Indonesia Officials Skip Singapore Airshow as Tensions Rise

Indonesia’s top army officials will skip the Singapore Airshow as tensions escalated between the two nations after Indonesia stood by its decision to name a navy ship after marines who bombed a building on the island in 1965.

Indonesia’s Deputy Defense Minister Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin and other senior military officials won’t attend the event in Singapore this week, both countries said separately. Teuku Faizasyah, a spokesman for Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, told reporters in Jakarta yesterday the government will stick to naming the ship the Usman-Harun.

The no-show by the Indonesian army underscores relations between two neighbors that have been sprinkled with occasional friction. In November, Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam met with his Indonesian counterpart following reports the city-state helped countries including Australia spy on its neighbor. In June, Yudhoyono apologized for forest fires that led to haze in the city-state.

“I don’t expect the Indonesians to backtrack, and Singapore is registering its disappointment in hopes it won’t happen again,” said Eugene Tan, an associate law professor at Singapore Management University and a non-elected member of the city-state’s Parliament. “We may see a cooling off period in bilateral ties, particularly with military relations, but I don’t see relations heading into a deep freeze.”

Shanmugam contacted his Indonesian counterpart to “register Singapore’s concerns over the naming of the navy ship and the impact this would have on the feelings of Singaporeans, especially the families of the victims,” according to a statement from his ministry last week.

Texted Cancellation

Sisriadi, a spokesman for the Indonesian Defense Ministry, said Sjamsoeddin and his Singapore counterpart were due to meet for a “strategic dialogue” during the Singapore Airshow. That meeting was canceled through a mobile-text message from Singapore, which led to the decision to skip the event entirely, he said yesterday.

“There might be some kind of disruption in terms of security cooperation and military cooperation,” Indonesian Deputy Finance Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro said in an interview today at an event in Singapore. “But I think it’s like our relationship with Australia. We have some problems with Australia, but at the end our economic relationship is still going strong -- with Australia as well as Singapore.”

Australian Ties

Australia agreed in December to follow the steps demanded by Indonesia to improve trust between the two neighbors after spying allegations left ties at their lowest level in 14 years. Indonesia had suspended cooperation on military exercises and called for a joint code of conduct while seeking to review its dependence on cattle imports from Australia, an indication the dispute could affect trade ties.

In Singapore, the Indonesian Air Force’s Jupiter Aerobatic Team will still perform at the airshow if a slot is provided, according to Agus Barnas, a government spokesman.

Singapore’s Ministry of Defence said in a statement on Feb. 9 that the Indonesian leaders, including Sjamsoeddin, Army Chief Moeldoko and chiefs of staff for the army and air force, “have decided not to attend the Singapore Airshow.” Kenneth Liow, a spokesman at the Singapore Defence Ministry, couldn’t be reached for a comment in his office today.

Two Marines

Indonesia’s Moeldoko said Singapore should stop regarding the two marines as terrorists as they were “stage actors,” the Jakarta Post reported yesterday, citing the general.

The marines, Osman Hj Mohd Ali and Harun Said, were convicted and executed in Singapore for the March 1965 bombing of the MacDonald House building in the city’s downtown that killed three people and injured 33, the Singapore Foreign Affairs Ministry said in its statement.

The explosion took place during the Indonesian confrontation, when Singapore was part of Malaysia, and Indonesian President Sukarno targeted Malaysia as a “neo-colonialist puppet state,” according to information from the Singapore National Library.

Singapore restored bilateral ties and considered the chapter closed in 1973 when then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew visited the graves of the two marines and scattered flowers, according to the ministry.

“I am disappointed with the Indonesian decision to name their new warship after the two convicted ex-marines,” Chan Chun Sing, Singapore’s second minister for defense and former army chief, said in a statement on Feb. 7. Indonesian leaders shouldn’t “reopen old wounds and hurt this relationship so carefully built up,” he said.

Fire Season

Singapore and Malaysia have been plagued for decades by periodic smog caused by clouds of ash drifting from Sumatra, with regular spats over responsibility. Indonesia said in July it agreed to provide the governments of haze-hit neighbors with maps of plantation concessions in fire-prone areas, though only on condition that they’re not made public.

Singapore-based Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd. said the fire season on Indonesia’s Sumatra island may start early, leading to possible prolonged periods of haze over Southeast Asia this year.

The company recorded 55 fires near its plantations in the first five weeks of the year, with dry weather forecast throughout the heavily forested area, it said in a statement.

“Any time you have these disputes, the most important part is that there is lots of communication back and forth,” Kirk Wagar, U.S. Ambassador to Singapore, said in an interview at the airshow. “It’s safe to say that that is ongoing from what I read in the papers today. The American point of view would always be whether it’s here, Africa or Latin America, we want our friends talking to each other.”

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