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Whither Singapore-Jakarta ties?

Related: S'pore-Indonesian realations

Straits Times February 27, 1999

THE financial storm that lashed Asia in the past year has left a trail of wreckage, not only in societies and economies, but also in politics.

Domestically or bilaterally, relationships among politicians have never been the same since the currency tornado brought low a series of countries in the region, beginning with Thailand in July 1997.

Singapore has been no exception.

For a good quarter of a century, its southern neighbour counted as one of the republic's closest, in trade, diplomacy and people-to-people ties, but from that same direction now blows gusts of ill temper and bilious rancour.

"Tragic", says Mr Leonard Sebastian of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas).

Two months ago, there was the accusation that the city-state harboured Indonesian "economic criminals", while refusing to sign an extradition treaty that would enable Indonesia to bring these people to justice.

Last month came assorted allegations of dumping by Singapore companies in Indonesian waters and the Riau islands, from marine clay to earth to toxic waste.

Never mind that these allegations fizzled out when the accusers were asked to furnish proof; the fireworks released had been a good show for the folks back home.

Then, two weeks ago, in an interview with Taiwanese journalists, President B.J. Habibie took up the cudgels himself, calling Singapore a racist country, one in which Malays could not become military officers.

For students of Habibie-ology, the remark can be laughed off as another careless potshot. This, after all, is the man who, according to Far Eastern Economic Review editor Nayan Chanda, felt at the height of the student demonstrations last year that there was no need for him to meet the students for talks, since he "did not even have time to see his own nephew".

Sociologist Ariel Heryanto wrote in a Jakarta journal recently: "Among Indonesians, President Habibie appears frequently in anecdotes, Internet jokes, comic T-shirt designs, caricatures, stickers and stage comedies.

"Domestically, he is seen as harmless and much less significant than when viewed by those he intimidates overseas. By taking him too seriously, foreigners may run the risk of missing the more consequential and diverse voices of Indonesians."


But that is exactly Dr Habibie's beef with Singapore: he accuses the "red dot" of not showing him enough respect.

Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew's February 1998 remark, that financial markets were "disturbed" by his appointment to the vice-presidency, still rankles.

"His attacks on Singapore are being driven by this residual ill-feeling. He wants respect from Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew and, in return, he will respect them," Habibie adviser Umar Juoro said.

It is a chicken and egg question. Does Singapore show respect to the leader of a country in a state of what can, politely, be called hentak kaki (marching on the spot)? Or should it wait till things start moving forward and a more permanent leader emerges?

Diplomacy and the long view may dictate "yes" to the former question: Show respect now. After all, Dr Habibie may remain as president after the elections, by compromise and default, if not by universal choice.

Dr Cornelius Luhulima, a 69-year-old Ambonese Christian and a visiting fellow at Iseas, and formerly Dr Habibie's classmate in Germany, also gives a qualified "yes".

He cites Mr Lee Kuan Yew's visit to Jakarta in May 1973, five years after the Singapore government hanged two Indonesian marines sent by the Sukarno government to plant a bomb in MacDonald House in Orchard Road.

The hanging angered Indonesian leaders and spelt a relational low, which Mr Lee sought to reverse.

"He knew it would be very difficult. But he went, and the relationship improved."

While in Jakarta, Mr Lee also visited the graves of the two Marines and placed flowers on them.

Do such placatory acts have a place in today's environment?

The answer is less clear. In the first place, there has been no evident offence, unlike the hanging of the marines in the 1960s.

The political players are also different. Dr Luhulima notes that the key players then, Mr Lee, Mr Suharto, Mr S. Rajaratnam and Dr Adam Malik, were all men of impressive elan and charisma.

"That type of leadership is gone now. Will it re-emerge? That's the big question."

In any case, placation has a place only when parameters have been set and abided by.

The hanging of the marines in 1968, despite Indonesian protests, made clear what these were: Indonesia and Singapore must relate as sovereign equals.

As Mr Lee said at a Chinese New Year dinner in Tanjong Pagar last week: "We had to leave everyone in no doubt about Singapore's absolute commitment to the rule of law and our intention to conduct relations with the world on a basis of mutual respect and equality."


FAST forward 30 years: an economic downturn and a new Indonesian president.

As if the double dose of uncertainty is not enough, add the many and varied demands that the new president is making on the "little red dot".

An enormous shroud of ambiguity surrounds many actions and events. The apparent clamour for an extradition treaty, for instance, is believed to be no more than an elaborate wayang to assuage Indonesian public demands to go after the wealth of Indonesian Chinese believed to be in Singapore.

"It's an old, old issue," says Professor Leo Suryadinata of the National University of Singapore.

A more recent demand is for cold, hard cash. Sources say that before Singapore came up with its contribution to the International Monetary Fund bail-out package, the initial request from Indonesia was for a few billion dollars in cash, with no strings attached.

The attitude, says one diplomat, is of Singapore as a cukong writ large. (Cukong are Indonesian businessmen, often ethnic Chinese, who are beholden to the regime and end up as its financiers.)

Resentment of Singapore's success, suspicion of how it has accomplished this and anti-Chinese sentiments are woven into that attitude.

More importantly, it can be seen as an attempt to redefine the parameters that have governed the Singapore-Indonesia relationship.

Humanitarian assistance? Sniff. We have a right to more. That essentially was the upshot of presidential adviser Dewi Fortuna Anwar's remarks to the Straits Times on Tuesday, when she said: "Humanitarian assistance smacks of charity. Indonesians are very proud and nationalistic and we certainly don't want to be seen as a poor cousin getting handouts.

"We want Singapore to get us investments and help us in external debt financing. This will earn Singapore Indonesia's goodwill because we know they helped us when the chips were down."

To Dr Luhulima, such an attitude is prevalent among younger Indonesians, who believe that Indonesia's size entitles it to obeisance from other countries. The attitude is not necessarily shared by older Indonesians, who believe in more negotiation and give-and-take, he says.

Interestingly, Dr Dewi's comments come barely a month after the signing of a US$8 billion (S$14 billion) deal between Singapore and the Indonesian state-owned Pertamina oil company to supply natural gas from the West Natuna Sea to Jurong Island for 22 years. It was hailed as a landmark in economic cooperation between the two countries.

"If she wants investments from a country, she shouldn't start shouting at that country," remarks one observer.


THE present tension between Singapore and Indonesia, while nowhere near that of the late 1960s, is nevertheless still a low point in the relationship.

Barely three years ago, things had been at a zenith, with Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and President Suharto opening the Bintan resort jointly in 1996.

Ties had been on a steady upward path since the 1980s.

In 1989, the two countries signed an agreement for Singapore troops to train in Indonesia. The following year, the $400 million Batam Industrial Park project was sealed. In 1994, came the bilateral Tourism Cooperation and Air Services Agreement.

The close military ties between the two countries were reflected in the fact that Indonesian generals Benny Murdani, then defence minister, and Try Sutrisno, then vice-president, were both awarded Singapore's highest military honour, Darjah Utama Bakti Chemerlang (Tentera).

But in the midst of the cordiality, a number of people sounded the occasional warning. Some said Singapore was placing too many eggs in too few baskets, relying largely on the goodwill of President Suharto and on linkages to Gen Murdani (a Catholic) and Indonesian Chinese businessmen, like Mr Anthony Salim (Liem Sioe Liong).

Muslim Indonesians were particularly unhappy, seeing in these a Chinese-Christian nexus that worked to their disadvantage.

Recognising these concerns, then Vice-President Try Sutrisno said in 1994 that ties had to be built as much through the heart as through the head, on foundations of friendship and trust built up over the years, and not just on a rational confluence of interests.

Are the atmospherics coming from Jakarta in recent months a result of that dichotomy between head and heart?

President Habibie would no doubt say yes, Singapore is all head and no heart. Singapore would probably say no: We have a heart, but the head must rule. Especially in these uncertain times.

Peering into the future, it is hard to see another Suharto emerging: someone in total control, yet accommodating and magnanimous enough to Singapore to allow it to grow its own space in the world.

The most realistic prognosis is that any Indonesian leader who emerges after the elections will be subject to populist pressures, some of which may have a negative impact on the Republic.

Singapore's reaction in such a situation must be to hold fast to the parameters of equal sovereignty laid down 30 years ago. Giving in to demands will be interpreted as a sign that pressure works, and can only lead to more demands.

While it desires cooperation with Indonesia, there is really very little else that the red dot can do. Period.

Published in the Straits Times. February 27, 1999

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