Three issues set to define Singapore–Indonesia ties

Three issues set to define Singapore–Indonesia ties
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Indonesia's President Joko Widodo shake hands at the Istana on Sept 7, 2017. Photo: Jason Quah/TODAY
Published: 4:00 AM, September 11, 2017
Updated: 8:04 AM, September 11, 2017

Last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo met at a Leaders’ Retreat to commemorate 50 years of diplomatic relations between Singapore and Indonesia. The event was symbolic, given how bilateral ties have evolved from rocky beginnings to relations in which the two neighbours have become key economic and strategic partners.

As noted by the two leaders, Singapore and Indonesia are neighbours by geography, but partners by choice. The two leaders agreed to continue building on existing mutual trust to further strengthen cooperation, especially on the economic front.

Indeed, there is much both sides can work on together in the years to come. However, there are some bumps that we can expect along the way.


Singapore-Indonesia relations began on a frosty note. Between 1963 and 1965, Indonesia President Sukarno launched the Konfrontasi (Confrontation) campaign against Malaysia, of which Singapore was then a part. Relations improved only almost a decade later, under the leadership of President Suharto and Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and Indonesia and Singapore developed closer economic and security ties.

However, Mr Suharto’s resignation in 1998 created new diplomatic uncertainties. Relations with Indonesia under the presidencies of B J Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri witnessed ebb and flows. Indonesians were angered by the flight of capital brought over by Chinese Indonesians into Singapore as a result of the anti-Chinese riots following Mr Suharto’s fall.

Mr Habibie’s infamous dismissal of Singapore as a “little red dot” worsened diplomatic ties. The 10 years under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-2014) were generally peaceful for the two nations, spurring greater co-operation on improving economic, business and security ties.

People-to-people relations have improved since 2014 under the Jokowi regime. While analysts can be upbeat that ties will remain stable, three issues are set to define relations in the years to come.

The first concerns economic co-operation, which has generally been positive. The two countries have grown to be strong trading and investment partners, driven by mutual complementarities.

At the leaders’ meeting, Singapore and Indonesia came up with promising cooperation plans in key areas such as energy, the digital economy, tourism and skills training.

However, the progress of these initiatives depends on the interplay of various factors such as clarity of rules and regulations; strong supporting infrastructure; and the availability of competent human capital.

On several previous occasions, Indonesia failed to enforce its rules and regulations as well as its international commitments. This failure is often caused by poor coordination within the state apparatus, as well as the executive’s and law enforcers’ political considerations when dealing with strong lobby groups. One example that directly affects Singapore businesses is related to Batam’s dualistic administrative authorities.

This dualism emerged after the launch of regional autonomy in 2001. Since then, the newly established Batam municipal administration has claimed part of the power formerly held by the Batam industrial development authority.

Without any clear and synchronised regulation dividing the scope of the two authorities, investors face lingering uncertainties and are therefore cautious about doing business there.

In another setback to businesses, the Constitutional Court in April annulled four provisions in the regional government law, thereby taking power from the central government to revoke problematic local rules that contravene national regulation and laws.


Another important issue concerns the security in Batam, Indonesia’s closest territory to Singapore.

Last year, Batam authorities revealed that a terrorist group, Cell Gonggong Rebus (GR), had planned to launch a rocket from the island targeting Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. Six militants were arrested, and they have since been jailed on unrelated charges of harbouring other extremists.

The authorities on both sides have been cooperating closely to deal with the threat posed by the Islamic State and other terror groups.

But these groups remain a serious threat, and that is why the reaffirmation by Mr Lee and Mr Widodo on the need for both countries to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation is a positive sign.

Beyond sharing intelligence, the two countries must foster greater collaboration at the grassroots level. Indonesia can learn from how the Islamic bureaucracy in Singapore manages the country’s religious teachers.

For instance, it draws up a directory listing the teachers approved to teach in mosques. Granted, the size of Indonesia’s Muslim population is many times that of Singapore’s, but the directory of accredited scholars can be managed by civil society groups.

This is one way of keeping tabs on those trying to spread radical ideas to the masses.

Singapore Muslims groups should also step up engagement with Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama (Revival of the Ulama) and Muhammadiyah. Religious intellectuals from the two organisations have plenty to offer Singapore’s religious elites. Moreover, their youth wings have been championing alternative discourses on Islam, bringing the religion to modern realities. Some important lessons can be drawn from their experience.

Lastly, the haze issue remains a complex one. Every time forest and land fires spread and the number of hotspots spike, neighbouring governments — including Singapore — demand firmer action by the Indonesian authorities.

Following the severe haze pollution across the region in 2015, Indonesia has taken serious steps to address this environmental problem, including setting up better-organised firefighter units and activating integrated forest patrols.

The impact of these new efforts remains to be seen. What is most important is to ensure a more effective common platform for devising a collective effort to prevent, monitor and mitigate the environmental problems caused by forest and peatland fires.

There remains a strong need to curb agricultural slash-and-burn practices. Singapore can offer its innovation and technology to help transform this traditional way of agricultural practices into something more environmentally friendly.

Hopes are high that the leaders’ meeting last week will provide greater impetus for the two countries to work together in tackling transboundary haze and climate change.

A memorandum of understanding on disaster risk management between the Singapore Civil Defence Force and Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Authority to step up the exchange of knowledge and expertise is a good start. This is crucial to enhancing operational linkages between both agencies.



Dr Norshahril Saat and Dr Siwage Dharma Negara are Fellows at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. They are Co-coordinators for the institute’s Indonesia Studies Programme.