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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NEIGHBORHOOD RELATIONS

Indonesia and ASEAN in the post-Suharto era

By Sangwon Suh


Habibie The first 100 days - not all bad, but not great

Report Card How's he doing?

The Suhartos Living outside the limelight

Interview "I refuse to be called a 'transition president'"

Batam The place that made the man

DURING HIS TENURE AS Indonesia's research and technology minister, President B.J. Habibie was long the butt of mild ridicule. Many observers saw him as a somewhat eccentric man with a penchant for grandiose visions that were long on nationalism and short on common sense. Back in February, when Suharto suggested Habibie as vice president, no less a figure than Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew criticized the choice, if in veiled terms. Noting the plunge in the stock market following the move, Lee said: "The market was disturbed by [Suharto's] criteria for the vice president that required a mastery of science and technology. They believed that this pointed to a minister whom they associated with Indonesia's high-cost projects. If the market is uncomfortable with whoever is the eventual vice president, the rupiah would weaken again."

Lee was certainly not alone among Indonesia's ASEAN neighbors in having doubts about Habibie. "Malaysia has not been openly critical of Habibie, but there were some earlier concerns that he did not have the full support of the people because he was handpicked and tainted by Suharto's past," says a Kuala Lumpur analyst.

But at least Malaysia kept quiet about its misgivings, which is why it has been in Habibie's good books, while Singapore hasn't. In a recent interview with The Asian Wall Street Journal, Habibie did little to hide his displeasure with the island-state. "A friend in need is a friend indeed," he said. "I have that feeling from the U.S., from Japan, Australia, mainland China, from Malaysia, from Europe, Germany. But I don't have that feeling [from Singapore]." He went on to express his disappointment that Singapore's congratulatory letter on his becoming president did not come until days after the event.

To thaw the chill between the two countries, Singapore Second Defense Minister Teo Chee Hean visited Jakarta on Aug. 5-7 to deliver $6.8 million worth of aid. But when asked later about how his "fence-mending" mission had gone, he snapped testily that there had been no need for fence-mending - leading observers to surmise that perhaps it hadn't gone well at all.

Singapore may have another reason for regretting Lee's comments: the elder statesman may have been off the mark. Today, the consensus within ASEAN is that Habibie has not done too badly. Initially, the fear was that he lacked the credibility and leadership qualities to prevent anarchy and a territorial breakup. That hasn't come to pass yet, much to the relief of neighbors. "I think the situation is satisfactory because [Indonesia] has managed to unwind the tensions rather well, both internally and internationally," says Withaya Sucharithanarugse, director of the Institute of Asian Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "It is going in the right direction on East Timor and should be encouraged. So I think Habibie has handled the situation very well."

Where intra-ASEAN diplomacy is concerned, though, Habibie may find success more elusive. Gone are the days when Indonesia was the group's leader, spokesman and opinion-shaper. In the post-Suharto era, few expect Jakarta to retain the kind of influence within ASEAN that, say, enabled it to help broker a peace deal between Manila and Muslim insurgents. "The crisis has shown up some weaknesses in Indonesia," says Withaya. "I don't expect ASEAN members to accept without question the leading role of Indonesia."

The Kuala Lumpur analyst feels it is a little too early to count Indonesia out. "Because of the political situation, Indonesia is not able to lead ASEAN," she says. "But it is premature to say whether it has lost that leadership." Jakarta demonstrated that it still wielded some clout when Thailand recently proposed that "flexible engagement" replace the group's sacrosanct principle of non-interference in each other's affairs. Except for the Philippines, the other members joined Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas in slapping down the suggestion. Still, the simple fact that such a heretical idea was broached indicates that others are seizing the initiative.

Ironically, it is Singapore, which was firmly behind Jakarta on the non-interference principle, that may be contributing to the crumbling of the Indonesia-led old order - because if Lee Kuan Yew's remarks in February are any indication, the policy of criticizing your neighbor is already alive and well.

- Reported by Andrea Hamilton/Singapore, Roger Mitton/Bangkok and Santha Oorjitham/Kuala Lumpur


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