Newly-elected Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta will meet with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Tuesday as he is attempting to seek Indonesia’s support in multiple areas, including a full backing for a membership within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and enhancing economic cooperation, as he is steering his country toward progress and prosperity.
His programs in the Indonesian capital include meetings with former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and several other former officials, Indonesian businesspeople, intellectual and media, chairpersons of both Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, the country’s two biggest Islamic organizations, and then paying a visit to ASEAN Secretariat, and speaking in front of students of University of Indonesia and State Islamic University (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah in Ciputat.
Timor-Leste is still the region’s least developed country, falling behind its Southeast Asian peers in term economic and human capital development. It still lags behind in term of diversifying national income sources, still relying heavily on its oil fund for its national financing.
The triple shocks of COVID-19, Tropical Seroja and then Russian invasion into Ukraine have further dampened Timor-Leste’s capacity to allocate its resources to enhance its human capital and diversifying its economy and sources of income. But there is no other way for Timor-Leste to go forward: it must allocate any resources it can to educate its people, make them more skillful, and hopefully then, more creative, productive and innovative.
Ramos-Horta, however, has managed to keep Timor-Leste’s political situation calm in his two months as a president, fending off temptation to take extreme move, such as dissolving the parliament, and thus avoiding unnecessary political turbulence and power play, and direct confrontation with Fretilin, the country’s biggest political party, that could negatively impact his efforts of fixing Timor-Leste’s condition, and instead focus on what matters.
The Case for Timor-Leste’s ASEAN Membership: It’s Necessary & Natural
In a meeting in early 2000s then Singapore’s Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told Ramos-Horta, then Foreign Minister of Timor-Leste, to go back home to first bolster his country’s human resources after the latter asked Singapore’s support for the newly-independent nation to enter the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as its 11th member before they could meet and discuss that ASEAN membership application again.
Now, it’s almost 20 years since the meeting, and Timor-Leste has been trying to do what it could. And Ramos-Horta has been giving opportunity for others to govern in this 1.7 billion dollar economy, one of the reasons why Timor-Leste has been emerging as one of Asia’s most democratic nations. Unfortunately, those years of political wrangling have been a wasted time otherwise should have been used for laying foundation for the nation to move further.
Despite the fact that Timor-Leste is still falling behind the region in term of economic development and human capital Goh Chok Tong was talking about, it’s just wrong to use it as a reason to reject the nation as a member of ASEAN.
We mean, we get what Goh means. It’s in fact a wise advice that Timor-Leste must prioritize developing its human capital as Singapore has shown to the world. No country in the world, especially as small and natural resource poor as Timor-Leste, can survive without having smart, creative and educated people. Also, we get the reason behind Singapore’s reluctance to accept lesser developed Timor-Leste because it will slow down the integration, especially economic integration, an area that becomes Singapore’s interests.
But there are several reasons that it’s just a fallacy to only consider economic factor in this regard.
First, from the beginning ASEAN was not meant as an economic grouping. It has three pillars: politic and security, economic and socio-cultural. The acceptance of the later members, such as Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, was never about economy. Above all, it was about avoiding conflict among countries in the region. It was always also about proximity and sense of unity, and of course, it’s about fending off communism in the region in the height of the Cold War.
And talking about proximity, it’s a fact that Timor-Leste is located within Southeast Asia. It’s Timor-Leste’s natural right to be included in the grouping in this part of the world as long as it applies and is willing to accept and fulfill obligations a a member.
Secondly, there are already big gaps among ASEAN members in term of economic development, political ideologies and system of governance — ranging from less democratic to full democratic. Accepting a tiny country such as Timor-Leste with 1.3 million people will not block development of bigger and more advanced economy, like Singapore, let alone other less developed economies like Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.
Talking about democracy, the inclusion of Timor-Leste, one of Asia’s most democratic nations, actually adds values to the whole grouping by enhancing its democracy image in time when more senior members like Myanmar and Thailand have been ruled by a military regime for quite some time and Cambodia owns a leader for life in Hun Sen, and the Philippines has been changed hands from one dictator to another.
Thirdly, while there are certainly indexes to measure human capital and economic development, it’s certainly difficult to decide up to where a country like Timor-Leste achieve a human capital index and economic development level that satisfy an ASEAN membership. ASEAN Charter itself does include these factors as requirements.
There are only three requirements: proximity, adherence to and signing of ASEAN’s rules and regulations, and last but not least, unanimous agreement from the 10 current members. This is where each member counts as the decision can’t be made without the consent of all members.
If ASEAN elites can accept Myanmar, the grouping source of global humiliation for its human rights records, and killings of civilians, why can’t they take in Timor Leste, one of Asia’s most democratic nations?
Isn’t it ironic?
US-China Rivalry: Geo-Strategic Value of Timor-Leste Membership
The resumption of Cold-War type of rivalry between US and China in Southeast Asia has created condition that Timor-Leste’s ASEAN membership can’t be delayed any longer. China has been very aggressive in its relations with Timor-Leste, while Ramos-Horta has highly valued its country’s relations with China, expressing his commitment in his inaugural speech to further enhance ties with China in defense and security sector.
ASEAN countries can’t afford to keep on isolating Timor-Leste, and pushing it to get closer to China. ASEAN is already divided enough between members taking side to China, like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, on the one hand, and the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore, which have been considered by the US as its allies.
While this is still a far-off possibility, what if China offers Timor-Leste something that it can’t refuse for a military base within its territory? What if Timor-Leste and Ramos-Horta, who has said he had saw enough hypocrisy in international politics and diplomacy, feel isolated enough that they feel China, who has long supported the nation’s struggle for independence, is their genuine friend?
Such a base will be very strategic, and will create big headaches not only for the US and Australia but also especially for Indonesia. So, before it is getting out of control, and China’s presence in Timor-Leste can’t be checked, it’s better to give Timor-Leste membership sooner rather than later.
Ramos-Horta has known very well what international cooperation can do to a country. After all, Timor-Leste was born out of concerted international pressure against Indonesia thanks to years of diplomatic efforts he had conducted throughout the world, plus of course stubborn military resistance led by Xanana Gusmao from the inside. This is why Ramos-Horta believes in the benefits of joining ASEAN, and this is why he has been pushing for Timor-Leste to be part of such a regional arrangement since early 1970s even when it was still under Portuguese colony by visiting then Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Adam Malik, one of ASEAN founding fathers, to discuss the possibilities of Timor-Leste becoming part of ASEAN once it could free itself from the Portuguese.
Indonesia’s Leadership & Timor-Leste’s Needs
Despite Timor-Leste’s seemingly closer relations with China, Indonesia, Singapore and Australia are still the country’s biggest partners.
The largest source of foreign arrivals in Timor-Leste in 2019, for instance, were Australia and Indonesia, with 10,562 and 9,183 arrivals respectively. Meanwhile, the total numbers of Chinese citizens arriving in Dili that year was 7,455. In the same year, Timor-Leste’s main import partners were Indonesia, from which it imported $189.2 million worth of goods and services, and Singapore, from which it bought $70.1 million. Meanwhile, the total annual value of imports from China increased to $69.2 million in 2019. In terms of exports, in 2019, Timor-Leste earned $59.6 million from exports to Singapore, $21.8 million from Malaysia, $19.6 million from Japan, $19.5 million from China and $4.1 million from the United States.
Ramos-Horta realizes these facts, and that’s why he picks Jakarta, not Canberra, not Beijing, not Washington, as his first foreign place to visit after his inauguration. He knows Timor-Leste’s prosperity will be very much connected with Indonesia’s. With their proximity, he knows buying goods from Surabaya or Bali is much cheaper than buying them from Lisbon, for instance. He knows with their history tied together, it’s impossible for Timor-Leste to just burry Indonesia or Bahasa Indonesia just like that as if nothing ever happened.
Two decades since it gained its independence from Indonesia, nearly half of Timor-Leste’s population of 1.3 million still lives below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 a day, according to the United Nations, with half of children under the age of 5 suffering physical and mental stunting as a result of malnutrition.
Timor-Leste is a small country with limited natural resources. Most of the country’s income comes from it US$19 billion sovereign fund, which is rapidly depleting because every year the government withdraws more than its investment returns. Before it runs out Horta must find other sources of income. He must act now to invest in human capital and the country’s service industry, especially tourism. If he can’t turn Timor-Leste into a tax-heaven then he can turn his country into an international tourist hub, linking it to Bali and Lombok, as the first or final destination of the cluster.
Focusing and investing in education and tourism will partly solve the problem of having around 60 percent population in working age, with only 19 percent had jobs.
And these are the areas that Indonesia can help. Indonesia, for instance, can include Timor-Leste in its tourism marketing and promotion, while its start-ups firms from Bali, for instance, can include Dili as their area of business. Gojek, for instance, can start operating in Dili. Fintech startups, for instance, can connect with Dili, allowing its residences to connect to the world, without having to pay high transfer rate if buying or sending or receiving money to and from outside.
When they meet together, Ramos-Horta can discuss to his counterpart Jokowi how Indonesia’s universities can start giving scholarship to Timor-Leste students, and Jakarta can send teachers and lecturers to Timor-Leste, while its universities can open branches in the neighboring country.
As Indonesia will become ASEAN chair next year, Ramos-Horta can ask Jokowi’s full support for Timor-Leste to be excepted as a member without further delay. Indonesia can also convince other to support Timor-Leste membership. With this influence and leadership, it’s Indonesia’s interests to help Timor-Leste becoming ASEAN member rather than letting it drifting to China and create security headache.
Goh’s advice on enhancing human capital still rings true, especially now. Ramos-Horta realized the wisdom of Goh’s advice, telling a 2015 interview with Sabrina Chua of the Singapore Management University that “what we learn is, you can have an abundance of world wealth, but if you don’t have the brain power, human resources, trained people, honest people, honest leaders, the money can be squandered, and the people remain poor, and you create social inequalities, instability and violence. It has to do with good governance, good leadership, ethical leadership.”
Indonesia and Jokowi should have this good leadership and ethical and moral leadership to assist Timor-Leste, a country its once colonized, realize Ramos-Horta’s moral leadership and help him guide his people toward prosperity.