By Akhmad Kusaeni
Singapore and Indonesia under the new leaderships on both sides are now trying to establish a more “dignified” relationship. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and President Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono have agreed to ease the strained relationships between the two neighboring countries.
The huge aid effort for tsunami victims in Aceh gives Singapore a chance to improve its image as a caring and generous neighbor. Last week, PM Lee conducted what so called “tsunami diplomacy” by visiting Aceh province, where nearly 100,000 people have died. PM Lee was the initiator of the tsunami summit in Jakarta, by which governments and citizens from across the world have pledged nearly US$4 billion in aid for the countries ravaged by the Dec.26 tsunami.
Singapore has currently deployed its 600 personnel for disaster relief in Aceh. The city-state has also committed ships, transport aircrafts, helicopters and staging areas for mounting relief operations. Through the large amount of aid in cash or kind and by sending top official to Aceh, Singapore had proven that she is a real friend of Indonesia.
A friend indeed is a friend in need. So people here will not see Singapore simply as a greedy exploiter of Indonesian resources or a safe haven for Indonesian corruptors and criminals. Singapore’s response to catastrophes had showed the generosity, sincerity and ability of the city-state to help. It is a good start for changing the course from “strained” to “dignified” relationships.
Indonesian-Singapore bilateral relations have never been better. The relations were subjected to severe stresses and strains during the past. All Indonesian presidents, with the exception of Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono, have had problems with Singapore. When the financial crisis hit the region in 1997, President Soeharto (1967-1998) pointed his finger to money speculators in Singapore whom he believed was the source of the Rupiah’s fall.
President B.J. Habibie (1999-2001) described Singapore as a red dot in the regional map of South East Asia. As such she is expected to behave, especially towards “big brother” Indonesia, and should not pretend to “teach” others in the region of what is good for them.
Habibie was angry over Lee Kuan Yew’s comment that the nomination of Habibie as Vice-President was the reason markets had tumbled and the Rupiah’s value crashed so dramatically. It didn’t stop there. Habibie later lashed out with a racist card, saying, “In Singapore, if you are Malay, you can never become a military officer. They are the real racists, not here. You can go and check it out”.
President Abdurrahman Wahid (2001-2002) slammed Singaporeans –the majority of them ethnic Chinese—for looking down on ethnic Malays and thinking only of how they could profit from their poorer neighbors.
“It is not interested in the well being of its southern and western neighbors. It allows smuggling from Indonesia,” said Wahid.
During Megawati’s presidency (2002-2004), Singapore, an ally in the U.S. war on terror, has upset its giant Muslim neighbor by insisting it could do more to fight Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic extremists operating on its soil. In response to Singapore’s accusation that “Indonesia is a hub for terrorists”, Jakarta accuses Singapore as a safe haven for Indonesian corruptors and criminals.
Indonesian officials blame Singapore for refusing to sign an extradition treaty with Indonesia because it is harboring graft suspects who have fled to the city-state.
“Singapore wants to protect Indonesian corruptors who have fled to that country. It would be quite a surprise if there is to be an extradition treaty,” said former national assembly chairman Amien Rais.
Many Indonesian businessmen are believed to have fled to Singapore following the 1997-1998 regional economic crisis, leaving huge debts to the government. Some are now facing corruption prosecutions in Indonesia, such as business tycoon Syamsul Nursalim, David Nusa Wijaya and Pauline Lumowa.
Singapore has also been accused of not doing enough to protect Indonesian maids working in that country. Jacob Nuwawea, Indonesia’s manpower minister under Megawati’s government, said at least 94 Indonesian maids working in Singapore have died since 1999. Most of them fell to their death while working in high-rise apartments.
Other grievances include the behavior of sharp-tongued Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s poor understanding of Islam, and Singapore’s involvement in sand mining in the Indonesian Island of Riau and its sea reclamation.
Crowded Singapore has been reclaiming land from the sea to provide more room for its four million residents. Indonesia has accused the city-state of buying sand illegally mined and exported by Indonesian businessmen for the projects, which affects the demarcation of the seas between the two countries.
Singapore close relationship with the U.S. is another factor for hostility. 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. Former President Soekarno had threatened the very existence of the new island state of Singapore by preparing to launch a war or konfrontasi.
Singapore, historically nervous if Indonesia even belches, has a U.S. Navy base in Changi, and now she can have a better and more peaceful sleep at night. Having U.S. as a protector and supporter, some Indonesian even believes that Singapore is “Israel in South East Asia”.
Jusuf Wanandi, an expert on international relations from Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said that Singapore is an easy target to be scolded and made a scapegoat of by Indonesia. Rahim Ishak, former Singapore’s ambassador to Jakarta, added that Singapore is always be a “convenient whipping boy whenever there was discontent in Indonesia”.
For the time being, as Wanandi advised, Singapore has to be patient with Indonesia, and reach out much more than before to all sectors of the elite.
“Singapore has to try to do more to assist Indonesia, because in the end a stable and wealthy Indonesia is also in Singapore’s interest,” Wanandi argued.
Singapore is the wealthiest among the 10 members of ASEAN. Minister of Defense Juwono Soedarsono hopes Singapore can play a positive role to assist Indonesia in overcoming the crisis. Soedarsono describes the role of Singapore as a fast and modern speed boat that can help in giving direction to the rickety freight ship which is Indonesia, that is big but old and full of leaks.
At the same time, according to Soedarsono and Wanandi, outstanding bilateral problems, such as the extradition agreement and the delineation of the sea border, should be worked out as soon as possible, and should be resolved soonest.
Singapore and Indonesia under the new leaderships on both sides are now trying to establish a more “dignified” relationship. For the benefit of the two neighboring countries, PM Lee and President Yudhoyono can move ahead in cementing the bilateral relationship by resolving issues rationally and avoid the “megaphone” diplomacy of the media.