Maria Hertogh Riots
The Maria Hertogh Riots between ethnic Malays and the European and Eurasian communities in Singapore occurred on 11 December 1950. The riots took place over a period of three days and saw at least 18 people killed and 173 people injured. It was sparked by the controversial custody battle between Maria's adoptive Malay family and her Eurasian parents.
Maria Hertogh, born to Dutch-Eurasian parents in Java, was adopted during the war by an Indonesian Muslim woman named Aminah. When Maria's father was arrested by the Japanese, Maria's mother gave Maria to Aminah to be raised. She was given the Muslim name Nadra. In 1947, Aminah moved to Trengganu with Maria.
After the war, the Hertoghs launched a legal battle for the custody of their daughter after they received information in 1949 of her whereabouts in Malaya. The custody battle attracted intense media attention worldwide. Photographs in newspapers of a Muslim girl in a Catholic convent and claims that she had bowed down to the Virgin Mary affected religious sensitivities and whipped up emotions. The Muslim side was championed by Indian Muslim Karim Ghani. As editor of the Jawi daily, Dawn, Ghani instigated emotions within the Muslim community by publishing controversial reports of the case. He also worked out an extensive plan for 1,500 girls to protest in a procession. Exhortations were made at the Sultan Mosque to wage a holy war to force the return of Maria to Aminah. At the appeal hearing on 11 December 1950, the Judge dismissed Aminah's appeal and custody was given to Adeline Hunter, her biological mother. Upon hearing the judgement, huge crowds outside the court rioted, convinced that the colonial laws, the courts and the legal system were prejudiced against Muslims.
For three days, mobs of Malay and Indian Muslim rioters attacked any European and Eurasian in sight. They set up barricades along major roads, set cars and houses on fire and took control of districts in the vicinity of Sultan Mosque, North Bridge Road and Jalan Besar. Rioting was stopped only after two troops of the Internal Security Battalion were called in, supported by several Malays within the troops. Even so, scattered attacks continued over two days. A 24-hour curfew had to be imposed for two weeks before British and Malay troops and the Constabulary regained control of the situation.
Altogether, 18 people were killed and 173 were injured. Nine were killed by rioters while the others were killed by policemen. Aside from a Police Inspector and a Special Constable, those killed by rioters had little to do with the Hertogh case and their murder was motivated more by fanaticism and racial hatred.
Significance and Consequences
The riots highlighted the insensitive way the media handled religious and racial issues in Singapore. The British colonial authorities also failed to defuse an explosive situation when emotional reports appeared in the local press of the custody battle accompanied by sensational media photographs of a Muslim girl in a Catholic convent.
Although the rioters were mainly Malays, they included a large number of foreigners including Indian, Pakistani and Indonesian Muslims. Added to this, the mainly Malay Police Force appeared to sympathise with the Muslim rioters and displayed some measure of deliberate inaction and defection during the riots. Gurkha Police Riot Squad Detachment, constituting at least 149 men were unfortunately not utilised and were in fact withdrawn at critical locations.
As a result of this historic event, the Government of Singapore, upon independence in 1965, instituted legislation against racial discrimination. It became an offence to incite racial and religious hatred in Singapore. The local media exercised greater discipline in the coverage of sensitive issues. National integration and nation-building took top priority in the formulation of government policies.
1950 : The Hertoghs filed a lawsuit in the courts of Singapore, seeking to assert their parental rights over Maria.
22 Apr 1950 : The court ruled that Maria should be returned to her biological parent after a period of care under the Social Welfare Department.
28 Jul 1950 : Maria was returned to Aminah after the latter appealed against the decision. Shortly after, Maria married a 22-year-old Malay teacher.
13 Nov 1950 : The Hertoghs appealed the decision and the courts ruled in their favour on the basis that Maria was removed from them without their consent. Upon her return to her biological parents, the court further ruled that Maria should be subject to Dutch laws where it was illegal for minors below the age of 16 to be married. Hence, Maria's marriage was declared null and void and she was placed in protective custody at a Catholic convent, the Girls' Home of the Convent of the Good Shepherd, prior to her return to the Netherlands.
11 Dec 1950 : An appeal hearing for Aminah's case was dismissed leading the waiting crowds outside the courts to riot.
12 Dec 1950 : Maria is flown to Holland with her parents to be reunited with her family.
13 Dec 1950 : Order is restored in Singapore.
Lay Yuen Tan
Clutterbuck, R. L. (1984). Conflict and violence in Singapore and Malaysia: 1945-1983. Singapore: G. Brash.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 CLU)
Hughes, T. E. (1980). Tangled world: The story of Maria Hertogh. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1980.
(Call no.: RSING 364.143095957 HUG)
Blythe pays tribute to Army. (1950, December 14). The Straits Times, p. 7.
City back to law and order. (1950, December 14). The Straits Times, p. 1.
Curfew brings a quiet night. (1950, December 13). The Straits Times, p. 1.
Five dead, 100 hurt in riots. (1950, December 12). The Straits Times, p. 1.
Hertoghs promise to bring Maria to court if necessary. (1950, December 12). The Straits Times, p.7.
How it all started. (1950, December 12). The Straits Times, p. 4.
Maria in Calcutta. (1950, December 14). The Straits Times, p. 1.
'Stay of execution' appeal on Maria: custody fails. (1950, December 13). The Straits Times, p. 4.
Aljunied, Syed Muhd. Khairudin. (2009). Colonialism, violence and Muslims in Southeast Asia : the Maria Hertogh controversy and its aftermath. London : Routledge.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5704 ALJ)
Fatini Yaacob. (2011). Natrah: In the name of love. Johor Darul Takzim, Malaysia: Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and Institut Terjemahan Negara Malaysia.
(Call no.: RSEA 959.5704 FAT -[HIS])
Maideen, H. (1980). The Nadra tragedy: The Maria Hertogh controversy. Petaling Jaya: Pelanduk Publications.
(Call no.: RCLOS 959.5704 MAI)
Netto, L. (1996). Maria: Based on a true story. Singapore: Derby Publishers.
(Call no.: RSING S822 NET)
Riots Inquiry Commission. (1951). Report ... together with a despatch from His Excellency the Governor of Singapore to the Rt. Hon. the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
(Call no.: RCLOS 364.143095957 SIN)
City of troops, police. (1950, December 13). The Straits Times, p. 1.
'Inept handling of situation' - UK Press. (1950, December 14). The Straits Times, p. 1.
'Mosque is place of peace'. (1950, December 14). The Straits Times, p. 7.
Chee, J. (Producer). (1992). My name is Nadra, not Bertha [Videotape]. Singapore: Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5704 MY)
The information in this article is valid as at 1998 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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