Johannes Nugroho: New Paradigm Needed for Ties With Singapore

Johannes Nugroho: New Paradigm Needed for Ties With Singapore

 22 May 2016

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Indonesia — Tensions between Indonesia and Singapore are simmering as a kerfuffle is developing over the decision by a Singaporean court to grant a warrant to the National Environment Agency (NEA) for an Indonesian businessman suspected of involvement in last year’s forest fires. The warrant was obtained after the businessman, whose identity remains hidden, failed to turn up for an interview with the Singaporean authorities while he was in the city-state.

The saga took an interesting twist as Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied its counterpart’s repeated claims that a formal complaint against the warrant had been lodged by the Indonesian Embassy in Singapore.

The reason for Indonesia’s umbrage remains unclear, although implicit in the protest was the notion that Singapore had tried to force Indonesia’s hand in acting against responsible parties for last year’s environmental disaster, which saw much of South East Asia engulfed in a haze. Jakarta’s reaction suggests that it deemed Singapore to have overstepped its scope of action. By contrast, Singapore’s NEA felt that it had every right to prosecute those deemed responsible, based on the 2014 Transboundary Haze Pollution Act.

To be fair, Singapore’s move was both logical and laudable. However, it was an inadvertent slap in the face for the Indonesian government. Chiefly, politicians in Jakarta were worried that, if successfully pulled off, it was bound to be seen by the public as a derogation of sovereignty: that an Indonesian national could be arrested and even tried in a foreign country.

The swift action was also an embarrassing reminder of Jakarta’s own unmistakable sluggishness in bringing the forest fire perpetrators to justice as a deterrent. Although the Indonesian police did arrest several company executives suspected of wrongdoing last year, no tangible progress has been made with regard to their prosecution so far. A lack of transparency has also marred the process, with Jakarta seemingly intent on protecting the identities of the companies suspected of setting fire to the forests, or negligence in preventing forest fires, in their respective concessions.

Singapore’s foreign ministry has understandably described Indonesia’s reaction as “puzzling.” To any outsider, this view probably holds sway, too. Yet the majority of Indonesians would really see Singapore’s action as an insult.

The main problem here is that post-Suharto Indonesia is still grappling with how to deal and interact with the Singapore of today.

Most Indonesians probably admire the city-state for its efficient bureaucracy, cleanliness and overall orderliness, which are the opposite of how things are in Indonesia. Our middle class still like to shop in Singapore for luxury goods and, given the choice, most of them, when ill, would rather be treated in Singapore than at home.

Yet for a resource-oriented nation like Indonesia, it is difficult to understand Singapore’s economic success fully, especially as the latter lacks natural resources. The “resource” mentality is after all part of the national myth in Indonesia, with every student taught from an early age how “resource-rich” Indonesia ought to make the country prosperous and how this makes it the envy of the world, even the target for colonial agenda in the past and neo-colonial exploitation subsequently. It rarely occurs to most of us that today’s advanced economies have gone beyond the exploitation of natural resources and the production of goods as their mainstay in prosperity.

The green-eyed monster is now quite real in the way many Indonesians see Singapore. Coupled with the firmly held belief that many of Indonesia’s super rich park their funds there, it has been conveniently cast as a “foreign” scapegoat for Indonesia’s own failures, even among the educated classes. Singapore is often portrayed as a pushy and cunning little neighbor who takes advantage of Indonesia’s good and gullible nature.

However, many of the accusations against Singapore widely circulated in the Indonesian press could hardly pass the litmus test. For example, the “revelation” by former Air Force chief Chappy Hakim that the airspace above Riau islands falls under Singapore’s Flight Information Region (FIR) – while factually true – neglects to mention that FIRs overlapping national boundaries are more common than he would allow.

Conveniently forgotten is also the fact that Indonesia manages the FIRs for both Timor Leste, a sovereign state in its own right, and Christmas Island, a territory belonging to Australia. The Indonesian press hardly informs the public that revenues derived from managing airspace above Riau are annually remitted by Singapore to the Indonesian government. Instead the issues of national pride and “unjust” benefits for Singapore at Indonesia’s expense are exaggerated ad nauseam.

It is high time that we cultivated a new mindset in dealing with Singapore. The Suharto-era self-imposed view that Indonesia must necessarily act as Southeast Asia’s “big brother” is no longer relevant in today’s geopolitical realities. Former President B.J. Habibie’s jibe at Singapore being a “little red dot” has also gone sour as Singaporeans appropriated the insult as a badge of pride.

In many ways, the consoling myth of Indonesia as “big brother” to the rest of Southeast Asia has been a source of great complacency for us. Rather than chastising us into bettering ourselves, it has lulled us. Isn’t it time for us to wake up?

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