Hard times ahead for a politically divided Timor-Leste (East Asia Forum)

Timor-Leste started 2018 in political chaos and ended the year with a return to the confrontational politics of the past. Cooperation between the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) and the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), which had together run the country since 2015 under a ‘government of national unity’, was shattered following the July 2017 elections.


The aftermath of the elections saw Timor-Leste enter 2018 with a majority opposition alliance, which blocked the minority Fretilin government’s budget and called on President Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres to install it in office. Guterres — who is also President of Fretilin and was elected with key cross-party support in the final months of the government of national unity — refused. Instead, he called fresh elections for May 2018.

The 2018 elections returned the opposition Alliance of Change for Progress (AMP) coalition — comprised of the CRNT, the People’s Liberation Party and the Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nasional Timor Oan (or KHUNTO) — as the new government. But following allegations of corruption against eight proposed ministers, Guterres refused to swear them in.

Three other proposed ministers refused to be sworn in as a show of support for their colleagues, leaving Timor-Leste without ministers of finance, health and natural resources, among others. Guterres also refused to enact the government’s proposed 2019 budget. The government in turn refused to approve a visit by Guterres to the Vatican, saying that domestic matters took precedence.

Guterres’ rejection of the budget reflected his concern over Timor-Leste’s financial sustainability and opposition to the government’s use of central bank funds to further its ambitious Tasi Mane development project. The government required an unavailable two-thirds majority to overrule the President’s veto.

The government intended to establish a liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing plant on Timor-Leste’s Tasi Mane south coast to kick-start a petrochemical industry that could provide jobs and income into the country’s future. But the Greater Sunrise joint venture partners, who hold the rights to develop the energy reserves, rejected the proposal as unfeasible. A major issue was the plan to build a 150-kilometre undersea pipeline, which would have had to cross the deep-sea Timor Trough.

The Timor-Leste government spent US$350 million in October 2018 to purchase ConocoPhillips’ 30 per cent stake in Greater Sunrise. And in late November, an agreement was reached for the government to buy Royal Dutch Shell’s 26.56 per cent stake for US$300 million, bringing the government’s total holding in the project to 56.56 per cent.

Yet Timor-Leste’s 2005 Petroleum Activities Law restricts the state to a maximum of 20 per cent equity in the project. Timor-Leste may need to sell some of its stake to a new partner, possibly from China or South Korea.

The remaining Greater Sunrise partners, Woodside Petroleum and Osaka Gas, oppose the idea of a south coast processing facility. If the plan is to proceed, this could leave the roughly US$5 billion cost of development to the Timor-Leste government, or to new partners.

The government’s purchase of a stake in Greater Sunrise followed the establishment of a permanent maritime boundary between Australia and Timor-Leste in March 2018. The agreement allocated 70 per cent of the revenue from Greater Sunrise to Timor-Leste if the LNG is processed there, or 80 per cent if it is processed at an offshore facility.

Processing the LNG onshore is a key ambition of government Special Representative Xanana Gusmao, who was the country’s first president and second prime minister. As Timor-Leste’s key political figure, Gusmao coordinated opposition to the former Fretilin government and brought together the parties of the 2018 AMP government.

The governments that Gusmao led or effectively controlled since 2007 have withdrawn well beyond sustainable amounts from the country’s US$17 billion sovereign wealth fund — the Petroleum Fund. Successive budgets have spent between two and three times the sustainable limit, meaning the government has drawn on capital as well as interest from the fund.

Income into the fund is reducing as oil fields in the Timor Sea dry up, with the last field expected to close by 2022. The Petroleum Fund currently pays for 95 per cent of all state activities, which in turn supports more than 70 per cent of all economic activity. Yet at current rates of government spending, the Petroleum Fund will be fully depleted before the end of the 2020s. This outlook has led to — and in turn, is exacerbated by — the government’s push to gamble on investing in Greater Sunrise and the Tasi Mane project.

The high cost of this development set against a limited financial reserve and its questionable prospects of success have motivated Fretilin and the incumbent Guterres to be more financially cautious. Meanwhile, historical disputes between Gusmao and the three parties he was able to bring into alliance against Fretilin continue to mark their relations, only compounded by increasingly stark differences in their approach to how best secure Timor-Leste’s challenged future.

Damien Kingsbury is Personal Chair and Professor of International Politics at Deakin University.

Singapore’s leadership one step ahead (East Asia Forum)

After years of winnowing through candidates, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has anointed Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as his successor. Back in 2016 there were six candidates for the role but one by one they were removed from contention, mostly by mechanisms in the form of gifts from the Prime Minister. One of the stronger candidates, for instance, was unexpectedly made Speaker of the House, which put him out of contention.


There is no formal process of selection and the decisions are made behind closed doors, with narratives about the selection process generated retrospectively. The trigger for the final declaration of Heng Swee Keat as the designated successor was his election to the rather obscure position of First Assistant Secretary-General of the ruling People’s Action Party. This election was initially greeted as an indicator that Heng Swee Keat was merely the front runner to be next prime minister but in the space of a day it morphed into a declaration of succession.

Heng Swee Keat was already known to be Lee Hsien Loong’s favourite even before 2016. When Heng Swee Keat suffered a stroke during a Cabinet meeting in May 2016 and spent six days in a coma, it was universally accepted as being a blow to Lee Hsien Loong’s succession plans. Only extreme medical intervention saved Heng Swee Keat’s career and brought him back into contention. Since then, the process of selecting the next prime minister has suffered unexplained delays. Now we know why the delay was necessary: to give Heng Swee Keat a chance to settle doubts about his health, while the other candidates were dropped.

Heng Swee Keat was never an obvious candidate. He has a relatively narrow range of Cabinet and professional experience and is a rather awkward public speaker. No one doubts his technocratic competence, nor that he will be ‘a safe pair of hands’ but few, if any, suggest that he has strong political skills. So why did Lee Hsien Loong endorse Heng Swee Keat ahead of younger, stronger and healthier candidates with better political instincts?

The question is easier to answer if we begin by asking who will be the next prime minister after Heng Swee Keat. Lee Hsien Loong’s son, Li Hongyi, is currently a senior civil servant working in one of the divisions of the Prime Ministers’ Office and has been identified by his close relatives as harbouring political ambitions. Li Hongyi denies that he wants to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps but he and his mother have been carefully cultivating his media and social media profiles as one would for an aspiring politician. Rumours are now circulating that he will enter parliament at the next General Election in 2020.

Lee Hsien Loong is 66 and indicated he would like to step down by age 70, which would make Heng Swee Keat about 61 when he becomes prime minister. If his health holds up, Heng Swee Keat can expect to enjoy a decade or perhaps longer as prime minister, by which time Li Hongyi would be 45 to 50 — an acceptable age for a prime ministerial aspirant.

Granted that any of the six original candidates would have met the basic threshold of political and administrative competence, the attraction of Heng Swee Keat is his age, health record and ordinary communication skills. In short, he is not likely to disturb a succession plan by overstaying his welcome — as did former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, who was supposed to be a stop gap between Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong but persisted in the job for 14 years.

The main risk of the Heng Swee Keat succession is that it leaves the government with a prime minister who has no record of being an effective politician (as opposed to an effective administrator) at a time when a number of political red flags have surfaced.

The most serious institutional issue is the government’s recent declaration that Housing and Development Board flats will have nil value at the end of their 99 year leases and at that point will revert to the government without compensation. This is a particularly uncomfortable issue because about 80 per cent of Singaporeans ‘own’ their flats and regard them as their main financial asset. The government has also spent decades talking up their values. Now it turns out that devaluing flats is part of its plan.

The government is not going to lose the next election but it does not like to leave anything to chance. In the absence of good political instincts and a mediocre record of administrative achievements, the Cabinet has upscaled the intensity of its repressive actions throughout 2018, continuing a trajectory that has been developing for several years.

This may be satisfactory as a short-term measure to retain control but it is not a great way to launch a new round of change in government, nor to lay the groundwork for the following generation.

Michael D. Barr is Associate Professor of International Relations at Flinders University and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.


Curbing radical sermons in Indonesia (East Asia Forum)

Indonesia’s national intelligence agency (BIN) revealed in November 2018 that 41 mosques connected to government institutions and state-owned enterprises conduct sermons laced with extremist advocacy. The discovery was part of a survey by the Nahdlatul Ulama Islamic Boarding School and Community Development Association (P3M NU), which identified as many as 500 mosques suspected of radicalising worshippers.


The advancement of radical messages in formal institutions in Indonesia is not new. Several studies have uncovered support for subversive Islamist organisations and militant preaching within state university mosques in recent years. The Indonesian government is falling short in addressing the problem on campuses, and the new revelations may further test its willingness and ability to intervene.

Faith-based intolerance in Indonesia has been in the spotlight since the bitter campaign for the April 2017 gubernatorial elections in the special administrative region of Jakarta. The incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, was accused and later prosecuted for a comment he made during a campaign speech that was deemed blasphemous.

When anger began to swirl following the widespread circulation of the offending speech, fiery rhetoric increasingly imbued mosque sermons throughout the country. Once Ahok received a prison sentence for his words, the fanaticism did not appear to simmer down.

In an attempt to counter this wave of toxic discourse, the Ministry of Religious Affairs released a list of 200 preachers in May 2018 who they accredit with having deep knowledge of Islam and adhering to the founding values of the Indonesian Republic. Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin stressed that the initial list was merely a first step toward a larger database of endorsements, and that the ministry will work together with the Indonesia Ulama Council and Islamic community organisations to perfect the system.

The ministry also re-emphasised the obligation for preachers to read government-issued sermon guidebooks, especially the sections on love for one’s country and national identity. The general public was also encouraged to report any subversive or intolerant messages being spread in local mosques.

Criticism of the state-sanctioned preacher list was swift. A number of lawmakers and religious scholars asked if the directory meant that anyone who didn’t make the cut was either incompetent or extremist. Among the sceptics was Indonesian Vice President and Chair of the Indonesian Mosque Council (DMI) Jusuf Kalla, who recently convened a meeting with the DMI board to draw up plans for devising a new set of guidelines for preachers.

For their part, the Indonesian National Police (Polri) followed up on the P3M NU report by mapping and profiling the identified mosques, and by committing to cooperation with relevant agencies such as the Ministry of Religious Affairs and local governments. The Polri are also conducting a campaign to raise awareness among communities about the dangers of extremism and the possibility of legal action being taken against preachers who are proven to deliver sermons with radical messages.

Yet some politicians question the report’s veracity. Members from the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) argue that BIN has overestimated the problem and blown it out of proportion. Members of the House of Representatives and the Expert Council of the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals suggest that because the information submitted by BIN was a PBNU finding, it could harbour political intentions aimed at cornering certain parties — particularly in the lead up to general elections in April 2019.

This politicisation of BIN’s revelations is unfortunate and potentially dangerous. Indonesia has been experiencing a notable rise in levels of publicly expressed intolerance in recent years — from ostracism of religious minorities and violence toward LGBT communities to strict interpretations of correct religious practice and intense scrutiny on adherence. The nation has also witnessed an upsurge in violence from those who support foreign terrorist organisations and seek to establish a caliphate in Southeast Asia.

Downplaying the sobering discovery that several hundred mosques may be proliferating extremist arguments is most likely itself a political move to appeal to the religiously conservative bases of PAN and PKS. It may even represent a broader strategy to adapt existing norms toward greater accommodation of hard-line religious views and exclusivism.

Government officials at both central and regional levels should keep in mind the principles of Indonesia’s national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (unity in diversity) when considering how societal values may be evolving. As a pluralistic country with a diverse array of ethnic groups and six official religions, state institutions need to ensure harmony by ironing out threats to national unity while maintaining freedom of speech.

Recent initiatives suggest that some government officials and agencies may be serious about reining in those who preach bigotry and contempt. Time will tell whether such efforts can weather the resistance.

Yuslikha K Wardhani is a Researcher at the Research Center of Police Science and Terrorism Studies, School of Strategic and Global studies, University of Indonesia.

Cameron Sumpter is an Associate Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security, a constituent unit of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.