How is it that Singapore, once mocked as a mere “red dot” state by then president BJ Habibie, became the largest foreign investor, and sent the largest number of tourists to a much more “gigantic” Indonesia in 2016? The moral of the story is: Size alone does not always matter.
In Thursday’s joint press conference with his guest President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that his country invested US$9.2 billion in Indonesia last year. Indonesians, who have often blamed the city-state for harboring corruption suspects, may sneer that the investment value is just a “red dot” compared to the huge amount of money invested by corrupt Indonesians and unscrupulous conglomerates in Singapore.
For many Singaporeans, the “red dot” mockery later became a source of pride because, despite their extremely small size, they became much more prosperous and advanced in nearly all aspects of life compared to their neighboring “big brother.”
At the time he made his comment, Habibie was upset because, according to him, then prime minister Goh Chok Tong was very late in sending his congratulatory message on his appointment as Indonesia’s third president in May 1998.
In an interview with the Asian Wall Street Journal, Habibie, who had just replaced Soeharto following his abrupt decision to end his nearly 32-year dictatorship, pointed to a map, and said, “It’s OK with me, but there are 211 million people [in Indonesia]. All the green [area] is Indonesia. And that red dot is Singapore.”
Singapore denied Habibie’s allegation of belatedly congratulating Indonesia’s new president; but Singaporeans have since taken the phrase as their own, and it has become both a source of pride and an endless source of jokes to tease Indonesia and themselves.
President Jokowi arrived in Singapore on Wednesday and attended a bilateral summit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of relations between the two countries. Two years after Singapore’s separation from Malaysia to become an independent republic in 1965, Singapore and Indonesia agreed to end military tensions between them.
In the same year, the two countries, along with Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia, established ASEAN. Soeharto is always remembered by Indonesia’s neighbors as a leader who created political security and stability in the region, letting them grow and progress together.
There have always been ups and downs in relations between Indonesia and Singapore, especially after the fall of Soeharto. From the very beginning, Singapore always stood firm against its larger neighbors, including Indonesia — sometimes unnecessarily — while Indonesia is often tempted to show off its muscles to its smaller neighbor, but to no avail.
PM Lee’s revelation about the investment is strong evidence that Singapore plays an important role in Indonesia’s economy, while Singapore also needs Indonesia’s market and resources. As a pragmatic leader, Jokowi knows very well how to conduct business with his counterpart, based on mutually beneficial relations. Neither Singapore nor Indonesia will ever tolerate bullying from their neighbor.
Indonesia and Singapore have learned a lot in the last 50 years.