Lee Kuan Yew brings the pot to boil

  Asia Times
February 26. 2002

By Bill Guerin

Indonesia says rift with Singapore due to differing perceptions

EE Kuan Yew, Singapore's founder and so-called "elder statesman", has handed Indonesia a cause on a plate. Seen by the Indonesians as Uncle Sam's voice in the Asia-Pacific, Singapore has had a rocky relationship with its worrying neighbor ever since konfrontasi, way back in the mid-'60s.

The enemy in those days were the region's widespread communist insurgents.

There seems little chance that the latest spat, caused by Lee's continued authoritarianism approach to others as well as his own kind, will be resolved diplomatically this time - the clarion call in the Indonesian House of Representatives (DPR) is for war. Although not, of course, the threat of actual war that Lee faced when former Indonesian president Sukarno had taken up a similar cause and threatened the very existence of the new island state of Singapore.

Lee last week expressed concern about reported al-Qaeda cell operatives in Southeast Asia being loose in Indonesia and endangering the security of Singapore. He sounded off on Indonesia's failure to arrest the Jemaah Islamiah leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, 74, a Muslim cleric, despite detailed intelligence implicating him in a recent but foiled terrorist plot.

The Bush campaign to lead the civilized world into a black hole of defining, searching out and punishing terrorists is a mission Singapore can relate to easily. Together with neighboring Malaysia, its draconian laws and powers to arrest with few, if any, restrictions, highlight why Singapore and Indonesia, though close geographically, are in much more of a Kipling-like "East is East and West is West" category.

"In the Asian-Pacific region, we don't feel real unilateral," Admiral Dennis C Blair, commander of US military forces in the Pacific, told experts at the National Defense University in Washington on Sunday. Blair meant, of course, that Singapore and the US are at one with the need to purge the world of anything that faintly smells of terrorism.

Driven on by the angst of September 11, and the urgings from his father, US President George W Bush started his war on terrorism in the obvious arenas, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but ensured that Europe was covered by his partner in the earthbound "Star Wars" scheme, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and quickly saw the immense benefits of opening up Southeast Asia to a much greater US presence. Blair (the US navy version) describes the need for an "unprecedented degree of international cooperation" to win the war and probe the intricate networks that merge Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and the Far Eastern version of Mafia-organized criminals.

Lest anyone should doubt his earlier emotive "seam of lawlessness stretching from Indonesia to Burma" (Myanmar), the paymaster in Washington shifted money and support to the Asia-Pacific. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, once seen as pro-Indonesia, was the first to say in public that Indonesia and the Philippines were pockets of international terrorist activities.

Enter Singapore. Who else but Singapore to preach the gospel to its neighbors? Foreign forces based in Singapore? Well, not really, George, that is against our laws, but then again this is a war after all, and we all have to decide whether we are "for or against" terrorism (read the US). And so Singapore, historically nervous if Indonesia even belches, now has a US Navy base in Changi, the better to sleep peacefully at night.

The military's top brass in Indonesia are also capable of a take-it-or-leave-it stance when their public face is being called in to question. "We guarantee that the territory of Indonesia is not used as a lair for a terrorist network," TNI commander Admiral Widodo thundered last week. The military have wide experience in dealing with the brand of terror that they see as threatening the stability of the country. But with very limited resources, most of all money, it has great difficulty in cranking up the intensity of their probes to a level that will satisfy Bush - or Lee for that matter.

It was left to military spokesman Rear Marshal Graito Usodo, before he was replaced last week by Major General Sjafrie Sjamsuddin, to tone down the arrogance inherent in his boss's words. Usodo explained that since September 11, Indonesia has been exchanging intelligence with the countries next door but complained, "So far there is no help and cooperation which is concrete." Sjamsuddin is unlikely to be so accommodating to the need for sweet-talking with politicians from whatever country. He was an intelligence officer in the army's Special Forces (Kopassus) with a direct hand in some of the worst violations during the 1990s, around the time of ex-president Suharto's fall from power. He spent many tours of duty in East Timor, and is known to have actively supported the militias that caused so much damage and loss of life.

In spite of all this sharing of information, Singapore was the first to expose parts of the Jemaah Islamiah network. In January, authorities there detained 13 terrorist suspects said to be members of the organization that had its network in Indonesia and Malaysia. A dozen of these were Singaporeans and the other a Malaysian. Investigators claimed proof that there was a master plan afoot to bomb a US warship at anchor in Singapore waters, as well as several foreign embassies in the city.

Indonesian Fathur Rahman Al-Ghozi, 30, alleged to be a main man in the Jamaah Islamiyah set-up, told investigators he had regularly moved between Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to plan terrorist attacks. Police in Manila arrested Ghozi on January 15, on charges of storing one ton of TNT, 300 detonators, and 17 M-16 rifles ready for another planned "big bang". He was also involved in the bombing of a railway station in Metro Manila on December 30.

Al-Ghozi in turn led them to Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, the head of the Al-Mukmin pesantren in Ngruki, near Solo, Central Java, where Ghozi had studied. Ba'asyir was known to the Malaysian government. Later in January, the probe finally shifted to Indonesia, but Jakarta police released Ba'asyir after questioning him on January 24. Singapore and Malaysia were stunned. Ghozi praised Osama bin Laden for his struggle but denied any knowledge of al-Qaeda or its network.

The document at the heart of this latest dispute between Singapore and Indonesia was the draft plan to bomb the US embassies in Jakarta, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur last November and December. All the teams involved in the terrorist attacks started out from Solo, but only Ghozi was apprehended. His job was to support the "Jibril" team operating from Singapore. Then two weeks ago the government-owned Straits Times in Singapore published the so-called "Jibril Document", handed over, they said, by a pro-US Indonesian intelligence source.

Jakarta quickly denied this, with A M Hendropriyono, the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) chief, saying the document was actually a combination of intelligence information obtained from Singaporean, Philippine and Malaysian intelligence. The irony of thus admitting Indonesia was in the dark appeared to be lost on him.

Another general, R K Sembiring, pensioned off but having one of the military seats in the House, as well as being deputy chairman of Commission I of the House of Representatives (DPR), the commission dealing with political and external affairs, warned in no uncertain terms, "Don't let us be dictated to and ensnared by American propaganda."

At the same time, fellow Commission I member Yasril Ananta Baharuddin asked the Indonesian government to be cautious and recognize that the need for better intelligence cooperation with neighboring countries may well be required. This plea for reason has disappeared into thin air now after Lee's insensitive public comments and the heads of political parties met throughout the weekend to draw up their own war plan. They have not ruled out expelling Singapore's ambassador too if his government does not repair the damage to Indonesia's "face" and refrain from trying to sideline Jakarta from the regional consensus to fight the war against terrorism.

US Ambassador to Indonesia Ralph L Boyce, intent on doing his best to keep trouble away from his embassy and US citizens in Indonesia, claims he would be surprised if anyone could say Indonesia is the next stage for international terrorism. While saying the Americans work very closely with their Indonesian counterparts, he denied US Federal Bureau of Investigation agents had gone to Solo. A much harsher response had been left to US Ambassador to Singapore Frank Lavin, who a week earlier rounded on the Indonesian government for not doing enough in the campaign against international terrorism.

Indonesia's most wanted suspect, meanwhile, is 37-year-old Hambali, alias Riduan Isamuddin, hunted by the US for alleged links to two of the September 11 hijackers and suspected of having contributed funds toward the bombing of 12 US aircraft over the Pacific in 1995. Hambali, close to Al-Ghozi, may be the final link in the Indonesian connection and is certainly thought by Singapore to have been the lead player in the bomb-Singapore plan. Indonesia itself has linked him to church bombings in Bandung and Jakarta. Singapore associates him with the US embassy bomb plot that involved Jemaah Islamiyah. Malaysia wants to question him on acts of terrorism committed by Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM), another radical group said to be connected with al-Qaeda.

Like Indonesia, the US will elect a president in 2004. There is no going back for Bush, riding a wave of unprecedented popularity in the US polls and having just waltzed a mind-boggling US$2.3 trillion, five-year defense budget through Congress. He will ride out any dangers thrown up in his dominate-Southeast-Asia-at-all-costs strategy, but President Megawati Sukarnoputri, less than six months ago Bush's main hope to carry his message to Indonesia's 190 million Muslims, is highly unlikely to fare so well. Unable to crack down properly lest her people see it as a surrender to America, as well as against the interests of the Muslim community, she will need to bite the bullet and somehow ensure that the US (and Singapore) believe that Indonesia is playing its part in Bush's crusade. Unfortunately, that crusade is mostly seen as an attack on Muslims. Singapore cares little about that issue, having recently denied several Muslim schoolchildren the right to wear the shilbab, specified by their religion, to a state school.

Singapore is already applying pressure on its neighbor in a knee-jerk reaction that denied entry to more than 300 Indonesian travelers to Singapore and Malaysia in January because of rising security concerns over terrorism. "They are worried that Indonesians entering Singapore and into Malaysia will be a security concern," said Wachdiyat, a senior Immigration official on Indonesia's Batam island linked to the nearby Singapore Republic by ferry.