Don't let haze blacken good neighbourly ties

Don't let haze blacken good neighbourly ties
Indonesia’s Mr Agung Laksono said last week that Singapore should stop acting like children over the haze.

Could anyone have been more boorish than Indonesia's chief welfare minister Agung Laksono when he told Singapore to stop acting like a child over the health-destroying haze gripping the South-east Asian peninsula?

Mr Agung, a former Speaker of the People's Representative Council and a longstanding member of the Golkar party, not only should have a more caring attitude to fit his job description, but he also has a very short memory.

Singapore was, after all, one of the first countries to respond to the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northern tip of the same Indonesian island where uncontrolled fires have contributed to the worst pollution levels.

"How quickly memories fade and gratitude is replaced with contempt, a culture I observed only too clearly at the international level in Aceh," says Australian Bill Nicol, author of the newly published Tsunami Chronicles: Adventures In Disaster Management on the US$7 billion (S$9 billion) recovery effort.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had to deal with Indonesia's worst-ever disaster within a couple of months of taking office, knows that only too well, and was gracious in apologising to his neighbours for the latest smoke blanket.

Even then, he found himself under attack from domestic critics, many of them siding with Mr Agung and Mines and Energy Minister Jero Wacik. The latter weighed in as well, by telling Singapore and Malaysia to stop trying to blacken Indonesia's name.

Neither made any attempt to put themselves in the shoes of their hapless neighbours, or even their own countrymen. And when Singapore offered initial cash help, Mr Agung snorted: "If it is only half a million, or one million dollars, we don't need that."

The leader of 250 million people, Dr Yudhoyono found himself in the ridiculous position of having to defend his apology, explaining that Indonesia is not afraid of Singapore or Malaysia and that the fires had nothing to do with state sovereignty, territorial integrity or other issues.

What is it about hairy-chested Indonesian politicians and government officials who feel that they have to play to the nationalist gallery any time the country comes under implied criticism? Surely, it is bigger than that.

What about the future? Will they act like bullies if Indonesia reaches its true potential as one of the world's biggest economies over the next two decades, with all that entails as a genuine power in the region?

There was a time not so long ago when Indonesia was a cowed nation. Many of its citizens were in despair over whether it would ever regain its position in the world as it struggled to find a way out of the crippling 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis.

Now with a newfound confidence, borne out of a huge uptick in consumer spending and resurgent economic growth rates, the pendulum has swung the opposite direction. Indonesia may have many complaints about the way Singapore's size belies its influence over the archipelago, but Mr Agung's comments make a mockery of ASEAN unity only two years away from the creation of the South-east Asian community.

Frankly, it doesn't matter whether the plantation owners are Singaporean, Malaysian, Indonesian or Martian.

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