Malaysia, Singapore and two views on the last 50 years

February 19, 2015

Malaysia, Singapore and two views on the last 50 years

Bilahari-Kausikan-Singapore2by Bilahari Kausikan For The Straits Times

A new book fails to give due weight to the cooperative aspect of bilateral ties, says the writer.

I have known Tan Sri Kadir Mohamad, the former KSU (the equivalent of our Permanent Secretary) of Wisma Putra, for more than 30 years. We first met in 1984 when he was the Deputy Chief of mission at the Malaysian Embassy in Washington, DC and I was a newly minted First Secretary at our embassy.

In the subsequent decades our paths often crossed – the world of Kadir's BookSouth-east Asian diplomacy is not large and Malaysia is our closest neighbour – and on occasion I worked with him in ASEAN and on some bilateral matters. So when I heard that he had written a book on Malaysia-Singapore relations, I hastened to procure a copy.

The content was as I expected: a very journeyman-like effort. There were no significant errors of fact on bilateral issues that I could detect. Mr Kadir is nothing if not a consummate professional, and contrary to popular belief, good diplomats of every country generally tell the truth and stick to the facts, although there is no obligation to always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Bilahari's ST article Malaysia and Singapore: Two Systems, One World

In any case, all the most important facts have long been placed in the public domain, mainly by Singapore in answers to parliamentary questions or by the release of documents on water talks more than a decade ago. A reader expecting dramatic new revelations will be disappointed.

Mr Kadir’s interpretations of the facts are of course different from the interpretations that I or other Singapore diplomats would have placed on the same facts. But that is only to be expected, and I am not inclined to quibble with him.

A different interpretation cannot change the most important fact of all: On almost every bilateral issue the book deals with – water, Pedra Blanca, the bridge and land reclamation – the outcome was not one that Malaysia had set out to achieve.

Diplomats try to promote their countries’ interests. So it is entirely understandable that in the twilight of his career, a distinguished Malaysian diplomat would want to place his version of events on the record and vent a little. It would be churlish to deny him even this satisfaction.

I will only take issue with his conclusion, encapsulated in the title of his book and the thread running through it, that it has been “Fifty Years Of Contentions”. Of course, Malaysian and Singapore interests often clashed. Relations between neighbours are always more complicated than relations between distant countries. But the interests of our countries have at least as often coincided.

Diplomacy is not, or at least ought not to be, a zero-sum game. Nor should any one aspect of any relationship be allowed to colour the entire relationship.

Although we contended over bilateral matters, Malaysia and Singapore have simultaneously worked together very well on other issues, for example as we did in ASEAN and the United Nations during the decade-long struggle in the 1980s – which coincided with some tense episodes in bilateral relations – to prevent a fait accompli in Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia. We still cooperate closely in ASEAN.

And even when the outcome of bilateral contentions was in Singapore’s favour, Malaysian interests were not irrevocably hurt. The 2010 agreement on the implementation of the 1990 Points of Agreement on railway land was beneficial to both countries. Malaysia still buys cheap processed water from Singapore.

After 18 years, Kadir’s search for letter still goes onMr Kadir’s failure to give sufficient recognition to the cooperative aspect of bilateral relations is, I think, due to the over-emphasis he places on what he describes as Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s “baggage full of bitterness and a heart filled with anger” over Separation. He describes his book as “…the story of how one man dictated the form and substance of relations…”

Separation was of course a traumatic event for both countries that did indeed shape and set in motion the essential dynamic of Malaysia-Singapore relations. But not in the way Mr Kadir thinks it did.

He places far too much emphasis on the personal element. It is undeniable that Mr Lee was a dominant personality in Singapore politics and policy making for many years. But I suspect that in trying to understand Singapore, Mr Kadir looked in a Malaysian mirror and saw Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Both were dominant personalities in the government and politics of their respective countries but not in entirely the same way. Far more than Dr Mahathir, Mr Lee worked within and respected the Cabinet system. Mr Lee was acutely aware that any agreement he reached with Malaysia had to outlast his tenure in political office and even his lifetime and therefore sought collective agreement.

By contrast, even after he retired as Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir attempted to influence the way his successors dealt with Singapore on bilateral issues when he did not agree with them. Many Malaysians certainly believe he tries to influence Malaysian domestic politics and policies to this day.

And the metaphor of “baggage” used by Mr Kadir and others is a singularly inappropriate – and simplistic – way to try to understand the complex dynamic of bilateral relations set in motion by Separation. “Baggage” connotes something that is carried by an individual or a group of individuals and which can be jettisoned or changed if necessary. The implication is that if this does not occur, it is only because those individuals are unwilling to do so or have been prevented from doing so. And Mr Kadir argues, or at least strongly implies, that this was what in fact Mr Lee did.

But the reason for Separation, or rather the reason why, as Mr Kadir bluntly and perhaps less euphemistically argues in his first chapter, “it was necessary to expel Singapore” goes far beyond individual personalities.

Singapore is organised on the basis of multiracial meritocracy. Malaysia is organised on the principle, politely described in Article 153 of its Constitution as “the special position of the Malays”, but more popularly and politically potently understood as “Ketuanan Melayu”.

Time has eased the sharp edges of Separation, and time will certainly ease them further. But it is difficult to conceive of either Singapore or Malaysia discarding their respective fundamental organising principles. They are embedded in our societies and political systems, not by the will or whim of any individual, however powerful, but by the collective choice of the majority in both countries.

There are of course Singaporeans who do not agree with the Government and some do not like Mr Lee. Some Singaporeans may well already have only the vaguest of notions of who Mr Lee is and what he has done. But I have yet to meet any serious-minded Singaporean who really wants to abandon our fundamental organising principle and adopt something akin to the Malaysian system.

Nor can I imagine Article 153 of the Malaysian Constitution ever being repealed. We may have been once one country, but are now and for evermore two countries. The existential tension between two countries organised on fundamentally irreconcilable political principles that defines the dynamic of Malaysia-Singapore relations is not going to go away and so must be managed and is being managed.

Once this is understood, a balanced and holistic view of Malaysia-Singapore relations becomes possible. It is a relationship based, like every other interstate relationship throughout history, on national interests, some of which will converge and some of which will diverge.

The complications in Malaysia-Singapore relations are the inevitable ones of proximity and an entangled history. They have some special characteristics, but that is in general not particularly unusual between neighbours anywhere. Every close relationship has its own special characteristics.

It is the purpose of diplomacy to broaden the area of convergence between national interests whenever possible and manage the tensions when interests diverge. That Singapore and Malaysian diplomats – Mr Kadir included – have succeeded in doing so at least as often as we have failed should not be overlooked.

Even if Mr Kadir is right that “the bitterness and anger towards Malaysian leaders that engulfed Lee Kuan Yew on 9 August 1965 … remains with him until this day” – and I think Mr Kadir is profoundly mistaken, entirely misreads Mr Lee, and may well be unconsciously projecting some of his own attitudes onto him – it did not prevent Mr Lee from concluding what was, until the 2010 railway land agreement, the most important Malaysia-Singapore agreement: The 1990 Linggiu Dam agreement.

In his speech at the launch of Mr Kadir’s book, former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi cut to the core when he said Malaysia cannot blame Singapore entirely for bilateral problems, but “… must also look at ourselves in the mirror”. Good advice.

The writer, a former Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs, is now ambassador-at-large.

– See more at:

Note: Tan Sri Kadir Mohamad’s book should be read along with Dr. Lily Zubaidah Rahim’s Singapore in the Malay World: Building and breaching regional bridges (New York: Routledge,2010) and Dr. Michael Leifer, Singapore’s Foreign Policy: Coping with Vulnerability  (London: Routledge, 2010).


Proton to help Indonesia to develop a National Car

February 6, 2015

A  Joke or What? Proton to help Indonesia to develop a National Car

Bernama reports:

Proton Holdings Bhd today signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Indonesia’s PT Adiperkasa Citra Lestari (PT ACL) to help the latter develop and manufacture an Indonesian national car.

Under the MOU, a six-month feasibility study will be conducted to explore specific areas of cooperation between both companies, including the potential development and manufacture of the car in Indonesia.

Subject to the completion of a successful study, Proton and PT ACL will also signed a definitive joint venture (JV) agreement for the proposed project.

Proton chairperson Dr Mahathir Mohamad said the MOU was the result of discussions between Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

“We have to work out the JV agreement. I cannot anticipate what it will entail. But obviously, Malaysia is not going in to lose money. We also want to gain something from it,” he told reporters after the MOU signing ceremony in Kuala Lumpur today.

Najib, Joko and Mahathir witnessed the signing. Also present was the Malaysian Ambassador to Indonesia Zahrain Mohamed Hashim and the Indonesian Ambassador to Malaysia, Herman Prayitno.

Signing on behalf of Proton was Chief Executive Officer Abdul Harith Abdullah, while PT ACL Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, signed for the company.

Jokowi spent almost an hour visiting the Proton plant and tried out the Proton Iriz model, driven by Mahathir.

“I talked quite a bit with President Jokowi and he seemed to be pleased with what he saw and experienced,” said Mahathir. He added that the study will also look into Malaysia and Indonesia’s contribution and maximise benefits for both countries.

“We have to see if Malaysian cars can be modified or be suitable for the Indonesian market. Initially, we may export the Malaysian-made car. Subsequently, we will assemble the car in Indonesia and then progress towards producing parts in that country, so that it will become a real Indonesian car,” he said.

Mahathir said Proton started with only 18 percent local content and now the carmaker was involved in manufacturing, designing and producing prototypes that comply with strict international automotive standards.

Possible platform for an ASEAN car

He was of the view that the JV may also serve as a platform for an ASEAN car.  “But for this, we have need the consent of all the ASEAN countries, as well as open up for investments by them for ownership of the car,” he said.

When asked if the JV can compete with other automotive giants, Mahathir said it would not be unusual for Malaysia and Indonesia to consider protecting the infant industry, when it materialises. “When you are a baby you need somebody to hold your hands,” he pointed out.

Meanwhile, Abdul Harith said the collaboration would be good for both nations, specifically in working together to develop products for the larger market.

“Proton has also the facilities, capabilities and technology know-how and is the only company in the ASEAN region with an in-house research & development facility. At the same time, no other country in this region has their own national car project other than providing manufacturing and assembly services,” he added.

As for PT ACL, Abdullah Mahmud said the MoU was a major development for the Indonesian automotive industry. “If the collaboration materialises, not only will it spur the industry, but also offer wider job opportunities for the people,” he added.

Malaysia-Singapore: 50 Years of Contentious and Prickly Relations

February 3, 2014



by Din Merican

Malaysia-Singapore: 50 Years of Contentions, 1965-2015 by Kadir Mohamad

Kadir Mohamed's book2

I just completed reading Ambassador (Tan Sri) Kadir Mohamad’s Malaysia Singapore Fifty Years of Contentions, 1965-2015. By presenting his thoughts and views in the form of an excellent book, Ambassador Kadir, who was Secretary-General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Wisma Putra) and Special Foreign Affairs Adviser to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, joins a select group of former Malaysian diplomats like Tun Ghazalie Shafie, Kamil Jaafar and Razali Ismail ,among others, who have shared their experiences with us. It is heartening to note that our public officials are making their contribution to our collective memory of Malaysian history since Independence.

His book is a timely contribution on the history of Malaysia-Singapore relations. In my view he is the first among them to deal in such great detail with the contentious and prickly relations between the neighbours since the republic’s “expulsion” (Kadir makes no apologies for using this word to describe what happened ) on August 9, 1965 from Malaysia. It is a serious book for the discerning student of foreign policy and international relations. It is not a memoir nor a ” last dispatch” of sorts that one encounters from some  recent writers on the subject.

Ambassador Kadir has “relied heavily on historical records, the works of other authors and contemporary writings by scholars and other public commentators for the facts”. His personal recollections and copious notes and other materials have also been employed to add value and excitement to the drama of diplomatic encounters on numerous issues  (in seven chapters) between Malaysia and Singapore over the last five decades.


In Chapter 8, the author gives us credible evidence of how Lee Kuan Yew single-handedly prescribed Singapore’s policies towards Malaysia, even after he relinquished his premiership to Goh Chok Tong in 1990. In his role as Senior Minister and later as Minister Mentor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Mr. Lee, the micro-manager of Singapore, was able to exert strong influence on Singapore’s foreign, economic and social  policies. Singapore’s Cabinet served as his proxy, says Ambassador Kadir.

Even after his retirement following the 2011 General Elections, his  personality, political dexterity, intellectual brilliance and moral authority (after all, he is a Philosopher-King and Confucian Mandarin) loom large over the blue skies of Singapore.  Here is an amazing Mr. Singapore, a view shared by his admirers and detractors.

Throughout the book on bilateral issues, Mr. Lee’s statecraft is present.

“Singapore negotiators in the past always had Lee Kuan Yew looking over their shoulders like a taskmaster; and they had to prove themselves constantly in the eyes of the taskmaster….Lee Kuan Yew is absolutely one of a kind.”

I wish to add that Mr. Lee taught Singaporean ministers and negotiators how to conduct “Janus faced diplomacy” (Lily Zubaidah Rahim), and to quote Ambassador Kadir again,” in which the business of foreign relations is conducted without sentiment, ideology or illusion, particularly where it concerns  Singapore’s security. That was the way it was in the last 50 years”.

The book by Ambassador Kadir then goes on to support this thesis with Malaysia Singapore relations  from 1965-2015 as a case study. In Chapter 2, Kadir tells us of the acrimonious discussions between the Malaysians and Singaporeans on Water that went on over several years till 2004 without any agreement.

A large part of reason of the failure to reach agreement until today was Lee Kuan Yew’s intervention in the negotiation process between 2000 and 2002. The water issue remains a national sore point in Malaysia”.

There is a perception here in Kuala Lumpur that the Republic is raking enormous money by selling treated water to third parties, namely to ships berthed in Singapore harbour. The 1961 Agreement expired in 2011,while two other agreements are in force until 2061. Let us hope by then, we in Johor and Malaysia can get an equitable deal for our water.

Bilateral negotiations on the status of Pulau Batu Puteh (Pedra Branca), as discussed in Chapter 3, made no progress during 1993 and 1994. The talks stalled when Singapore opted to adopt Mr. Lee’s preference for the dispute to be settled by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague. The matter was finally adjudicated by the ICJ in 2008 in favour of Singapore, after some 18 years. It was, however, not a unanimous decision. This point was not known to the Malaysian public. Only 12 out 16 judges voted in favour of the decision.

In the case of Middle Rocks, 15 to 1 judges ruled in Malaysia’s favour. The ownership of South Ledge will be made after a delimitation of the territorial sea in the area surrounding Pulau Batu Puteh/Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks, and South Ledge.

Chapter Four  deals with Points of Agreement. The issue was finally settled in 2011 by the Najib Administration. Finally, Mr. Lee was able to get KTMB to move to Woodlands and the Malaysian keris was finally removed from the heart of Singapore. This was because some commercial deals deemed favorable to both countries were made by Khazanah Nasional (Malaysia) and Temasek Holdings with some details yet to be finalized.

Another issue, raised in Chapter Five, was very difficult  which  was resolved by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi when the construction of the crooked bridge to replace the Causeway across the Straits of Johore was aborted, much to the consternation of former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed.Chapter 6 deals with Singapore’s Land Reclamation Project. It was the first time Malaysia took Singapore to international arbitration and got a judgment that in general was in its favour.

Chapter 7  deals with the Defence of Singapore. It makes a very interesting read on military strategy and security. It is Mr. Lee’s real legacy. How valid are his assumptions about its neighbours in South East Asia, especially Malaysia, in  the 21 century? Both countries are members of ASEAN and are bound by the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. Both have chosen in 50 years of their prickly and often contentious relations to resolve their differences through diplomacy and peaceful means. Surely, there must be better times ahead for Malaysians and Singaporeans.

I agree with Ambassador Kadir that Malayia is not a threat to Singapore’s security. So he rightly says:

” Indeed, Singapore need not be thinking like Israel because Singapore is not in the same situation as Israel. Israel has experienced actual military attack from outside while Singapore has not. Except for a few irrational acts of selective sabotage during Konfontasi, no country  has ever mounted a military attack against Singapore. A large part of the lingering problem is the teaching by Lee Kuan Yew that Singapore should never trust its neighbours. Such distrusting mind-set tends to imagine enemies everywhere and perceive threats where none exists.”

In the final chapter titled The Next Fifty Years, Ambassador Kadir isAfter 18 years, Kadir’s search for letter still goes on optimistic about our relations with Singapore. And why not? A new generation of leaders on both sides to the Causeway have taken over from their elders who fought colonialism, survived the two World Wars, gained independence and withstood the Cold War. These young leaders have new lenses on bilateral relations. Bitterness of the past should now be behind us.

Yes, Ambassador Kadir, as you say,

“…the logic for neighbouring countries is quite simple that they must cooperate. They can progress better by cooperating with each other instead of hindering one another. In fact, for Malaysia and Singapore the fundamentals already exist for establishing a new era of beneficial cooperation between themselves… Such cooperation is possible even if differences of opinion and approach continue to persist in some areas.”

In other words, let us put end to  50 years of contentious and prickly relations.

Knives out for Malaysia’s Najib

February 1, 1015

Knives out:
Misfortunes surround Malaysia’s Prime Minister

Jan 31st 2015 | KUALA LUMPUR

Golf with Obama, Floods in MalaysiaA Costly Golf Diplomacy

WORLD leaders rarely regret a chance to pose with Barack Obama. But in December Malaysian voters responded angrily to footage of Najib Razak, their Prime Minister, playing golf with America’s President—just as severe floods were inundating the country’s coastal provinces. A hasty tour of the flood zones, from which more than 200,000 people were evacuated, went some way to repairing the prime minister’s image. So too did the news this month that the filthy floodwaters had handed him a bout of E. coli.

That a stomach bug might be a positive development for Mr Najib says much about his difficulties. Since leading his coalition to a slim victory in elections in 2013, with less than half the popular vote, his approval rating has dropped about ten points to less than 50%, according to the Merdeka Centre, a pollster. That would be an encouraging figure for many Western politicians but looks perilous to a leader of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has ruled Malaysia for almost six decades.


Factions loyal to Mahathir Mohamad, a former Prime Minister who won’t go away, accuse Mr Najib of not looking out for UMNO’s ethnic-Malay Muslim majority. Rumours persist that rebels are rallying around Mr Najib’s Deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin.

This kind of rough and tumble is not rare in Malaysia’s ruthless politics. It looks rather like the brawling which eventually toppled Mr Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, in 2009. But lately two singular developments have added to the Prime Minister’s problems.

Najib and 1MDB1MDB –USD12 billion of Debt

The first is the terrible performance of 1MDB, a loss-making state investment fund that is struggling to service around $12 billion of debt and whose board of advisers Mr Najib chairs. At the end of December it failed to repay a $563m loan; some people fear that a costly bail-out is on the cards.

The second distraction is an unexpected verdict handed down by thealtantuya1zn3 federal court in a long-running murder case. On January 13 the court overturned the acquittal of two policemen who were convicted in 2009 of murdering a Mongolian woman.

Her killers were members of a Police unit assigned to protect Mr Najib, then Malaysia’s Defence Minister, and one of them has fled to Australia, which may decline to extradite him. Mr Najib has always denied any involvement in the crime, and there is no evidence to the contrary. But the case is a magnet for conspiracists. Some wonder whether Mr Najib’s political opponents encouraged the court to deliver a verdict that would return the case to the headlines.

Mr Najib’s position is probably safe for the moment. None of his rivals yet commands quite enough support within UMNO or among voters. He is throwing bones to his detractors: in November he backed down on a promise to do away with the Sedition Act—a noxious colonial-era law on censorship that is currently being used to harry opposition figures—and pledged instead to bolster it with new clauses that would criminalise some speech against Islam and other religions. Challenging Mr Najib this year would risk doing harm to Malaysia’s image, says Ooi Kee Beng of ISEAS, a think-tank, given that the country is the current chair of ASEAN, the club of South-East Asian countries.

Najib and the KijangMuch will depend on the economy, for which Mr Najib, who is both Prime Minister and Finance Minister, is seen as having full responsibility. Though the country has gradually grown less dependent on revenues from oil and gas, these still make up around 30% of government income. The collapse of oil prices has left a hole. The government has taken the chance to slash fuel subsidies, and on January 20th it pledged to keep the deficit fairly close to its earlier target of 3%. But spending cuts may unsettle the public, which is already swallowing a new tax for goods and services.

Hardly anyone thinks Mr Najib still has the power or the will to push through the big-ticket reforms he once considered, such as a plan to tone down positive discrimination laws, which throttle growth by favouring the Malay majority at the expense of ethnic Chinese and Indians. But his defenestration could well mean UMNO veering even harder to the right on divisive issues such as Islam’s place in society. Few voters really want Malaysia’s polarised racial politics to get any more toxic.

Yingluck Shinawatra Impeachment: An Execution of Thai Democracy

January 28, 2015

YingLuck Shinawatra Impeachment: An Execution of Thai Democracy

by Kevin Hewison

YingluckNo-one should be surprised that Thailand’s former Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has been impeached by the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly. This was one more act in a political tragedy in which elected politicians have been repeatedly defeated by the military and judiciary.

Despite rumours of a behind-the-scenes “deal” being done, when the assembly voted it was almost unanimous in impeaching Yingluck and banning her from politics for five years last week. These events were scripted, directed and produced by the military junta. Perhaps the only surprise was that Yingluck defended herself, her government and electoral democracy.

The impeachment was a show trial. An unelected assembly, packed with generals and Yingluck’s political opponents, threw out an elected politician who had already been sacked by the Constitutional Court before the May 2014 coup. That putsch – itself illegal – ejected the elected government, scrapped the 2007 constitution and set its own rules to retroactively impeach Yingluck from a position she no longer held.

The allegations against Yingluck were vague. They asserted dereliction of duty in overseeing a rice subsidy scheme, causing 500 billion baht in damages to the economy, mismanagement and corruption. Little convincing evidence was presented.

The rice subsidy scheme was part of her Pheu Thai Party’s election platform when it won a landslide election victory in 2011. Thai governments have long intervened in the rice trade. The scheme Pheu Thai promoted was a variant of a policy begun more than 30 years ago.

The policy was changed substantially in 2001 by Thaksin, Yingluck’s brother, after he was elected. Yingluck’s scheme was meant to move state funds to farmers to reduce poverty and stimulate consumption. Yingluck’s scheme was expensive but also politically popular.

But none of this matters much in a political landscape of division that sometimes resulted in violence. The failures of the scheme were simply an excuse for another political execution.

Not unlike her brother’s situation when he was ousted by a coup in 2006, it was Yingluck’s electoral popularity that brought her downfall. Thailand’s political elite is suspicious of elected politicians and fears that “populist” policies threaten its social, economic and political control.

Often referred to as a royalist elite because of its allegiance to the monarchy and the support it has from palace figures, its actions have expunged three elected administrations since 2006. In that period, there have been two military coups, five prime ministers removed by the military or judiciary, and more than 200 pro-Thaksin politicians banned.

On top of these attacks on electoral democracy, hundreds of red shirts, Thaksin supporters and democracy advocates have been jailed. More than 100 people have been killed in political violence, mostly perpetrated by the military.

Having regained total control in May 2014 and ruling with an iron fist, the obvious question is why the military feels it must punish Yingluck. There are several reasons.

First, the junta is confident that it has broken the opposition associated with the Pheu Thai Party and the red shirt movement. Second, the junta is reasserting its anti-Thaksin credentials with the royalist street movement that paved the way for the coup and which has representatives in the assembly and other appointed bodies.

Third, and related, it wants no opposition as it crafts a new constitution that will alter the political rules to prevent any popular political party winning any national poll. Finally, the military wants to continue to steer political developments. There’s a good chance that the coup leader, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, will stay on as Prime Minister after elections.

The punishment is not over for Yingluck. The Attorney-General’s office has brought charges against her that could mean ten years in jail. Other courts are processing charges against several senior members of her party, including two former prime ministers.

Such actions are meant to silence critics and neuter the Pheu Thai Party. Extensive purges in all government agencies have removed officials deemed sympathetic to Pheu Thai, replacing them with political allies, many from the military.

When street protests sought to bring down Yingluck in early 2014, a complaint made of the military was that, following the 2006 coup, it did not demolish the “Thaksin regime”, allowing pro-Thaksin parties to win elections in 2007 and 2011. The junta is making sure that doesn’t happen again.

The junta hopes that the final act in this political drama will be an election where the result will at least be a royalist and pro-military government and more likely a military-dominated one. Whatever the outcome, it won’t be a democratic regime.

Jokowi: The First Hundred Days

January 26, 2015

Jokowi: The First Hundred Days

Indonesian politics has not been this interesting in a long time. Three months into the new administration of President Joko Widodo, the jubilant optimism that accompanied his victory in elections last year has been replaced by more sober realism. Power in Indonesia has rather fluid qualities. It ebbs and flows. The balance of power in Jokowi’s administration is seen as less viscous than was the case under his predecessor, which makes for unpredictability.

The President’s biggest challenge in his first 100 days has been to consolidate power. Winning the popular vote did not give him an untrammeled mandate. He is shackled to former President Megawati Soekarnoputri, the leader of the party that nominated him to run for President. She in turn had a huge hand in selecting the lion’s share of his cabinet, along with a few other minor stakeholders in the winning coalition. Whilst everyone expected the formidable opposition coalition in parliament to throw obstacles in the path of his reforms, it turns out that Jokowi’s main problem is his own party.

How the President has managed this problem, and the measure of success and failure in his first three months in office begins to illuminate the nature of his leadership. But it also suggests the need for a re-calibration of expectations and a degree of caution.

Supporters were encouraged by his cool unruffled response to the onslaught on his first few weeks in office made by the opposition coalition in parliament; then by the decisive manner he removed fuel subsidies at the end of last year. But the biggest test of his power to date has been the handling of his appointment of Budi Goenawan as national police chief.

Observers believe that Budi, a former close aide to Megawati was her choice, and that pushing his appointment so hard was a response to Jokowi’s sudden appointment of Luhud Panjaitan as his chief of staff. Luhud, a former Indonesian Special Forces commander who is possibly the President’s closest political friend and ally, forged ties with Jokowi when he was still a furniture-maker and exporter in Central Java. His appointment to the chief of staff position was regarded as a bid to balance the forces constraining Jokowi’s presidency.

Budi Goenawan’s appointment generated a storm of protest after the National Counter Corruption Agency (KPK) indicated he was a suspect. Insiders speculated that this was a play by Jokowi to have Megawati’s candidate knocked back, though others said that Budi had greatly helped Jokowi during the election campaign. Either way, the President’s moves to consolidate power collided with the wider concerns of his popular support base, members of which lashed out at the President’s defiance of the KPK. After almost a week of mounting tension, Jokowi announced the decision on Budi Goenawan’s candidacy would be postponed – though not completely canned.

The other theme of Jokowi’s first three months has been a firm resolve to implement an assertive maritime policy. In keeping with his promise to protect Indonesia’s fish stocks from the rampant poaching by foreign fishing fleets in the country’s archipelagic waters, the authorities have seized vessels from Thailand and Vietnam and sunk them. Although Indonesia has sunk illegal fishing boast before, the forceful manner in which the policy is being pursued has raised concerns in the region.

The challenge for the government under this President is how to manage complex regional or international issues when the leadership tends to see things in simple terms and is more concerned with domestic matters.

Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi raised eyebrows by initially suggesting that Indonesia would reduce its international engagement when she meant it would continue. Jokowi has made it plain that he is less interested than his predecessor in joining the international conference circuit – he probably won’t be attending the World Economic Forum in Davos.

However, the focus on domestic interests is not mutually exclusive from the projection of values and responsibilities of importance to the region and beyond. Indonesia’s assertive maritime policy could be couched in rules-based terms that would greatly help the rest of ASEAN persuade China to observe international law in the South China Sea.

Much of the initial dissonance in foreign policy is likely dissipate once the administration settles down. It seems clear that Jokowi himself will not be the globetrotting pontificator that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono aspired to be. That doesn’t mean that issues of importance such as democracy, climate change and respect for international law need to be pushed down table. But it does mean that the President will need to identify good spokespeople and envoys to do the messaging, and there is no shortage of capable former officials and diplomats to fill this role. Popular as he is, Jokowi needs to be confident in the ability of others to communicate his policies.

On the domestic front, Jokowi has disappointed many liberals in his camp with a hesitant reaction to human rights abuse. It took Jokowi two weeks to announce a formal investigation into the shooting of five civilians in the central highlands of Papua last month. There have already been anachronistic references to a return to the army’s role in stimulating development at the village level, and indications of a much larger defence budget. Meanwhile, the international community is reeling from the President’s blunt refusal to offer clemency to five foreigners convicted of drug smuggling who were executed by firing squad on 19 January.

From what we have already seen, Jokowi’s preference is for cautious, conservative decision-making. Perhaps this is something of a throw back to the style of politics practiced by Soeharto at the height of his power in the 1980s. Like Soeharto, Jokowi is schooled in the homespun wisdom of the Javanese culture, so we can expect careful consideration of his actions and as much as possible pushed from behind, as captured by the phrase Soeharto made popular ‘Tut Wuri Handayani’ – to provide moral leadership from the rear.

Events in and around the Presidential palace for the last three months have generated some mild confusion and concern. The Mr. Clean image dented by the appointment of an allegedly corrupt police chief; the Man of the People image corroded by the choice of close aides associated with a conservative security mindset. It would be a real pity if the direct, unambiguous style of his campaign becomes occluded by the shadowy, ambiguous characteristics of Javanese power play.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia Regional Director for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.