Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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
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
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
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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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November 30, 2000