On 31 January 1974,1 four men armed with submachine guns and explosives2 attacked the Shell Oil Refinery on Pulau Bukom Besar,3 an island south of mainland Singapore. After they failed to blow up the oil tanks, the group – dubbed the “Bukom bombers” by the newspapers – hijacked the ferryboat Laju at the Bukom jetty and held five crew members hostage.4 After several days of negotiation that involved the governments of Singapore and Japan, the hijackers agreed to release the hostages in exchange for a party of guarantors to ensure their safe passage out of Singapore. The incident ended on 8 February 1974, when the hijackers left for Kuwait.
The four hijackers began their operation by hiring a boatman on the pretext of wanting to go fishing. When the boat reached the Bukom area, they attacked the boatman and took over the craft. However, their boat ran aground on a coral reef, and they tricked a passing boatman to tow them to the island.5
Once on Bukom, they tried to hijack a vehicle to penetrate deeper into the refinery but failed.6 The explosives they planted at three oil tanks caused minimal damage. One of the tanks burst into flames, and firemen managed to put the fire out quickly. About S$15,000 worth of crude fuel oil was lost.7
The foursome failed to detonate their remaining explosives.8 To escape, they boarded the Laju, a ferry operating between Bukom and mainland Singapore. They took all five crew members on board hostage and ordered them to sail into international waters. Two of them, Low Nam Seng and Encik Amat bin Awang Cik, were pushed overboard.9 Marine police on patrol boats soon spotted and pursued the Laju. After the Laju came to a stop at the Eastern Anchorage, marine police boats, customs launches and navy gunboats surrounded it, and negotiations began.10
The four hijackers identified themselves as Hiroshi Kimura and Akira Sato from the Japanese Red Army, and Saleh Salim Ali and Husain Mohammad Saad from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.11 They said that their Bukom operation was to retaliate against imperialism and aimed at disrupting the oil supply from Singapore to South Vietnam, an act of solidarity with the revolutionary forces in Vietnam.12
After days of intense negotiations, during which two hostages escaped, the hijackers agreed to release the remaining hostages in exchange for a group of guarantors to accompany them on their flight from Singapore to Kuwait and to ensure their safety until Kuwait.13 This came after another group of terrorists seized the Japanese embassy in Kuwait on 6 February and took several hostages, demanding that the Japanese government send a plane to Singapore to take the Bukom bombers to Kuwait.
On 7 February, the four were taken to Paya Lebar Airport, where they surrendered their arms, released the hostages, and boarded a specially arranged Japan Airlines (JAL) aircraft. Following their arrival, the convoy of guarantors arrived, and the aircraft was searched.14 At 1.25 am on 8 February, the plane departed. On board with the hijackers were 13 Singapore government representatives acting as guarantors of safe passage, 2 Japanese government officials and 12 JAL crew members.
The Singapore guarantors – comprising eight government officials and four Singapore Armed Forces commandos – were led by S. R. Nathan, who was then director of security and intelligence at the Ministry of Defence.15 Besides Nathan, the other guarantors were Yoong Siew Wah, Tee Tua Bah, Seah Wai Toh, Andrew Tan, S. Raja Gopal, Saraj Din, Tan Kim Peng, Gwee Peng Hong, Teo Ah Bah, Tan Lye Kwee, Haji Abu Bakar and Haji Rahman.16 This large number of officers was to reassure the hijackers of “adequate capacity” to ensure their safety. The two Japanese officials on board were Toshioko Tanaka, director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Middle East Bureau, and Isao Dekiba, an interpreter.17
During the flight, the bombers kept to their allocated area at the back of the plane.18 They said they wanted to “express their dissatisfaction” with the oil companies and visit Singapore again as tourists.19
Upon arrival in Kuwait, the Singapore party handed the matter over to the Kuwaiti and Japanese governments and returned to Singapore, arriving the following day on 9 February. Following the Singapore party’s return home, Nathan conveyed the hijackers’ apologies to the Singapore government and Singaporeans. The hijackers said they had meant no harm to the country.20
Had the hijackers successfully destroyed the Shell refinery, there would have been a shortage of oil in the region for at least a few years, as Singapore was the world’s third-largest refining centre, supplying oil to regional countries.21 The incident is considered as Singapore’s first encounter with international terrorism.22 Singapore’s response was significant in that the country could not be seen as soft on terrorism, lest it becomes a terrorism target again.23
While the government managed to end the crisis without any loss of life, it was more drawn out than desired.24 Through the Singapore government, the hijackers had sought the help of the North Korean government to escape to an Arab country. However, Singapore’s consultations with North Korea had led to nowhere.25 The hijackers also asked the Japanese ambassador in Singapore to arrange for a plane out of Singapore, but the Japanese government's initial refusal to provide the aircraft led to a delay in their departure.26
31 Jan 1974
10.15 am: A boatman takes the hijackers out to sea, believing they are fishing enthusiasts.27
11.45 am: First explosion is heard on Bukom.28
11.50 am: Marine police receives news of a bomb attack at Bukom.29
1.15 pm–1.30 pm: The Laju comes to a stop at the Eastern Anchorage and negotiations soon begin.30
7 Feb 1974
The Singapore government makes an offer to the hijackers for safe passage out of Singapore to Kuwait in exchange for the surrender of their arms and release of the hostages. The offer is accepted by the hijackers.
10.30 pm: Hijackers and their hostages leave the Laju for Paya Lebar Airport.31
8 Feb 1974
1.25 am: JAL aircraft carrying the hijackers and their Singaporean guarantors departs.32
1. Leslie Fong, “The Laju Affair,” Straits Times, 17 February 1974, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Ong Kian Seng, “1974 – The Laju Incident,” MINDEF History, 6, no. 1 (7 January 2002), accessed 19 March 2021. (From Web Archive Singapore via NLB’s eResources website)
3. R Chandran et al., “Safe Passage for Bukom Bombers,” Straits Times, 1 February 1974, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Chandran et al., “Safe Passage.”
5. Ong, “1974 – The Laju Incident.”
6. Ong, “1974 – The Laju Incident.”
7. Chandran et al., “Safe Passage”; Fong, “Laju Affair.”
8. Ong, “1974 – The Laju Incident.”
9. “I Thought I Was Marked for Death: Freed Hostage,” Straits Times, 2 February 1974, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Chandran et al., “Safe Passage”; Fong, “Laju Affair.”
11. S. R. Nathan, An Unexpected Journey: Path to the Presidency, with Timothy Auger (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2011), 409. (Call no. RSING 959.5705092 NAT-[HIS])
12. Chandran et al., “Safe Passage”; Fong, “Laju Affair.”
13. Ong, “1974 – The Laju Incident.”
14 Nathan, Unexpected Journey, 408.
15. Ong, “1974 – The Laju Incident.”
16. Yap Boh Tiong, “Hijackers Say: We Are Sorry,” Straits Times, 10 February 1974, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Sunday’s Riders,” Straits Times, 9 February 1974, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Nathan, Unexpected Journey, 410.
19. Yap, “Hijackers.”
20. Yap, “Hijackers.”
21. “Our Duty as Big Oil Centre,” Straits Times, 6 February 1974, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Bilveer Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117: Causes, Course and Consequences (Singapore: Crescent Design Associates, 1991), 28–30. (Call no. RSING 364.154095957 BIL)
23. Nathan, Unexpected Journey, 402.
24. “No Pushover,” Straits Times, 9 February 1974, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Hijackers Pick N. Korean Mission,” Straits Times, 6 February 1974, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “No Pushover.”
27. Fong, “Laju Affair.”
28. Ong, “1974 – The Laju Incident.”
29. Chandran et al., “Safe Passage.”
30. Chandran et al., “Safe Passage.”
31. Ong, “1974 – The Laju Incident.”
32. “Guarantors of Safe Passage,” Straits Times, 8 February 1974, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
Abby Tan et al., “All Set for Flight to Freedom,” New Nation, 7 February 1974, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
Abby Tan and Sunny Wee, “Hijackers Took One Month to Plot Attack,” New Nation, 9 February 1974, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“Hijackers Land Safely in Kuwait,” New Nation, 8 February 1974, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“Hijackers Reject Ferry Offer,” Straits Times, 3 February 1974, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“Hijackers: Three Moves by Govt,” Straits Times, 4 February 1974, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“How It Was Planned,” Straits Times, 9 February 1974, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
“Hunger Saves Man from Ending Up as Hostage,” Straits Times, 2 February 1974, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
“Laju Guerrillas Go into Hiding,” New Nation, 9 February 1974, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
Hugh Mabbett, “Japanese Jet Takes Terrorists to Kuwait,” Times, 8 February 1974, 7.
National Security Coordination Centre, The Fight against Terror: Singapore's National Security Strategy (Singapore: National Security Coordination Centre, 2004). (Call no. RSING 355.03305957 FIG)
“Offer of Asylum,” Straits Times, 5 February 1974, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“Plane on Way,” Straits Times, 7 February 1974, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
“Sail Ferry to Freedom Offer,” Straits Times, 3 February 1974, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at 19 March 2021 and correct as far as we are able to 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.
The information on this page and any images that appear here may be used for private research and study purposes only. They may not be copied, altered or amended in any way without first gaining the permission of the copyright holder.