Ukraine now and Timor Leste then: A feeling of déjà vu? (Lianhe Zaobao, 12 March 2022) - By Lim Jim Koon
Barely a month into the Year of the Tiger, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had been eyeing Ukraine with the hungry eyes of a tiger, finally struck and invaded the neighbouring country on February 24. Expecting a quick victory that would crush Ukraine and force it to its knees, Russia had instead met stiff resistance from the latter. As the war drags on, there is no telling how it would end. With families torn apart, heavy casualties and large numbers of displaced refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries, it is the ordinary Ukrainians who are suffering.
This was an act of aggression against another sovereign state without provocation, which violated the United Nations (UN) Charter and international law. Various countries condemned Russia’s actions and people from all over the world, including the Russian public, rose up in protest. In early March, the UN General Assembly held a special session and adopted a resolution to strongly condemn the Russian invasion and demand immediate withdrawal of its military forces from Ukraine with an overwhelming majority of 141 votes in favour, five against and 35 abstentions.
Singapore also took a clear stance against the invasion, with a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly condemning “any unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext” and stressing that the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine must be respected.
Apart from reiterating Singapore's position, Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, in a ministerial statement delivered in Parliament on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, also announced that Singapore would impose sanctions on Russia, including a ban on some banking and finance related transactions with Russia, as well as export controls on items that could be used directly as weapons in Ukraine to inflict harm or to subjugate the Ukrainians.
The Government's “unprecedentedly strong” stance drew negative reactions from some Singaporeans, who took to social media to further express their criticisms and disapproval. They questioned the Government: Even if Singapore wants to take a stand against aggression, do we have to be so high profile? As a small country, is it really necessary to stick our necks out? Do we really have to offend a great power in Russia? Is it worth it to offend a great power to please another?
Some “social media influencers” went so far as to seize the opportunity to mock and ridicule the Foreign Affairs Minister with their usual vitriol. Their sarcasm was echoed by many netizens who only received fragmented or inaccurate information on social media and accepted wholesale the one-sided online propaganda which they then liked and shared.
Singapore’s high-profile stance against a major power’s act of aggression not unprecedented
In fact, this is not the first time that Singapore, in a similar UN resolution, made a high-profile stand against a major power’s act of invasion and conspicuously “offended a major power”.
In 1975, shortly after Timor Leste, a small nation neighbouring Indonesia, declared its independence from Portuguese colonial rule, Indonesian President Suharto sent invading troops to forcibly occupy and annex it.
Indonesia’s actions were certainly a violation of the UN Charter and international law. In December that year, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that condemned Indonesia’s invasion of Timor Leste and demanded its immediate withdrawal. All the ASEAN nations supported Indonesia and voted against the resolution, except Singapore which broke ranks and abstained.
It must be noted that the Cold War was in full swing then and Indonesia had just ousted the pro-communist Sukarno government several years ago to become an “anti-communist stronghold” in Southeast Asia. Principle and morality gave way to interest and benefit, and nations such as the US, Japan, Australia and Canada were sympathetic, or at least ambiguous, towards Indonesia.
Therefore, under those circumstances, although Singapore had only abstained (it would have been inconceivable to vote in support of the resolution), its “anti-invasion” stance towards Indonesia at the UN was particularly “high-profile” and even extraordinary. This considerably annoyed Indonesia, a neighbouring large nation!
By contrast, the extent of Singapore’s “offending” Indonesia in the Timor Leste incident is no less severe than “offending” Russia over its invasion of Ukraine today.
After all, in 1968, Singapore had despite President Suharto's plea, proceeded to execute the two marines who were convicted for carrying out a bomb attack in Singapore and killing three people during Konfrontasi. This caused relations between the two countries to deteriorate sharply and even sparked serious anti-Singapore demonstrations and riots in Indonesia. It took five years for bilateral relations to return to normal in 1973. Personal ties between founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and President Suharto were restored, and they frequently met, including "four-eye meetings".
Little did we know that Singapore's abstention from voting just two years later would lead to another cold spell in bilateral relations, bringing it to a slump for the second time. Recounting this incident in his memoirs, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965–2000, the late Mr Lee wrote: “Indonesia’s army leaders boycotted our receptions in Jakarta for Singapore Armed Forces Day and National Day. Our counsellor in Jakarta reported that several generals said Suharto had been more angered than over the hanging of the two marines.”
Hence, Singapore's anti-aggression stance at the UN then had seriously offended a strong and friendly neighbour, and we paid the price for it. Mr Lee recounted that it was only one year later, when President Suharto made an unofficial visit to Singapore in November 1976, that their personal ties were restored. Mr Lee told President Suharto that Singapore accepted East Timor as a part of Indonesia but could not publicly endorse the latter's invasion and occupation. President Suharto had no choice but to accept Singapore’s principled diplomatic stance.
Mr Lee said in his memoirs: “If we had voted with Indonesia, we would have sent the world a wrong signal about our own security.”
Be it from Timor Leste then to Ukraine now, it can thus be seen that Singapore's stance has always been principled and consistent as this concerns our own survival.
This point is made obvious in Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Ministerial Statement in Parliament, as well as Singapore's Permanent Representative to the UN, Burhan Galfoor's speech at the emergency special session of the UN General Assembly. Both of them emphasised that Singapore cannot accept one country attacking another without justification by arguing that its independence was the result of “historical errors and crazy decisions”. Neither can we accept such a rationale as this would go against the internationally recognised legitimacy and the territorial integrity of many countries, including Singapore. This is why Singapore strongly condemns unjustified acts of invasion against a sovereign state under any circumstances.
Note here that “historical errors and crazy decisions” is a key term that is of vital relevance to Singapore's survival. If we do not clearly express our stance now, can we still expect support from the international community if in future some other country invades Singapore for the very same reason that our independence was a “historical error and crazy decision”?
Given that this is a significant matter of principle, we would in effect, as what Mr Lee had referred to, have “sent the world a wrong signal” should we not express our strong condemnation towards such unjustified acts of invasion.
Some Singaporeans have criticised the Government for choosing to side with the US and going against Singapore's commitment to not take sides in the face of great power politics. However, they have evidently misunderstood what it actually means to "take sides", which is to ally with one side and stand against the other. Singapore's condemnation and sanctioning of Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine is not targeted at Russia specifically, but instead based on the facts of the situation at hand.
Ukraine today is, of course, a far cry from Timor Leste back then. Timor Leste, which had just emerged from colonial rule, was weak, defenceless and had no support from major powers. Even if it did not provoke Indonesia, it still could not escape its fate of subjugation. Ukraine today, however, does have other avenues and options, as well as plenty of time and room for negotiation. It could have avoided this war if it had managed its diplomacy properly.
In fact, as early as eight years ago, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had advised the Ukrainian government not to join NATO. One of the key reasons that triggered the war between Russia and Ukraine was precisely the latter's insistence in doing so.
In a Washington Post article published on March 5, 2014, Mr Kissinger shared his views on the Ukrainian crisis then. He opined that if Ukraine wanted to survive and thrive, it should not choose between the West and the East or become an "outpost" that opposes the other side. Instead, it should function as a "bridge" that connects both sides and not join NATO. Russia must accept that to try to force Ukraine into a satellite status and thereby move Russia's again would doom Moscow to repeat its history of self-fulfilling cycles of reciprocal pressures with Europe and the US, he added. At the same time, he reminded Western countries that they must understand that to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country, as it had been part of Russia for centuries and their histories are intertwined.
Believe it or not, this was simply awakening! Unfortunately, Mr Kissinger's golden words have neither been heeded by Ukraine nor by Russia and the West, and now, there is no turning back!
As a sovereign state, Ukraine definitely has the right to decide its foreign policies and pick its allies. But it also has the responsibility to ensure that its decisions are not at the expense of others. Ukraine should carefully consider and assess the situation, as well as apply wisdom to formulate foreign policies which are truly “sustainable”. It is definitely unwise for Ukraine to wishfully hope to join NATO, as it causes its strong neighbour to be on tenterhooks, worried about the threat to its security and the possibility of leaving itself open to attacks.
Incidentally, in the early days of Putin’s rule, Russia also applied to join NATO several times, but was rejected. Russia’s move was out of national interest as it hoped to eliminate security concerns once and for all. In a similar vein, Russia’s attack on Ukraine today was also for its national interest. In fact, in this war between Russia and Ukraine, the actions of big powers such as Russia, the US and China are all for their own national interests. As long as it is aligned with their own interests, anything can be sugar-coated as "justice".
Hence, Singaporeans should also spare more thought for our nation’s interests. It would be silly and naive to blindly accept foreign propaganda and believe in the sugar-coated “justice” of other countries, which in fact serve their own interests.
Now back to Timor Leste. It was only after annexation that Indonesia found that this easy prey was not so easy to govern, and over the next two decades or so, there were constant protests and the fight for independence in Timor Leste that left about 100,000 to 200,000 dead. It was not until August 30, 1999, that Timor Leste had the opportunity to hold a referendum under UN's supervision, in which an overwhelming majority voted for independence from Indonesia.
Still, Indonesia refused to relent and its military worked with anti-independence forces to back militias in launching a massive scorched earth campaign that nearly destroyed all infrastructure in Timor Leste. The violence only ended with the intervention of international peacekeeping forces on 20 September 1999. After two and a half years of UN-assisted administration, Timor Leste officially regained its independence in May 2002.
Poor Timor Leste has, because of Indonesia’s annexation, sacrificed 27 years of precious time, and suffered a huge loss of lives and property. With the people plunged into an abyss of misery and the country sapped of its vitality, Timor Leste remains a poor and backward country to date! Must this be the inevitable fate of small countries?
Is it really possible for Russia to conquer a much more powerful Ukraine, when even a huge country like Indonesia (with a population of 273.5 million in 2020) cannot stomach a small country like Timor Leste (with a population of 1.138 million in 2020) and have to “spit it out” after 20 years of annexation?
Given the strong resistance from the Ukrainian government and its people, it seems that even if Russia does occupy Ukraine one day, the never-ending resistance and acts of sabotage by guerrilla forces will be a continuing nightmare for the Russian occupation forces. Like the US in Vietnam then and its predecessor, the Soviet Union, in Afghanistan, Russia may well be trapped in the quagmire that is Ukraine for the long term.
Why do we never learn from the lessons of the past?
(The writer is the former Editor-in-Chief of Lianhe Zaobao.)