Indonesia and S’pore must go beyond govt ties’

Calls to maintain links at all levels to deal with any problem in bilateral ties and to address new issues.

Singapore and Indonesia need to broaden links beyond government ties and keep channels open at all levels to manage the ‘ups and downs’ of bilateral relations.

The two countries also had to recognise that apart from old grievances, there were also new issues related to global terrorism and China’s ascendancy that, if not addressed, could hurt ties.

This was the general consensus reached by participants at the end of a three-day seminar here on bilateral relations.

It was organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) and the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

SIIA chairman Simon Tay told The Straits Times that for too long ties between the two countries had been predicated on ‘a-two-person relationship’ – that between Mr Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for 30 years, and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew. ‘We need to broaden ties to include other sectors of society, and not just the government,’ he said.

These included non-governmental organisations, the media and businesses.

He added: ‘The fundamentals of that relationship are already there. But we need to build on it by adding more layers to it.’ Mr Jusuf Wanandi of the CSIS said the relationship was troubled by occasional episodes of tension over the past five years because both sides viewed each other through a political prism that was dated.

‘Singapore was used to dealing with an Indonesia which had a top-down management,’ he said. ‘But now, it is bottom-up and involves multiple players. That is why it is important to cast the net wide.’

Indonesia, on the other hand, had to discard its image as a ‘big brother’ to Singapore and see the Republic less as a tiny island state and more as an economic and technological power.

The key to bridging such perception, he noted, was to widen links between the two countries.

He said that the CSIS-SIIA meeting, involving Indonesian and Singaporean participants from both the private and public sectors, was a small step in closing the gap.

There are plans to have more such meetings and to set up a Singapore-Indonesia committee to look into some of the sources of friction in bilateral ties. The committee, he said, would include a wide spectrum of people from business and academia as well as from government.

Indonesian participants, in the final day of talks, raised the same issues they did at the start of the meeting – the extradition of economic criminals, land reclamation, delimiting maritime boundaries, and the need for Singapore to provide a fuller account of bilateral trade figures.

Indonesian diplomat Dino Djalal said that while these were irritants, Singapore had to deal with them rather than put them on the backburner.

Mr Jusuf said that in addition to these, both countries faced new issues that would further test the limits of relations. These included the terrorist threat and how Singapore and Indonesia responded to China’s economic and military might in Asia.

He said: ‘We must have the political will to address the pebbles in the relationship before they become a burden for us. But in doing so we must not push the wrong buttons that could make each country more reluctant to work together.’

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