Just opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT station stands a distinctive red-bricked building, MacDonald House. Every day, countless Singaporeans walk past this area to enjoy shopping, work or school, and often overlook the site of a terrorist bombing that shook our nation back in 1965.
The makings of a post-war icon
Built in 1949 by Reginald Eyre of Palmer and Turner, the iconic building was named after Malcolm MacDonald, the well-loved British Commissioner-General for Southeast Asia (1948–1955). MacDonald House was the first large-scale office building built in the post-war era. Its main tenant during its early days was the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC).
No ordinary Wednesday
10 March 1965 began as an ordinary Wednesday for the 150 employees working at HSBC MacDonald House. Like all other afternoons, many of them were closing their accounts and preparing to leave the office at 3 pm.
As the clock struck 3:07 pm, a deafening explosion ripped through the building, sending shockwaves through the offices and everything within a 90m radius. Shattered glass was sent flying from the windows, cars parked near the building entrance were blasted apart, and passersby were flung several metres onto the road from the impact.
There was chaos everywhere, rubble buried the ground floor, and the elevator has been completely incinerated. What had struck the nation?
A matter of ‘Konfrontasi’
The investigations led to the arrest of two Indonesian marine commandos, Usman bin haji Mohamed Ali and Harun bin Said, who were trying to escape Singapore by sea. They had entered Singapore illegally that morning and planted the nitroglycerin bomb near the lift on the mezzanine floor of MacDonald House.
Their horrific act caused the death of 3 people, and left another 33 seriously injured.
“My eyeball was blown out of its socket, and I had approximately 366 stitches,” Reverend Kenny Yeo recalled in an interview decades later. He was just a 23-year-old student who happened to walk past the building when the explosion hit.
The act of terrorism was condemned by the then Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye as a “senseless act of cruelty”, and the marines were hanged on 17 October 1968.
The MacDonald House bombing wasn’t the only attack on Singapore. Between 1963 and 1966, Indonesia’s Konfrontasi (Confrontation) brought on a total of 42 attacks within Singapore, as a statement to express the then Indonesian government’s opposition to Singapore’s merger with Malaya.
No longer the victim
Today, there is little evidence of the tragedy that struck MacDonald House decades ago, as it stands proudly as the last remaining brick structure in the Orchard Road area. It is now home to global advertising conglomerate McCann Worldgroup, beauty and wellness empire Expressions International, and other companies.
The building was gazetted as a national monument in 2003, and on 10 March 2015, 50 years after the day of the bombing, a memorial was unveiled across the road at Dhoby Ghaut Green. It pays tribute to the victims of the tragedy and honours the veteran soldiers and volunteers who defended Singapore through the Konfrontasi era.