Mar 10, 2010

2nd Shot: The MacDonald House Bombing, 45 Years Later

MacDonald House Bombing, 1965

March 10 is the 45th anniversary of the MacDonald House Bombing. In our Singapore annals of terrorism this attack is the worst, claiming three innocent civilian lives and injuring even more people. Windows were shattered, cars were damaged; MacDonald House itself suffered $250,000 in bomb damage. For most post-65er, the bombing remains our only impression of Konfrontasi. My other impression is that some of our fathers were drafted into the vigilante corps to "beat the rats" (or something like that). The more I read about the incident in textbooks and articles, the more I am intrigued about one aspect of the account - where exactly did the bomb explode?

MacDonald House Bombing, 1965
45 years ago, the main tenant of MacDonald House was the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC). The two female casualties - Mrs. Suzie Choo and Miss Juliet Goh - were staff of the bank. Guess what, Citibank has taken over the premise today. You can still find HSBC - coincidentally - in the adjacent Atrium@Orchard building.

*This series of MacDonald House second shots was taken during the 2010 Chinese New Year holiday.

MacDonald House Bombing, 1965
Today Citibank, Expressions International and McCann Worldgroup are tenants of the refurbished MacDonald House. 45 years ago, HSBC, Malaya Borneo Building Society, the Australian High Commission and a dentist were some of the tenants. The teller services are still on the ground floor banking hall, accessible by the same main entrance.

MacDonald House Bombing, 1965
From the Straits Times coverage of the attack - "Every window within a hundred yards was shattered, and almost every car immediately outside the building and across the road was damaged." Broken windows on MacDonald House were certainly not the only "glass casualty". The Neo-Georgian red brick building, built in 1949, was reputedly the first building to be fully air-conditioned in Malaya.

Accounts of the bombing all point to the mezzanine floor as the source of the bomb - and explosion. I was ignorant of this architectural term until recently, when I checked it:
In architecture, a mezzanine or entresol is an intermediate floor between main floors of a building, and therefore typically not counted among the overall floors of a building. The term is also used for the lowest balcony in a theatre, or for the first few rows of seats in that balcony. (source)
I remember now. I may have came across the term in concert halls like the Esplanade but it did not occur to me to link its usage in a performing arts location to MacDonald House.

Example of mezzanine floor (photo credit: T2 Storage Solutions). Uncannily similar to the mezzanine floor inside the banking hall today. I just peeked inside that day (the bank was closed). Take a look the next time you walk past Citibank MacDonald House.

A mezzanine floor explains why, from the outside, the building ha s a "high ground floor" and lower subsequent floors. The ground floor must have included the mezzanine floor.

MacDonald House, 1965
MacDonald House Bombing. (Photo credit: Singapore Press Holding)

While I saw a "mezzanine floor" inside the banking hall, the explosion occurred not inside but near the lift:
The extent of the damage on the mezzanine floor of the 10-storey building made it a simple matter to determine where the bomb was placed -- near the lift. (source)
The lift must be inside the MacDonald House entrance. In the archive photo earlier, you can barely make out the building name above the doorway which saw casualties carried out and near which most of the damage was evident.

MacDonald House Lift Lobby, 1965
Scene of mayhem at lift lobby. I can see a damaged lift shaft, I think. (Photo credit: Singapore Press Holding)

The lifts today are inside the same entrance. However the lobby does not betray any evidence of the mezzanine floor. The manouverable area is small: a door beside the lifts leads to a narrow corridor behind, to the security room and the Oldham Lane side entrance. Another door on the right leads to Citibank's ATM lobby.

Also missing is the stairway, where the bomb was placed. There must be a stairway inside, which I believe is a mandatory requirement for lift buildings. Does anyone know where is it?

Another confusion is the exact location of the bomb - was it on ground floor or mezzanine floor? I remember reading the two saboteurs entered the building, placed the "package" and left. Did they walk up half-storey for such a quick job? I was confused by the following picture from the media:

MacDonald House Mezzanine Floor
Caption reads: Arrow in the picture at left points to the exact spot on the stairway on the mezzanine floor of MacDonald House where the time-bomb exploded. (Photo credit: Singapore Press Holding) Judging from the broken window view of the cars at ground level, this is the mezzanine floor all-right.

My initial guess was that Mount Sophia is the wooded background outside the broken window. In light of new evidence uncovered, I realize there is a better explanation. I now change my view: the wooded background is Fort Canning. There was a car park opposite MacDonald House so the broken window must be facing Orchard Road.

View of MacDonald House from Fort Canning side
View of MacDonald House from Park Mall side of Orchard Road. Can you spot the car park? (Photo credit: Singapore Press Holding)

The photo evidence certainly agrees with the news report:
In the car park across the road, the screens of almost all the vehicles were shattered. (emphasis mine)
Image analysis reveals that the broken window could be the first mezzanine-floor window after the lobby. If this is true, the ATM lobby today will be very near the "bomb site". There should be a stairway where the bomb was placed, according to reports. Any "heritage structure" left in MacDonald House, after the extensive refurbishment?

Analysis of a Broken Window
Analysis of a broken window. (Photo credit: Singapore Press Holding)

It is a pity I did not pay much attention to the building, much less explored it, before the interior renovation in 2003. I remember when I first knew about MacDonald House many years ago, HSBC was still the tenant. If I was this siao on "fervent" about heritage second shot missions, I would have stepped inside. Who knows, I could have seen the mezzanine floor in HSBC where the bomb exploded.


peter said...

If I remember correctly the intention was to bomb the High Commission of either Britain or Australia in Macdonald House.

There was another tenant in that building; EMI South-east Asia office and recording studio.

There was another bombing at the carpark of the Odeon Cinema (now Odeon Tower) down in North Bridge Road. The bomb was set-off in the cinema carpark (nearer to today's side road coming out of today's next-door hotel. A few cars were damaged.

Icemoon said...

From what I read, the saboteurs did not have any particular target in mind.

Has Peter explored this cute red brick building when he was a kid exploring Orchard Road?

peter said...

Walk pass yes, walk inside no. Bcos I read Straits Times and saw grisly photos of the explosion. later we heard rumours of ghost. There was this female victim who lived in tanglin halt who hailed a taxi. Not sure where I heard but taxi drivers didn't want to pick female passengers on this part of Orchard Road at nite. One time taxi driver picked a passenger and was asked to drop passenger at tanglin halt near the gas works. A medium was asked to cast the spirit out of this taxi driver.

Lam Chun See said...

Yes it was big news then, but shy to say I didn't pay much attention. Maybe too young then ... was it that long ago? 1965 - that means I was in Sec 1.

peter said...


U had a photo of a white arrow inside it and u asked what was the open space.

OK I tell you after purging my memory. Open space was s amll carpark which belonged to the petrol station inside Universal Car land.

On the left of the small carpark was a smalll Jewish cemetery and after that the Hindu temple or a row of 2 storey shops (one sell carpet I think).

Anonymous said...

I agree with Peter, the intention might be to bomb British High / Australia High Commission.

The bombers were two Indonesian mariners, named Harun, and Said.
They were caught in the sea by the sea patrol, when their boat had problem and it could not operate.

They were charged in Singapore court and were hung up in 1968.
However the shameless thing, is Indonesia made them as National Heroes and buried their body in National Patriots cemetery in Jakarta.

Anonymous said...

I narrowly escaped being a victim of this explosion with my mother who was taking me to a dental appointment on one of the upper floors. We would have entered by the stairwell on the left which was extensively damaged. We were a few minutes late, but still felt the force of the blast as the bomb detonated and chaos ensued. I have just observed my father in one of the black and white photographs, previously unseen.He had just arrived, pannick stricken on hearing of the blast and expected to find us caught up in the incident which would certainly have been the case had we not been late! The image took me back in time. We were a military family and I was 12 year old. My father went on to perform numerous selfless tasks of bomb disposal for the remainder of his military career losing close friends at the hands of IRA bombers in Ireland and London. I cannot think of a more cowardly act than indiscriminate bombing of this kind.

Icemoon said...

Thanks for sharing guys! I have more to say on this incident, maybe will do a Part II ...

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous - I was interested to read that you narrowly avoided being a victim of the bombing. I am making a documentary on this incident and would be keen to talk to you. Please drop me a line on stjohngray[@]