Earlier this week, Malaysia’s new foreign minister was in Indonesia for his first working visit. The visit, which followed a meeting between the leaders of the two countries since the new Malaysian government took office following a shock election result in May, provided some sense of how both states are looking to manage their relationship in the coming months.
As I have pointed out before in these pages, despite some disagreements they continue to manage – ranging from the treatment of domestic workers to illegal fishing to the outstanding Ambalat dispute – Malaysia and Indonesia, the two major Muslim-majority Southeast Asian states, do maintain a healthy overall relationship. With the advent of a new government in Malaysia, observers have been looking for signs of what the country’s foreign policy will look like under Mahathir Mohammad, its longest-serving prime minister who has now returned as premier.
Some early indications were visible when Mahathir paid his first visit to Indonesia in his current capacity, which was his second overseas trip and his first to a Southeast Asian country following his trip to Japan. As I noted then, while there was warmth between Mahathir and Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and some initial proposals were floated, there were few specifics as expected since much of the details were to be followed up subsequently.
This week, Malaysia-Indonesia relations were in the headlines again with the visit of Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah to Indonesia. Saifuddin’s visit, which was his first working visit since being appointed to the position earlier this month, saw him meet with a range of Indonesian officials including Jokowi and his counterpart Retno Marsudi, in addition to several other engagements as well.
The visit saw the usual range of agenda items, some of which had also been touched on during Mahathir’s visit. These included not just new opportunities and areas of solidarity such as standing up to pressure from European states on the palm oil industry – which was mentioned during the Mahathir-Jokowi meeting as well – but also some old challenges for bilateral ties, such as outstanding border issues between them and the welfare of Indonesian workers in Malaysia.
To be sure, few detailed proposals were visible, and it is still early days in the new Malaysian government and for the evolving shape of Malaysia-Indonesia relations under its tenure. But as the process of shaping ties continues, such interactions between the two sides will be interesting to watch.