Tuesday, 3 October 2023

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Diplomacy – a la MM Lee

By Choo Zheng Xi

Imagine a senior western dignitary visiting Singapore to lecture us on electoral and constitutional reform, claiming our legislators lack legitimacy because of the constitutional quirk that is our GRC system.

And after that he asks us to expedite sensitive defense negotiations.

This was basically what MM Lee did on his recent trip to Jakarta.

In a Straits Times report (27th July) titled “Jakarta’s bind a result of charter changes: MM”, he is quoted as having told a public forum:

“They created a Constitution which is different from any other Constitution in the world. Constitutions are very complex subjects, so when you make a Constitution, you study what other countries have done, and then you make amendments here and there to suit your circumstances”.

After giving the Indonesians a lecture on constitutional drafting, he then carried on to wax lyrical about the system in the Suharto era where “it was the legislative branch which elected the President…in a way that made sense”. MM Lee seems to have forgotten that Parliamentary democracy in Suharto’s reign was little more than Indonesian wayang kulit.

He then let rip into the legitimacy of the Indonesian parliamentary system, criticizing it for being unaccountable to voters because it is a closed list proportional representation system. Spain, Portugal, Israel, Finland are among the countries that should contemplate electoral reform before MM’s next visit: they are among the plethora of countries that utilize this system of voting.

It is apparently a less democratic means of picking legislators than Singapore’s Westminster democracy.

Indonesian legislator Andreas Pereira had this to say to MM’s lesson on democracy:

“Wake up, Mr Lee. Present day Indonesia is much more democratic and open than during the era when the two of you (Mr Lee and Suharto) could make bilateral agreements on your own”.

The irony of deriding Indonesian parliamentarians’ accountability a day after visiting Indonesia’s ex dictator Suharto seems to have been completely lost on MM. To add to the surreality of the visit, MM Lee invited the Speaker, Agung Laksono of the DPR (Indonesian Parliament) to visit him in his hotel room.

Diplomacy with this personal touch might have worked in the days of Suharto, but was soundly rebuffed by Mr Agung. He said “If (he) wants to meet, meet me at the DPR building so that it respects the state institution”. Evidently he thought the hotel room offer slightly off-putting and beneath his dignity.


This almost farcical trip might have been funny if not for the fact that Singapore still harbours (or harboured, as the case might now be) hope that the very Parliament MM Lee insulted might ratify a Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) with Singapore.

After orchestrating a high profile signing of the Extradition Treaty (ET) Indonesia has long asked us for, Indonesia promptly left us in the lurch to wait for their Parliament to ratify the supposedly quid-pro-quo DCA. Things have gone downhill astoundingly fast since then: a Parliamentary commission has refused to ratify the DCA in its present form, which might mean bringing the DCA back to the negotiating table.

This setback, along with strident anti-Singapore voices in the DPR, seems to have been what got Mr Lee’s goat. So in he swooped, sledgehammer flying.

What he doesn’t seem to have realized was that there might have been some hope of it being ratified by the DPR in an amended form. At issue was the use of an area in the South China Sea for military training. This didn’t seem to be something a spot of deft diplomacy and political lobbying couldn’t untangle.

Well if the road to the DCA previously seemed long and winding, it’s now that much more complicated. That flushing sound is the sound of a DCA going down the toilet. To say MM’s visit was bad for Singaporean diplomacy would be an understatement of epic proportions.

Read also: Lee Kuan Yew’s statement draws widespread controversy in Indonesia (Bernama)

And “This ‘punching bag’ will bounce back, says MM” (TODAY)

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