Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Love Thy Neighbour?

Malaysia and Indonesia have a shared history dating back centuries. But decades after independence they still can’t get along.

Luke Hunt

As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan loomed this year, so did yet another diplomatic row between two of South-east Asia’s more difficult neighbours.

Tied by religion, language, proximity and a cultural heritage that dates back centuries, the social mores that separate Malaysia and Indonesia should seem small. Yet the pair have been lurching from one diplomatic spat to another as nationalists from both sides of the Malacca Strait trade insults and threats that—if carried out—could be hugely damaging to the region.

‘There’s been a succession of issues that have really angered a lot of people in Indonesia,’ says Keith Loveard, a regional security analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Consulting.

The latest spat flared on August 13, when Malaysian authorities detained three Indonesian maritime officers in disputed waters near the Indonesian province of the Riau Islands—considered the birthplace of the modern Malay language.

Indonesia’s Maritime and Fisheries Ministry, for its part, detained seven Malaysian fishermen, meaning that what should have been a minor infraction in a remote corner of the Strait escalated over Ramadan, with tempers continuing to fray into October.

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‘They were all released very quickly, but the damage was done,’ Loveard says.

Leaping to the fore was a minority group, the Nationalist People’s Bastion for Democracy, or Bendera, which gained notoriety for its fiery protests outside the Malaysian embassy (and the rather unpleasant practice of throwing faeces).

In response, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono directed a speech to Malaysia from Indonesian Military (TNI) headquarters. He failed to impress firebrand groups like Bendera, but Loveard notes Indonesia’s military presence in Kelimantan on Borneo was beefed up.

‘Yudhoyono made his statement at armed forces headquarters. That was significant,’ he says. ‘If you look at the reaction of Indonesia to what is a very small incident, this is a very dangerous state of play.’

For now, the frustrations appear to have peaked, and late last week Indonesia called for a comprehensive solution to differences that hurt bilateral ties.

Yet finding such a solution is easier said than done.

Loveard sits squarely in the Indonesian camp, and says the arrests were just the latest expressions of antagonism to chill the diplomatic air, adding that a range of issues must be resolved by Malaysia if it’s serious about finding a comprehensive solution.

Issues bugging Indonesia include the abuse of Indonesian maids working in Malaysia, the mistreatment of illegal plantation workers and periodically flaring cultural disagreements (underscored by last year’s use of Balinese dancers to promote a Discovery Channel programme on Malaysia that resulted in accusations of cultural theft—and threats of war).

Loveard says there’s enough going on to make Indonesians feel that Malaysians are simply being ‘inhumane’ in the way they treat Indonesians.

‘Plantation workers will work illegally in Malaysia for six months. They’re told they’ll be paid at the end of that period, but once their time is almost done their employer will call the police and inform on them,’ he says. ‘They’re arrested, deported and not paid.’

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Rising nationalism in Jakarta turned to outrage soon after the maritime incident, when a Malaysian couple was arrested in mid-September for supposedly mistreating their Javanese maid over a four-month period.

The husband, a 41-year-old grass cutting contractor, was accused of repeatedly raping her in the family home on Penang Island, and the couple are said to have burned her breasts with a hot iron and scalded her back with boiling water. The maid, 26-year-old Win Faidaa, was eventually abandoned on a roadside before being rescued by a passerby.

The case prompted Indonesian Labour Minister Muhaimin Iskandar to urge Indonesians to avoid Malaysia (and Kuwait and Jordan) when looking for work outside the country, at least until their governments can guarantee worker safety. All this was more than enough for Bendera and other Indonesian nationalist groups, who upped the ante and demanded the expulsion of the Malaysian ambassador.

Ruhanas Harun, an associate professor from the National Defence University of Malaysia, says her countrymen were just as upset about the mistreatment of maids as Indonesians were, but that it was wrong to hold her whole country responsible.

‘It’s one case in 200,000 and it’s the same story every time,’ she says. ‘Everyone in Malaysia sympathizes with the maid. Such mistreatment reflects the insanity and uncivilized character of a few individuals, not of a nation.’

Indonesia supplies about 85 percent of Malaysia’s maids and 2 million workers overall. But Win Faidaa’s case wasn’t the first of its kind—a series of similar incidents prompted Indonesia to ban domestic helpers from heading to Malaysia in June last year.

Some cases have resulted in convictions. Among them was that of A. Murugan, a 36-year-old market trader, who was sentenced to death just over a year ago for murdering his Indonesian maid, Muntik Bani. She had been beaten with a broomstick.

Since the ban, both countries have been re-negotiating safeguards and employment contracts through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which appeared to be nearing a successful conclusion until Win Faidaa was picked up.

Economic disparities and Malaysia’s much lower population of 27 million, compared with Indonesia’s 234 million, also means Malaysia is unlikely to experience the stressful social issues attached to sending millions of women abroad, away from family and friends, to do menial work for a pittance. Indeed, some countries have banned the export of their women as domestic helpers.

Loveard says such a relationship skews perspectives in the host country.

‘It’s not only the maids, but the large number of plantation and other low-level workers that are employed both legally and illegally. It gives the impression that Indonesians are there to do the jobs that Malaysians don't want,’ he says. ‘In reality it's much more complex than that and is a result of Malaysia's lack of human resources.’

But some, like Harun and Kamarulnizam Abdullah, an associate professor in strategic studies at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, believe there’s more to it than that. They argue that Indonesia carries excess emotional baggage that’s rooted in the very way the nation was formed.

‘I’d say they have an inferiority complex,’ Abdullah says.

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Indonesia, divided into 17,000 islands, pressed for unity and independence from their Dutch masters through the 1945-50 conflict, while Malaysia was forged out of British colonial rule in 1957 through diplomacy that united the Malay Peninsula with Singapore, and Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo six years later.

Singapore left the federation in 1965 while the rest of Malaysia—backed by the UK, Australia and New Zealand—was fighting the 1962-66 Konfrontasi against Indonesia for control of the two Borneo states (a fight it won).

‘Indonesians claim they won independence the hard way, through revolution, while they see us Malaysians of having been handed our independence,’ Abdullah says.

The economic realities of the two may cloud relations further. Indonesia’s economy is by far the largest in South-east Asia, with an annual GDP nearing one trillion US dollars.Yet according to the World Bank, Indonesia is ranked 106th in per capita income, with an average income of about $4000 a year. Malaysia, by contrast, is ranked 49th, with an average income of $14,000.

The Last Word

Malaysia will always be an easier country to manage. The population sits on just two strips of land, is compact and dominated by one rarely challenged ethnic group. Jakarta, in contrast, must juggle the headaches associated with running a nation spread across a massive archipelago.

Harun admits Malaysia too has carried a chip on its shoulder since independence, including a strong tendency to treat Indonesia as a bigger and much stronger brother, or abang-adik,  (meaning sibling); Singapore has been treated, she says, like an ex-spouse after a failed marriage.

But Harun says former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad ridded Malaysia of its hang-ups regarding Indonesia and Singapore and imbibed in Malaysians a sort of trust in their government that has resulted in a different political culture.

That culture, she says, reflects Malaysia’s past, and is one that prefers dialogue to punches, diplomacy to threats and humility to arrogance. Indonesia’s smaller brother, Harun says, has grown-up.

‘Malaysia’s foreign relations have more often than not displayed accommodation and reconciliation, born out of political culture and practical needs. The lack of arrogance isn’t a sign of weakness, but of bangsa beradab (good breeding),’ she says.

Perhaps. But one thing is for sure—the swipes that both sides keep taking at each other feel as unrelenting as the backslapping they seem to do about their own country.