Thursday, February 20, 2014

End Indonesia’s Aimless Spat With Singapore

Although political history can be used as an instrument to mobilize patriotism among the younger generation, we have to make a critical distinction between things that were pursued by state leaders for the benefit of the whole nation and those that served only self-aggrandizement

For instance, Indonesians are proud of Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta for the fact that they had to stay in prison in the struggle for independence. Their personal sacrifice has inspired the whole nation. However, Sukarno’s campaign against the creation of Malaysia in the early 1960s may tell a different story if we honestly consider some critical historical accounts that provide an objective analysis of the situation.

There are at least three important reasons why people doubt whether Indonesians should be proud of Sukarno’s radicalized and aggressive foreign policy in the early 1960s, which had led to the assignment of two marines to infiltrate Singapore — then still part of Malaysia — and carry out a bombing attack.

First, there was no clear moral reason or justification why Sukarno opposed Malaysia. Some people say that Sukarno got angry because he was not consulted by the British government before it granted independence to the Federation of Malaya. There is also a theory that claims Sukarno wanted to divert people’s attention away from the domestic economic hardship so that his own position would not be jeopardized.

If these historical accounts are valid and credible then it becomes difficult to apply the principle of jus ad bellum in the case of Confrontation. According to this legal principle, a nation really needs a justified reason to declare war on another nation, otherwise this would be a violation of international law. On top of that, according to the same principle, a national leader can only declare war with the consent of the people — through their representatives in a parliament. And in this case it is clear that the radicalization of Sukarno’s foreign policy was his own initiative, with the full support of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

A second reason to doubt Sukarno’s policies is that fighting against the injustice of colonialism and imperialism is one thing, but denying the basic right of a neighboring nation to gain independence is a quite another. Sukarno might have forgotten that the preamble of the 1945 Constitution starts by saying that “independence is the inalienable right of all nations.”
Opponents will argue that Sukarno’s campaign in the early 1960s was fought for the wrong reasons. It is not uncommon for nations to find themselves caught in wars while wondering how it got started in the first place.

Last but not least, the fact that the New Order government under President Suharto made a complete U-turn from Sukarno’s radical foreign policy and decided to seek reconciliation with Malaysia was a clear indication that right from the beginning Indonesia wanted to write an entirely new chapter in its bilateral relations with Malaysia and Singapore.

The fact that Indonesia and Singapore were among the initiators of the 1967 Bangkok Declaration, which led to the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, was clear evidence that both nations intended to let bygones be bygones and work on a more harmonious relationship.

It is very unfortunate that the current spat over the naming of an Indonesian Navy ship after the two marines responsible for bombing an office in downtown Singapore in March 1965 has come to a point where the smallest escalation can make it much harder to restore the confidence necessary for friendly relations.

It might be a good idea for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long to a hold summit meeting and come up with a statement that above anything else emphasizes that the two nations want to strengthen their bilateral ties within the spirit of Aseans’s Social and Cultural Community.

Otherwise, there will be a continuous exchange of threats, which can ultimately destroy the good relations that have been built up over a period of more than four decades.

 Aleksius Jemadu is a political science professor at the School of Government and Global Affairs of Universitas Pelita Harapan in Karawaci.

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