#OnThisDay (11 December 1950) Violent riots erupted in Singapore
📷: A member of the riot squad trying to stop a rioter during the Maria Hertogh riot. (NAS)
#OnThisDay (11 December 1950) violent riots erupted in Singapore following tensions over the custody battle of Maria Hertogh, a 13-year old girl born to a Dutch-Eurasian Roman Catholic family (the Hertoghs) and placed in the care of a family friend, Che Aminah, during World War II. Aminah raised Maria as a Muslim and renamed her Nadra binte Ma’arof. When the Hertoghs returned to the Netherlands after the war, they decided to search for Maria and located her in Aminah’s hometown in Terengganu, Malaya. The Hertoghs commenced legal proceedings to reclaim Maria through the Dutch authorities. There was intense public scrutiny and interest in Maria’s case. The court awarded the custody of Maria to her birth parents but Aminah applied to appeal against the decision. During this period, Maria was housed temporarily at a Catholic convent.
The case was covered widely by local and international newspapers, but political activists portrayed Maria’s case as an issue between Christianity and Islam instead of being a case of custody. They sensationalised the court judgement and attempts to convert Maria’s religion which stirred up strong emotions amongst the local community. News articles and photographs of Maria being surrounded by religious symbols of the Christian religion distressed the Muslim community who felt that Maria was being forced to adopt a different faith.
On the morning of 11 December 1950, the day when Aminah’s appeal was to be heard, people started to gather around the Supreme Court. Some carried white cloth banners demanding Maria’s removal from the convent, others bearing a green flag with a crescent and star. By the end of the hearing when the courts dismissed Aminah’s appeal, the restive mob had swelled to between 2,000 and 3,000. Riots broke out and spread to the rest of Singapore, and did not subside until 13 December. 18 people died and 173 were injured. There was also widespread destruction of public property.
The riots remind us that from time to time, sensitive issues will crop up and pose a challenge to our racial and religious harmony. We need to handle issues of race and religion with sensitivity, so as not to destroy the long-standing bonds that we have established amongst the races over the years. In particular, as the Internet and social media are prevalent, all the more we should be wary of mischievous and insensitive remarks which can become viral and spread quickly amongst our population.
Source of statistics: Infopedia, NLB. Maria Hertogh Riots. https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/…/SIP_83_2005-02-02.html
Other sources: S R Nathan, 2011. An Unexpected Journey: Path to the Presidency.