Suharto's shadow over S'pore REVERED, REVILED, REALITY
Why S'pore should not forget him
By Peter H L Lim
January 29, 2008 Print Ready Email Article
EMPAT MATA in both Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia means four eyes.
Click to see larger image
In Asean diplomatic circles, the phrase does not refer to shortsighted people wearing glasses.
Empat mata sessions are closed-door, deep discussions between national leaders meeting, literally, one-to-one. Absent are the usually ubiquitous aides, interpreters and note-takers.
In such a setting, the leaders can talk frankly and without reservation.
There are no witnesses. Such heart-to-heart chats can solve pesky problems, postpone them - or make things even worse.
In May 1973, an empat mata meeting took place in Jakarta between then President Suharto of Indonesia and then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.
They had a bundle of deeply-rooted problems to tackle. The peskiest of them was what many Indonesians regarded as Mr Lee's disrespectful, even humiliating rebuff of Mr Suharto.
That problem had its origins 10 years earlier. In January 1963, Indonesia under the late President Sukarno launched what he called Konfrontasi (Confrontation) to try and abort the birth of Malaysia.
The proposed nation was being formed by the British bringing together the Federation of Malaya and their colonies on Singapore island, on the Malayan peninsula and in Borneo.
In today's lingo, the Indonesian armed incursions and sabotage missions against Malaya and the British colonies were acts of state-sponsored terrorism.
One such act, the bombing of a Hongkong & Shanghai Bank branch in Orchard Road in 1964, killed threepeople.
The saboteurs - as terrorists were called then - were caught, tried and sentenced to be hanged. They were given the full benefit of the law.
Their appeals against the death sentences went all the way to the Privy Council in London, then the highest court of appeal for Singapore judicial decisions.
The Privy Council dismissed the appeals in 1968. The two saboteurs were to be hanged.
They were regarded by the Indonesians as commandos who had been on a wartime mission.
The Indonesian view was that they should have been treated as prisoners of war rather than murder accused to be tried in a criminal court.
Mr Suharto sent an emissary to Singapore to seek clemency for the two men. Commute the death sentences to prison terms, he pleaded. The two men were hanged.
Mr Lee explains in his 2000 book From Third World To First, the second of his two-volume memoirs: 'If we yielded, then the rule of law not only within Singapore but between our neighbours and Singapore would become meaningless as we would always be open to pressure.
'If we were afraid to enforce the law while British forces were still in Singapore, even though they had announced that they would be withdrawing by 1971, then our neighbours, whether Indonesia or Malaysia, could walk over us with impunity after 1971.'
The reaction in Jakarta streets and elsewhere were violent.
There were threats against Singapore from sections of the Indonesian armed forces. Trade restrictions were imposed.
So a really hot potato was added to a whole basket of long-standing grievances held by various Indonesian sectors against Singapore. Among the grievances was the feeling that Singapore was benefiting unfairly and illegally in various ways in its dealings with Indonesia.
So the September 1965 coup and counter-coup in Indonesia and its bloody aftermath were bad news also for Singapore. The chaos in Indonesia, with some of its islands so close to Singapore, could easily spill over.
Then, after Mr Suharto had taken over power from President Sukarno, the former unexpectedly chose a Singapore newspaper to announce the end of Confrontation.
Said the paper's front-page headline of 2 May 1966: Suharto tells The Straits Times: Peace, The Sooner The Better.
There was indeed peace on the military and terrorism fronts. But relations between Singapore and Indonesia did not start to warm up until September 1970, when Mr Lee and Mr Suharto met for the first time at a Non-Aligned Conference in Lusaka.
They found that they clicked. But it was not until May 1973, when MrLee visited Jakarta, that the formal relationship between the two leaders started to morph into friendship.
Says Mr Lee in his 2000 book: 'If there was to be genuine friendship with President Suharto (so said Indonesian generals to Singapore's Ambassador K C Lee), the episode over the hanging of the two marines (the commandos) had to be closed with a diplomatic gesture that addressed 'Javanese beliefs in souls and clear conscience'.'
So Mr Lee scattered flowers on the graves of the two marines during a cemetery visit to pay respects to generals killed in the 1965 coup.
And Mr Lee and Mr Suharto were then able to have their first empat mata meeting that led to a sea change in relations between the two countries. Differences still existed, but the respective points of view were heard and, even when not fully understood, were given due respect.
Singapore and Indonesia could live and work together, the bilateral relationship surviving the changes of leadership in Jakarta. Stability and progress in Indonesia also benefited the region.
Asean as a whole progressed.
When Mr Suharto himself was ousted, the friendship continued. A measure of the strength of that friendship came on 13 January, when Mr Lee went to Jakarta to visit the ailing Mr Suharto, now no longer President.
'It is sad,' said Mr Lee, now Minister Mentor, 'to see a very old friend... not really getting the honours that he deserves.'
Mr Suharto had become much less revered by his people and much reviled as a result of years of misrule.
His legacy had started so promisingly. Under President Sukarno, Indonesia was becoming a failed state that was shutting down. Mr Suharto rebooted it.
But, as Mr Lee acknowledged two weeks ago, 'yes, there was corruption ... but there was real growth, real progress'.
Mr Lee also said: 'What is a few billion dollars lost in bad excesses? He built hundred of billions of dollars worth of assets.'
That statement stunned people in Singapore and elsewhere. Was Mr Lee condoning corruption and nepotism? Would that lead to a deterioration of our integrity of governance?
I think not. Mr Lee was not signalling that corruption and nepotism were okay if you could built up national assets. He was paying tribute to a leader and a friend who had done a lot of good and also bad. A leader and friend whose legacy includes its impact on Singapore.
There will be continuing discussions of Mr Lee's stusnner of a statement and the need for unceasing vigilance against bad governance.
Indeed, Mr Lee and Mr Suharto were an odd couple. But national interests and historic perspectives can also come across as odd.
But that's reality.
About the Writer:
Peter H.L. Lim, 69, was editor-in-chief of The Straits Times Press from 1978 to 1987. As a unionist with the SNUJ in the 1960s, he held various positions, including that of secretary-general and chairman.