Singapore's outrage over Indonesia's naming of its frigate "Usman-Harun" was understandable. It also exposed the fragility of the Asean Community and its goal of regional integration.
The incident was a reminder that Southeast Asian countries should not be complacent about their past - especially regarding incidents involving relations with neighbouring states. If they do not, the past can easily usurp the present goodwill and friendship. Such is the case in Singapore-Indonesia relations today.
The dream of one Asean community with 610 million citizens living together with shared norms and values fulfilling “one community, one vision” is clearly a challenging one to fulfil, as two of Asean’s leading members squabble over an unfortunate incident in 1965.
Sadly, Asean members have a propensity to not let go of their unfortunate past. Indeed, there are many potential intra-Asean conflicts that can resurface as a result of past animosities and the legacy of colonialism.
Examples include the Philippine claim to the Malaysian state of Sabah, and the historical animosity between Thailand and Myanmar. Cambodia and Thailand also have a long-running and acrimonious border dispute that involves the area around a 900-year-old Hindu temple.
It is therefore incumbent on Asean leaders to display wisdom to ensure peace and stability within the grouping.
It is nearly 50 years since Indonesian marines Osman Haji Mohammed Ali, and Harun Said sneaked into Singapore and placed bombs in the island’s landmark MacDonald House, killing three and injuring 33 persons. But the memory on both sides is still fresh. That is why when Indonesia wanted to name the newly renovated 90-metre long warship, military leaders decided to call it “Usman-Haran” to honour their fallen heroes. To Singapore, however, the two were villains.
It is hard to understand Jakarta’s action. Indonesian military leaders must surely have been aware that Singapore would object. Such a provocative decision provides an insight into the psyche and thinking of the powers-that-be in Jakarta.
The 1965 bombing had completely destroyed bilateral ties. Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, did not respond to repeated appeals for clemency from president Suharto. Instead, the two Indonesian marines were hanged in October 1968 – ironically 15 months after Asean was established in Bangsaen, Thailand.
It took extraordinary courage for Mr Lee to visit Jakarta in May 1973 and scatter flowers on the graves of the two marines. After that, diplomatic ties were normalised and gradually prospered with growing interdependence in terms of economic and security cooperation. Singapore depends on Indonesia’s vast natural resources, while Indonesia uses the island as a centre for financial transactions and trade with third countries. The two countries are a driving force in Asean’s solidarity and integration.
This latest development, however, must not be allowed to dent Asean-led schemes that require bilateral cooperation. As the furore dies down, Singapore and Indonesia have to find ways to reconcile quickly. Otherwise, the topic may become excessively politicised. The social media scene in the two countries is certainly hyper active. In Indonesia, online users have had a lot to say about the incident, suggesting it could become a campaign issue in the upcoming presidential election.
In response to Indonesian action, Singaporean leaders have resolutely guaranteed their citizens that the little red dot is strong and can defend itself. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has also used his Facebook page to convey his thoughts on national defence and the row.
Fortunately, Singapore Foreign Minister K Shanmugum and his Indonesian counterpart Marty Nataligawa have also maintained excellent relations as they work to mend bilateral ties.
When Asean was founded, it was widely acknowledged that Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, needed to be drawn into the broader Southeast Asian community. Former President Suharto knew this and supported Asean’s establishment as a way of building ties with countries such as Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.
As a key member, Indonesia’s subsequent contributions were positive. And after the democratisation process began in earnest following Suharto’s downfall in 1998, Indonesia’s regional and global role increased markedly due to openness and bigger space for freedom of expression.
Indeed, as Indonesia’s democracy gains traction along with a high international profile, a sense of unease is growing among its neighbours. Quite a few Indonesian leaders have exhibited a big brother syndrome, reminiscent of past desires to “ganyang” (crush) the nation’s enemies. Of late, the social media has been flooded with this kind of patriotism directed against Indonesia’s neighbours, including Malaysia and Australia.
Indonesian security leaders must learn from past lessons that their ties with Singapore and other Asean neighbours are extremely important. Singapore in particular is one of the prime movers of community-building in Asean. Good relations between Singapore and Indonesia should serve as a testimony to the grouping’s resilience in accommodating the common interests of small and big members.
As the biggest Asean member and an active regional player, Indonesia needs to be more sensitive and humble towards smaller nations.
(This perspective first appeared in The Straits Times)