Economy : Third quarter should be cheerful’

Singapore’s Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo made it clear yesterday that the ball is in Indonesia’s court in the dispute over trade statistics, which he called ‘a rather strange episode’ in bilateral ties.

He said that, despite the outbursts from his Indonesian counterpart Rini Soewandi on the issue, and the exchange of ‘love letters’ between them in recent weeks, the Republic was keen to move on, with its position very clear on the matter.

‘So far as this ball is concerned, I believe it is squarely in the Indonesian court,’ he told reporters on the sidelines of the Asean economic ministers’ meeting here.

‘If they kick it over, I will have to kick it back. If they don’t kick it over again, we’ll leave it as it is.’

Some Indonesian ministers like Ms Rini have alleged that Singapore has been withholding its trade data as its figures do not tally with Indonesia’s and hide billions of dollars worth of smuggling between the countries.

But in a note dated July 4, Brigadier-General (NS) Yeo said the claims were unfounded.

Singapore has handed its trade data to Indonesian leaders since the 1970s and has always said it had no problem with it being made public. And the Republic did not condone smuggling.

He had hoped to discuss the matter with Ms Rini during his visit for the two-day meeting. But the Indonesian minister did not say a word on the matter, he said.

‘I expected to have a full discussion of this subject,’ he said. ‘But there has been no reference to it all. It seems like nothing had ever happened. So, no trade war.’

Their exchange of letters, however, had clarified important points in the dispute.

For one, he said that Indonesia now accepted that Singapore had always released bilateral trade statistics to Jakarta. It was also the decision of successive Indonesian governments not to release these figures to the public.

Another critical factor was that it now recognised the need for an ‘efficacious’ customs service to deal with smuggling and illegal trade.

In connection with this, he brushed aside Jakarta’s call for joint patrols, saying it needed to get its patrol of national waters in order first.

He said: ‘We understand their difficulties. Indonesia is a big archipelago with thousands of islands … But they have their responsibility and we have our responsibility.’

The problem did not feature at all in the ministerial meeting that, ironically, was working towards creating an independent tribunal to resolve regional trade disputes.

At a press conference to wrap up the event, Ms Rini appeared to hedge the issue when asked why the matter was not discussed when Jakarta appeared bent on internationalising it.

After some time, she said the Asean forum was not the place to discuss bilateral issues.

‘Asean is a family, which means that we are trying to prioritise integration.’ Asked again for Jakarta’s response, she said her government wanted to be included in Singapore’s list of trading partners.

BG Yeo took pains to tell reporters that, despite the problem, relations with Indonesia were good.

‘There are many areas where we can work together to our mutual benefit. We should just move on.’

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