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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

November 27, 2000
Web posted at 8:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 8:30 a.m. EDT

Only a year ago, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid seemed determined to patch up relations with Singapore, home of billions of dollars in Indonesian capital controlled by ethnic Chinese business who fled after the 1998 Jakarta riots. Singapore was Wahid's first foreign stop after his election last year, and his overtures to a country that predecessor B.J. Habibie once angrily referred to as that "unfriendly little red dot" included the appointment of Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew as one of his foreign-policy advisors.

The efforts quickly bore fruit. The Singapore government announced it would invest $900 million in Indonesian companies. In March, Singapore-based Cycle and Carriage bought the 23% stake in automaker Astra International being peddled by the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency. The Government of Singapore Investment Corp. put up $100 million of the $506 million deal.

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But this burgeoning friendship across the Java Sea now seems to have cooled. After the ASEAN summit in Singapore last week, Wahid stayed on just long enough to make more of the perplexing comments he has become infamous for, this time saying Singapore was trying to take advantage of Indonesia while it is in crisis. "They just look after themselves; all they just look for are profits," he was quoted as saying.

Race is never from the surface in Singapore-Indonesia relations, and despite Wahid's reputation for promoting ethnic and religious tolerance, he couldn't stop himself from playing the race card. "Singaporeans despise Malays. We are considered non-existent," he said. Just to make sure Singapore got the point, Wahid hinted at Indonesia and Malaysia teaming up to cut off the city state's water supply. Indonesia's leverage will increase with the completion scheduled for late December of a natural gas pipeline to Singapore from the Natuna field. Such threats could prompt Singapore to rely less on a fickle friend, with the financial consequences for Indonesia such a decision would cause.

Wahid's comments are sure to find favor with an increasingly intemperate strain of nationalism that has been growing since last year's East Timorese referendum and Australia's leadership of an international peace-keeping force in the territory. The attack on Singapore is just the latest example of an Indonesia intent on making enemies of countries that should be friends. Relations with Australia soured last year, perhaps naturally, given that Indonesia felt the Australians had abruptly changed their tune on East Timor. But Jakarta has done little in the last year to repair ties with a country that is a major source of both foreign investment and aid. Wahid has traveled the world since his election, sometimes to the oddest places (Chile and Venezuela) and yet has not made the relatively short flight down to Canberra. Whenever he mentions the possibility, he is beset by nationalists in parliament who tell him to drop such treasonous plans.

The hostility toward Australia was shown earlier this month, when outgoing ambassador John McCarthy was attacked in Sulawesi by a crowd of East Timorese toughs. Wahid apologized for the incident but, more to the point, police have made no arrests and a senior government official who heads the intelligence coordinating agency said the attack should be a lesson to foreign diplomats to watch their tongues. Days before the incident, McCarthy had suggested that Gen. Wiranto, the former Indonesian military commander, had advance knowledge of the terror that accompanied East Timor's vote for independence.

While squabbling with two of its most important neighbors, Indonesia has also been doing battle with the United States. In the most publicized incident, Muslim extremists raided several hotels in central Java with the aim of expelling American tourists. The fact that none was found and nobody was hurt will make no difference in the U.S. So Indonesia can kiss goodbye to American tourist dollars for the time being. Indonesian parliamentarians and Wahid's defense minister, Muhammad Mahfud, have accused the Americans of everything from an invasion of West Timor to support for Christians in the strife-torn Maluku islands.

Mired in an economic crisis and beset by separatist pressures and communal violence, Indonesia needs all the friends it can get it. Sadly, it seems intent on making enemies.

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