It’s on again.
Malaysia and Indonesia are squaring-off over another cultural dispute amid violent protests outside the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta, where eggs were thrown, flags burned and the use of a drum beat challenged.
Two men were arrested and a flurry of communiqués exchanged between the two countries with Malaysia claiming the Tor-tor folk dance and the Gordang Sambilan beat as part of its heritage, a move unwelcomed by Indonesians from northern Sumatra where both dance and beat originate.
Both countries hold deep historical Islamic ties, share an ethnic history and the roots of a language, but their differences are legendary in Southeast Asia, which hopes to forge a single market based on common bonds inside the next three years.
Their divisions can be traced back to the colonial Dutch in the then-East Indies and the British in Malaya, with brawling erupting between the pair over seemingly mundane issues like textiles, folk music and beef curries. The Tor-tor is a subtle dance played out with gentle hand and leg gestures.
The latest Indonesian outrage also prompted talks between its Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and his Malaysian counterpart Anifah Aman, but any resolution is unlikely to stem the overarching feuds that have characterized relations.
Geography has also shaped different political attitudes. Malaysia has 28 million people spread over two land masses – the Malaysia Peninsula and the eastern half of Borneo. Indonesia stands in stark contrast, with 237 million people spread over 17,508 islands.
Persistent reports of the mistreatment of Indonesian women who work in Malaysia as maids, as well as a sense of entitlement and over-lording attitudes by Malaysia’s wealthy upper middle classes has further antagonized a sense of injustice among many Indonesians.
This tends to erupt when allegations of cultural theft emerge, a phenomenon that’s well-nourished in Malaysia, where politicians pander to narrow nationalistic interests.
General elections are looming.
Such was the case five years ago when Malaysia adopted a folk song that has its roots in Indonesia’s Maluku Islands for a tourism advertisement. It remained a source of friction and a political card for Malaysian politicians to play in the lead-up to the 2008 poll.
Whether such myopic attitudes can be put aside in favor of expanding regional ties and the establishment of a single economic community by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2015 is also very uncertain, at best.
Behind the scenes players in a wide range of relevant industries like banking, transport and law now believe such cultural differences mean the much vaunted ASEAN Economic Community is now unlikely before 2020, and this will hurt economic growth among the 10 members of the trading bloc – including Malaysia and Indonesia.
And over the longer-run that hip pocket damage will hurt the re-election chances of single issue politicians far more than the origins of a dance and the drumbeat that accompanies it.