Singapore a convenient target for Indonesia's ire
By Kornelius Purba
TOKYO (JP): In his memoir, From Third World To First, The Singapore Story: 1965-2000, Lee Kuan Yew recalls his conversation with then president Sukarno at Merdeka Palace, five years before Singapore officially separated from Malaysia and became an independent state in 1965.
"He (Sukarno) asked, 'How big is your population?' 'One and half million,' I (Lee) replied. He had 100 million. 'How many cars do you have?' 'About 1,000,' I said. Jakarta had 50,000," Lee wrote.
The quiz "puzzled" Lee but he then "readily conceded that he (Sukarno) occupied first place in Southeast Asia in terms of size."
President Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid's outrage against Singapore last month eventually completed the country's history of all four Indonesian presidents having, at least once, belittled the tiny but prosperous island state.
All of them -- Sukarno, Soeharto, B.J. Habibie and Gus Dur -- have shown an inclination to take the big brother position against Singapore's leader. All had their tiffs with the renowned, not to mention sharp-tongued, statesman, Lee Kuan Yew. His bluntness, and sometimes his insensitivity, had often sparked the ire of neighboring countries, especially the predominantly Muslim nations Indonesia and Malaysia.
Particularly when their governments were in a difficult position, the four Indonesian leaders would look around and scold neighbors. Singapore was always an easy target, due to its prosperity, small size, and the majority of Chinese among its population -- who have also been scapegoats in Indonesia.
In his book, Lee also recalled how Singapore's ambassador in Jakarta, Rahim Ishak, warned him: " ... Indonesians, both the leaders and the people, viewed Singapore as Chinese. He said Indonesian attitudes to Singapore were inextricably tied up with their feelings toward their Indonesian ethnic Chinese".
"Singapore, he (Ishak) warned, would be a convenient whipping boy whenever there was discontent in Indonesia," Lee writes.
However, Gus Dur's recent anger was rather surprising compared with his three predecessors, because Lee Kuan Yew was the first foreign leader asked by an Indonesian President to become his advisor on international affairs. This watershed moment occurred soon after Gus Dur's election as president last October.
In the latest outburst aimed at Singapore (though toned down by aides) Gus Dur ruined more than his own carefully built reputation of accommodating Indonesian Chinese, including its business circle.
"President Abdurrahman has destroyed his own reputation as a moderate Muslim leader," an Indonesian official said.
"Gus Dur resurrected the anxiety of the ethnic Chinese," he added.
"The Chinese business community was shocked with his statements, especially because they are proud of him as the protector of minorities," the source, requesting anonymity, confided.
In a recent telephone conversation with The Jakarta Post, he reiterated that it was not true that Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had rejected the President's suggestion to include Papua New Guinea and East Timor into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
"He never raised the issue during the summit. I am sorry to say, as he practically cannot see, maybe it is only based in his own imagination," the source said.
The affair, the trigger of which remains unclear, was a pity; Gus Dur had made a good diplomatic start. Realizing the fragile ties between Indonesia and its neighbor, Singapore became his first foreign destination in November. Despite the informality of the visit, Prime Minister Goh personally welcomed him at the Changi Airport. Lee escorted him back to the airport where he later continued his journey to Kuala Lumpur.
Lee's book suggests that relations with Singapore are again on the mend, with the historical backdrop of Indonesian leaders sending out changing signals to Singapore as "friend or foe" as events of the past.
Under Sukarno, Indonesia was embroiled in confrontations with Singapore and Malaysia. Armed conflicts erupted on the border of Malaysia and Indonesia, in Kalimantan.
According to Lee, Sukarno's envoy Subandrio, conveying a message from his boss, told Lee during a meeting in Singapore: "Look at all the tall buildings in Singapore. They are all built with Indonesian money, stolen from Indonesians through smuggling".
After becoming acting president in 1967, Soeharto decided to restore relations.
According to Lee, Soeharto's senior aide Adam Malik boasted that the new government was ready to protect Singapore, "even if the threats come from Genghis Khan".
In October 1968, however, the relations soured again. The nation and Soeharto were outraged as Singapore, despite Indonesia begging for clemency, hanged two Indonesian marine commandos who detonated a bomb at a bank building on Orchard Road in 1964, killing three people. The killing occurred during the confrontation era.
In 1973, Lee flew to Jakarta and met with Soeharto. He went to the graves of the two marine solders at the Kalibata Heroes Cemetery, and scattered flowers on them.
When the financial crisis hit Indonesia in 1997, Singapore promised US$5 billion to help Indonesia. Soeharto then announced that the amount promised by Goh was doubled.
The 1997 crisis was unexpected for many, after being led to believe that the economy was reasonably stable. Again Singapore became the target in difficult times: Soeharto's regime alleged that Singapore played a major role in the rupiah's collapse.
Then under Habibie came the famous "Red Dot Rage". In an interview with The Asian Wall Street Journal in August 1998, the third president complained that Singapore sent a belated congratulation to him after he replaced Soeharto as president in May that year.
"It's OK with me, but there are 211 million people in Indonesia. Look at the map. All the green area is Indonesia. And that red dot is Singapore," he told the newspaper.
Habibie was formerly in charge of the development of Batam, the island in the Riau province south of Singapore, but since 1976 it failed to become remotely comparable to the city state.
Lee's open opposition for his election as vice president in March 1998 also hurt Habibie.
A former ASEAN Secretariat official visiting Japan, and a Japanese official, conceded that Singapore should be more sensitive with its neighbors especially when they are facing difficult times.
"In the ASEAN forum Singapore often appears arrogant and uncaring about the problems faced by its neighbors," the official said.
Leaders seeking convenient scapegoats, however, are not helping their own problems either.
The writer is a journalist of The Jakarta Post.