Singapore: The Little Red Dot Speaks

2001

Michael D. Barr

Singapore thanked its lucky stars when Abdurrahman Wahid replaced B.J. Habibie as President of Indonesia. Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew had earlier questioned Habibie’s suitability for the vice-presidency, so when he became president Habibie did not even make a pretence of being grateful for Singapore’s economic aid: ‘Look at that map’, he told Taiwanese journalists. ‘All the green is Indonesia. And that red dot is Singapore.’

Wahid seemed a breath of fresh air in Singapore-Indonesia relations. Singapore’s new President, S.R. Nathan, had already built a personal relationship with him as head of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies. Wahid visited Singapore almost immediately after his election and invited Lee Kuan Yew to join his International Advisory Panel.

But now Wahid has turned on Singapore, even threatening to cut off Singapore’s water supply (which is a novel idea since Indonesia does not supply Singapore with water). Singapore is said to be interested only in profit. It discriminates against its Malay minority. It is not interested in the well being of its southern and western neighbours. It allows oil smuggling from Indonesia. It is ‘manipulating’ Jakarta.

Senior Minister Lee’s lack of discretion seems to have been at least part of the cause for the latest rupture. He has made no secret of his growing exasperation with Wahid, and since the launch of the second volume of his memoirs, he has had plenty of chances for off-the-cuff remarks during his international promotional tours. Lee was reported to have said that Wahid’s days in office were numbered, and no one takes at face value official Singaporean denials. Lee’s second sin was that he failed to support Wahid’s call to expand ASEAN membership to include East Timor and Papua New Guinea, but it was his ‘unofficial’ comments that set an all-too-familiar background for regional friction – a pattern of diplomatic indiscretion by Lee that began in the 1960s.

In his new book, Singapore’s Foreign Policy: Coping With Vulnerability, Michael Leifer has put it succinctly: ‘Lee Kuan Yew has combined a razor-sharp intellect and a remarkable experience with a disposition for speaking his mind on political matters which has not always helped in managing relations with Singapore’s closest neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia. Indeed, some of his obiter dicta have served to point up the persisting vulnerability of the Republic through the hostile reactions of those governments.’

WATCHPOINT: Will Lee Kuan Yew still be welcome at the January meeting of Wahid’s International Advisory Panel?

 

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