Unravelling the subtleties of the Javanese mind

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 29, 1998

Mr Lee Khoon Choy knows Indonesia well, having served as Singapore's ambassador to the country and written a book about its culture. He helped in paving the way for good bilateral relations in the 1970s. Now a businessman who visits Indonesia regularly, he talks to ZURAIDAH IBRAHIM about those early tumultuous days and recent developments.


Exhausted after a stint in Cairo where he had to mollify Arab leaders miffed at Singapore's recognition of Israel, Mr Lee Khoon Choy received word one morning in February 1970 that he was to tread on even more unfriendly territory.

The assignment was Jakarta, where just over a year earlier, protesters had raided the Singapore embassy there and burnt the national flag.


Former Senior Minister of State (Prime Minister’s Office) Lee Khoon Choy. PHOTO: ST FILE

The cause of Indonesian ire was the hanging of the two soldiers who had slipped into Singapore in 1965, during Confrontation, to plant bombs at MacDonald House.

Their subversive act killed three people, but they were given heroes' burials in the same grounds as the six generals killed in the coup of 1965 that precipitated Mr Suharto's rise to power.

"The military generals all looked at me in a very hostile way," says Mr Lee, recalling the Indonesian elite's deeply-held bias against the Chinese, and by extension, Singapore.

"I heard people saying: 'Orang Cina want to be an ambassador here?' "

Determined to make a breakthrough, he spent the next three years assiduously cultivating the military - then as now, the real powerbrokers - aided by top Indonesian journalists such as Mr Mochtar Lubis and Foreign Minister Adam Malik.

"Lubis told me the first thing I had to do was understand the Javanese mind. He was Sumatran and he said he couldn't understand how the Javanese could let Sukarno rule and bluff them for 17 years."

It was advice well-taken, for Mr Lee, who speaks Malay, boned up on Indonesian history and culture as he sought to understand the enigmatic ways of the Javanese and how he could win them over to Singapore's cause. (He later wrote a book called Indonesia: Between Myth and Reality.)

He found out early on that a "yes" in Javanese-speak really meant "Yes, I hear you, but I may not agree with you".

He tried to secure an invitation for then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to visit Jakarta. "When two years were over and still no visit, Dr Goh Keng Swee, who was Minister for Defence, said: 'KC, you better come back. Don't waste your time. The Indonesians are not going to invite Lee Kuan Yew'," he says.

The ambassador, however, did not give up. He succeeded gradually in convincing three of Mr Suharto's top military aides that Singapore was a sovereign country intent on being independent and would never allow itself to be used by China. Finally, the frosty atmosphere began to thaw, and the much coveted invitation came.

Before the visit in 1973, he says, Mr Lee Kuan Yew asked him how he could make friends with Mr Suharto and Indonesia. He suggested that the Prime Minister pay his respects at the graves of the two marines whom Singapore had hanged.

"Lee Kuan Yew was a little startled by the suggestion. He said: 'What, is it necessary?'"

The diplomat explained that to the Javanese, the laying to rest of souls was important. The gesture would seal their life's journey and would in turn open the way for any friendship Singapore had hoped for with Indonesia.

PM Lee replied he would not want it to be seen as an act of repentance. But he added that he would think about it.

Upon his arrival in Jakarta, he signalled he would do it.

The Indonesian reaction was overwhelming. The newspapers the next day were drenched with praise for what some saw as an "act of greatness".

At the actual ceremony, the Singapore diplomat who made it all happen could not help but notice the tears welling up in the eyes of his Indonesian counterpart, Mr Rukmito, and the equally moved expressions on the faces of the generals present.

"I felt so happy," says Mr Lee Koon Choy. "This was the key to the turning point of better relations between our two countries."

Another good omen: at the state dinner the night before, a bat flew into the banquet hall, creating a minor stir. The Chinese character for bat, bian fu, sounds similar to that for luck.

But luck or not, the mood changed and Jakarta and Singapore were on their way to being firm friends.

Ties deepened rapidly, with the signing of several agreements over the years, ranging from the Growth Triangle project and other investments, development of water resources to joint military cooperation.

Such linkages were possible, says Mr Lee, only because of Mr Suharto's close friendship with the Singapore leadership.

"He was good to us."

Mr Lee met the former President on many occasions after his 1970-74 term as ambassador in Jakarta ended.

Remembering his leadership, he says Mr Suharto tried to steer the world's fourth most populous state onto a more rational course of politics and development, after the years of sloganeering and speech-spinning that the charismatic Sukarno had revelled in.

Unlike Mr Sukarno, Mr Suharto was soft-spoken, gentle, and above all, very halus or refined, he says.

"He behaved like a real Javanese. I have not heard of or seen him lose his temper. In all the 32 years, every time, he had a smile on the face. You do not know what he's thinking. Javanese always do not show their feelings on the face.

"But I think he was a born strategist. Every move he made, he succeeded. He succeeded in ousting so many generals and replacing this person, that person, such that over time, only he had power."

Mr Suharto saw himself as a Javanese king who had the wahyu or blessings from heaven to be a leader.

Mr Lee, who visits Jakarta regularly on business and still counts some ex-generals among his friends, says he does not know whether the Javanese leaders to come will also think and act in such terms. But he reckons that the influence of culture is not to be under-estimated.

In short, subtleties speak louder than words and manoeuvrings will remain inscrutable to the uninitiated.

"The Javanese prides himself on showing inner strength. Everything he does, is refined. The power of inner strength is like, you only lift a finger and your other fellow, your opponent, will fly."

But while Mr Suharto succeeded in amassing power and raising his country's economic and international standing, his one failing that led to his downfall, he says, was his inability to be just about wealth distribution.

"He loved his children too much," remarks Mr Lee, in an oblique reference to the business monopolies they were allowed to control.

Mr Suharto's greatest contribution was the use of the Constitution and a common ideology, Pancasila, to unite his diverse population of 200 million and 300 ethnic groups, he says.

"Even when he resigned, he did it peacefully, by the Constitution, not by force. He protected the Constitution and said he would step aside if it was done constitutionally. Of course, he did not wait for that in the end."

Asked what his exit would mean for future Singapore-Indonesia relations, he notes that the next few months of transition will provide fertile ground for many potential power centres to take seed.

Among those to watch: Abri chief Wiranto and Economic Minister Ginandjar Kartasasmita.

President Habibie, he says, has bought himself time with various concessions and his commitment to resuscitate the economy and press ahead with political reform.

Whatever the outcome of the coming months, Singapore would need to establish pragmatic relations with whoever is in power, he adds.

But he doubts that a charismatic leader in the mould of Sukarno - a product of a different age - could ever again emerge in Indonesia.

"I don't think any charismatic leader will be able to repeat the role of Sukarno or even Suharto as the rules of the game will be changed - a President probably cannot stay more than two terms, no more one-man leadership.

"And you see, this is a different age. The new TV generation, influenced by the West, as Indonesia is quite free in allowing Western culture in, is different.

"In the old days, you tell the Javanese to suffer and if you tell him in a romantic way, he'll believe you. But today, people have other aspirations, they want democracy, they want modern goods."

But in the coming months, if the situation should deteriorate, Singapore could risk being a target, especially if it is seen as a haven that the ethnic Chinese retreat to.

"I think it's a sad thing to see that after so many years the Indonesians are still anti- Chinese. If the Chinese pull out, it's very difficult for the economy to come up again.

"I once met General Sumitro, deputy commander of Kopkamtib, the internal security department. I asked him: 'What do you mean by assimilation of the Chinese?'

"He said they should forget their own language, own culture, own everything and become really Indonesian.

"I told him that when people lose their own roots, they are neither here nor there. Why not let them have their own roots and then respect them because if you give them a good opportunity in Indonesia, of course they will be loyal to Indonesia.

"Like Singaporeans, Chinese are all Singaporeans first."

But he adds that, on the other hand, many Chinese Indonesians forget to plough their wealth back to society to build more schools, universities, hospitals and look after the poor. For as long as they are seen as the exploiting class, resentment will fester and come to the surface now and again.

"I'm a bit worried because if some leaders there think that Singapore is a thorn in the flesh, we will be in real trouble. Singapore must be always conscious of this and try to dispel this fear."

On whether Indonesia might display its tendency to externalise its domestic problems, Mr Lee does not think so. "Asean is a very useful balancing body. There is no question of anybody following Sukarno to have a diversion and have another anti-Malaysia or anti-Singapore move."

He adds: "I think the people who have emerged are more educated, they know more about the aspirations of people, are more pragmatic. I think more and more people of this nature will emerge in the Indonesian system."