A visit from the grave
Suddenly, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s successors get their first real test from a giant neighbour. By Seah Chiang Nee
Feb 15, 2014
act of glorifying two marines who successfully attacked it is viewed as
a reminder of the city’s vulnerability.)
FOR the first time since the Lee Kuan Yew era ended, his successors are encountering a serious diplomatic row with Indonesia.
This comes barely two months before the tenure of President Susilo
Bambang Yudhoyono is due to end and Indonesia elects a new leader.
The news was announced in early February as the ailing former Prime
Minister Lee Kuan Yew, 90, was admitted to hospital for an infection.
A tough politician during his time, Lee was discharged from his ward a
few days later with advice from his doctor to stay away from crowds.
He cancelled an appearance at his constituency’s Lunar New Year party.
However, as relations with Jakarta worsened, he surprised the public by
attending a similar Istana function on Feb 9, apparently against
There, he posed for photographs unaided with Cabinet ministers and party grassroots leaders.
Some observers viewed it as a gesture to all that although he has no
role in the Cabinet, Lee is keeping in touch with the younger leaders
over the issue.
I believe he was showing the seriousness with which he viewed
Indonesia’s act of honouring two executed marines, who came to kill and
Singapore was then a member of Malaysia, which the late President Sukarno wanted to crush as a “neo-colonialist” creation.
But why act after 49 years?
The sudden and unexpected quarrel has come as a surprise to
Singaporeans, the majority of whom suspect that there is an underlying
I am not sure whether our government knows for sure whether Jakarta is displeased. If it does, it has kept silent.
And the Indonesians are not saying anything beyond the statement that
they had merely wanted to name their frigate after “national heroes”.
Without an official explanation, Singaporeans are having a field time speculating about it.
The most common theory is that it is due to Indonesia’s presidential
election in April. Political parties are striving to project their
spirit of nationalism.
President Yudhoyono is not running.
Another is the recent secret documents, which showed Singapore helping
the United States and Australia to spy electronically on the region,
Although the president dismissed it as a regional project not aimed
specifically at Indonesia, some military elements may have taken
Another possibility is Singapore’s alleged reluctance to sign an
extradition treaty or hand over corruption suspects, who are keeping
their ill-gotten gains there.
All these, however, are long-standing bilateral issues with no new developments.
There is a crucial difference, though.
To Singapore, the two executed marines were saboteurs because no state
of war existed in 1964 and yet they came in civvies to kill civilians.
Indonesia, however, regards the soldiers as national heroes who died obeying orders to attack Singapore.
“We oppose anyone calling them terrorists,” said a spokesman. “We consider the matter closed.”
The Singapore government has expressed strong displeasure and four
Cabinet ministers have appealed to Indonesia to rescind the decision.
This has caused widespread anger among Singaporeans, including many Internet commentators who normally oppose the government.
Readers have probably read the news, so I will not repeat the details here except to say that Singapore took a strong stand.
Singapore’s Second Defence Minister Chan Chun Sing, a frontline
candidate to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, cancelled a
meeting with his Indonesian counterpart.
In return, the Indonesian military hit back by cancelling the visits of
all the military chiefs – army, air force and navy – to the Singapore
“The Singapore leadership felt that a firm response is needed against
glorifying people who attack its people on its soil,” commented a
“In its eyes, failing to respond would be tantamount to a security lapse.”
For Indonesia, nationalism is a crucial factor in national behaviour.
“These soldiers died for their country and it does not matter what others think about them,” said an Indonesian writer.
The crisis is a test of Premier Lee’s ability to lead Singapore out of the present dilemma.
Singapore is Indonesia’s third biggest trade partner, but it probably
needs its resource-rich neighbour more. It cannot afford a long-drawn
conflict with it.
“It won’t last long”
Although the current anger is fairly widespread among Singaporeans, no one I talked to had predicted permanent enmity.
Lee has so far stayed out of the matter, probably to keep his option of
eventual reconciliation and building ties with the new Indonesian
For his People’s Action Party, it is not all negatives.
For one thing, it has become a rallying point among the people, who are gradually withdrawing support for some of its policies.
His hand in dealing with Jakarta is much weaker than his father’s.
Today, nearly 40% of the population consists of foreigners who owe little or no loyalty to the country.
Analysts believe that for the short term, the quarrel may even get hotter and emotions may run higher.
Both want to mend ties
The two governments, however, have powerful reasons for wanting to mend the rift.
The crisis is also providing a testing ground for Singapore’s untested potential leaders.
The PAP has a unique way of selecting and training leaders that no democratic countries even remotely follow.
While others allow them to be tested in the political arena – through
unscripted debates, public polls and a questioning press – Singapore
does it differently.
Here, they are identified by party colleagues to serve long periods in at least two portfolios simultaneously.
The eventual winner is then decided in an informal meeting of Cabinet peers (Lee Kuan Yew had a crucial say).
Ironically, these potential leaders need a few crises to test whether they will melt when under fire.
Unintentionally, Jakarta has just supplied one.
This was first published first in The Star).
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