Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Doorstop Interview with Singapore Media in Jakarta, Indonesia on 26 April 2024

26 April 2024

Minister: I have had a very busy week focused on Indonesia. I just had a meeting with President Jokowi to make sure all the preparations are ready for the Leaders' Retreat, which is on Monday, when Prime Minister Lee will meet President Jokowi. DPM Wong will also be there, and so will President-elect Prabowo. The 7th Leaders' Retreat will be a celebration of the achievements in the past decade. Going even further back, relations between Indonesia and Singapore have reached new heights – so it will be a celebration of achievements. It will also be a symbol of continuity. And I think that is particularly useful because, especially in the business sector, they are looking for indications that the projects started and the collaborations that have already borne much fruit, will continue and in fact, will produce even more fruit for the future. So celebration, and continuity. 


During the course of this week, I also had an opportunity to have long discussions with the President-elect Prabowo who has impressed me with his clarity, his determination, his passion to lead and to make a difference, and at the same time, to build on the foundation that President Jokowi has laid. So certainly on the bilateral front, I expect continuity to be the key theme of our relationship.


I also had the privilege to catch up with former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as well as former President Ibu Megawati Soekarnoputri who are all close friends of Singapore. It is always a privilege to have access to their insights, to their advice and their recommendations.  I met other Ministers and old friends, as well as old friends who may be assuming new incarnations. It was a good chance to catch up and to understand the internal dynamics. 


I think the key takeaway from this trip is that Indonesia has reached a very significant level of development, of investment in infrastructure, of (creating a) business-conducive environment. And I think everyone I met is optimistic.


From a Singapore perspective – since 2014, Singapore has been the largest source of foreign investments into Indonesia. This reflects Singapore's confidence and it is a vote of confidence in Indonesia and its future. So our companies big and small, as well as investors, are looking forward to the opportunities that are emerging. That is why it was important to be here and to both do a stocktake of all the achievements, as well as (provide) the assurance of continuity. I think you will hear (that) from both President Jokowi and Prime Minister Lee next week. All in all, it is an excellent relationship, and as I said, it has reached new heights and (there is) a commitment on both sides for continuity. 


Hariz Baharudin (ST): Sounds like a fruitful trip Minister. In light of the uncertain and challenging external environment that we see ourselves in, how important is the relationship between Singapore and Indonesia? Also, both countries will be undergoing a leadership transition. How do you see the relationship between the two countries evolving as a result of this, especially in the context of how several ASEAN countries have or will have seen leadership transitions in the past few years?


Minister: Well, you are right, the world is in an unsettled place, volatile, uncertain – war in Ukraine, war in the Middle East, no signs of quick resolution, and anxieties over these conflicts becoming, not just bilateral but regional conflagrations, with major impact on the global economy. So the world is in an unsettled state. 


But given that, it is all the more important to double down on our relationships with our immediate neighbours and within ASEAN, and specifically in the case of Indonesia as the largest country within ASEAN, a large economy increasingly becoming more sophisticated and with great prospects for growth. In view of its demographics, in view of the progressive investments in infrastructure over the last decade and beyond, the vitality of its workforce, the entrepreneurship of its young people, and the opportunities that both the green economy and the digital economy (bring), which are both salient for Indonesia.


My point is that it is all the more important for us to double down on these relationships. These vital relationships put Indonesia up there in the list of top priorities. Second, it is also critical for us to work with Malaysia, Indonesia and within ASEAN to maintain ASEAN as a united, cohesive zone of peace focused on economic development, closer integration, and maximise the opportunities that the transition to a green economy and a digital economy will present. The key point again, is to differentiate ASEAN, and to tell businesses the world over (to) engage ASEAN on our own merits, look at our economic potential, look at the opportunities that transforming our economies to a green sustainable form of development, as well as the digital revolution, and in particular AI  and the impact that will have on the ease of doing business, on mobility of investments, and the progressive investments in infrastructure and connectivity within ASEAN (will bring). 


The point is for ASEAN to stand in contrast to what is happening in the rest of the world. That is vital and that is why you will see that we have focused on ASEAN diplomacy. I spent this week here, last week I was in the Philippines. This is all part of our ASEAN strategy.


Ismira Lutfia (BH): You mentioned about the continuity between Singapore and Indonesia, under Prime Minister Lee and President Jokowi. Are there any specific cooperation issues to develop with Prabowo when the new administration take place in both countries?


Minister: Well, let me take a step back and we look in the past 10 years the agreements that we have arrived at. I think it was very, very significant that Indonesia and Singapore were able to get agreement on the Expanded Framework Agreement; in particular, in dealing with the Flight Information Region, the Defence Cooperation Agreement, and the Extradition Treaty. I cannot overstate the significance of us arriving at these agreements-not just arriving at agreement, but they are being implemented now. Again, the long-standing issues resolved under Prime Minister Lee and President Jokowi will be one very major set of achievements. But there are other agreements, perhaps not on the same scale, but significant in their own way. We signed a Bilateral Investment Treaty, we have a Double Taxation Agreement, we have got the Financial Stability Agreement between MAS and Bank Indonesia, the central bank. We are exploring, connecting our tech ecosystems, start-up companies or even bigger, medium-sized digital companies to exchange and expand ideas, talent, concepts, and business models. The point is, there has actually been quite a lot of agreements in a variety of areas. But we are also looking forward. If you look at the ongoing discussions on the green economy in particular, the possibility of importing renewable energy, the moves to establish an ASEAN power grid, which, if you look at it strategically- first, it is part of the green transformation. ASEAN as a whole will rely more and more on green energy rather than coal-based sources of energy. Second, because ASEAN is so dispersed and so wide, getting a grid will actually lower the overall cost of energy in ASEAN, and make ASEAN more competitive industrially. So that is the stuff we are doing on green energy, on power grids. Not just bilaterally, but as part of an ASEAN network. That really enhances our competitiveness for the future. 


Similarly, on the digital economy, I already mentioned the Tech:X agreement which we are exploring. In the digital economy, you work on an abundance model rather than a scarcity model, which means you get value from sharing, networking, and expanding your companies and the sophistication of its services so that you can address a global market. A lot has been done and (there is) a lot more that we can look forward to in the future. That is why in a sense, it is not really surprising that Singapore has been the largest foreign investor in Indonesia for a decade, because it makes business and strategic sense. It further binds us together. And because Indonesia is the largest state in ASEAN, the agreements and arrangements that we make with Indonesia can also act as a template, as a kind of a stepping stone, to larger ASEAN arrangements. So I am very optimistic about the future.


Ruoxue Goh (BT): Regional economic integration is central to ASEAN agenda and it was one of the priorities under Indonesia's ASEAN chairmanship last year. Do you foresee a continued push for regional economic integration under Prabowo’s leadership?


Minister: Yes, I anticipate that. I had a long discussion with the President-Elect. He is focused on uplifting opportunities within Indonesia. He also understands Indonesia's importance to ASEAN and the greater prospects for all of ASEAN. The more we integrate, the more we double down on cooperation, the more we facilitate investments into productive sectors, the more we do in the green economy, the more we achieve on the digital front. So yes, I do anticipate continuity, further integration, expansion of opportunities, bilaterally as well as on an ASEAN basis.


Saifulbahri Ismail (CNA): I would like to ask about the Leaders’ Retreat next week. What are some of the key deliverables that we can expect from the meeting next week? And when you talk about continuity, can we also expect that this format of Leaders’ Retreat will continue with the new leaders? 


Minister: The short answer is yes. I am sure the meetings will continue, a very productive constructive format that gets a lot done in a short time. More importantly, it sets the direction for all the different ministries and agencies in both countries to get things done on time, and a sense of urgency in keeping with the ambition of our leaders at the very top. So watch the news next week. There will be announcements on deliverables, but the main thing is, do not just look at a snapshot; look at the trend. Look at what has been achieved in the last 10 years between Prime Minister Lee and President Jokowi and then cast your eyes forward to the future being confident that continuity of policies, of projects, of collaboration will put us in a very strong position. So even as the world is in an unsettled place, the fact is that we are doubling down on this very vital relationship, and we are focusing on Indonesia and beyond Indonesia, we are focusing on ASEAN. This, in fact, is an opportunity for us in Singapore and for all citizens of ASEAN.


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