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Lessons from Maria Hertogh Riots

Maria Hertogh / Nadra


Maria Hertogh was born on 24 March 1937 to a Dutch family living in Java, Indonesia which was then a part of Dutch East Indies. Maria was baptised when she was still very young. When Maria was adopted by a Muslim woman named Aminah, she was raised a Muslim. Maria Hertogh had also took on the name, Nadra Binte Ma’arof.

In 1945, after World War II, Maria’s biological parents attempted to reunite with Maria. However, Aminah was not willing to let Maria go. 

Aminah’s Account


Aminah Binte Mohamed claimed that Adeline Hertogh, Maria’s biological mother had given Maria to her for adoption in late 1942. She told Mrs Hertogh that she would regard Maria absolutely as her child, whom she would bring up in the Muslim faith. Aminah claimed that Mrs Hertogh had agreed with the arrangement.

Aminah also contested Adeline Hertogh’s claimed of being detained by the Japanese. She testified that she and Mrs Hertogh continued to visit each other frequently after the adoption until the latter left for Surabaya in Indonesia to look for a job “about the end of 1943 or the beginning of 1944.” Thereafter the two never saw each other again till 1950. 

Adeline Hertogh’s version

According to Adeline Hertogh, she was persuaded by her mother after the birth of her sixth child to allow Maria to stay with Aminah for three or four days. Consequently, Aminah arrived in Bandung, Indonesia on 1 January 1943 to fetch Maria. After a few days, when the child was not returned, Mrs Hertogh set out to retrieve her daughter on 6 January from Aminah. However, during her journey, she was arrested by a Japanese sentry on the outskirts of the city as she did not possess a pass and was therefore interned.

From her internment camp, she smuggled a letter to her mother, requesting for her children to be sent to her in the camp. Nor Louise did just that, but Maria was not among them. So Mrs Hertogh asked her mother to fetch Maria from Aminah. Her mother later wrote and told her that Aminah wanted to keep Maria for two more days after which she herself would bring the child to the camp. This did not materialize and Mrs Hertogh did not see Maria throughout her internment. After her release, she could find neither Maria nor Aminah.

It was then discovered that Maria had been staying with Aminah in Terengganu, Malaya. 

Trials and Development


A custody battle ensued over Maria, which through sensationalist press reports, drew much public attention and fuelled religious sensitivities. Before the trial, the Court ordered Maria to be separated from Aminah. An offer from the Social Welfare Department served the order on Aminah and took 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 onward, it was clear that she wanted to stay with Aminah and did not wish to be returned to her biological parents. The actual trial lasted for only 15 minutes. The High Court ruled that the custody of Maria be entitled to the Hertoghs. An appeal was immediately filed and so Maria returned to York Hill for temporary shelter. At York Hill, Maria stayed for two more months. The verdict was eventually overruled. Maria returned to Aminah. 

Within four days of the new ruling, on 1 August 1950, Maria was married off to Mansor Adabi, a 22-year old teacher at Bukit Panjang Government School.

A day after the marriage, Aminah received a letter from the Hertogh’s lawyers from Kuala Lumpur. They demanded the return of Maria by 10 August failing which legal action would be taken. This time round, Maria was taken to the Roman Catholic Convent of the Good Shepard in Thomson Road. The Netherlands Consulate-General did not provide an explanation as to why Nadra was housed in a convent, but it proved to be a costly mistake which lit the fuse of racial riots.

Photographs of Maria in the convent suggested that she was feeling sad and miserable were published in local newspapers. The issue was also presented as a Christian and Muslim issue, not as a custody battle between two parties. The articles and photographs aroused anger among the local Muslim population. The Muslims, who looked upon Maria as one of their own, were deeply offended. 


The High Court eventually awarded the custody of Maria to her biological parents but the Malays continued the legal battle. They appealed against the ruling of the High Court.

On 11 December 1950, the court threw out the appeal in less than five minutes. This angered the crowd waiting outside. They deemed it as the unfair treatment of the locals by the colonial government. While the locals, especially the Muslims, accepted that legal battle was the way to fight this custody case, they could not accept that the colonial government sided with the Europeans. Throwing out the appeal in less than five minutes was an obvious act of favouritism towards the Europeans.

A riot broke out. The Muslims and Chinese attacked the Europeans and Eurasians. The rioting continued until the police were able to control the situation.

E4.png Significance and Lessons to Learn

The riots highlighted the insensitivities of the British Government towards religious and racial traditions in Singapore. They were dismissive of the people’s religious beliefs and angered the Muslim population. The riot serves an important lesson for everyone in pointing out the need to be sensitive to the religious and racial practices of others.