting the Maria Hertogh riots, in his note of caution on how modern communication technologies have “greater potential to create such tension with swift and dramatic effect”.
In supporting the enhancements to Section 298 of the Penal Code, which deals with offences relating to race and religion, PAP MP Lim Biow Chuan argued in Parliament on 23 October 2007 that “any insensitive or inconsiderate action by a small minority can easily result in racial riots as Singapore had experienced in the Maria Hertogh riots and in the 1969 racial riots.”
So the whole argument is weaved together: A small number of people assembling together, or a single image, can cause mass racial riots.
They fail to acknowledge that in 1950, there were 3,000 angry demonstrators gathered outside the courtroom, which insensitively delivered its controversial judgment in just five minutes. Contrast this with the recent Public Order Act, which declared that a demonstration by a lone person is called an “assembly”, which the police can be authorised to disperse (or “move on”).
Singaporeans do not wish to see racial riots. That is a given. But Singaporeans are not stupid either. They know the difference between a peaceful assembly by a few public spirited individuals, and a riotous gathering by troublemakers out to wreak havoc. I’m sure the PAP government knows that too, but chooses to conflate the two for the sake of clamping down on anything that could remotely challenge its authority.