Indonesia and Singapore: Structure, Politics and Interests

By Hamilton-hart, Natasha | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Indonesia and Singapore: Structure, Politics and Interests


Hamilton-hart, Natasha, Contemporary Southeast Asia


The Singapore-Indonesia relationship is commonly described as being subject to sharp fluctuations, shifting between periods of tension and relatively close cooperation. A conventional schema would commence with the period of hostility during Indonesia's Confrontation of Malaysia from 1963 to 1966, which also targeted Singapore by virtue of its temporary inclusion in Malaysia from 1963 until 1965. (2) Diplomatic relations improved with the change of regime in Indonesia, when President Sukarno was ousted by Soeharto's "New Order" government in 1966, deteriorated sharply when Singapore executed two Indonesian marines in 1968, and returned to an increasingly close and cooperative footing from 1973 until the end of the New Order in 1998. Under four successive Indonesian presidents since 1998, relations have been subject to a number of acerbic exchanges and occasionally obstructive policies, interspersed with declarations of cooperative intent and ongoing close relations in many functional areas.

The current state of bilateral relations appears to be somewhat prone to tension, beneath a veneer of official protestations to the contrary. As detailed below, a number of contentious issues remain outstanding, and progress towards resolving them has stalled since 2007. In the Indonesian press and parliament, disputes with Singapore over seemingly mundane issues have frequently been magnified, and senior Indonesian politicians have accused Singapore of insincerity in its dealings with Indonesia. Singapore, for its part, has remained officially open to cooperation, but has taken a relatively inflexible line on several contentious issues. As noted with regard to Singapore's relations with its neighbours, bilateral issues "are often kept on hold merely to avoid open conflict". (3)

This article examines patterns of cooperation and conflict between Indonesia and Singapore with a view to understanding why the relationship appears prone to recurrent uneasiness and, during certain periods, difficulty in resolving matters of mutual interest. A number of different potential explanatory factors are examined. The first section asks whether Singapore is in a fundamentally vulnerable position with regard to Indonesia due to structural, historical or demographic factors, and whether this might explain the apparent sensitivities surrounding the bilateral relationship. The second section looks at the role domestic political factors may play in driving the relationship, examining in particular the idea that the vagaries of Indonesia's domestic politics create tensions in the bilateral relationship during periods of political contestation or instability in Indonesia. The third section examines the structure of interests which link Indonesia and Singapore, asking whether irritants in the relationship are in fact out of line with the mix of complementary and competing interests that characterize the interlinked political economies of the two countries.

The principal arguments of this article can be briefly summarized. First, bilateral tensions are often magnified out of proportion, both by policy-makers and by scholarly accounts that view irritants in isolation from the large areas of complementarity and cooperation that exist. Second, the bilateral relationship is not inherently prone to exceptionally high levels of tension and instability. Most of the structural and historical factors commonly assumed to influence the relationship are not, in fact, determinative. Certain structural tensions in the relationship do exist, but they have operated over a longer time period than the post-1965 era, and are not fundamentally rooted in culture or demographics. Third, the pattern of cooperation and contestation is driven as much by Singaporean strategies, aspirations and politics as by Indonesian political shifts and leadership characteristics. Politicians on both sides have at times adopted a selective interpretation of the relationship, presenting it as more sensitive than it is, but the same fault need not be repeated in scholarly analyses. …

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