The Truth Behind the Singapore Government’s Control of Indonesia


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No country has a more fraught relationship with Indonesia than Singapore in Southeast Asia. The island nation of 5.6 million people is home to one of the world’s busiest ports and stands as a pillar of the global shipping industry. However, in economic terms, Singapore is reliant on trade with its much larger neighbor — and that has left the city-state vulnerable to retaliation from Jakarta. In response, Singapore has shifted its foreign policy so that some have described it as “cozy” with the Indonesian government and accommodating its concerns over independence movements in Papua and West Papua. This strategy has extended to other areas as well. In recent years, Singaporean leaders have assiduously cultivated personal relations with their Indonesian counterparts, particularly with president Joko Widodo.


Why does Singapore have such a strained relationship with Indonesia?


Singapore and Indonesia have had a long and complicated relationship. The two nations were once part of the same British colony, and after the British ceded control of Singapore in the 1950s, Jakarta and Singapore enjoyed close ties. However, many of those ties frayed during the Cold War, when Indonesia fell under the influence of the Soviet Union and Singapore aligned with the United States. Indonesia declared a state of “confrontation” with Singapore, which Jakarta accused of supporting the rise of communism in Southeast Asia. The two countries also had territorial disputes, most notably over the island of Borneo. In 1997, the two countries formally ended their confrontation and resolved their Borneo dispute.

Nevertheless, today, the relationship is fraught once again, and most of the issues that sparked tension in previous decades remain unresolved. For example, Singapore continues to be concerned about the spread of communism in Southeast Asia and worries about the strength of Indonesia’s democratic institutions. Meanwhile, Jakarta remains frustrated that Singapore has not fully acknowledged its sovereignty over the Natuna Islands, located in the South China Sea.

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Is Singapore’s accommodation of Jakarta short-sighted?


Some Singaporean foreign policy observers argue that Singapore’s current accommodation strategy toward Indonesia is short-sighted. For one thing, Singapore is mainly dependent on Indonesia for its economic growth, and in the long term, that relationship could pose risks for the city-state. More importantly, though, Singaporean officials’ accommodating approach towards Indonesia seems to ignore Southeast Asian public sentiment, which is increasingly opposed to Chinese expansionism in the region. 


Indonesia is a natural leader in this regard. Many Southeast Asians are deeply concerned that the lack of resolve among Southeast Asian states emboldened Chinese dominance in the region. In this context, Singapore’s accommodating approach towards Indonesia may be seen as ceding leadership in the region to a country that is less resolute against Chinese expansionism and more focused on domestic issues.


Why is Singapore so dependent on Indonesia?


Singapore has a small population, and the country has long been concerned about being able to feed its people. As a small country surrounded by larger ones, Singapore’s influence on its neighbors is limited, and the city-state has struggled to get Indonesia to slow the growth of its palm oil industry. Singapore has long relied on imported food stocks, primarily from Indonesia and Malaysia. However, in recent years, Indonesia’s palm oil industry has grown to be the second largest globally, and much of that product is exported to Singapore. That has meant that Singapore has been highly dependent on Indonesia for its imported food stocks for the past decade or so. The dependence on Indonesian food stocks has led to a contentious topic in Singaporean politics — food price.

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The importance of soft power in Singapore-Indonesia relations


Beyond the economic and geopolitical tensions, there is also a difference in how the two countries approach relations with their citizens. While Singapore has primarily focused on controlling its population, including through strict laws against speech and other forms of expression, Indonesia has emphasized fostering a culture in which all citizens are encouraged to express themselves and participate in society. This difference has led to differences in the two countries’ styles of government and society. For example, Jakarta has expressed support for democracy and human rights in neighboring countries like Cambodia. However, Singapore has largely stayed away from such issues and focused on domestic concerns like managing its ethnic and religious diversity. This difference has also led to a difference in soft power between the two countries.


Singapore’s Cozying Up to Indonesia


Beyond Singapore’s economic dependence on Indonesia, Singapore has also seemingly built up its relationship with Jakarta in other areas, particularly in Singapore’s approach to the Papuan independence movement. For years, Singapore has tried to prevent Jakarta from using its position as a member of the United Nations to recognize the Papuan independence movement, pushing for a free and fair referendum on independence from Indonesia. Singapore has also been vocal in criticizing other countries like Australia, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom for supporting the Papuan independence movement. Moreover, Singapore has pushed back against activists in its own country who have expressed support for the Papuan cause, with the Singapore government going so far as to investigate the work of activists in the country who have pushed for greater attention to the Papuan cause.

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Explaining Singapore’s accommodation of Indonesian interests


Singapore’s approach toward Indonesia has puzzled many observers, and there does not appear to be one overarching explanation for Singapore’s accommodation of Jakarta. Instead, it may be the result of a combination of factors. First, Singapore’s leaders appear to have a solid personal relationship with Indonesian leaders like president Joko Widodo and former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. That may have made them more willing to acquiesce to Indonesian interests. Second, for years, Singapore has struggled with the domestic challenge of managing its large ethnic and religious diversity, which may have made Singaporean leaders less interested in taking up causes in other countries.


Bottom line


Singapore’s relationship with Indonesia is complex, reflecting a small state’s economic and geopolitical challenges in a larger neighborhood. The relationship between the two countries has long been marked by tensions over economic dependence, territorial disputes, and ideological differences between Singapore’s leaders and those in Jakarta. Singapore’s leaders have also demonstrated a willingness to accommodate Indonesian interests in recent years, perhaps due partly to their close personal relationship with their Indonesian counterparts.

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