Don't let haze blacken good neighbourly ties

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 29, 2013

COULD anyone have been more boorish than Indonesia's chief welfare minister Agung Laksono when he told Singapore to stop acting like a child over the health-destroying haze gripping the South-east Asian peninsula?

Mr Agung, a former Speaker of the People's Representative Council and a longstanding member of the Golkar party, not only should have a more caring attitude to fit his job description, but he also has a very short memory.

Singapore was, after all, one of the first countries to respond to the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northern tip of the same Indonesian island where uncontrolled fires have contributed to the worst pollution levels.

"How quickly memories fade and gratitude is replaced with contempt, a culture I observed only too clearly at the international level in Aceh," says Australian Bill Nicol, author of the newly published Tsunami Chronicles: Adventures In Disaster Management on the US$7 billion (S$9 billion) recovery effort.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had to deal with Indonesia's worst-ever disaster within a couple of months of taking office, knows that only too well, and was gracious in apologising to his neighbours for the latest smoke blanket.

Even then, he found himself under attack from domestic critics, many of them siding with Mr Agung and Mines and Energy Minister Jero Wacik. The latter weighed in as well, by telling Singapore and Malaysia to stop trying to blacken Indonesia's name.

Neither made any attempt to put themselves in the shoes of their hapless neighbours, or even their own countrymen. And when Singapore offered initial cash help, Mr Agung snorted: "If it is only half a million, or one million dollars, we don't need that."

The leader of 250 million people, Dr Yudhoyono found himself in the ridiculous position of having to defend his apology, explaining that Indonesia is not afraid of Singapore or Malaysia and that the fires had nothing to do with state sovereignty, territorial integrity or other issues.

What is it about hairy-chested Indonesian politicians and government officials who feel that they have to play to the nationalist gallery any time the country comes under implied criticism? Surely, it is bigger than that.

What about the future? Will they act like bullies if Indonesia reaches its true potential as one of the world's biggest economies over the next two decades, with all that entails as a genuine power in the region?

There was a time not so long ago when Indonesia was a cowed nation. Many of its citizens were in despair over whether it would ever regain its position in the world as it struggled to find a way out of the crippling 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis.

Now with a newfound confidence, borne out of a huge uptick in consumer spending and resurgent economic growth rates, the pendulum has swung the opposite direction.

Indonesia may have many complaints about the way Singapore's size belies its influence over the archipelago, but Mr Agung's comments make a mockery of Asean unity only two years away from the creation of the South-east Asian community.

Frankly, it doesn't matter whether the plantation owners are Singaporean, Malaysian, Indonesian or Martian.

The fires are burning in Indonesia and, if the blame belongs anywhere, it is with slack law enforcement - nothing else.

In any event, while Singapore- owned firms may conceivably have some small plantations in Sumatra, monitoring agencies say that almost all of the major concessions where the fires are concentrated are Indonesian, even if their head offices are in Singapore.

Defeated in the 2009 legislative elections, before being named a Cabinet minister, Mr Agung needs to realise that indulging in a blame game is helpful to no one when the health of Sumatrans is equally at risk. He also needs a timely reminder about how quickly Singapore responded on Dec 26, 2004.

Within three days, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) had mounted its biggest-ever rescue and relief operation, code-named Operation Flying Eagle, with missions to Medan, Banda Aceh and Meulaboh and other parts of the region.

Because Indonesia was hampered by a minimal airlift capability, a twin-rotor SAF Chinook helicopter was the first to deliver relief aid to hard-hit Meulaboh on Aceh's devastated west coast with a shipment of water, food and medicine.

Later, the Singaporeans lifted Indonesian military satellite communication systems and relief teams into the town, along with a Telkomsel GSM base station. More aid was to follow, including money for the much-needed rehabilitation of Meulaboh's port.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited Meulaboh within days of the tsunami. He, then Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean and other officials spent 16 hours touring northern Sumatra to assess what other assistance they could provide. It is exactly what good neighbours are meant to do.

"Memories are short when selfishness prevails, perhaps the greatest disaster of all in an interdependent world," says Mr Nicol, senior adviser to Mr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the celebrated former head of the Aceh and Nias Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency.

Mr Kuntoro himself, who must have inwardly cringed at Mr Agung's callous display of indifference and ingratitude, had no reservations about calling Singapore's assistance "timely and invaluable".

"Their rebuilding of the pier in Meulaboh, as well as their hospitals there and in Nias, became the backbone of the whole rebuilding of west Aceh," he told The Straits Times. "The Singapore Red Cross and Mercy (Relief) were among a number of Singaporean organisations which supported us very strongly. I owe them a lot."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 29, 2013

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