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Additional Reading

  1. 1. BACKGROUND INFORMATION ON THE MARIA HERTOGH RIOTS, 1950The Maria Hertogh riots or Nadrah riots, which started on 11 December 1950 inSingapore, consisted of outraged Muslims who resented the court decision to give custody ofMaria Hertogh (or Bertha Hertogh), then 13, to her biological Dutch Catholic parents aftershe had been raised as a Muslim under the care of Aminah binte Mohamed, (Che Aminah)whom she regarded as her mother.The riots lasted till noon on 13 December, with 18 killed, 173 injured and many propertiesdamaged—the worst incident of its kind ever witnessed in Singapore.Maria Hertogh was born on 24 March 1937 to a Dutch Catholic family living in Java, then apart of the Dutch East Indies. Her father, Adrianus Petrus Hertogh, came to Java in the 1920sas a sergeant in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army. He married Adeline Hunter, aEurasian of Scottish-Malay descent brought up in Java, in the early 1930s. Little Maria wasbaptized in the Roman Catholic Church of Saint Ignatius at Tjimahi on April 10 by aCatholic priest.When World War II broke out, Sergeant Hertogh was captured by the Imperial JapaneseArmy and sent to a POW holding facility in Japan, where he was kept till 1945. Meanwhile,Adeline Hertogh stayed with her mother, Nor Louise, and her five children, among whomMaria was the third and youngest daughter. On 29 December 1942, Mrs. Hertogh gavebirth to her sixth child, a boy. Three days later, Maria went to stay with Aminah binteMohammad, a 42-year-old Javanese woman and a close friend of Nor Louise. Thiscontroversial transfer of custody, reversed in a Singaporean court eight years later, was thecentre and opening episode of the tragic riots that were to come. Maria Hertogh received her circumcision in late 1943, whereupon she was given the name Nadra binte Maarof. In 1947, Che Aminah moved via Singapore to her hometown in Kemaman, in the state of Terengganu, then Malaya. By then Maria was completely the same as any other Malay Muslim girl of her age: she spoke only Malay, wore Malay clothes and practised her religion devoutly. In 1945, with the end of World War II, Sergeant Hertogh was released and returned to Java, where he reunited with his wife. The couple enquired about Maria but could find neither their daughter nor Che Aminah. They then returned to the Netherlands after requesting the Dutch authorities in Java and Singapore totry to trace Maria. Finally, in September 1949, Che Aminah and Maria were traced to thekampong they were living in.Negotiations were opened to get back Maria in early 1950. The Dutch Consulate offeredS$500 to make up for Che Aminahs expenses in bringing up the girl for eight years. Aminah 1
  2. 2. rejected the offer and refused to give up her foster-daughter. Nonetheless, she was persuadedto travel with Maria to Singapore in April to discuss the issue with the Dutch Consul-General.However, Che Aminahs firm position could not be wavered and the Consulate eventuallyapplied to the High Court on 22 April for Maria to be delivered into the custody of the SocialWelfare Department pending further order. The Chief Justice heard it on the same day and approved the application. The next day, an officer from the department served the order on Aminah and brought Maria away. After a routine medical examination at the Middle Road Hospital, she was admitted to the Girls Homecraft Centre at York Hill. From this point onwards, Maria had made it clear that she wanted to stay with Che Aminah and did not wish to be returned to her natural parents. However, the High Court ruled on 17 May after a short hearing of about 15minutes that the custody of Maria be given to the Hertoghs.As Aminah and Maria exited the court via the backdoor, a car from the Consulate waswaiting to take Maria away. Maria refusedto enter the car and clung on to Aminah,both shouting in Malay that they wouldkill themselves rather than be separated.A large crowd quickly formed around thecommotion. It was only after muchpersuasion that Aminah agreed to enter thecar together with Maria and pay a visit toher lawyer, who explained that Maria had tobe given up until an appeal was made. Theduo then parted in tears, with Maria returnedto York Hill for temporary safekeeping.At York Hill Maria stayed for two more months, under a further order from the ChiefJustice pending appeal, which was filed on 28 July. The verdict was an overruling of theearlier decision and the custody of Maria was returned to Che Aminah. Both Che Aminah andMaria were overjoyed.On 1 August 1950, merely four days after winning the appeal, the events took a dramatic andunexpected turn. Maria was married to 22-year-old Mansoor Adabi, a Malayan-born whowas then a teacher-in-training at the Bukit Panjang Government School, in a Muslim ritual. 2
  3. 3. The marriage could have been a manoeuvre by Che Aminah to prevent further attempts by the Hertoghs to get back their daughter, as Maria returned to live with Che Aminah after the wedding night and the new couple never consummated their marriage. Meanwhile, the Hertoghs had not given up legal pursuit to retrieve their daughter. Only a day after the marriage, Che Aminah received a visit from the Hertoghs representative lawyers from Kuala Lumpur. The lawyers delivered a letter demanding the return of Maria by 10 August, failing which legal action would be taken. Believing that the marriage settled the matter, Che Aminah and Mansoor both ignored the deadline. The Hertoghs did not and pressed for legalaction to be taken.The hearing finally opened in 20 November, and Marias natural mother, Adeline Hertoghtravelled down to Singapore to attend. The judge, Justice Brown, delivered the verdict twoweeks later on 2nd December. The marriage, instead of resolving the dispute, had insteadcomplicated it. Justice Brown had two issues on his hand, namely the legality of the marriageand the custody of Maria. He held that the marriage was invalid because: Marias country of residence was, by law that of her natural father, i.e. the Netherlands. Under the Dutch laws, the minimum age of marriage for girls was 16. The English law applicable in Singapore recognized the marriage laws of the subjects country of residence.When policewomen came to take Maria away, she wept and clung to Aminah and Mansoor.Aminah fainted on the spot and a doctor standing by had to attend to her. Mansoor advisedMaria to concede for the time being and promised that he and others would carry on the legalfight.Thus Maria allowed herself to be brought away into a car. The car delivered Maria to theRoman Catholic Convent of the Good Shepherd in Thomson Road. Mrs. Hertogh stayedat another address for a few days, from where she visited Maria daily, before moving in to theconvent herself. According to an official of the Netherlands Consulate-General, sucharrangement was because of "greater convenience" while the stay of execution pendingappeal was in effect. But it proved to be the falsest step, the spark that lit the fuse of thesubsequent riots. 3
  4. 4. First and foremost, the press was not banned from entering the convent grounds. On 5December, the Singapore Standard published on its front page a photograph of Mariastanding holding hands with the Reverend Mother. There were several more pictures on page2, under the headline: Bertha knelt before Virgin Mary Statue. The Malay press repliedangrily. The Utusan Melayu published on 7 December three photographs of Maria weepingand being comforted by a nun, as well as articles about Marias "lonely and miserable" life in the convent. These pictures, whether presenting Maria as happy or sad, mostly showed Maria surrounded by symbols of Christian faith. The Muslims, who looked upon Maria as one of their own, were deeply offended by such pictures, not to mention the sensational reports, some of which explicitly labelled the case as a religious issue between Islam and Christianity.The appeal hearing opened on 11 December. Maria stayed at the convent and did notattend. Since early morning, crowds carrying banners and flags with star and crescentsymbols began to gather around the Supreme Court. By noon, when the hearing eventuallybegan, the restless crowd had grown to 2,000 to 3,000 in number. Unbelievably, the courtthrew out the appeal within five minutes. The shortness of this hearing convinced thegathering that the colonial legal system was biased against Muslims. The riots erupted. 4