The High and Low in Indonesia-Singapore 50 Years Bilateral Relations

In human relationships, 50 years is a sufficient time to make good old friends, especially if they meet all the time. This too, should reflect on Indonesia and Singapore relationship. The proximity of the two nations deemed impossible for separation and, thus, it is best to cooperate even at differing times.


Since 1967, Indonesia-Singapore diplomatic relationship has faced its low and high. The relations commenced on to a rocky start, where post-Confrontation tension was still in the backdrop of the General Suharto came to power. Only two years prior, under the Konfrontasi campaign, two Indonesian marines bombed MacDonald House located within the Singapore territory (which at the time was still under the Federation of Malaya) killing three civilians. The two marines were caught, subsequently tried and sentenced guilty with death penalty by hanging in 1968. This led to angry mob ransacking the Singapore embassy and Singapore’s diplomat residences in Jakarta.

The sour diplomatic relations rectified only when Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew made an official visit to Indonesia in 1973 and scatter flower on the marines’ graves at the Kalibata Heroes Cemetery. The symbolic act, which in the Javanese tradition is to soothe the souls of the executed marines, was very well accepted by President Suharto and appease the Indonesian people, ending the tension of Konfrontasi.

With good relations, the two nations together with Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand, established the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. Close support between President Suharto and PM Lee Kuan Yew was shown when Singapore abstained from the UN resolution condemning the Indonesia’s effort in taking East Timor as its territory. Other ASEAN member states also voted against the stance.

Hiccups still occurred, such as when Singapore’s newspaper quoted Indonesian President Habibie remarked the neigbouring country is a ‘little red dot in a sea of green’ which made Singaporeans rather upset. President Habibie denied the statement and the two countries rectify its good cooperation, including in strategic issues. Joint military training exercises, coordinated trilateral maritime patrol in the Malacca Strait and cooperation in countering transnational crime – including counter-terrorism – are recurring activities in the two nations’ agenda. These are important to build confidence and trust, especially in weathering geopolitical dynamic.

In the economic realm, both nations enjoyed relative welfare growth in the 1980s and 1990s, albeit in different pace. Singapore has enjoyed higher rapid economic acceleration through its micro-chip manufacturing strategy created a labor scarcity in specific industries, which absorbed workers from Indonesia. In return, Indonesia invited Singapore to conduct trade and investment in Batam-Bintan-Karimun (BBK) region. Singapore has been the biggest foreign direct investment source for Indonesia, with the amount increasing from US$5.9 billion in 2015, to US$7.1 billion in the first nine months of 2016. More recently, Singapore also invested in the the Kendal Industrial Park, Semarang that was inaugurated by both President Joko Widodo and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong earlier this year.

Although the two nations no longer have as close rapport as in the era of President Suharto and PM Lee Kuan Yew, both Indonesia and Singapore leaders are actively building mutual understanding and partnership in many sectors, including trade, tourism, culture, defence and security through bilateral cooperation, as well as through the regional framework of ASEAN integration. This 7 September, President Joko Widodo is scheduled to meet PM Lee Hsien Loong for Leaders’ Retreat in Singapore. The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and the Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU) will conduct an airshow, forming ‘50’ in the sky by doing flypast.

This high time of Indonesia and Singapore relations should be cultivated, not only to strengthen the good rapport between leaders, but also to discuss issues that often rock the boat. For example, the seasonal transboundary haze from Indonesia, the challenges of inequality within ASEAN – as domestic politics often chart the course of foreign policy, and also the great power rivalries that may pose challenge to the region. These issues are pressing and should be deliberated to find more permanent solutions. However, for now, Indonesia-Singapore should enjoy their successful half-a-decade good old friend relationships. Here is to RISING50 and many decades to come!


Published in CSIS Blog, 5 September 2017

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