The Shorter End of the Stick: Indonesia-Singapore Bilateral Agreements

Bilateral meeting between President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in January 2022. Credit: Laily Rachev – Biro Pers Sekretariat President.


In January this year, Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met to formalize three agreements at once. These are the Extradition Treaty (ET), the Flight Information Region (FIR) and the Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA).

In each of these agreements, only one country would be favored (i.e., one country would get the shorter end of the stick). Notably, though signed individually, the three agreements should not be deemed as separate issues. The DCA and the FIR are seen to be beneficial to Singapore while Indonesia should find the ET a valuable gain. In light of this lopsidedness, a closer look at these agreements reveals how they would prove costly to Indonesia’s strategic interests and sovereignty.

Ironically, similar reasons were cited in 2007 for the failure of the Indonesian government and Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (House of Representatives – DPR) to ratify the DCA agreement. This led to the agreement to be put on hold (or cancelled). However, on 28 November 2022, the same DCA agreement was once again tabled for scrutiny by the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Law and DPR. This time, it looks like both the government and DPR would ink the agreement as the majority parliamentary seats are dominated by the governing regime. This article examines why Indonesia will be the losing party once these agreements are ratified.

Why the ET is Valuable to Indonesia

Indonesia needs an ET with Singapore since many heavyweight criminals have escaped to Singapore to evade court proceedings. Fugitives such as Harun Masiku, Djoko Tjandra, Nazaruddin, Nunun Nurbaeti, Gayus Tambunan, Eddy Sindoro and Paulus Tannos are among those who have sought sanctuary in Singapore as they wait for an opportunity to return unpunished.

Aside from corruption cases, the treaty also covers numerous kinds of crime including money laundering, bribery, banking, narcotics, terrorism, and terrorism financing. The retroactive feature of the agreement enables law enforcement in both countries to apprehend perpetrators who committed the crime as far back as 18 years ago. The reality is that there have been more Indonesian criminals who fled to Singapore than vice versa. Additionally, it is important for Indonesia to bring these criminals responsible for causing a loss of billions if not trillions of Rupiah to the country. Through the ET, it is hoped that Indonesia can retrieve these stolen funds back into its national treasury. Collectively, the ratification of the ET would be more advantageous to Indonesia than Singapore.

Questions Surrounding the FIR

The FIR represents Indonesia’s desire to take over aviation control over its airspace from Singapore. It is known that Indonesia’s airspace above the Riau Islands and parts of Sumatra is controlled by Singapore. Such foreign control is common practice internationally after assessments by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)

The FIR agreement signed by Indonesia and Singapore will partially turn over the control of Singapore’s FIR to Jakarta’s, specifically the space over 37,000 feet. In other words, the space between 0 – 36,999 feet is still under Singapore’s FIR control. The service cost of flights flying within Singapore’s aviation control will be paid to Indonesia too as compensation for flying over Indonesia’s territory. This payment mechanism, which replaces the previous one signed in 1995, will benefit Indonesia according to the Indonesian government.

However, those advantages seem to diminish if the agreement is examined closely. Currently, most civil flights from which service costs can be generated usually operate between 35,000 – 36,000 feet. In other words, there is not much point in having control of the sky over 37,000 feet because planes have to maintain fuel efficiency as well as avoid traffic, hazard, bad weather and turbulence which can only be achieved at the aforementioned altitude range. Additionally, the fee Singapore pays to Indonesia for operating at this altitude will be lower compared to the fee the latter would be entitled to if the airspace is under the direct control of Indonesia.

Additionally, the agreement also demands Indonesian airplanes on disaster relief operation to report to the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore if they fly within Singapore’s FIR. Worse still, the FIR agreement will remain in place for 25 years and contains no clause for termination.

According to the chief of Badan Keamanan Laut Republik Indonesia (Coast Guard – Bakamla), the FIR agreement will impede maritime security operations as Bakamla’s fleets usually patrol with the assistance of air support, including drones. As operations in the airspace must be reported, Singapore will be in the know of all kinds of activity in the airspace by Indonesian units. A similar situation is highly likely for Indonesian military forces.

Despite these disadvantages, the Indonesian government has accepted these conditions. This is because the FIR agreement is considered a successful implementation of the 2009 Aviation Act. The Act instructs the government to take over control of its aviation service within 15 years after it is passed (i.e. latest by 2024). Before the term expires, the government has the right to delegate control to other countries based on any previous agreements. This has been presented to the domestic audience as a success story of Jokowi’s administration to regulate air transportation, especially with the end of his term looming on the horizon. The government’s portrayal of the FIR as a success can be argued to be irrelevant as Singapore will continue to exert influence and control over Indonesia’s airspace, for both civil and military aviation. Several have expressed that the FIR is more than aviation safety since the sovereignty aspect of the agreement is also quite palpable. Notably, unlike the other two agreements, the FIR agreement will not need parliamentary ratification. This is because the Indonesian government considers it merely as an aviation safety agreement that is sufficiently regulated by Peraturan President (Presidential Regulation, Perpres).

Problematic Package

In 2007, the Singaporean government questioned the Indonesian government’s determination to ratify the ET and the DCA (plus Implementing Arrangements [IA] of military training area) following a deadlock between the Indonesian government and DPR. Several DPR members wanted to ratify the ET but not the DCA as the latter was considered an infringement on Indonesia’s sovereignty.

Subsequently, Indonesia requested Singapore “to make substantive changes to the IAs after the main agreements had been signed.” Such request was considered a lack of commitment from Indonesia as Singapore subsequently regarded that “future negotiations with Indonesia, or with any other country for that matter, difficult if not impossible because there would be no finality even after an agreement had been reached.”

The coupling of the ET and DCA agreements has also proved problematic for Indonesia. Singapore had occasionally assisted Indonesia with extraditions such as the cases of La Nyalla Mattalitti (former Indonesia’s football association chairman) and Hartawan Aluwi (businessman convicted of white-collar crimes) in 2017. Their cases highlighted extradition was possible without the ET agreement being ratified by DPR albeit out of goodwill.

However, an extradition request by Indonesia in 2017 was rejected despite appeals. The Singaporean authority rejected the notion on the basis that the ET was still pending as DPR had not ratified it whereas “Singapore is ready to proceed with both agreements (the ET and the DCA) once Indonesia is ready to do so.”

In international law, it is unheard of to treat treaty documents between two countries as inseparable. But it would be in the political interests of both Indonesia and Singapore to consider these agreements as a package. Such packaging, however, could create complications in downstream ratification. Having to ratify one good deal and two bad deals, for example, would be difficult for parliament of each country to pass through.

Nevertheless, the decision to package the agreements together was made by both countries. Both countries deem the outcome of such packaging as appropriately servicing their respective national interests. The ET is clearly counted a gain for Indonesia while the FIR can be framed by the Indonesian government as beneficial despite questions surrounding its value. It is possible for Indonesia to gain the most advantage were it not for the DCA, which constitutes the third aspect of the package. As the next section explores, the loophole in the DCA seems to be neglected by the Indonesian government.

The DCA – A Loss to Indonesia?

The Indonesian Air Force claimed that Singapore is the second top violator of the Indonesian airspace after Australia. This is understandable as Singapore only has limited aerial area in which its air force can operate. The downside of this is that the Indonesian authority cannot do anything about inevitable offenses by Singaporean air force.

In general, DCA usually regulates the general cooperation points between two parties. In this Indonesia-Singapore DCA, both countries have agreed to conduct several joint exercises, intelligence information sharing, regular bilateral strategic dialogues and other personnel development activities. The activities would enable the Singaporean military to utilize its counterpart’s vast operational areas.

From Singapore’s perspective, this DCA could legalize what it has been doing and expand what it can do to neighboring aerial areas. Conversely, Indonesia views this DCA as an opportunity to regulate and pressure Singapore to respect Indonesia’s airspace. Nevertheless, it is worth the wait to see whether Singapore would really respect the agreement. The area of military practice that Singapore demands is as follows:

Source: Red & White Publishing/Chappy Hakim

Referring to the map, Alpha-1, Alpha-2 and Bravo are busy areas where civilian ships sail through the Malacca Strait and where local fishermen operate. These areas are also where the underwater wires are installed and offshore platforms are located, not to mention their proximity to the natural conservation regions such as Marine Geopark Natuna dan Anambas Conservation Area (areas designated as Alpha-1, Alpha-2 and Bravo in the map above).

As these important activities surround the areas that Singapore wishes to control, it may be a disservice for Indonesia to give up such vulnerable locations for military training that uses live ammunitions. It would be worse if the use of guided missiles by Singapore’s military is allowed with Indonesia authority’s consent or otherwise.

Both countries may also be giving up valuable information to each other albeit potentially one-sided. Such information includes the underwater contours in these areas which could be mapped for submarine routes. Notably, the DCA explicitly prohibits the divulging of such sensitive information to others.

From the author’s knowledge, negative sentiments on the DCA arose as there remains the perception among Indonesian military that the Singaporean military continues to claim the Indonesian territory for their operation areas even though the 1996-2001 agreement between the two had expired. During this period, even Indonesia’s fighter jets inside Indonesian airspace were pushed away by Singapore with the latter insisting that its measures were regulated legally under the bilateral agreement.

All that Indonesia could do to minimize its loss is to create a tight IA on which the whole technical operation will be based. As explained by the Indonesian government during the ratification process, Indonesia and Singapore military will set the IA to ensure details of the agreement are regulated. Experts argued that the IA should at least include: 1) the scope of the cooperation; 2) the limit of the authority given up to Singapore; 3) the specific geographical areas used for Singapore’s military exercises; 4) the protection of confidential information from this agreement; 5) budgeting of activities conducted by both parties; 6) dispute settlement if problems arise in the future and; 7) host’s consent if the user invites other external parties.  

These points are meant to prevent potential negative implications of the agreement, such as preventing environmental damages, affecting fishermen’s activities, the use of dangerous weapons and the entry of unwanted parties. Unfortunately, the IA will only be negotiated closed door. There are no formal regulations in Indonesia forcing the Ministry of Defense and Indonesian Military to discuss its terms with DPR. Hence, any weak negotiation points will not be revealed publicly until the factual destructions and damages take place in the future.

Moreover, the DCA between Indonesia and Singapore might ring a bell for Beijing as this agreement could be perceived as the West’s attempt to balance China’s rise through Singapore. If the Singaporean military invites other countries to conduct joint exercises in the designated area of Indonesia’s territory, those external parties could tread across and around the nine-dash-line. Such military activities might be considered a direct threat by Beijing to its territorial claim. The geopolitical implications of the DCA have to be anticipated by Indonesia too as the country has positioned itself not to pick any side in the Indo-Pacific power competition.  

Even though Singapore and China initiated a closer defense agreement in 2019, recent Singapore’s condemnation to Russia’s invasion to Ukraine might reveal Singapore’s geopolitical leaning. However, more studies should be conducted to assess the wider strategic implication that Singapore will have with Indonesia in the context of Indo-Pacific political contestation through the DCA.

The DCA was ratified in DPR on 6 December 2022 and it revealed the weakness of the Indonesian government. Minister of Defence Prabowo Subianto, who is popular for his strong nationalism and die-hard stance to protect national sovereignty, seems resigned to accept the DCA. In the end, the DCA is packaged simply as an opportunity for Indonesia to develop good relations with Singapore. However, the issue around the DCA is also considered a stage for Prabowo to exercise his strong “presidential” capacity before an international audience. It is true that the DCA explicitly states that both countries could have military activities around their area equitably, but having considered the tiny aerial territory that Singapore has compared to extensive Indonesia’s air, Indonesia obviously has more to give than Singapore does.


Indonesia will suffer a great loss if this package of agreements comes into force, though it is only a matter of time before this happens. While the DCA has been approved officially by the DPR, the ET will follow as it has been scheduled in mid-December this year.

Using football terms, in hindsight, if the package of agreements was concluded in 2007, the final result of the diplomatic negotiation match between Indonesia and Singapore would be 1-1. Indonesia could get one point out of the ET and Singapore could gain one from the DCA. However, the 2022 agreements would only deliver a defeat to Indonesia as the country would only get a single point from the ET while its counterpart scores points from the DCA and the FIR.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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