Building on the legacy of Dr Yudhoyono

Singaporeans remember how gracious Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had been in acknowledging the distress the seasonal haze causes, notably in Singapore and Malaysia. Also not forgotten is how political dissenters and sections of the Indonesian media had turned on him when he apologised last year for a particularly bad occurrence. These critics were making the case, tinged with nationalist fervour, that Indonesia was too big to be engaging in acts of contrition, more so as their country was no less afflicted. But he knew better.

This was just one instance in a decade-long tenure during which he showed many acts of statesmanship to reinforce a relationship that has been steadily improving despite some outstanding issues. The Order of Temasek (First Class), Singapore's highest honour for foreign leaders, conferred on Dr Yudhoyono on his farewell call here is a measure of how well regarded he is.

Dr Yudhoyono intuited the importance of a steady hand in regional diplomacy that Indonesia is well placed to provide, as the region's largest economy and a pluralistic state with the world's largest Muslim population. Such outward-looking leadership will be needed even more in what Dr Yudhoyono called an era of "hot peace" created by regional tensions. As a thought leader who has espoused diverse causes over the years, the Asean community should tap his considerable experience to promote its interests in international councils.

For Dr Yudhoyono's legacy to bear fruit, it falls upon incoming president Joko Widodo to safeguard carefully-built bilateral ties, despite the nationalist impulse of the Indonesian politicians who reflexively resist anything that is perceived as outside pressure.

Insular policies, of course, will not help Indonesia in fulfilling its potential of becoming the world's seventh-largest economy before the middle of this century, as predicted by some economists. Just as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nationalist base is seen as a major impediment to much-needed reforms, Indonesia's new leaders will have to contend with the influence of political lobbies.

Executive vigour might then be tempered by the accommodation needed to thwart legislative obstructionism emanating from any disgruntled coalition partners as well as sworn enemies.

Amid the prospect of substantial fuel subsidy cuts and rising prices, the effect of the haze on neighbours would not be a pressing matter to many Indonesian people. But, as Dr Yudhoyono understood well, deep and robust multilateral ties underpin the stability, security and synergy that are essential for the nation to take its place in the world as a catalyst of positive change in the region.