While Americans were home enjoying our Thanksgiving bounty of political controversy, Indonesia’s President Wahid Abdurrahman decided to raise a political ruckus of his own in Asia. At a recent meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Wahid launched into a diatribe of criticism against ASEAN’s wealthiest and most stable nation, Singapore.
Wahid was apparently frustrated at Singapore, the host of the meeting, for its unwillingness to go along with some of Indonesia’s plans for the group. While speaking to a group of Indonesians living in Singapore, Wahid reportedly made the following incendiary statement regarding Singaporeans: “They just look after themselves, all they just look for are profits,” “Singaporeans despise Malays. We are considered non-existent,” (Both Indonesians and Malaysians are ethnically “Malays”). Wahid also said that Singapore liked to “underestimate Malay people”, and that Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad now “has a new friend.”
Having expressed his contempt for Singapore, Wahid then made a threat – “If we [Indonesia and Malaysia] hold the water for a moment, they will have none to drink,” referring to the fact that the small island nation Singapore depends on Malaysia and Indonesia for most of its water supply.
Ironically, Singapore has been a major investor in Indonesia, making Wahid’s remarks reek with ingratitude. Singapore is in the process of planning a billion-dollar water pipeline to source water from Indonesia. In January, Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong unveiled a $1.2 billion investment package for Indonesia. Last year, Singapore and Indonesia signed an $8 billion 22-year natural gas sales agreement. In recent years, Singaporean companies have bought and revived bankrupt Indonesian companies. Understandably, Wahid’s statements outraged many Singaporeans, although the government has remained cool and collected, responding only with a dry statement correcting the factual errors in the Indonesian President’s lecture. Indeed, the Singapore government obviously doesn’t want to bring further notice to Wahid’s stirring-up of racial and religious prejudices, and appears more than willing to drop the subject.
On the other side, many of Indonesia’s political and business leaders were also surprised and displeased by Wahid’s comments, apparently knowing that such rhetoric would only increase their country’s economic and political risks. As a result, many of these leaders appear to be trying to smooth things over. For example, Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Alwi Shihab, suggested Mr Wahid’s verbal attack on Singapore was “a little row between a married couple,” and that “relations between Indonesia and Singapore are very close, like that of a husband and wife”. Shihab also said “I don’t see this turning into a serious problem. I know that Singapore needs us and that we need Singapore.”
The real meaning behind President Wahid’s ranting is suggested by his spokesman Wimar Witoelar, who later said Indonesia was unhappy with Singapore’s concern for economic competitiveness at the expense of “Asean solidarity”. In other words we won’t let Singapore stand wealthy and apart while our economies and governments fall apart – if you don’t give us more help, we’ll drag you down too.
In my mind, Singapore is right to maintain a certain distance from its ASEAN neighbors. While it welcomes freer trade and peace in the region (ASEAN’s alleged aims), it shouldn’t sacrifice its own economic freedom for the goal of “ASEAN unity” in the geopolitical realm.
Indeed, Singapore’s somewhat autonomous position has helped it to earn the rank of second-freest economy in the world by the Heritage Foundation, not to mention by far the highest standard of living among the ASEAN countries, with GDP per capita approximately US$30,000 (Higher than the U.K. or Switzerland).
It seems clear that if ASEAN countries hope to advance economically, they should attempt to emulate Singapore rather than pressure it to adopt their backward practices. For Singapore’s part, it seems resigned to making the best of being stuck amidst backwards neighbors, as best expressed by a recent quote from Prime Minister Goh: “We do not have the luxury of towing Singapore away to the south of Hawaii, nor do we want to.”
Author’s note: In the past few months, I’ve been concerned about the political direction taken by Mexico’s president Vincente Fox. However, recent quotes from him reported in the 11/27/00 Wall Street Journal have been very encouraging: “The only way to eliminate poverty is to generate wealth.” “From now on, the economy…will not be politicized.” Also, responding to criticisms that his administration would be “a business government”, Fox said, “To me, that’ s a compliment.” If Fox’ deeds are as good as these words, I believe that Mexico will benefit greatly from his Presidency.
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