Many issues, but some more pressing than others
Rather than fret about local matters, it is best for Singapore and Jakarta to work steadily on wider regional concerns.
A well-known Javanese proverb – ‘alon alon asal kelakon’ – extols the virtues of doing things slowly but surely.
Ironically, it is not the Javanese-dominated administration in Indonesia that seems to be adhering to this age-old wisdom in its bilateral ties with Singapore, going by developments yesterday during Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s visit to Indonesia.
To be sure, there appears to be a meeting of minds and a clear warmth in personal ties between Mr Goh and President Megawati Sukarnoputri.
But it is not entirely clear if others in Indonesia are on the same wavelength. Contrary to Mrs Megawati’s gracious, somewhat laid-back approach, megaphone diplomacy is the order of the day for some other Indonesian politicians, each prince singing a different political tune to their respective galleries.
Singapore’s objective behind PM Goh’s visit seemed clear-cut: to restore investor confidence in the region by giving support to Jakarta and presenting a united front in the face of continued economic problems and concerns about the terrorist scourge in South-east Asia.
To this end, it outlined areas in which the two countries can work together to serve the region’s broader interests: terrorism, boosting the economy and enhancing contacts among government officials.
But, mindful that thorny bilateral issues remain between the two sides, Singapore seems to prefer that these be resolved ‘slowly but surely’, through already established mechanisms that are in place to deal with them.
It wants the big picture of the wider regional concerns to take precedence over more local and immediate matters.
Not all Indonesians see it this way. The Jakarta Post carried an article yesterday that summed up the sentiments of the cynics here, who are often quick to throw a spanner in the works of any attempt to forge stronger ties.
The feature, titled ‘The Summit of Mega and Goh’, notes in a rather caustic tone: ‘Singaporeans should have no doubt about Indonesia’s love and affection for their tiny but prosperous neighbour.
‘Many Indonesians feel that the Prime Minister doesn’t quite like their country as much as Megawati likes his.
‘No doubt Goh admires the people and respects their political choice. But maybe he just doesn’t have an emotional attachment to Indonesia.’
Indonesian ministers with constituencies to appease have, predictably, been as quick to flog their particular hobbyhorses to score a few points in the long run-up to the 2004 polls.
Justice Minister Yusril Ihza Mahendra, for example, announced after meeting Mr Goh that Singapore agreed to consider an extradition treaty with Indonesia.
But sources told The Straites Times that this was not the case.
Similarly, other politicians have pushed for action on issues ranging from sand excavation, smuggling and illegal logging. Some called for a joint commission to be set up immediately to resolve them.
Yet, that is a lot of issues to try to grapple with in a two-day visit, especially when there are bigger, more pressing regional concerns crying out for urgent attention.
Better to take the ‘slow and steady’ approach, tackling issues of common interest while beavering away to find new common ground on old areas of disagreement.
Singapore’s ties with Indonesia have gone through ups and downs with changes in Indonesian leadership, from Presidents Suharto to B.J. Habibie to Abdurrahman Wahid. Under Mrs Megawati, the pendulum has now begun swinging back to a welcome phase of warm relations.
That, in itself, is a plus for the region. But it will take time, goodwill and patience to nurture this relationship. Certainly, in this endeavour, it would be wise to adhere to that old Javanese adage.