Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono are great friends, but that does not always keep them from expressing different points of view.
Timor Leste’s application for membership in ASEAN has become a source of difference between Indonesia and Singapore over the last several years, with Yudhoyono showing strong support while Lee expressing firm rejection.
The contention emerged again during the ASEAN leaders’ retreat summit here on Thursday.
As Yudhoyono explained issues he hoped would be included in the chairman’s statement for the summit, Lee interrupted when the discussion touched on the issue of whether ASEAN should consider the application of Timor Leste.
According to an ASEAN official attending the retreat, Lee raised questions regarding why Timor Leste was on the agenda and what was so special about the country, adding that Fiji and Papua New Guinea also expressed interest but had never received genuine attention.
Lee continued by questioning whether Timor Leste had met the six requirements enshrined in the ASEAN Charter for a country to become a member of the regional block.
Yudhoyono replied: “I respect your view, but I also have my own.”
In the end, Timor Leste’s application was included in the chairman’s statement, with ASEAN leaders welcoming the nation’s interest and formal application to join ASEAN.
“We task the ASEAN Coordinating Council [ACC], including through the establishment of a working group to discuss all relevant aspects related to the application. The working group shall make recommendations to the ACC on the application based on whether Timor Leste is able to meet the requirements of Article 6 of the ASEAN Charter,” the statement read.
Timor Leste submitted its revised proposal of formal application for full membership in the bloc to the current ASEAN chair, Indonesia, on Tuesday.
Timor Leste’s application had always faced challenges from Singapore, which has argued that the country would hinder ASEAN’s moves toward a regional community by 2015. Singapore’s objections to Timor Leste’s membership request are based largely on the development gap between the country and ASEAN member states overall, which it fears would make the region’s economic integration by 2015 more difficult.
However, during the foreign ministers meeting on Wednesday, foreign ministers from Cambodia and Malaysia directly questioned Singapore’s insistence on rejecting Timor Leste’s bid, saying that they supported the renewed application and there was no reason not to review it based on the declaration.
Timor Leste was a Portuguese colony from the 16th century until its decolonization in late 1975 when then-East Timor declared its independence. Later that year it was invaded by Indonesia.
Following a UN-sponsored act of self-determination in 1999, Indonesia relinquished control of the territory and Timor Leste became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century on May 20, 2002.
Several experts have agreed that Indonesia’s move in pushing for the admittance of Timor Leste to the bloc reflects ASEAN’s maturity and shows that ASEAN belongs to all Southeast Asian nations despite their economic differences.