Former Indonesian president Habibie once called Singapore a ‘little red dot’ – here’s what actually happened

Then-minister of education and second defence minister Teo Chee Hean shaking hands with Indonesia’s then-president B.J. Habibie in 1998.
Singapore Press Holdings

Ever since former Indonesian President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie described Singapore as a “little red dot” in 1998, the term has become synonymous with the island nation, whose citizens use it as a symbol of how strong and wealthy it has become despite a lack of resources.

So when Habibie died on Thursday (September 11) at the age of 83, many Singaporeans who are old enough to remember his short 17-month presidency in the late ’90s were reminded of the time he reportedly said he did not feel Singapore was a friend of Indonesia’s.

But what did Habibie – who was known for kick-starting Indonesia’s democratic reforms and East Timor’s independence referendum – actually mean when he described Singapore as a “red dot”?

Here’s what happened, according to archived newspaper reports:

In early August of 1998, then-president Habibie was quoted by the Asian Wall Street Journal (ASWJ) as saying that he didn’t get a feeling of friendship from Singapore.

“You see, a friend in need is a friend indeed. I don’t have that feeling from Singapore,” he reportedly said.

“I have that feeling from the US, from Japan, Australia, mainland China, from Malaysia, from Europe, Germany,” he added.

In an article, The Straits Times reported that the comment came after Habibie told the Journal that he did not receive a congratulatory letter from the Republic until it was “almost June, very late”. The article said the president assumed office on May 21, and Singapore’s then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong’s letter was dated May 25.

Comparing Indonesia’s relations with other countries to its ties with Singapore, Habibie reportedly said: “Japan, Malaysia, who is so close, they are pro-active. And yet (Singapore) doesn’t have that. They are pro-active in the negative direction, and that, I feel so sorry for.”

B.J. Habibie, when he was Indonesia’s state minister for research and technology, in a meeting with Lee Kuan Yew.
Lianhe Zaobao

His “red dot” comment came as he pointed to a map of Indonesia and the surrounding region.

According to ASWJ, he said: “It’s OK with me, but there are 211 million people (in Indonesia).

“Look at that map. All the green is Indonesia. And that red dot is Singapore. Look at that,” he was quoted as saying.

Goh Chok Tong referenced “red dot” remark at National Day Rally

That same month, Goh Chok Tong referenced Habibie’s “red dot” remark in his National Day Rally speech.

Referring to the crisis Indonesia was facing at the time, the premier said Singapore had vested interests in Indonesia, and will help Indonesia “within the limits of our ability”.

Then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong and Habibie in November 1998.
Lianhe Zaobao

However, he also said that Singapore was a small economy and its ability to help was limited to an extent. He said: “We are not in the same class. After all we are only three million people. Just a little red dot on the map. Where is the capacity to help 211 million people?”

In that same year, Singapore pledged a S$12 million humanitarian aid package to Indonesia to aid their recovery efforts after the 1997 financial crisis and May 1998 riots, The Business Times reported. At the time, it was the largest aid amount Singapore had ever extended to any country.

Lee Hsien Loong said nickname ‘entered psyche of every Singaporean’

Over the years, Singaporeans started to use the term “little red dot” to symbolise the small nation’s achievements despite having few resources and a population that pales in comparison to its neighbours.

In 2003, then-deputy prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said Habibie’s “red dot” comment “was a vivid and valuable reminder that we are indeed very small and very vulnerable”.

“The little red dot has entered the psyche of every Singaporean, and become a permanent part of our vocabulary, for which we are grateful,” he added.

Habibie: Term meant to highlight Singapore’s achievements

Eight years after he first coined the nickname for Singapore, Habibie himself addressed the topic once more.

Habibie, when he was still Indonesia’s state minister for research and technology, with Singapore’s then-deputy prime minister and defence minister Tony Tan.
Lianhe Zaobao

In a report carried by The Straits Times on September 20, 2006, the former president said he had no intention of dismissing the Lion City when he made those remarks.

Instead, he wanted to highlight Singapore’s achievements despite its small size, The Straits Times quoted him as saying.

According to Habibie, the remark came about while he was speaking off-the-cuff with members of an Indonesian youth group. He told reporters then that his comments to the youth group were: “If you look at the map of South-east Asia, you (Indonesia) are so big, and Singapore is just a dot. But if you come to Singapore, you see people with vision.”

He added that he knew the comments did not go down well with Singaporeans, saying: “But of course at that time people didn’t like me…and I have corrected many times, but they have never put it.”

He added that he “could not prove it in writing because I was talking freely”.

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