This Interview Was Conducted in a Mixture of Mandarin and English

This Interview Was Conducted in a Mixture of Mandarin and English

Nanyang Technological University

1 Nanyang Walk

Singapore 637616

Diploma in Education (Year 2)

July 2002 Intake

Assignment:ETL 201- Oral History On Maria Hertogh Riots - 1950

Name/Reg. No.:Serene Neo (020223E24)

Identification No.:S8120930H

T. Group No.:2

Tutor:Dr Ang Cheng Guan

Tutorial Time: Monday 12.30 to 2.30 pm

Date of Submission:Friday 17th OCT 2003

This oral history focuses on the news reports and recounts of the turbulent time in 1950 when a Maria Hertogh, a Dutch Catholic Girl was converted to Muslim by her foster mother, Che Aminah. A series of lawsuit then follows and unsatisfactory judgment had caused on of the most serious religious riots in the history of Singapore.

A Brief Summary the events that led to the Maria Hertogh Riots in December, 1950

Maria Hertogh, a Dutch Catholic was only six years old when she went to live Che Aminah, a close friend of her mother’s in 1942. The Japanese had held her parents prisoners of war during World War 2. Che Aminah claimed that the Hertoghs had given Maria over to her for permanent adoption and Che Aminah converted Maria to Muslim and changed her name to Nadra binte Ma'arof. Maria was then raised following the Malay traditions and ways of life. When the Hertoghs were finally released in 1945 upon the Japanese’s surrender, they actively searched for the news of Maria and she was finally spotted in 1949 in Tregganu[1]. The Hertoghs then seek to claim Maria back with the help from the Dutch Consulate-General.

On the 12th April 1950, Che Aminah took Maria to Singapore and Maria was sent to the Social Welfare Department in Singapore when The Dutch Consul-General applied to the High Court for her custody. In May 1950, The Singapore Chief Justice, Mr Justice Murray-Aynsley[2], ruled that Maria should be returned to her natural parents to return to Holland. Che Aminah then appealed and the court later ruled that Maria should be returned to her foster mother in July 1950. Under Che Aminah’s care, Maria married a Malay teacher when she turned 13 in August and the Hertoghs again seeked the Dutch Consul-General’s help to declare the marriage illegal as Maria was a Dutch Citizen and marriage below the lawful age of 16 and her biological father had not approved the match. In September 1950, the court hearings of Maria’s custody battle were then heard in an open court. On 2nd December 1950, Maria was finally returned to her natural parents as the judge, Justice Brown decided that the marriage of Maria and the Malay teacher was invalid as Maria was underage and Mr Hertogh, her biological father had the right to determine Maria’s religion and Mr Hertogh was against Maria being a Muslim. Maria was then placed in a convent at Bras Basah, The Convent of the Good Shepherd, before her return to Holland with her parents. Che Aminah appealed again on 11th December but was unsuccessful. Many people had gathered by the end of the hearing and as the seventy policemen guarding the courthouse were Malay, they showed sympathy towards Che Aminah and after one and a half hours, the Gurkha troops were then brought in.[3] The crowd was violent and the demonstration turned to rioting. It was the worst on the noon and night of 11th December and every European and Eurasians in sight were attacked and the riots continued to the 13th December. The government had to impose a curfew on the second day of the riots.[4] 18 people were killed, 173 people injured and 200 vehicles were damaged. A Commission of Inquiry into the Riots was established in 1951 to investigate the riots.


Mr Neo Tiong Bah is born into well-to-do family in Singapore in 1935. He was a teenager when the Maria Hertogh Riots took place. He still stays in Upper Serangoon and his family back then was dealing in timber business (Transcript)[5]. He had many Malay friends, being a second generation Singapore born boy and he also had close relations with many British and Eurasians when he helped his father at the timber factory after he finished school in the morning (Transcript)[6]. Mr Neo first came to know of the riot from the news (Transcript)[7]. He has the habit of flipping through the papers everyday. At that time, majority of the people staying in Hougang were Chinese Catholics and Mr Neo was very fortunate that there was not much disorder around his area. The only matters that inconvenienced Mr Neo was that he was unable to attend school, disruption of business from his father’s factory and his inability to meet his girlfriend for the fear of safety in the public (Transcript)[8]. There was food and the most basic need was met as they stayed at home, unlike war when staying at home can be as dangerous when one is out on the street (Transcript)[9].

Influence From The Mass Media

As Mr Neo did not witness the riots himself, the mass media provided a major source of information for him. Mr Neo, being fluent in both Malay and English said in his interview that the newspaper that he read, the Malay papers and English papers both showed favoritism towards their own race and religions. “The headlines were very shocking. One of it that I particularly remember was from the English papers about Maria smiling and kneeling in front of the statue of Virgin Mary. They always reported a happy Maria. The Malay papers, however, always reported an abused Maria.” (Transcript)[10]

From the various information gathered from reputable websites, news of Maria Hertogh’s custody started on May 20, 1950 but it was only on December 3, 1950, that the English news portrayed Maria as a happy little girl and this was not directly from an interview with Maria but with her mother, Adeline Hertogh[11]. Following December 4 and 5, the new repeated reported a happy Maria with headline like “Maria A Little Girl Again” and “Shows Interest in Family” respectively. The reporter reported that Maria had made friends in the convent and was happy. About the shocking picture of Maria kneeling before the statue of The Blessed Virgin Mary, although many people had believed it to be true, in my findings, a report written by Tan Sai Siong on 16th May 1997, suggested that the picture might not be real. Tan reported that “The myth of Maria's picture kneeling before a statue, created by faulty memory, must not be perpetuated.”[12]. It was said that some ambitious reporter had decided to spice up the news by using the picture of a girl dressed like a Muslim kneeling in front of the statue. Unfortunately, I did not manage to get any information regarding the reports of Maria in the Malay papers but information from various history websites indicated that Maria was indeed reported to be unhappy most of the time.[13] For those that did not witness the riots for themselves, the mass media was a wealth of information for them, but also a bundle of lies and myths.

Personal Experience and Feelings about the Riot


The curfew had caused some loss in Mr Neo’s father timber business and he was unable to enjoy himself and attend school. However, Mr Neo was not really affected by it, after all, he had commented that as compared to the war, it was child’s play. (Transcript)[14]

Reactions And Prejudices

  1. Che Aminah or The Hertoghs?

Mr Neo felt that the papers were siding with their associated races, the Malay papers with the Malays and the English papers with the Caucasians. He certainly expressed a lot of emotion over whom he sympathized more. “Whoever can bear to see their child taken away?” (Transcript)[15] To him, both foster and biological parents had love for Maria and it was difficult to say who was more pitiful.

2. Religion

“From the news, I understand that Maria was to given to that Malay woman who took her, so she had no right to take her and convert her. Religion is a very sensitive issue. After she turned Muslim, you put her in a convent. Very contradicting.” (Transcript)[16]. Mr Neo thought that religion is a very sensitive issue. According to Singapore – Journey Into Nationhood, the insensitivity of media presentation of simple custody turned into a religious fight.

  1. News From Associates

As Mr Neo’s father traded with many Caucasians, and they told Mr Neo that they were afraid for their own safety but as they were quite far from the rioting areas, they were quite safe. (Transcript)[17]. According to a teacher’s resource website, the rioting area though was reported to be island wide, the most prominent areas were areas around the Sultan Mosque and the mosque itself and outside the Supreme Court[18].

  1. Neighbourhood Safety

Although Mr Neo stayed in an area where majority of the residents were Teochew Catholics, he did not encounter much problem with neighbourhood safety during the riots.

View of Government’s Handling Of The Riots

As much as Mr Neo’s support for the British Government, he felt that they were insensitive towards the subject’s religious needs and they had shown no respect towards the Muslim community in Singapore by placing Maria in a convent as he said, “Just like asking a Buddhist monk to study the Bible.” (Transcript)[19] He also felt that it was a silly decision to place Malay constables outside the courthouse during the hearing. According to Cutterback’s Conflict and Violence in Singapore & Malaysia 1945 – 1983, the policemen guarding the courthouse at that time were Malays and this was strange even when the police force was made up of Indians and Gurkhas also. The Malay policemen slipped some demonstrators in due to their sympathy for Che Aminah. He also felt that the judge sided with the Hertoghs as they were all Caucasians. There was no evidence of the Judge siding with the Hertoghs though, as the presiding judge, Mr Justice Brown said during the hearing that he is satisfisfied with Maria’s love for her mother and he willingness to stay in Malaya as a Muslim but she was deprived of the love of her parents since she was five and Mr Hertogh was not consulted on Maria being given away. And in his concluding statement, he said, “Upon what ground am I to deprive him of a right which the law gives him? And I am satisfied that if I refuse him the relief which he claims, I should be acting contrary to the established principles of the law which it is my duty to administer."[20]. He was just acting as the law saw fit.


Many times, Singaporeans do not appreciate religious freedom practiced in the country. From this oral history, we learn the importance of respect and the need to understand others’ racial group culture and customs. Everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, regardless of religion and race.

I give permission for this work to be digitally stored and made available for NIE for education and research purpose.

Name: ______Date: ______

Signature: ______Preferred Contact: ______

Interviewee: Mr Neo Tiong Bah

Age: 68

Venue: Mr Neo’s living room

Time: 1.5 hours

Dialect Group: Hokkien

This interview was conducted in a mixture of Mandarin, English and Malay.

How old were you then?

I was born in 1935. So I was 15 then.

Where did you live and who are there in your family?

My parents, my siblings, my uncles and cousins. Big family.

Were you then married? Working?

I was studying but occasionally, I helped out in my father’s business. Not married yet.

What was the business about?

We sold timber. We had a timber factory and we were very much like a contractor kind of thing.

Where was the business located?

It was at Upper Serangoon. The company’s Hong Huat. Still around.

Did you know about the Maria Hertogh Riots?

Oh yes! It was all over the news. That was in late 1950, isn’t it?

How did you know about it?

The newspaper.

Did you witness the Maria Hertogh riots?

No, but I read about it from the news and my father traded a lot with the British. So we hear some stories. The news was clear enough.

Did you know what has caused these riots?

It was about a Dutch Catholic girl whom was converted to Muslim by her foster mother during the war. Her Dutch parents then wanted to take her back after the war.

Do you remember the details?

From what I read from the news, Maria’s news was hot even before they actually rioted. Maria’s Dutch parents were imprisoned during the war when the Japanese invaded Indonesia. Maria was then taken away by a Malay woman and then she converted to Muslim. When her biological parents got news of her, they wanted her back. The Hertoghs went to court to claim her back and she was given back. A few months later, she was given back to that Malay woman again. She converted to Muslim right? But she’s Catholic initially with Caucasian parents. Therefore, this time, that Malay woman married Maria to a Muslim and then the Hertoghs went to see the Dutch Embassy about it. They claimed that Maria is Dutch and it is illegal for her to get married so young. The court then put her in a convent.

How did you feel about this incident?

(Shrugs). Whoever can bear to see their child taken away? From the news, I understand that Maria was to given to that Malay woman who took her, so she had no right to take her and convert her. Religion is a very sensitive issue. After she turned Muslim, you put her in a convent. Very contradicting.

What did the British tell you?

The British stayed around Serangoon Garden area. They often buy wood from us. For that few days of riots, we did not really see them around. After peace resumed, they told us they were really afraid for their own safety during that few days. Many stayed home but because they stayed quite far from the rioting areas, they were fine.

Whom do you sympathise more? The Hertoghs or Che Aminah?

Difficult to say you know. Oh yeah. Like I say, whoever can bear to see their child taken away? But Che Aminah took care of Maria like her own child. I really am not sure. Each had their own pain.

Were your family and you affected by the riots? Did you have a lot of Malays and Christians in your area?

Not very much except for the few days lost of business from the British. Oh, and we had a curfew. (He paused. Then blushed) I could not see my girlfriend, your grandma. We had a 24 hours curfew. Our area had a lot of Chinese. A lot were Catholics. We have one of the oldest churches near us. The Nativity Church but there was not much of a problem. A lot of my friends were Muslim and I did not witness any problem with the Muslim and Catholics there.

Was there inconvenience during the curfew?

We had food. Not much problem. Only thing was that there was no school, no business and no play. This curfew, compared to war, is so sikik (small).

You said you read a lot from the news. What was then reported?

The headlines were very shocking. One of it that I particularly remember was from the Straits Times about Maria smiling and kneeling in front of the statue of Virgin Mary. The Straits Times always reported a happy Maria. The Malay papers, however, always reported an abused Maria. There was a lot of doubt. Each side had their own story. You see, the people who wrote The Straits Times were all Caucasians. People with white skin. Christians. They of course wanted people to believe that Maria was happy in the convent. The Muslims were not happy. They wanted people to see a hurt Maria.

Which side did you believe then?

None. I thought the stories varied a lot. I was not there to see. I cannot base my judgement by reading the newspapers.

How did the riots begin? How did the government control it?

After the court gave Maria back to her parents and appeal failed. The people then rioted to demand her to be released from the convent. Malay and British troops were brought in.

Do you think the government did well in handling this matter?

Of course not! As much as I like the British rule, they did not care about the religious difference. All whites what. What to do? Of course side with the Dutch. Putting a Muslim girl in a convent. Just like asking a Buddhist monk to study the Bible. The Malay policemen were blamed for being biased. Very funny right? Malay feud with Christians then ask Malays go and stand guard at parliament house? The colonial authorities were insensitive by placing a Muslim girl in a Christian Convent and the press overdid everything like they always do. Lies and brainwashing people to believe.