Be realistic about Indonesia-Malaysia relations

28 February, 2015
As appeared in

INDONESIAN President Jokowi’s official visit to Malaysia earlier this month was successful.

The chemistry between him and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak was good, and the visit was capped by a convivial dinner between just the two with their wives on the last night of the visit.

There was the famous visit to Proton, and the signing of a MOU between Proton and an Indonesian company PT Adiperkasa Citra Lestari witnessed by the President and the Prime Minister. Jokowi was reportedly driven round the Proton test circuit at 140 kph by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad no less.

In the bilateral talks, the many issues between the two countries were discussed: among them the border issues, those surrounding treatment of Indonesian workers and maids in Malaysia, trade and investment. Special envoys from the two countries are to be appointed to look into these matters.

These outstanding issues should remind us not to go over the top on the success of the state visit. Indonesia-Malaysia relations have a tendency to flare up and cause disturbance to the equanimity in them.

A fundamental Malaysian flaw is to put too much heart into the sedarah serumpun (same bloodline and lineage) factor. It can become a millstone round the neck.

When you put too much emotion into a relationship it can result in emotional outbursts difficult to manage. We have seen instances of ugly demonstrations outside the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta, the burning of the Malaysian flag etc. While often attributed to the mindless and criminal minority, there is no gainsaying there is an official Indonesian lining to the anger.

There are at least two elements at work. One, big versus small, sometimes brotherly, sometimes not. Two, violation of dignity, a sense of being affronted.

The signing of the MOU between Proton and Adiperkasa gave rise to a number of reactions in Indonesia which should be noted in Malaysia where we were celebrating the cooperation to come in the development of the Indonesian national car, indeed even of an Asean car. We should disabuse ourselves, get realistic, know the long road ahead.

One of the reactions latched on to a remark by the Proton chairman about how the company would guide the Indonesian car industry, like a baby, by taking small steps in its development.

Baby? There was resentment to that reference. When we in Indonesia, it was drummed up, have annual car sales of 1.2 million units. Malaysia? Half, just 666,000. Baby indeed.

And why Proton, it was further asked. Is it such a success story? Why not Toyota or Honda? So there is a long way to go before that MOU is realised, even after the six-month feasibility study, assuming it is a positive report.

Apart from Proton having to deliver competently, both in management and technical provision, there are many sensitivities that have to be handled, including the allegation that Adiperkasa is a crony company which has been chosen above more competent ones.

Jokowi was openly attacked for witnessing the signing of the MOU. Something we might not understand in Malaysia. He retreated, explaining it was not an Indonesian national car project at all and he was there simply because he was invited.

So Proton has its work cut out for it. What is now a positive thing could turn to have negative effects on Indonesia-Malaysia relations if it is not professionally pursued. On the other hand, outstanding achievement and success will settle all these doubts and criticisms.

This Kita Besar Pak (We are Big, not Small) thing I have heard too often. Is there something in Malaysian attitude and action that gives rise to it? Or do the Indonesians have a chip on their shoulder?

Last year, when I was chatting with him, it was obvious to me a leading Indonesian businessman clearly had not enjoyed being talked down to by a couple of Malaysian entrepreneurs at a conference in Singapore the year before. It still infuriates him.

Some years ago, a close Indonesian friend lambasted Malaysia’s attitude and actions in Ambalat, the demarcation of the continental shelf being still in dispute even after the Sipadan and Ligitan World Court judgment (2002) in favour of Malaysia, over Malaysian treatment of Indonesian maids and workers, and countless other things.

Even my frequently playing golf in Indonesia was put down to the prettiness of the Indonesian caddies!

During the Jokowi visit, a senior Indonesian official again raised with me the Malaysian treatment of Indonesian maids and workers, including our reluctance to allow the migrants to open more community schools for their children. And, of course, that robotic vacuum cleaner advertisement tag-line (Now You Can Sack Your Indonesian Maid) came up.

This sort of wit is not funny to the Indonesians, never mind it had nothing to do with the Malaysian government or, indeed, with the broad cross-section of the Malaysian public. It is the “Malaysian attitude.”

We are a big country, you know. You are so utterly dependent on Indonesian labour in your economy that if we were to pull them out, the senior official said, you would be in big trouble. Never mind that jobs will have to be found for them in Indonesia.

There is an Indonesian passion and anger which we do not help assuage with our insensitivity and lazy hope the sedarah serumpun thing will carry relations through.

We must understand Indonesia better. The second flaw in our approach to relations with Indonesia is that we do not understand the country enough, particularly the fact that it is a vibrant democracy, the nearest there is in our region to insistent people’s rights and freedoms, now enhanced by Jokowi’s coming to power.

Even before this, I remember our former Information Minister (2006-08) Tan Sri Zainudin Maidin having a spat with the Indonesian press which was raging against Malaysia. He had said to the Indonesian media, what would Indonesia feel if the Malaysian press embarked on a similar attack against Indonesia?

Silalah Pak, (please go ahead!), was the answer. We do not understand and appreciate the freedom the Indonesians enjoy, and see them only through the prism of our own condition. On this score, they pity us, but get upset we are so much more economically advanced.

We must think through how we must manage relations with Indonesia. Yes, Indonesia is big, we can recognise that. But Malaysia is not small. We must make Indonesians understand that – not through the sedarah serumpun route, but the Singapore (which is even smaller in size) route.

Singapore was not sparing in its protest last year when an Indonesian naval ship was named after a couple of marines hanged in 1968 in the island state for blowing up a building in 1965 (during the confrontation) causing death and destruction. The Indonesians were thrown into making some explanatory gestures and friendly noises, even if they stuck to their decision.

And working together means doing so on the basis of mutual benefit and respect. When we make agreements, we adhere to them. It’s not, let’s work together in Asean, and together we can provide leadership and make a big difference in the grouping. It is, let’s work on this and that. Specific.

Like a code on rights and obligations for migrant labour (including maids) for Asean as a whole which gives dignity and definition to a much needed economic resource. It is dignity that has led Jokowi to announce he wanted a study to be made on how Indonesian maids would not need to work abroad anymore. Even if he cannot stop them going, if you accord them dignity, he might think differently.

Or like a line of approach to achieve the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. What do you think, Mr Indonesia? We give deference to your views, but not absolutism in decision-making.

The atmospherics are important because nothing can happen without them. But it would be wrong to assume, with them, something WILL happen, or spats can be avoided. Positive things can only happen when we work at them specifically with a lot of planning and thought and mutual reference. Certainly sedarah serumpun is not the magic wand. Not infrequently, it gets in the way.

Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.

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