Reports of Indonesian Military (TNI) chief General Moeldoko's apology to Singapore have sparked noisy protests from the Indonesian public, while in Singapore, he has been ridiculed for wearing a luxury watch during an interview with Channel News Asia, during which he made the reconciliatory statement.
Many Indonesians will not agree with me, but I believe that the TNI chief's apology, if any, to Singapore in connection with the naming of a corvette after two marines who were hanged in Singapore for a bomb attack there in 1965 was a wise decision. His apology will not change anything, but he has won the hearts of many Singaporeans, including their leaders.
In an interview with TV correspondent Sujadi Siswo, which was aired last Tuesday, the four-star general apologised for hurting the feelings of Singaporeans in the case of the Usman-Harun warship.
"Once again I apologise. We have no ill intent whatsoever to stir emotions. Not at all. Second, relations between the two countries are on the mend. There have been communications between leaders. Singapore's chief of defence and I have spoken," the general said.
Gen Moeldoko denied the apology statement and blamed the interpreter for wrongly translating his Indonesian remarks into English. The general apparently did not realise that nowadays people can just go to YouTube to check the interview. It is hard to believe this was a case of "lost in translation" after watching the TV programme. Gen Moeldoko himself initially posted a link to the TV channel on his own Facebook account but it was removed after the uproar.
I suspect the general had to "lie" because of the protests. He did not want to be judged as a "traitor" to his nation, as indicated by professor of law at University of Indonesia (UI) Hikmahanto Juwana.
"The TNI chief should clarify his apology statement so that the Indonesian public do not feel betrayed [by him]," said Prof Hikmahanto, as quoted by tempo.com.
As reported by Agence France-Presse, Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen welcomed the apology, saying it was a "constructive gesture to improve bilateral defence ties". It would "strengthen the mutual understanding and friendship that has been built up over many decades", he said in a statement.
While many people criticised President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for saying "sorry" to Singaporeans and Malaysians who had to suffer from the haze caused by forest fires in Indonesia, I agreed with the President because the haze affected millions of people in the two neighbouring countries, including visiting Indonesians.
"For what is happening, as President, I apologise to our brothers in Singapore and Malaysia," Dr Yudhoyono said last year. He asked for their understanding and said Indonesia was working hard to fight the fires, which are often set by farmers to clear fields.
Dr Yudhoyono then issued a harsh statement on Singapore's behaviour towards its giant neighbour.
Like his supreme commander, Gen Moeldoko also "retracted" his statement following protests at home. It was regrettable. They just bowed to public pressure.
However, Gen Moeldoko's response to the public criticism of his alleged "hobby" of "showing off" his super-expensive watches in public is more regrettable. His denials only deepened public suspicion about his wealth. His statement that the watches were fake was not convincing, although we could assume that he was being honest, because many people can easily check the authenticity of his jewellery on the Internet.
It is nearly impossible to convince the public that he was frank about his watches. It is understandable that the general was nervous because the follow- up question was how he could afford them.
In a comment posted on a website in Singapore, a social media activist wrote about Gen Moeldoko's style during the interview. "He did it in style. Wearing what appears to be a Richard Mille RM 011 Felipe Massa Flyback Chronograph 'Black Kite'."
In Indonesia, "mohon maaf" (forgive me, or sometimes, excuse me), is a very common expression, and very often it is meant just as a courtesy or lip service. But Indonesians are also often very demanding of those who have done something wrong to them, while they are very reluctant to apologise to those whom they have offended or harmed.
During the Idul Fitri festival, Muslims greet each other with "mohon maaf lahir batin" (I apologise with heart and soul). But try to reply with "I have forgiven all your wrongdoings" and many people would laugh or get upset. It means sometimes that such an apology should not be taken too seriously.
Gen Moeldoko was correct when he said Indonesia did not intend to offend Singapore while strictly maintaining its decision. We are 100 per cent right but we were still insensitive. As the largest Asean member, Indonesia needs to act in line with its capacity to receive respect from smaller neighbours. Of course, the same rule applies to our friends.
The general is now facing great difficulties in his public relations job of appeasing those who question his wealth. He needs to remember the phenomenon in Indonesia that the stronger you react and deny, the more people distrust you.
The writer is managing editor at The Jakarta Post.