Challenging times for S'pore-Indonesia ties

Issues around bad air, airspace and assets continue to trouble relationship between South-east Asian neighbours

A Republic of Singapore Air Force Chinook helicopter, carrying a crew of Singapore military and civil defence personnel, takes off from the haze-covered Indonesian airbase in Palembang, Sumatra, on Monday, for its first aerial water-bombing mission o
A Republic of Singapore Air Force Chinook helicopter, carrying a crew of Singapore military and civil defence personnel, takes off from the haze-covered Indonesian airbase in Palembang, Sumatra, on Monday, for its first aerial water-bombing mission over raging forest fires. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The haze enveloping Singapore today highlights the significance of our bilateral relationship with Indonesia. Just as we cannot escape the devastating impact on our health of "slash-and-burn" techniques to clear forested land in Sumatra for oil palm plantations, as neighbours, emerging trends in Indonesia will have an impact on Singapore.

Generally excellent bilateral ties during the years when President Suharto led Indonesia from 1967 to 1998 have been followed by more challenging interactions as Singapore adjusted to the rise of populist democracy in Indonesia. There has been a sharp increase in bilateral exchanges over the years, both at the political and business levels, as well as a rise in tourism, increasing student and community exchanges, together with Singapore's emergence as a major investor in Indonesia and growing bilateral trade.

But there are undercurrents which should not be ignored. As hotly contested regional elections are set to take place in Indonesia in December, there is a risk that Singapore will be a target of criticism in provincial and district (kabupaten) electoral campaigns in Sumatra, especially in areas where power holders have worked well with Singapore, such as in Riau and Jambi. Their critics will charge that these incumbents are willing to subordinate Indonesia's interests to the lure of Singapore's cash and benefits. A younger generation of Internet-savvy Indonesians are also likely to take nationalistic postures and criticism of Singapore risks going viral.

A recurrent theme in our bilateral relationship has been the mix of envy, fear and suspicion in the minds of some quarters in Indonesia, which has coloured their perceptions of Singapore. They feel that Singapore has succeeded at Indonesia's expense and that tiny Singapore should be grateful for benefiting from Indonesia.

Commenting on the haze, Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said: "For eleven months, (Singapore and Malaysia) enjoyed nice air from Indonesia and they never thanked us. They have suffered for one month because of the haze and they get upset."

In dealing with Indonesia, we should anticipate such a "big brother" mindset, even from circles in Indonesia generally friendly towards Singapore. While former president B.J. Habibie's "little red dot" reference to Singapore in 1998 has achieved iconic status in Singapore, most Indonesians are unaware of the reference and of the original derogatory usage.

Underlying the approach of many Indonesian policymakers is the belief that Singapore has no natural resources and benefits from exploiting Indonesia.

The self-image is that of Indonesia as a pretty girl courted by everyone at the party. It is not perceived as a relationship of equals but one where Singapore is dependent on Indonesia.

Bilateral relations are challenging due to three issues: bad air or the haze; airspace and assets.


In 2013, at the height of the haze season, then-Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Agung Laksono complained that "Singapore shouldn't be behaving like a child and making all this noise". He added that Indonesia would reject any Singapore offer of financial aid to assist in quelling the forest fires unless it was a large amount.

A Republic of Singapore Air Force Chinook helicopter, carrying a crew of Singapore military and civil defence personnel, takes off from the haze-covered Indonesian airbase in Palembang, Sumatra, on Monday, for its first aerial water-bombing mission over raging forest fires. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Singapore offered Indonesia a Haze Assistance Package including aircraft, helicopter, satellite imagery and Singapore Civil Defence Force firefighting teams and equipment while requesting concession maps and names of errant companies so that we could take action against them. These requests have either been ignored or rejected. When asked why Indonesia declined Singapore's offer of assistance, Minister of the Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya Bakar said that if the offer of assistance was for 40 planes, and not just one, then maybe the offer could be considered.

Indonesia last week accepted offers of aid from foreign countries, including Singapore. But it has taken weeks to come to this position. Meanwhile, it is Indonesian citizens in Sumatra and Kalimantan who are feeling the worst effects of the forest fires.


Indonesian politicians and military personnel have also called for Indonesia to "take back" areas over Riau within Indonesian airspace which have formed part of the Singapore Flight Information Region (FIR) since 1946, when the International Civil Aviation Organisation allocated the sector to Singapore based on operational and technical considerations. The FIR assigned to Singapore includes some of the territorial airspace of Malaysia and Indonesia, and such overlaps are common in many parts of the world including Europe, Africa and South America. The Jakarta FIR, for example, also covers Timor Leste territorial airspace. While the Indonesians argue that this is their sovereign right as it is part of their territorial airspace, Singapore has managed the FIR as a public good focusing on operational efficiency and the safety of navigation of commercial airliners in increasingly crowded skies.

The Indonesian media frequently misrepresents Singapore's management of the FIR, claiming that Singapore profits from air navigation charges, delays planes taking off or landing at Batam to accommodate Changi's traffic and discriminates against Indonesian airlines in flight level allocation. None of this is true.

The fees collected by Singapore are remitted annually to Indonesia, with proper accounting between the two countries. Traffic movements are handled solely on the basis of operational efficiency. A former Indonesian Air Force chief of staff even claimed that Singapore would be "destroyed" if Indonesia took over the FIR, simplistically concluding that Singapore's role as an air transport hub would be undermined and our entire economy would be ruined.


Indonesian politicians have also blamed Singapore for harbouring alleged Indonesian "corruptors" and their "illegal funds". In an interview on Indonesia's proposed amnesty for financial crimes, Minister of Finance Bambang Brodjonegoro said: "We spend our time cursing corruptors but they are safe in Singapore." He also cited a McKinsey study which estimated that the value of Indonesian assets in Singapore amounted to US$300 billion (S$420 billion).

Indonesian officials also claim that Singapore has obstructed their finance-related investigations. When the Monetary Authority of Singapore announced that it would no longer issue the $10,000 note from October last year because of the risk associated with large value cash transactions and high value notes, Indonesian officials claimed that Singapore had given in to Indonesian "pressure".

Singapore has consistently and publicly refuted these allegations, and has in fact been assisting Indonesia's investigation requests.

But such claims will recur. The ability of alleged criminals to leave the country legally will be ignored. The Indonesian authorities have found it more convenient to blame others than deal with the real causes.

I had the experience of meeting a friend from my posting in Jakarta at the Nadaman restaurant in Singapore. He owed his creditors US$500 million and was a fugitive but had left Indonesia legally and was carrying a valid Indonesian passport. He left the restaurant after paying my bill with his diamond credit card! I was hosting some of my former colleagues and was surprised when I wanted to pay at the end of our meal, so I asked the manager to see the bill. As the credit card was from one of his creditor banks, I concluded that we had all enjoyed the hospitality of his bankers!

This is not an isolated case. Tax official Gayus Tambunan, who was convicted of tax evasion of 160 billion rupiah (S$16.5 million), was caught on camera watching an international tennis tournament in Bali in November 2010. He had earlier been seen shopping in Orchard Road with his wife, having travelled legally to Singapore. Relocated to a special prison in Bandung for those convicted of corruption, he was spotted having a meal at a restaurant in Jakarta recently.

Singapore benefits when our neighbours enjoy political stability and economic growth. We want them to do well. However, we need to bear in mind that there are groups in Indonesia as well as Malaysia that do not share these sentiments. Their internal conflicts can also spill over into Singapore.

As political contestation increases in Indonesia, Singapore has been an easy target to rally domestic support and deflect criticism. We cannot escape our neighbourhood. A continuing foreign policy challenge will be to differentiate ourselves from our neighbours, even as we strive to get along with them.

•The writer is Distinguished

Fellow and Bakrie Professor of South-east Asia Policy, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He served as Singapore's Ambassador to Indonesia from 1986 to 1993.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2015, with the headline Challenging times for S'pore-Indonesia ties. Subscribe