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What Does Mahathir’s Visit Mean for Indonesia-Malaysia Relations?

 
 

Last week, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad paid a two-day visit to Indonesia, the second overseas visit for the country’s longest-serving premier who just retook office in early May following a shock election victory. Though the visit saw the two countries praise the significance of bilateral ties and float a number of proposals, the initial encounter was unsurprisingly short on substance.

As I have pointed out before in these pages, despite some disagreements on that 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. Under Malaysia’s former prime minister, Najib Razak, efforts had been made to better manage some of those challenges while forging closer cooperation in certain areas such as counterterrorism.

With the advent of a new government in Malaysia following elections in May, observers have been looking for signs of what the country’s foreign policy will look like under Mahahir Mohammad, its longest-serving prime minister who has now returned as premier. Though it is still early days for the new administration, Mahathir had already been making headlines with his comments on a range of issues, from reviving a water dispute with Singapore to suggesting that Malaysia ought to focus on reinforcing its own claims in the South China Sea.

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Last week provided one early data point of how Indonesia-Malaysia relations might look like going forward as Mahathir paid his first visit to Indonesia. Mahathir’s two-day official visit to Indonesia was his second overseas trip since taking office less than two months ago and his first to a Southeast Asian country following his trip to Japan.

Mahathir was quite generous with his praise for bilateral relations, calling Indonesia Malaysia’s “closest neighbor” and noting the “family relationship” between the two countries, including the fact that some Malaysians were originally from Indonesia such as his father-in-law.

Substantively, the visit offered little in the way of specifics, which was not necessarily surprising considering the wide range of domestic issues the new government is grappling with and the initial delay even in officially announcing a full cabinet, including a foreign minister. Jokowi said that the two delegations had discussed commitments to enhance cooperation in several areas including good governance, connectivity, and border issues, but he also said that details would be worked out at lower levels.

At the joint press conference, Mahathir did suggest one area of priority when he revived the idea of both countries jointly producing a car, a proposal that had already been floated during the Najib years but had not been followed up on. Mahathir has taken a personal interest in this area before and had mentioned this during his visit to Japan, so it was no surprise that this was brought up. But the ongoing struggles of Malaysia’s national car Proton, which was founded during Mahathir’s previous stint in office, offers a cautionary tale in this respect.

The other headline item was Mahathir’s suggestion that Malaysia and Indonesia should join hands to oppose pressure from Western states on the palm oil industry as the world’s top two producers. Contrary to what some of the headlines might suggest, this was less some sort of joint cooperation endeavor and more of a dose of Mahathir’s anti-Western rhetoric, without both sides saying or signing anything together and Jokowi contributing little more than a modest nod beside him.

All in all, Mahathir’s Indonesia visit saw some initial warmth between the two leaders, but offered little detail as to how they might advance opportunities and address challenges within the relationship. For progress on those fronts, we will probably have to wait and see how rhetoric translates into reality.

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