The diplomatic row between Indonesia and Singapore is unfortunate and could have been avoided if we had been a little more sensitive toward our neighbour.
Singapore has formally protested Jakarta’s decision to name a new corvette after two marines who planted a bomb, killing three people in the city state five decades ago, at the height of the Indonesia’s “Confrontation” war with the newly independent Malaya, which then included Singapore.
In 1968, Singapore executed the two men, Second Sgt Usman and Second Cpl Harun, in spite of Jakarta’s pleas for clemency. Relations between the two countries were only patched up when then-Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew visited Jakarta in 1973 and paid his respects at the two men’s graves in Jakarta’s Kalibata Heroes Cemetery.
Since then, both countries have managed to put the issue behind them and forge close, warm and mutually beneficial ties, bilaterally as well as through Asean.
Until this week, that is.
Singapore says naming the corvette Usman-Harun hurt the feelings of Singaporeans, particularly relatives of the victims.
Indonesia balked at the protest, with Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Djoko Suyanto saying the government would not back off and stressed that no outsiders had the right to interfere in such decisions. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa diplomatically said Indonesia had taken note of Singapore’s concerns, and that was considered enough.
Indonesia will unlikely reverse its decision due to a protest from its tiny, “red-dot” neighbour. A review or an apology would have been lauded as a stately gesture, but that is not liable to happen while nationalist sentiment is reaching fever pitch in Indonesia in this election year.
Will our relations with return to normal? Yes, but not necessarily soon. We should at least draw an important lesson from this episode.
Indonesia often accuses its neighbors of a lack of sensitivity toward our feelings. Officials and politicians, helped by the media, do not hesitate to raise hell and mobilize public opinion, scoring a few political points along the way, by lashing out at foreign countries for their perceived insensitivity.
The decision to name this naval ship must surely have been the result of lengthy deliberations, and those involved must have known that this would upset Singapore. They could have picked from the thousands of other names of people buried in heroes cemeteries scattered across the country but instead, they chose these two.
In the future, can we be more sensitive?