The unwelcome return of the haze yesterday signals the critical role that Indonesia plays in shaping developments in this part of the world. Given the size of its population and economy, Indonesia can help to stabilise the region at a critical time when it is facing both challenges and opportunities. Diplomatic leadership is needed to ensure Asean does not squander its chances.
Nowhere can such diplomacy be put to better use than in Asean economic cooperation. As observed in a public policy think-tank's publication, "the security and prosperity of almost all countries is now dependent on a series of transnational economic, security and political networks, which transfer capital, information, goods and services across borders".
The seafronting Kendal Industrial Park is an example of how neighbouring countries can leverage each other's strengths for economic purposes. Singapore's experience in designing international-standard industrial parks is being coupled with Indonesia's land and labour availability to attract foreign investors there. It is a milestone in the relationship because it places, for the first time, a Singapore marker in the Indonesian heartland of Central Java. This is a huge leap of faith that Singapore is placing in the nation's future since the park is meant to absorb the spillover of manufacturing from the Greater Jakarta region.
Since taking charge in 2014, President Joko Widodo has rightly made economic development the launchpad for broader strategic goals like rebuilding its maritime culture and safeguarding marine resources. While his initial Cabinet line-up suggested the political pressures he was under, he now has a team that is more to his taste. Some of his policies smack of nationalism but he also has taken several steps to open his economy and to privatise state-owned companies. Finance minister Sri Mulyani is a well-known technocrat and anti-corruption fighter. Financial markets have responded well to the changes.
As the largest investor in Indonesia, Singapore would like nothing better than to see Mr Joko's untiring efforts across various fronts bear fruit. Many, however, would wish that Mr Joko will find more time to focus on regional diplomacy, even though domestic concerns are indeed pressing. As the recent spat over Chinese fishing vessels in the Natunas underscored, Indonesia is not immune to the winds buffeting the South China Sea. Nor can it assume that old-style nationalism is being held in check. It still springs forth, as witnessed in the recent protests outside the Singapore Embassy in Jakarta over the issue of a retired Indonesian general being questioned in Changi Airport as part of routine screening procedures. Even haze prevention has been politicised by nationalists. To fulfil its vast promise, Indonesian vision must be as broad as its geographic horizon.