Saturday, April 11, 2015

Strong or weak TNI? How some people in Singapore view Indonesia's war machine

If you're the kind of person who frets over an on the ball Indonesian war machine that is resurgent, assertive and on an arms acquisition spree, think about how a weak Tentera Nasional Indonesia (TNI) would look in our neighbourhood.

In the 1990s, the prospect of a weak TNI that failed to hold the Republic of Indonesia together stoked worst-case scenarios amongst Singaporean analysts. In so doing, a  new buzzword - "Balkanisation" - was added to the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) lexicon as policy makers mapped out how the region might look if Indonesia fell apart.

The term "balkanisation" echoed the political fallout that rattled Europe and killed thousands after former Yugoslavia fragmented. In the ensuing chaos, historical fault lines tore apart the Balkan nation as ethnic groups fought to secure new borders. 

In Singapore, there were concerns a similar narrative would play out in Indonesia. 

From Aceh to the Spice Islands all the way to Papua, ongoing strife due to an incendiary mix of historical, racial or religious flashpoints made the situation look tenuous. The situation in ASEAN's largest member was a cause for worry in Singapore, ASEAN's smallest member.

Lest anyone underrate the situation, the race riots that flared in Jakarta in May 1998 cast the spotlight on fault lines in a nation where unity in diversity was once a point of pride. Mobs that torched property in Jakarta's Chinatown were also said to have raped many Indonesian Chinese women. Hotel bookings in Singapore soared as Indonesian Chinese fled to the little red dot to escape the chaos.

Across the strait in Singapore, preparations were made should the worst happen.

By February 1999, metal fences topped by razor wire cordoned off a third of St John's Island. If the situation took a turn for the worst and Illegal Immigrant Boats (IIBs) headed our way, St. John's could securely house some 10,000 people with proper food, healthcare and sanitation away from mainland Singapore. Thankfully, that standby plan was not needed,

At a tactical level, Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) fast landing craft practised how to intercept IIBs. This was a new and improvised role for the RSN's Fast Craft Squadron, which was trained, organised and equipped to support beach landing and coastal hook operations by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

If these drawer plans were put into action, the geostrategic landscape of Southeast Asia would have taken a more ominous pathway.

Back home, the Singapore dollar would probably have crashed as foreign investors reassessed the Lion City's economic miracle. 

Basic foodstuffs would have seen a price spiral as sources of fresh produce in Indonesia dried up and Singapore suppliers were forced to turn elsewhere.

Air traffic would have recorded a transient spike as foreigners from Indonesia used Singapore as a hub to fly home. Then things would go noticeably more quiet at Changi Airport.

It does not take an active mind to figure out the impact that disorder in Indonesia would have on Singapore's stability, growth and prosperity.

The turmoil would emphasize a hard truth Singaporeans have been told time and again - some would say to no avail. It would hammer home a longstanding strategic reality that our tiny city-state, which has no strategic hinterland for us to fall back on or natural resources to draw upon, is a price-taker in regional and world affairs.

Singapore's outsized role in global diplomacy, as evidenced by the tributes voiced by world leaders in memory of our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, can only do so much to assert Singapore's value to and relevance in global affairs.

When it comes to the crunch, it is a strong SAF that will have to step up as your insurance.

And just as some in Singapore view with keen interest the TNI's growing might, a weak Indonesian war machine will also cause analysts to sit up and take notice.

Ponder the imponderable.


Pete said...

Thanks for such a lucid account David

We in Australia and the US are privileged to provide training space in our larger land territories for Singapore's Armed Forces.

Unknown said...

Thought provoking. Thanks David.

Abao said...

Indeed, very true, the TNI's role cannot be denied in the stability of Indonesia.

A prosperous Indonesia is good for Singapore and the region. It is the proper way to hedge against the East and West.