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Feb 12, 1999 | 06:00 GMT

4 mins read

Habibie Comment on Singapore Foreshadows Indonesian Unreliability

Summary

In an interview with Taiwan media broadcast and published on February 8, Indonesian President B.J. Habibie discussed discrimination against ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. Emphasizing his position that there is no longer any discrimination in Indonesia, Habibie said, "The situation in Singapore is worse. In Singapore, if you are a Malay, you can never become a military officer. They are the real racists, not here." Although intended to demonstrate the progress Indonesia has made in human rights under Habibie, the comments were quickly pounced upon by the Singapore press, which listed several instances contradicting Habibie's claims. The unforeseen consequence of the statement demonstrates the extent to which Indonesia's domestic situation is hampering relations with its neighbors. While this instance will not likely create a serious breach in relations between the two nations, it does serve to illustrate the unpredictability of Indonesia's international relations as it is overwhelmed by a turbulent domestic situation.

Analysis

Indonesian President B.J. Habibie discussed the treatment of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia with Taiwanese journalists on February 6. In the interview, aired on the Chinese Television Network and printed in the China Times on February 8, Habibie said there were no longer any discriminatory practices against ethnic Chinese, as he had rid Indonesia of any remaining discriminating policies. Expressing how fair things were in Indonesia compared to elsewhere, Habibie said, "The situation in Singapore is worse. In Singapore, if you are a Malay, you can never become a military officer. They are the real racists, not here. You can go and check it out."

Habibie's comment drew sharp, albeit unofficial, criticism from Singapore. The New Paper, a government-linked newspaper, wrote on February 10, "Obviously there is something about Singapore that irks Dr. Habibie. How else do you explain his latest outburst against Singapore?" The paper also said, "With general elections and presidential elections casting a dark shadow on the political players in Indonesia, Singapore can always be used as the convenient whipping boy." The New Paper included a list of quotes from some of Singapore's Parliament members, contradicting Habibie's remarks. The Singapore paper Straits Times refuted Habibie's remarks by listing relevant figures and comments provided by Singapore's military.

Indonesia quickly tried to downplay Habibie's remarks and allay the concerns of Singapore. Indonesian Education Minister Juwono Sudarsono, who happened to be in Singapore for a conference, passed off Habibie's remarks as innocuous. Juwono said, "I think Singaporean leaders understand that President Habibie has a lot of learning and unlearning to do about Singapore. He may know a lot about technology but he may not know about the social and economic context and since he's a bubbly person, the president, I think Singaporeans will understand." While Juwono smoothed over the potential bump in relations between Singapore and Indonesia, this event brings to light a fundamental problem facing Indonesia.

Indonesia's intense focus on internal strife is interfering with its ability to demonstrate finesse in dealing with other nations. Singapore and Indonesia have had fairly smooth relations recently, signing a 22-year gas supply deal on January 16. At the same time, Singapore suggested that it would consider a water supply deal with Indonesia, decreasing its dependence on Malaysia. With relations going well, Habibie's charge concerning race relations in Singapore came as somewhat of a surprise. What should be noted is that Habibie's comment was not really intended to be a foreign policy statement. Instead, he was trying to answer questions about domestic issues, and, in his attempt to shed a positive light on Indonesia, slammed Singapore without considering the consequences.

This is a warning of things to come as Indonesia heads closer to elections and with them a magnification of civil unrest. The intense introversion of attention by the Indonesian government has led to a loss of focus on external relations. This creates a state of uncertainty around Indonesia's ability to remain consistent in relations with its neighbors. While Habibie's comments were not intended for Singapore to hear, much less take offense at, they demonstrate a lack of sensitivity to external affairs. This is just a small, easily bypassed incident. However, as the internal situation in Indonesia worsens, the more unreliable Indonesia may become in its dealings with its neighbors.

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