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S'poreans wonder: ‘Why now?'

Publication Date : 15-02-2014


For the first time since the Lee Kuan Yew era ended, his successors are encountering a serious diplomatic row with Indonesia.

This comes barely two months before the tenure of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is due to end and Indonesia elects a new leader.

The news was announced in early February as the ailing former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, 90, was admitted to hospital for an infection.

A tough politician during his time, Lee was discharged from his ward a few days later with advice from his doctor to stay away from crowds.

He cancelled an appearance at his constituency’s Lunar New Year party.

However, as relations with Jakarta worsened, he surprised the public by attending a similar Istana function on February 9, apparently against medical advice.

There, he posed for photographs unaided with Cabinet ministers and party grassroots leaders.

Some observers viewed it as a gesture to all that although he has no role in the Cabinet, Lee is keeping in touch with the younger leaders over the issue.

I believe he was showing the seriousness with which he viewed Indonesia’s act of honouring two executed marines, who came to kill and injure civilians.

Singapore was then a member of Malaysia, which the late President Sukarno wanted to crush as a “neo-colonialist” creation.

But why act after 49 years?

The sudden and unexpected quarrel has come as a surprise to Singaporeans, the majority of whom suspect that there is an underlying cause.

I am not sure whether our government knows for sure whether Jakarta is displeased. If it does, it has kept silent.

And the Indonesians are not saying anything beyond the statement that they had merely wanted to name their frigate after “national heroes”.

Without an official explanation, ­Singapore­ans are having a field time speculating about it.

The most common theory is that it is due to Indonesia’s presidential election in April. Political parties are striving to project their spirit of nationalism.

President Yudhoyono is not running.

Another is the recent secret documents, which showed Singapore helping the United States and Australia to spy electronically on the region, including Indonesia.

Although the president dismissed it as a regional project not aimed specifically at Indonesia, some military elements may have taken umbrage.

Another possibility is Singapore’s alleged reluctance to sign an extradition treaty or hand over corruption suspects, who are keeping their ill-gotten gains there.

All these, however, are long-standing bilateral issues with no new developments.

There is a crucial difference, though. To Singapore, the two executed marines were saboteurs because no state of war existed in 1964 and yet they came in civvies to kill civilians.

Indonesia, however, regards the soldiers as national heroes who died obeying orders to attack Singapore.

“We oppose anyone calling them ­terrorists,” said a spokesman. “We consider the matter closed.”

The Singapore government has expressed strong displeasure and four Cabinet ministers have appealed to Indonesia to rescind the decision.

This has caused widespread anger among Singaporeans, including many Internet commentators who normally oppose the government.

Readers have probably read the news, so I will not repeat the details here except to say that Singapore took a strong stand.

Singapore’s Deputy Defence Minister Chan Chun Sing, a frontline candidate to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, cancelled a meeting with his Indonesian counterpart.

In return, the Indonesian military hit back by cancelling the visits of all the military chiefs – army, air force and navy – to the Singapore Airshow.

“The Singapore leadership felt that a firm response is needed against glorifying people who attack its people on its soil,” com­mented a veteran journalist.

“In its eyes, failing to respond would be tantamount to a security lapse.”

For Indonesia, nationalism is a crucial factor in national behaviour.

“These soldiers died for their country and it does not matter what others think about them,” said an Indonesian writer.

The crisis is a test of Premier Lee’s ability to lead Singapore out of the present dilemma.

Singapore is Indonesia’s third biggest trade partner, but it probably needs its resource-rich neighbour more. It cannot afford a long-drawn conflict with it.

Although the current anger is fairly widespread among Singaporeans, no one I talked to had predicted permanent enmity.

Lee has so far stayed out of the matter, probably to keep his option of eventual recon­ciliation and building ties with the new Indonesian president.

For his People’s Action Party, it is not all negatives.

For one thing, it has become a rallying point among the people, who are gradually withdrawing support for some of its policies.

His hand in dealing with Jakarta is much weaker than his father’s.

Today, nearly 40% of the population consists of foreigners who owe little or no loyal­ty to the country.

Analysts believe that for the short term, the quarrel may even get hotter and emotions may run higher.

The two governments, however, have powerful reasons for wanting to mend the rift.

The crisis is also providing a testing ground for Singapore’s untested potential leaders.

The PAP has a unique way of selecting and training leaders that no democratic countries even remotely follow.

While others allow them to be tested in the political arena – through unscripted debates, public polls and a questioning press – Singapore does it differently.

Here, they are identified by party colleagues to serve long periods in at least two portfolios simultaneously.

The eventual winner is then decided in an informal meeting of Cabinet peers (Lee Kuan Yew had a crucial say).

Ironically, these potential leaders need a few crises to test whether they will melt when under fire.

Unintentionally, Jakarta has just supplied one.


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