Indonesian minister trades facts for politics

She is using Singapore as a whipping boy to stoke nationalistic sentiments so she can score points ahead of next year’s election.

With elections on the horizon, it is no surprise that Trade and Industry Minister Rini Soewandi and others are stoking nationalistic sentiment to score points ahead of the polls.

Using Singapore as a whipping boy, she may have drawn the short straw to spearhead a vote-winning campaign for the Megawati administration, criticised for being soft on graft.

For Ms Rini, one of President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s most trusted lieutenants in the Cabinet, the nationalistic bandwagon raises her profile and gives her a fighting chance of playing a bigger role in the next government.

She is known as a key player in the palace inner circle.

The former chief executive officer of Astra International and a senior executive of Citibank in Jakarta has managed to forge alliances with key power brokers in in recent years.

At one stage, she veered to the Islamic camp, along with businessman Fuad Bawazier and politician Amien Rais.

But after her appointment, she switched sides to backing the President.

Sources believe that she is close not just to Ms Megawati, but also to her husband, Mr Taufik Kiemas.

Her comments and track record over the past six months show her trying to get close to groups linked to the Indonesian leader, especially now that fund-raising campaigns for next year’s election have started.

She has appeared to push for populist policies such as raising non-tariff barriers to imports of sugar, rice, used clothes, textile, steel products and other commodities.

Her involvement in barter deals to finance Jakarta’s controversial purchase of Sukhoi jet fighters and helicopters from Russia is another example of trying to get into the good books of the palace.

The Jakarta Post reported recently that several businesses that produced commodities included in the deal were pressured by her senior officials to take part in the programme.

The trade statistics saga with Singapore offers an indication of what she is up to.

On the surface, it is all so simple.

Singapore Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo came to the crux of the matter when he made clear in a letter to Ms Rini that differences in the trade figures of both countries should not surprise statisticians.

Both countries subscribed to different systems of compilation.

More importantly, such discrepancies were not confined just to Singapore and Indonesia.

The Republic had trade gaps with other countries, including Malaysia, China and the US.

Indonesia, too, recorded significant differences in its figures for trade with China, Japan, Malaysia and the United States last year.

So why is Ms Rini kicking up a fuss about a matter that appears to be a norm in international trade?

It is no secret that she has become frustrated of late by graft in the country’s Customs service.

Smuggling has sabotaged many of her policy initiatives.

Underscoring the latest bout of Singapore-bashing is this desire to reign in Customs officials.

But the script has politics written all over it.

Singapore – the ‘tiny red dot’ – is the flavour of the month for Indonesian politicians desperate to score some points with the President.

Indeed, the minister’s policy stance is no anomaly.

Over the past year, we have seen increasing outbursts against Singapore, not just on age-old issues such as sand and trade statistics, but also new ones such as the sale of state-owned Indosat to Singapore Technologies Telemedia.

As the election draws closer, Singapore should expect more of such outbursts.

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