Indonesian President Joko Widodo has a favourite saying. — Indonesian President Joko Widodo has a favourite saying.

“He often says we cannot choose our neighbours like we choose our friends,” said Mr Bey Machmudin, a former Indonesian presidential spokesman.

“But he found a friend in Mr Lee,” he added, referring to Singapore’s outgoing leader. “Singapore and Indonesia are both good neighbours – and good friends.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has a favourite saying.– both of whom will be leaving office in 2024 – has helped undergird a strong bilateral relationship between Singapore and Indonesia.

The two men will meet for their seventh and final Leaders’ Retreat in Bogor on April 29.

Observers say that the bilateral relationship has grown from strength to strength in the two decades that PM Lee was head of Singapore’s Government.

In the first half of his time as prime minister, he built a deep relationship with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who led Indonesia from 2004 to 2014.

That endured beyond Dr Yudhoyono’s two terms in office.

In February 2019, PM Lee and Mrs Lee visited Dr Yudhoyono’s wife Kristiani Herrawati at the National University Hospital in Singapore, where she was undergoing intensive medical treatment for leukaemia.

Upon entering the hospital room, PM Lee said, in a mix of English and Bahasa Indonesia: “Hi Ibu Ani, how are you? Selamat pagi, wish you all the best. Take care, semoga sehat ya (be healthy).”

Touched by the gesture, the former first lady, better known as Ani Yudhoyono, posted a picture on Instagram showing a card given to her by PM Lee, and thanked him and other well-wishers for their prayers. She breathed her last a few months later, on June 1 that year.

A card (top left) by PM Lee to Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s wife in a picture she posted on Instagram before her death in 2019. PHOTO: ANIYUDHOYONO/INSTAGRAM
“Ibu Ani must have felt very happy with their presence as well as to receive their words of encouragement. She and Madam Ho Ching were very close and had always given each other souvenirs,” Ms Imelda Sari, deputy secretary-general of Dr Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party, told The Straits Times, referring to Mrs Lee.

“Mr SBY was no longer president, yet Mr Lee continued to treasure their relationship. They valued each other not only as counterparts, but also as close personal friends,” she added, referring to Dr Yudhoyono by his initials.

PM Lee Hsien Loong and Mrs Lee welcoming then Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife Ani Yudhoyono at the Istana on April 22, 2013. PHOTO: ST FILE
The same rapport was built with Mr Widodo when the latter was elected and took office in October 2014.

Mr I Gede Ngurah Swajaya, Indonesia’s ambassador to Singapore from 2015 to 2020, said PM Lee had a genuine interest in understanding Indonesia and forging meaningful relationships with its leaders, whatever their backgrounds. Dr Yudhoyono was an army general, while Mr Widodo hailed from humble beginnings with no links to powerful political elites or military figures.

“Then, Mr Widodo did not have much experience in international relations, but Mr Lee accepted him as his counterpart, and built the friendship into a close personal one,” said Mr Ngurah, who is now Indonesia’s ambassador to Switzerland.

He recalled PM Lee asking Mr Widodo how he managed to keep himself fit and energetic despite having a small appetite.

“The President had told him he drank jamu (a traditional herbal drink). PM Lee then had jamu prepared for him at the Istana,” he said.

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During an interview with ST in 2023, Mr Widodo, whose two sons had studied in Singapore, said he considered PM Lee a “good old friend”. The two leaders have shared meals such as nasi lemak and roti prata in Singapore.

“We are really close, and have been friends for a long time. We have never had any problems, not even small ones, much less big ones. We always talk about positive things for the future,” he said then.

Ties between tiny Singapore and Indonesia – Asean’s biggest country and economy – have had their ups and downs over the decades, with domestic politics and a big brother attitude on the part of some Indonesia leaders at times bedevilling the relationship.

But what has gone a long way towards easing some of those tensions are the personal connections at the top.

PM Lee’s warm nature and facility with languages were major assets in building up the relationship in the past 20 years, said Mr Andri Hadi, Indonesia’s ambassador to Singapore from 2011 to 2015.

He singled out PM Lee’s efforts in building a rapport with Indonesians by interacting with officials in Bahasa Indonesia, “which really made us feel at ease”.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (left) and PM Lee Hsien Loong sharing a light moment over keropok and sambal at the Istana, during the Singapore-Indonesia Leaders’ Retreat, on Oct 8, 2019. PHOTO: ST FILE
PM Lee also does not forget those he has met, including officials, Mr Andri noted, adding that the Singapore leader would greet him by name at official events. After stepping down as ambassador to Singapore, Mr Andri was appointed chief of state protocol in Mr Widodo’s government and would accompany the President whenever he travelled for international conferences.

“Whatever the event was, in whichever part of the world it was held, Mr Lee never failed to greet me whenever we met. ‘Hello, Pak Andri!’ he would say. His memory is really sharp. I’d left Singapore long ago and yet he still remembered me,” said Mr Andri, who is now Indonesia’s ambassador to Belgium.

For the leaders on both sides, picking up the phone to speak directly to their counterparts was a common practice, both in good and bad times, Ms Imelda said.

When a 9.1-magnitude earthquake struck off the west coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra in 2004, triggering a devastating tsunami, Singapore was the first country to provide military and humanitarian assistance for disaster relief efforts in Aceh and Meulaboh.

“Mr Lee and Mr SBY had only started their terms, yet they were able to inculcate such deep trust in each other from the get-go,” Ms Imelda said.

In the following years, both leaders braved many more challenges together, tackling various issues from haze to the extradition treaty and defence cooperation, she said.

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Sometimes, ties were rocky, but both countries managed to ride out the challenges.

For instance, in March 2015, then Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla took aim at unhappiness in the region over the haze, saying: “For 11 months, (Singapore and Malaysia) enjoyed nice air from Indonesia and they never thanked us. They have suffered for one month because of the haze and they get upset”.

Indonesia ratified the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, a pact to combat the regional problem, in September 2014, the last of 10 countries to do so. This was just before Dr Yudhoyono stepped down as president the following month.

President Widodo subsequently pushed for more efforts in fighting forest and plantation fires, including cloud-seeding operations to induce rain.

Then there was the issue of airspace. The Indonesians sought to manage the airspace over Indonesia’s Riau and Natuna islands, which formed part of the Singapore Flight Information Region (FIR) that had been managed by air traffic controllers in Singapore since 1946 as delegated by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

This issue, along with defence cooperation and extradition, was settled under an expanded framework signed by PM Lee and Mr Widodo, which came into force in March 2024. The airspace is now part of the Jakarta FIR, but with portions delegated to Singapore to continue providing air navigation services for 25 years.

Mr Ngurah said it was not only the two leaders who shared great camaraderie – officials from the two governments did too.

“At one function, durian was only served at the table of the two leaders, but none at the other tables. So the ministers from both countries started crowding around their table and joked, ‘This is a lucky table, special table!’ The mood was very casual,” he added.

Such opportunities to banter and enjoy each other’s company are crucial, particularly amid tense global rivalries, Mr Ngurah said.

“The only real friends we have are each other. Whatever happens in Indonesia, whatever happens in Singapore, will have an impact on each other. That’s why it’s important for leaders to maintain very good relations, which will then be emulated by officials down the line,” he added.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Ngurah recalled helping to coordinate the delivery of personal protective equipment and masks from Singapore to Indonesia, and bedding for quarantine facilities from Indonesia to Singapore.

“This could only happen because at the top, the leaders have very good relations with each other,” he said.

When PM Lee’s father and founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew died in March 2015, both Dr Yudhoyono and Mr Widodo attended the wake.

The Indonesian diplomats expressed confidence that the bond between the two countries would continue to be solid even after PM Lee and Mr Widodo step down.

“Every leader has a role to play in strengthening relations.

“Building a relationship is just like building a house. Mr Lee Kuan Yew had laid the strong foundation for good Singapore-Indonesia relations. Mr Lee Hsien Loong had built strong walls and a roof,” said Mr Andri.

“Now, Mr Lawrence Wong will have to paint that house in the right colours to make it elegant, beautiful and comfortable,” he added. Mr Wong, who is Deputy Prime Minister, will take over from PM Lee on May 15.

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