'More investments from Singapore in transport sector welcome'

INDONESIA welcomes more investments from Singapore in the transport sector to help the vast archipelago’s push to improve its infrastructure, President-elect Joko Widodo said.

Infrastructure and industrial manufacturing will be key priorities of his administration, he said, and flagged collaboration on urban rail networks, seaports and airports to improve connectivity within and between cities and islands as an area where bilateral cooperation can be enhanced.

“You have experience with the subway, the MRT. And we must start with our railways in Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, also Papua, to make our logistics distribution faster and to connect city to city,” Mr Joko told The Straits Times in an interview earlier this week.

Both sides could also explore working together on industrial parks along the lines of those in Batam and Bintan in areas in eastern Indonesia, where good jobs need to be created, he added.

Economic cooperation has been a key pillar of bilateral ties between both neighbours during President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s 10 years in office, with bilateral trade at $74.8 billion last year.

Singapore was the second largest source of foreign investments in Indonesia, totalling US$4.67 billion (S$5.8 billion).

Both are also the top source of visitors for each other: Last year, Singapore saw 3.1 million arrivals from Indonesia while there were 1.4 million arrivals to Indonesia from Singapore.

Mr Joko wants to raise these numbers further, saying he is open to more flights between Singapore and cities across the country.“Indonesia-Singapore relations are strong, and important for Asean,” he said.

“We need to continue to strengthen our bilateral cooperation, bilateral relations.”

Singapore’s bilateral ties with Indonesia have been warm and personal relationships between leaders and officials on both sides have seen constant communication and common interests tide over rough patches from time to time.

Earlier this year, the Indonesian navy’s decision to name a new frigate the KRI Usman Harun, after two marines hanged in Singapore in 1968 for the MacDonald House bombing and declared heroes after their execution, strained ties.

Mr Joko did not want to dwell on this episode when asked. He would only say: “Usman and Harun are our heroes. Our heroes are our heroes.”

“Let’s look to the future,” he said, with a dismissive wave.

Mr Joko added that he is a firm believer in keeping lines of discussion open, and stresses that personal ties matter most.

“When we have a good relationship with people, I think when we have a small problem, we can pick up the phone and go ‘Hello’,” he said. “I’m a simple man, I don’t want to make a small problem into a big problem.”

He also hopes Indonesia can continue to play a role in resolving problems in the region. Dr Yudhoyono has, in recent years, sought to carve out a greater role for Indonesia in fostering regional stability.

Last week, Mr Joko said that Indonesia was ready to act as an intermediary between claimants to help resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea if needed. Asked this week if he felt Beijing would be receptive, Mr Joko told The Straits Times he would first want to listen to the leaders involved, discuss the matter with them and if Indonesia had a solution, it could play the role of mediator.

“For me, the most important is to listen and discuss with the leaders from China and also from the Asean countries,” he said.

Amid worries about Indonesians losing out to their neighbours once barriers are loosened as part of the Asean Economic Community (AEC), Mr Joko said “there is no doubt the AEC will bring enormous economic benefit to Indonesia”, which has to improve its human capital.

“We need to ensure that our workforce is not only able to compete with our counterparts, but also to contribute to economic integration,” he added.

“But we must also make sure that our infrastructure, our industrial capacity will be ready for the demands of the AEC. So we must push our infrastructure, we must push our industrial estates.”

Mr Joko has already displayed this openness in his capacity as Jakarta governor.

On Wednesday, SMRT chief executive Desmond Kuek was in Jakarta to meet Mr Joko alongside other members of a joint venture to build a Jakarta monorail, and Mr Joko reiterated his support for the project, which broke ground last October.

Mr Joko notes that while it would be good for the state to fund these infrastructure projects, there will be times when it cannot meet what what is required for seaports, airports and railways, and therefore has to work with investors in these areas.