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Taking the long view of Singapore–Indonesia relations

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Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong address a news conference in Singapore. (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su).

In Brief

Relations have been good between Singapore and Indonesia, but challenges still lie ahead. The upcoming leaders’ retreat for Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Indonesian counterpart, President Joko Widodo, will coincide with the golden anniversary (50 years) of formal diplomatic ties between the two nations.


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Considering how far bilateral relations have come, this is certainly an occasion for celebration.

In August 1965, Singapore was separated from the Malaysian federation as an act of ideological divorce. It took another 10 months before Indonesia formally recognised Singapore’s independence following the winding down of the campaign of Konfrontasi — Indonesia’s violent opposition to the creation of Malaysia. By September 1967, a Singaporean embassy was officially opened in Jakarta.

The sheer force of nationalism and decolonisation had ensured all three states became entangled in each another’s politics throughout much of the 1960s. Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, regarded the formation of a Malaysian federation that joined Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak as a colonial holding operation. Sukarno perceived the hand of British machination behind the plan. This was reinforced by the visibility of British military bases in Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore. For Singapore and Malaysia, federation was driven partly by economic logic, partly by their conjoined history as colonies under London’s stewardship for nearly a century, and partly out of the need to forge a common front against communist subversion.

Even in economics, Singapore inherited the functions the British carefully cultivated in the course of their colonisation. After establishing independence from Britain and Malaysia by 1965, Singapore acted as a free port with established mercantile, shipping, and (later) air traffic connections throughout Asia and as far as the Middle East and Europe. Initially, Singapore was seen as a threat to the newly independent Indonesia and its plans to build a sovereign economy with export outlets and facilities for trade with Asia and the rest of the world.

Moreover, Singapore’s politicians and their Malaysian counterparts hedged their rhetoric of Afro-Asian solidarity with the need to legitimise a tangible military security insurance arrangement with the departing British military power. This lasted until such time that their armed forces could sustain their own credibility. This was how Sukarno’s Indonesia framed the need to confront the ‘bogus’ independence of the Malaysian Federation (with Singapore in it) through a low intensity guerrilla war —Jakarta’s policy of Konfrontasi between 1963 and 1966 — which left in its wake a civilian and military death toll in both Singapore and Malaysia.

Today though, both countries have plenty of reasons to toast their economic relationship. Imports from Indonesia to Singapore rank sixth, while exports from Singapore to Indonesia rank fourth after China, Malaysia and Hong Kong. The Singapore–Indonesia commercial aviation route is one of the most heavily travelled within Southeast Asia. And while Jakarta’s politicians accuse Singapore of harbouring Indonesian criminals from time to time, bilateral ties are solid.

On the defence front, Singapore’s armed forces have a strong relationship with their Indonesian counterparts, conducting numerous joint land, sea and air exercises. The degree of friendship was exemplified by the 2014 Elang Indopura airforce exercise, which comprised of activities at both the Paya Lebar Air Base, Singapore and the Roesmin Nurjadin Air Force Base, Indonesia. Both navies also cooperated closely in the search and rescue effort for the Air Asia plane that crashed in December 2014.

But the country’s aviation relationship is not without turbulence. From time to time, Indonesian leaders try to assert Jakarta’s sovereign claims — over Singapore’s — to air traffic management zones. Singapore has consistently argued against this, citing International Civil Aviation Organisation standards that management of civilian air traffic has been delegated to it by the world body since the 1940s based on its record and technical capabilities.

There is also the recurring issue of Konfrontasi. For extended periods, leaders on both sides have tried to lay the ghosts of Konfrontasi to rest. For instance, in 1973 when Premier Lee Kuan Yew’s scattered flowers on the graves of two Indonesian marines caught and executed in Singapore for acts of sabotage. But unplanned furore erupts every now and then, such as over an exhibition in Indonesia that narrated their agents of Konfrontasi as heroes, or when Indonesia subsequently named their newest warships after them.

Environmental damage is also a big issue for the two nations. Forest burning in Indonesia’s Sumatra province creates an annual cloud of noxious smoky air that afflicts the urban centres of Singapore and Malaysia. But it is hard to obtain any form of apology by the Indonesian government. Indonesia’s acknowledgement of the issue depends very much on the severity of its social and economic impact on Singapore and Malaysia and the level of diplomatic protests.

Despite Singapore’s offers to lend firefighting support and employ concomitant legal sanctions against errant companies and individuals burning the forests, Indonesia continues to exert very little effort in mitigating the haze.

To secure another 50 years of healthy relations, Lee and Widodo will have to confront the prime challenges to Singapore–Indonesia ties, including historical remembrance and hazy non-traditional security threats.

Alan Chong is Associate Professor at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.   

One response to “Taking the long view of Singapore–Indonesia relations”

  1. Prime Minister Lee does not have an exact counterpart in Indonesia, because Joko Widodo is head of state as well as head of government. Lee is only head of government.

    In his paragraph on the ‘recurring issue of Konfrontasi’, the author of this post neglects to mention that, in 1968, Lee Kuan Yew rejected a personal plea from President Soeharto to commute the sentences of the two marines who had blown up a building in Orchard Road in 1965. Several casualties resulted from the attack. Lee, playing golf in Taiwan, rejected Soeharto’s appeal, and only made peace with the Indonesian president in 1973.

    The two marines were buried in Kalibata Heroes’ Cemetery, because Indonesia already saw them as heroes long before the Indonesian navy named a frigate after them. Singapore banned the entry of that frigate into its waters.

    Sumatra is not a province of Indonesia. It is an island that consists of around ten provinces.

    Finally, describing the last fifty years of relations as ‘healthy’ sets too low a bar for what a healthy relationship should be between these two neighbours. For example, one issue the author fails to mention is Singapore’s unwillingness to sign an extradition treaty with Indonesia to deal with the alleged Indonesian criminals he refers to.

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