Commentary: Singapore-Indonesia relations at 50, delicate yet interdependent

Commentary: Singapore-Indonesia relations at 50, delicate yet interdependent

The two countries must set aside differences and embrace growing interconnectivity to face challenges ahead, writes ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Charlotte Setijadi.

RISING50 actual flypast
RSAF and TNI AU F-16s forming the figure "50" over Marina South on Thursday (Sep 7). (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: On Thursday (Sep 7), Singapore and Indonesia celebrated 50 years of bilateral ties.

Among other events designed to mark the golden jubilee, SingPost and Pos Indonesia issued a coral reef commemorative stamp set. According to SingPost, the delicately interdependent ecosystems of coral reefs are supposed to symbolise “the many ways in which Singapore and Indonesia are working together".

Indeed, delicate yet interdependent is an apt way to describe the nature of Singapore-Indonesia relations in the past 50 years. A closer look at the nature of this relationship reveals useful lessons for leaders of both countries.

singapore-indonesia joint stamp issue
The Singapore-Indonesia joint stamp issue. (Photo: SingPost) 


Singapore and Indonesia relations have come far since its precarious beginnings. Following the turbulent years of Konfrontasi from 1963 to 1966, bilateral relations between the two countries were established in 1967.

Bilateral relations and trade cooperation blossomed from the 1970s through to the 1990s under the leadership of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and President Suharto.

Natural resource-rich Indonesia became a major investment destination for companies listed in Singapore, and the two countries developed a symbiotic relationship that involved collaboration into areas of mutual benefit.

The close relationship between the two leaders helped chart out the direction for the bilateral relationship, leading to strong growth in cooperation in other areas like defence, where both militaries would train together and frequently conduct joint exercises.

The fall of Suharto in 1998 brought wide-ranging reforms in Indonesia that briefly resulted in more challenging interactions as Singapore adjusted to successive post-Suharto governments and decentralisation.

As a whole, however, bilateral relations continued to flourish, as both sides realise benefits of cooperation in key areas.

Indonesia today is one of Singapore’s main trade partners and Singapore consistently tops the list as the biggest source of foreign direct investment in Indonesia. Both countries also continue to play leading roles in ASEAN to shape a regional security architecture that engages the major powers.

PM Lee, Jokowi at Marina Bay
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Indonesian President Joko Widodo at Marina Bay ahead of a joint flypast. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)


However, lurking beneath the positive overtones of the relationship today are residual distrust and sensitivities, which must be managed carefully. Nothing brings out these underlying negative sentiments like the haze.

Although both sides have had a reprieve from the haze over the past two years, exchanges were heated in 2013 and 2015 when the pollutant standards index hit hazardous levels.

Angry Singaporeans blamed irresponsible slash-and-burn practices in Indonesia for the haze, while Indonesians reacted defensively, arguing that Singapore has benefited from the exploitation of Indonesia’s natural resources and should therefore share in the responsibility of haze mitigation.

Size also factors in how both sides view the relationship. Indonesia often displays a “big brother” complex towards its much smaller yet more prosperous neighbour. This is why, despite general contentment and cooperation, Indonesia flexes its muscles from time-to-time to assert power over issues, and takes actions it sees as commensurate with its status as a big country.

For instance, Indonesian politicians and military personnel have periodically called for Indonesia to take back areas over Riau that have been part of Singapore’s Flight Information Region since 1946.

Financial disclosure is another sore point for Indonesia, who sees Singapore as benefiting at its expense. Many say Singapore is where Indonesia’s wealthy elites keep undisclosed bank accounts and safe deposit boxes to evade tax. Indonesian officials say that US$300 billion of undeclared Indonesian wealth is parked in Singapore, and they want this money repatriated back to bolster much-needed tax revenue and pay for infrastructure projects.

Haze over Singapore OCt 21
PM2.5 levels in Singapore spiked at over 400 during the haze in October 2015. (Photo: Sherlyn Goh)

For Singapore, old wounds and historical baggage from Konfrontasi can be a point of sensitivity, seen when Indonesia named one of its navy patrol ships KRI Usman Harun after the two marines executed at Changi prison for the 1965 MacDonald House bombing. Singapore was infuriated and banned the ship from ever berthing at its ports.


Despite underlying sentiments, both sides recognise that it is in their mutual interests to work together, in taking what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong describe as “a long-term, win-win approach”.

Just last month, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi also called for the spirit of positivity to be the modus operandi for the next 50 years to come.

Both countries also share much mutual respect for each other, despite their differences. Sick of problems like corruption and lack of infrastructure, many Indonesians envy Singapore’s order, cleanliness and modern comforts. In fact, in a nation-wide survey commissioned by ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in May this year, 85.6 per cent of the 1,620 Indonesians surveyed point to Singapore as the country they most admired.

Many Singaporeans in turn see Indonesia as a country full of opportunities, given its large domestic market and potential global influence as the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

Jakarta's business district skyline
The skyline of Jakarta's business district. (Photo: AFP)


The reality is, perhaps now more than ever, that Singapore and Indonesia need to stick together and learn from each other amid challenges that lie ahead. The growing threat of terrorism from Islamic radical groups affiliated to the Islamic State (IS) group in the region is one such challenge.

The ongoing armed conflict between government forces and IS-affiliated Maute and Abu Sayyaf jihadist groups in the southern Philippines town of Marawi may seem far away to Singaporeans and Indonesians. But greater IS presence in Southeast Asia is dangerous for all countries in the region.

Last year, Indonesian forces in Batam foiled a terrorist plot to attack Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands by a group who pledged allegiance to IS. The threat of homegrown radicalism is more real than ever, with a number of Singaporeans and Indonesians arrested recently for trying to join the fighting in Marawi.

The Singapore Armed Forces has already offered their aid in helping to combat IS groups in Marawi, but Singapore and Indonesia have to work more closely to counter these growing terror threats.

Damaged buildings and houses are seen as government troops continue their assault during clearing o
Damaged buildings and houses are seen as government troops continue their assault during clearing operations against pro-IS militants group which have seized control over large parts of Marawi city on Sep 9. (Photo: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco)

Rapidly changing geopolitical and economic landscapes in the region also require Singapore and Indonesia to work together on a number of fronts.

While China’s growing presence in Southeast Asia brings many economic opportunities, Singapore and Indonesia need to cooperate in projecting a strong ASEAN front in ensuring regional peace and stability, including managing maritime disputes in the South China Sea through a code of conduct.

Singapore and Indonesia are also more connected in terms of a growing digital economy and social media use, and will be even more so in the future. Singapore-based e-commerce giant Lazada is the largest online retailer in Indonesia. Many Indonesian e-commerce start-ups involve Singaporean partners and target the Singapore market.

As Indonesia rises to become one of the largest online markets in the world, joining hands to combine investment, technology and talent with Singapore can help develop budding start-ups from both sides.

At the annual leaders’ retreat last week, Singapore and Indonesia agreed on promising cooperation plans in key areas such as energy, the digital economy, tourism, security and skills training. This is a positive move forward for a relationship that has not always been easy to manage in the past.

As Singapore and Indonesia enter the next phase in their bilateral ties, the two countries need to capitalise on the trend of growing interdependence and interconnectivity, focusing on what they have in common.

It is true that you can’t choose your neighbours, but you can certainly choose to be partners with them.

Charlotte Setijadi is Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Source: CNA/sl