indonesian parliament set to scrutinize bilateral agreements with singapore - Indonesian Parliament Set to Scrutinize Bilateral Agreements with Singapore

On January 25, Indonesia and Singapore signed a package deal comprising three bilateral agreements on transportation, defense cooperation, and the extradition of fugitives. For the three agreements to come into effect, however, they need to be ratified by the legislatures of both nations.

Under Indonesia’s presidential system, the president is required to obtain the consent/approval of the parliament in making war or peace and concluding agreements with other countries. In practice, most diplomatic agreements do not require parliamentary approval and parliamentarians do not have much direct influence on foreign policy.

However, according to Law No. 24/2000 on International Agreements, when an international agreement explicitly stipulates that ratification is a precondition for an agreement coming into force, domestic legislation will need to be passed. After the parliament passes legislation to signify its consent to be bound by the agreement in question, a bilateral exchange of ratification documents is needed for the agreement to come into effect.

In these instances – and the recent series of bilateral agreements between Indonesia and Singapore is one of them – the parliament wields direct influence and has the potential to become a significant veto player, since national legislation requires “joint approval” from the parliament and the president. As a result, if the parliament uses procedural mechanisms to delay discussion of draft legislation, or if there is prolonged debate over contentious clauses, ratification of the three bilateral agreements could take considerable time.

Complexities and Technicalities

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The complexity of navigating the ratification process stems from the fact Indonesia has a multi-party system, with three large and six smaller parties in the current parliament. Decision making is complicated by the fact that coming to an agreement requires a lengthy process of deliberation to reach consensus (mufakat) among all parties.

Furthermore, the Indonesian parliament is essentially a balkanized entity, in which most of the parliamentary work is conducted in 11 committees known as commissions. Each commission makes most of the decisions in the specific area of government activities that it is assigned, and a plenary session of the full parliament is usually only called upon to formally endorse decisions made in the commissions.

The package deal with Singapore involves three separate agreements: the Flight Information Region (FIR), which realigns the airspace under Jakarta’s management to better reflect Indonesia’s territorial boundaries, a Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA), and an agreement covering the extradition of fugitives. If all three require ratification, they could be delegated to the three respective parliamentary committees covering transportation, defense, and the law, where each committee will invite the respective ministers to provide inputs and answer questions.

As the work of the commissions is typically conducted in silos, each agreement will be scrutinized separately rather than jointly as a package. The ideal outcome would be for one commission, most likely the Defense and Foreign Policy Commission (or Commission I), or a special committee straddling multiple commissions, to oversee all three agreements.

Another potential technical issue is that the parliament’s role in international agreements is essentially a passive one. In theory, Law No. 24/2000 on International Agreements requires the foreign minister to consult with parliament. In practice, parliament is usually only called upon to scrutinize the text of international agreements after they have been signed by the government.

In ordinary circumstances, this is not an issue; parliament has ratified most of the international agreements signed by the government. However, the risk is that as the parliament can only decide to ratify or reject an agreement (and cannot amend it), one controversial provision can logjam the entire ratification process.

Contentious Issues Surrounding the Bilateral Agreements

Initial public remarks made by MPs suggest that there are several issues at hand. First, the parliamentarians dislike the requirement that all three bilateral agreements had to be negotiated as a package, giving rise to the perception that designated training areas in Indonesia’s EEZ and airspace to the west and east of Singapore had been “bartered” away in order to secure the extradition treaty.

Second, some provisions in the DCA and FIR agreements are unpalatable to MPs. In 2007, the parliament’s Defense Commission rejected an earlier version of the DCA and called for the government to revise the agreement through discussion of its implementing arrangements. At the time, some lawmakers at that time believed that allowing Singapore to conduct military training in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) would undermine Indonesia’s sovereignty and affect its marine wildlife.

The Indonesian government is being asked by parliamentarians to account for how the newly signed DCA will address concerns about sovereignty arising from foreign military exercises conducted in Indonesian airspace/waters. One MP took issue with the provision delegating Indonesia’s airspace to Singapore between 0 and 37,000 feet, where the two countries’ FIRs border each other.

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The overall impression so far is that while parliamentarians are supportive of the extradition treaty, they are divided over specific provisions in the agreements for defense cooperation and the FIR.

Cultivating Legislative Support is Crucial for Ratification

The various political parties have expressed their desire to carefully scrutinize provisions in the three bilateral agreements and ensure Indonesia’s national interests are safeguarded. While seven out of the nine parties in parliament are part of the government coalition, the government will likely have to cultivate legislative support to ensure that the agreements are ratified in their current form.

Since 2007, the parliament’s relationship with the executive has shifted toward a more collaborative style. It often prefers to support the executive rather than to assert an independent role. The various political parties in parliament are unlikely to reject the DCA and FIR outright if prominent individuals such as the defense minister and the armed forces commander throw their support behind these agreements.

The present situation is also significantly different from that in 2007. Sentiments expressed by MPs on the DCA are slightly more positive this time round, where the DCA is seen as important to bilateral military cooperation in facing common threats in the South China Sea.

Nonetheless, public sentiment on the issue will also be an important consideration for parliament, and inputs from civil society experts are likely to be solicited. The success of the government’s lobbying efforts and inter-elite bargaining will shape the eventual outcome of the ratification process.