More reactions to Lee Kuan Yew’s remarks

Updated On: Sep 29, 2006

Hot on the heels of the uproar in Malaysia sparked over remarks made by Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew that, “Our neighbours [Malaysia andIndonesia] both have problems with their Chinese. They are successful. They are hardworking and, therefore, they are systematically marginalised,” is the outrage expressed by several Indonesian lawmakers. 

Indonesia’s foreign ministry on Tuesday (26 September) also summoned Singapore's ambassador for clarification.

The Indonesian lawmakers accused Lee of spreading lies and posing a danger to Indonesian and ASEAN unity.  They called on the Indonesian government to issue a formal protest to the Singaporean government while urging Lee to make a public apology, to retract his statement and to explain whether he was referring only to Indonesian leaders or also to the Indonesian people.

Lee’s comments have sparked bilateral diplomatic tensions with Indonesia and Malaysia, and earned cricitism for “hindering the process of establishing the ASEAN community”.  Joko Susilo, a member of the parliamentary commission overseeing international affairs, said of Lee’s remarks, "That is a statement that is very much regrettable, not at all a friendly statement, and even an insult to us.  Such a statement coming from a friendly neighbour can be dangerous to our ties with that country."  Lawmaker Amris Hassan criticised Lee's remarks for the danger they posed to Indonesian unity as well as ASEAN's good relations.  Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said that Lee, as the former Prime Minister of the republic, should have known better than to utter such remarks as it also went against ASEAN’s non-interference policy.  Echoing Syed Hamid’s sentiments, Happy Bone Zulkarnaen, an MP from Indonesia’s ruling Golkar Party said, "A statesman should carefully weigh his words when speaking."

Officials at the Indonesian Embassy in Singapore have also been instructed to meet with high-ranking officials at Singapore's foreign ministry to lodge a protest and seek further clarification.  Indonesia will also send a letter of protest to the Singaporean government.  Foreign Ministry secretary-general Imron Cotan told The Jakarta Post, "We want this to be cleared as soon as possible. It is not true that ethnic Chinese in Indonesia are marginalised. We have Chinese-Indonesian ministers and lawmakers."

Several Indonesian lawmakers have been quoted as saying while discrimination or systematic marginalisation of the ethnic Chinese in Indonesiamight have been true in the past, it was no longer true as Indonesia has taken great strides to actively battle discrimination since then; citing minority Chinese access to all positions, including in the military, parliament, cabinet and government.  Muhammad Hikam from the National Awakening Party said, "It is regrettable that Lee appears to disregard the developments that have taken place."   Tempo on Wednesday (27 September) ran an editorial which said Indonesiahad got rid of many discriminatory laws and regulations since Suharto stepped down in 1998.  It cited the new citizenship law passed in July this year, which exempts Indonesian Chinese from having to produce proof of citizenship or undergo the naturalisation process if they were born to Indonesian parents.  The editorial also noted that while there are still some 60 laws and regulations that are racially biased, this did not mean that Indonesia would continue to 'systematically oppress' its Chinese citizens.

Indonesia's ethnic Chinese comprise some three percent of the country's 220 million people, but members of the minority group are disproportionately powerful players in the economy.  The top five richest Indonesians, according to Forbes Asia magazine, are ethnic Chinese, who also account for a majority of the country's top 40 richest people.  While Chinese Indonesians faced systematic barriers during the 32 years of President Suharto's rule that ended in 1998, the situation has improved since and many discriminatory regulations have been revoked.  However, almost a decade after these anti-discrimination regulations have been issued, reports continue of persistent discriminative administrative policies in obtaining birth certificates, ID cards, family card and a citizenship certificate (SBKRI). 

In Malaysia, Singapore's High Commissioner to Malaysia T. Jasudasen was summoned on Thursday (28 September) to meet the foreign ministry's secretary-general to explained MM Lee’s remarks. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had written to Prime Minister Lee seeking an explanation for his recent comments.  Foreign Minister Syed Hamid told The Straits Times yesterday that the letter, “…seeks an explanation, and pointed out that this sort of statement is not welcome. It is sensitive and dangerous. We are very unhappy.”   Syed Hamid said, "We expect Singapore to say sorry for Lee’s remarks”, and added that if Singapore continued to come up with baseless remarks, it would be difficult to maintain cordial relations. 

While the Singapore ambassadors to Malaysia and Indonesia have both answered summons from the foreign ministries in the respective countries, the city-state has yet to issue a public statement clarifying the issue.  Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement, "We will reply … through appropriate channels in due course."

Considering Singapore’s common acknowledgement of its vulnerability, any actions that set-back the island-state's relations with its neighbours – thereby accentuating its vulnerability – attract much speculation regarding Singapore’s motives.  In Indonesia, analysts have pointed out that Lee had made several negative statements about Indonesia previously.  They see Lee’s latest remarks as deliberate, and linked to Indonesia's demand that Singapore extradite Chinese-Indonesian business people embroiled in embezzlement cases in Indonesia who fled to Singapore to escape prosecution.  Many Indonesians have alleged that Singapore had deliberately prolonged extradition talks to take advantage of the businesspeople who fled the country with state money while others expressed concern over the acquisition of several state-owned companies by the island state.  In Malaysia, Foreign Minister Syed Hamid also suggested possible hidden agendas for Lee’s comments, saying, "I believe Singapore’s motive is to make Malaysia look bad to foreign investors.” 

The strong reactions from the neighbours to remarks should serve a timely reminder that political leaders need to be sensitive and tactful in their public statements.


Indonesian MPs outraged over comments from Lee Kuan Yew (ANTARA/AFP, 26 September 2006)

Jakarta wants S'pore to clarify MM Lee's race comments (The Straits Times, 27 September 2006)

Singapore's ambassador summoned upon Lee's remarks (The Jakarta Post, 27 September 2006)

Jakarta summons S'pore envoy over LKY comments (AFP, 28 September 2006)

House angered by Lee's RI Chinese comment (Jakarta Post, 27 September 2006)

KL and Jakarta ask for explanation for MM's remarks (The Straits Times, 28 September 2006)

PM sends Singapore letter on LKY remarks (New Straits Times, 28 September 2006)

An old Malaysian debate that refuses to die (The Straits Times, 27 September 2006)