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ASEAN to benefit as Indonesia, Singapore take bilateral ties to new phase

By Prime Sarmiento in Hong Kong and Leonardus Jegho in Jakarta | | Updated: 2023-03-21 18:46
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Stronger relations between Indonesia and Singapore, following the conclusion of a slew of agreements, will not only benefit the two countries but the Southeast Asian region as well, experts said.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong concluded the annual Leaders Retreat held in the city state by welcoming the ratification of all three agreements under the Expanded Framework. These include the Agreement on the Realignment of the Boundary between the Jakarta Flight Information Region (FIR) and the Singapore FIR, the Treaty for the Extradition of Fugitives, and the Defense Cooperation Agreement.

Lee and Widodo also witnessed the exchange of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) in digital economy, human capital development, renewable energy and security.

The March 16 meeting was held at a time when Indonesia is the rotating chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and this bodes well for a "stronger and more cohesive ASEAN", experts said.

The stronger cooperation between the two countries can serve as "a good example for other ASEAN members (on) how to utilize the regional momentum of economic growth to recover from the pandemic crisis," said Aleksius Jemadu, lecturer at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Pelita Harapan University in Indonesia.

This is in line with the theme of Indonesia's chairmanship: "ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth", he said.

As this year's chair, Indonesia aims to strengthen economic recovery and reaffirm the region as a "center of growth — an epicentrum of growth", according to ASEAN Secretariat's official website.

"The more robust Indonesia-Singapore relationship is, the stronger and more cohesive ASEAN will be as a regional organization," said Mustafa Izzuddin, senior social and international affairs analyst at Solaris Strategies Singapore.

He said the support from Singapore will be "pivotal" for Indonesia as it performs its "pacesetting role" as ASEAN chairman that can provide "imaginative and consultative leadership to deal with regional challenges".

One of these is the crisis in Myanmar. Lee said that Singapore would work with Indonesia, other ASEAN members and partners such as the United Nations for the full implementation of the "five-point consensus" on Myanmar reached in April 2021.

The consensus includes a call for an immediate cessation of violence and inclusive political dialogue involving all parties.

Yasmi Adriansyah, founder of the Center for Policy, Business, and International Studies at the University of Al Azhar Indonesia, said the Myanmar crisis threatens ASEAN's solidarity. He said Indonesia needs support from Singapore and other member countries in implementing the consensus successfully and resolving the Myanmar issue, Adriansyah said.

The first Singapore-Indonesia Leaders' Retreat was held in 2017, the year when both countries celebrated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic relations.

Lee and Widodo had then agreed that it was important to continue leveraging the trust and partnership that both countries had developed over the past 50 years. The retreat had been held every year since then, except in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic prevented face-to-face meetings.

Mustafa said the bilateral meeting has also prepared the two Southeast Asian countries for "a shared future increasingly shaped by cultural technopreneurship and digital technology".

He was alluding to the MOU on Tech:X Program, which allows young technology professionals to work in each other's countries for up to a year. He said Tech:X is the "wave of the future in Indonesia-Singapore relations", allowing the two countries to jointly nurture technology talents and develop smart cities.

Dedi Dinarto, lead Indonesia analyst at public policy advisory firm Global Counsel, said that one of the most salient points in this year's Leaders' Retreat is the confidence expressed by both Indonesia and Singapore that "the longstanding issues around the airspace, defense cooperation, and extradition treaty will no longer strain the bilateral relationship".

Singapore and Indonesia have sought approval from the International Civil Aviation Organization to implement their region agreement on flight information. Under the pact, Indonesia will delegate to Singapore the provision of air navigation services in portions of the airspace within the realigned Jakarta FIR.

Dinarto said the signed MOUs "will serve as key building blocks" for bilateral relations in the succeeding years as Southeast Asia's biggest economy will be holding general elections in 2024 to have a successor to Widodo.

Experts said the Leaders' Retreat has also helped Widodo promote one of the major legacies of his presidency: the relocation of the nation's capital from Jakarta in Java island to the East Kalimantan province. The future Nusantara Capital City is set to be inaugurated in August 2024.

Lee has pledged Singapore's support for the planning and development of Nusantara during their meeting. The Singapore Centre for Liveable Cities, Ministry of National Development, and the Indonesian Nusantara National Capital Authority have signed an MoU on the collaboration on knowledge sharing, capacity building and research on the future capital city.

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