Malaysia/Indonesia bilateral relation has gone through many phases with its own ups and downs. Today it cannot be taken for granted. Previously Malaysia/Indonesia resilient relationship was grounded on nusantara and ‘serumpun’ sentiment. This is only true when the bilateral relation is not in crisis mode, like the confrontation in 1963, the spat on Ambalat/Sulawesi Sea, and when there are cases of mistreatment of Indonesian maids. Malaysia needs to make the necessary adjustments when confronted with such situations. We cannot obviously treat it as business as usual. This is the time when political and diplomatic initiatives would have to come into play in order to manage them. The Indonesian media when this happens has the tendency to sensationalize whatever issues that surfaced which could generate a strong anti Malaysian sentiment.It is my believe that Malaysia should move away from harping continuously on the nusantara and ‘serumpun’ factor, as this is not sustainable.
Currently our management of bilateral relation with Indonesia tends to be reactive. No doubt there are mechanisms to handle on the long term basis. Some observers and diplomats would say whatever is happening between Indonesia and Malaysia today is a result of the maturity of their relationship. Some may opine this state of affair comes about due to Indonesia being envious of Malaysia’s progress and development which had surpassed Indonesia’s. Albeit for certain it cannot be left to sort itself or be taken for granted. It is important that the warm and cordial relation between the two countries is sustained, as it is beneficial for both countries and ASEAN.
The more frequent ups and downs between the two can be attributed to a myriad of factors. At times we can put the blame on the slant of the Indonesian media but there are other factors that Malaysia needs to understand which can influence public perception on us. In my view Malaysia has to weigh all the factors holistically. It has to pay attention to improving media relation, not necessarily to respond to every story published by them. Malaysia should build on the positive government to government relationship and the existing linkages in term of people to people. It is essential that adverse reporting which can affect the good relation be tackled early before it becomes a problem.
The internal and external dynamics of both countries over the past 53 years have influenced the relations in many ways. It is thus pertinent that the relation be approached by utilizing informal networking as well as conventional diplomacy. Over time there is no denying that perceptions and attitudes of citizens on both sides have changed due to political, economic and socio-cultural development. Even on the issue of culture which undoubtedly contains many common traits and values can raise sensitivities. The government to government relationship even though cordial and good cannot be viewed on a standalone basis. The people to people relation can be a significant defining factor in determining the strength and state of the relationship.
Indonesia is a major player at the regional and global level because of its size and population. It makes sense for Malaysia to preserve good relationship as a close neighbor and the fact we share common history and heritage. After all Indonesia’s economic growth and development will also have beneficial impact on Malaysia.
In this context Dr Mahathir’s policy of ‘prosper thy neighbour’ is a move in the right direction. With continued economic growth and by virtue of its size and population, Malaysia stands to gain from it. Democracy and the active role of civil society have made the Indonesian government to be more sensitive to views and feelings of its grassroots. Currently they are seen to be more assertive at the regional and international arena. The bilateral relation at times will therefore be trying, difficult and complex. Malaysia needs to understand the issues and sensitivities of Indonesia over the years. It will not tolerate any patronizing or condescending attitude towards it as well as harping purely on nusantara and ‘serumpun’ factor. This factor could under normal circumstances be useful. Relations based on religion, (particularly Islam), language and geographical proximity are advantageous but the political and diplomatic dynamics should be taken into account in determining the type of relationship we want.
When Malaya became independent in 1957 and in 1960 with the formation of Malaysia which included the States of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak, Indonesia declared confrontation against Malaysia. Sukarno considered this merger part of the neo-colonist grand scheme of the British to extend their sphere of influence in the region. This was the worst time for Malaysia/Indonesia bilateral relation. It only ended in 1965 with a change of leadership in Indonesia from Sukarno to Suharto. The personalities that made the return to normalcy were the relationship between Adam Malik and Tun Razak.
The question is whether common heritage and history can still be the binding force in the relation, should be reviewed. New parameters should be taken into account. Malaysia did not think at that time the differences between Indonesia and Malaysia on the formation of Malaysia would lead to confrontation and military interference by Indonesia on Malaysian territory. Learning from this experience Malaysia cannot look at the bilateral as it was by mere expectation and assumption. It is in Malaysia’s interest to review and revisit old paradigms and create new parameters to avoid such an incident from repeating. In this regard Malaysia has to pay more attention to the role of various groups including the mainstream and social media as well as civil society and opinion makers. The connectivity of these factors must be taken into account for the long term bilateral relation.
The reality is both Indonesia and Malaysia have gone through socio-political and economic transformation. There are many new paradigms that require Malaysia/Indonesia to look at. The passage of time and changing political landscapes as part of globalization process brought about democracy and freedom, greater national consciousness and a new sense of nationalism can bring new stresses to the bilateral relation. On many instances we have to read between the lines to understand the Indonesian diplomacy. Even the favorite Malaysian contention that “air ditetak tidak akan putus”(water can never be chopped or severed) that’s often used by Malaysians was rejected in a recent panel discussion. When an Indonesian panelist took his turn to speak in the Awana television programme he unabashedly said even water flow can be severed. Lili Yulyadi Arnakim, a visiting Professor in University Malaya who spoke in the ‘Sudut Pandang 501’ opined that the ‘serumpun’ spirit had already been eroded.
It was contended that the generation born after the 70s in both countries have more nationalistic perspectives as compared to the prevalent feeling of ‘serumpun’ before. We should take notice of this opinion and make necessary adjustments and alignments to our thinking. Malaysian politicians, academics and think tanks have to recognize that many old assumptions or traditional views no longer hold water. After all we are dealing with two sovereign nations that have evolved its own distinct national characteristics and personality in the commity of nations. At the regional and international sphere Malaysia/Indonesia do not necessarily take the same position on all issues. This can best be illustrated when US bombed Belgrade without obtaining prior UNSC approval or Indonesia’s relation with Israel. Whilst Malaysia supported the US bombing of Belgrade on humanitarian ground, Malaysia generally has a very rigid view on multilateral process of the UN. 
The Malaysian press cautious and non reactive posture to Indonesia media sensationalisation does not change their perceptions. Harsh criticisms are made against Malaysia every time these are a spat by the Indonesian media or differences between the two countries. Thus Malaysia needs to develop a new kind of matrix that acknowledges the differences rather than purely playing on the similarities of people and history. True, generally the contacts at the government and personal level had been warm and constructive. Unquestionably it is a contributory factor in minimizing possible misunderstandings and conflicts. I had personally seen how good rapport and contacts played their role when I was serving as the Foreign Minister of Malaysia. However this can change.
Let me relate some of my experiences. After the Ligitan and Sipadan judgement was made in favour of Malaysia by the ICJ, a new crisis on Ambalat/Sulawesi Sea emerged. This area is rich in oil and gas. Both countries have given concessions to different oil companies, whilst the issue of overlapping claims is still unresolved. This created a lot of unnecessary tension that could have led to open conflicts between Indonesia and Malaysia. The Indonesian press was fanning all kinds of anti Malaysia stance.
I was asked to go to Jakarta on a mission to explain and cool down the situation to the Indonesian leaders. During this visit I met Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda. From the time I arrived and stepped into the hotel lobby I could sense the tension and hostility surrounding me. The press had a very conspicuous anti Malaysian position on the issue of Ambalat/Sulawesi Sea and the Nirmala Bonat incident. However the general public does not seem to bother or care about it.
From the media coverage in the print and electronic media, I felt as if Malaysia/Indonesia was at the brink of an open war, when the reality is on the ground such feeling was absent. Indonesia was said to be upset when Malaysia had, in their view wrongly acquired Ligitan and Sipadan from Indonesia. They were also upset with the mistreatment of their workers in Malaysia. One of the journalists who ambushed me asked whether I feared for my life by coming to Jakarta. I thought the question rather odd as Malaysia was not at war with Indonesia and our bilateral relations were warm and cordial. As far as the Indonesian media is concerned Malaysia is responsible for the current spat between the two countries because of their inhuman acts committed on the Indonesian maid and the outcome of Ligitan and Sipadan case. They viewed Malaysia as arrogant and greedy in taking Indonesian territory. The truth which was never highlighted nor published was that both Malaysia/Indonesia had signed an Agreement, to refer the case to International Court of Justice (ICJ) for referral and final settlement. The case was decided in Malaysia’s favour by ICJ. Instead they chose to paint Malaysia as a negative greedy and arrogant nation. The slogan ‘Ganyang Malaysia’ was replayed and appeared repeatedly on Indonesian TV. This had maximum impact and caused strong bias and emotive prejudice against Malaysia. I was asking myself what went wrong.
When I met President Yudhiyono, I expressed my surprise on how the Nirmala Bonat and Ambalat case were exploited by the press to the fullest. I could not comprehend how they could portray as if this criminal act against Indonesia maids was condoned by the government of Malaysia. There was a feeling we did not care nor sympathize with what happened to Nirmala Bonat. Of course this is not true. The story had been manipulated. The truth is the whole country condemned the act and called for justice to be meted against the perpetrator of the crime. The government realized irresponsible element could exploit the issue. They took quick action to proceed with the investigation and prosecution.
I politely informed the President that the Malaysian public is as much abhorred by the inhumane acts committed against Nirmala and they wanted the perpetrator to be brought to justice. As for Ambalat we would like to resolve the differences through negotiation. The Indonesian reports on both these incidents had left me perplexed. On his part, the President explained with democracy and freedom there was nothing much he could do with the press coverage. He is also subjected to harsh treatment by them. He understood that the case had to be dealt in accordance with Malaysian laws. However he also stressed the case must be dealt speedily and that justice is not only done but seen to be done. He understood my explanation. I accepted his view and conveyed it to Kuala Lumpur accordingly.
The President also reminded me continuous anti Malaysian reporting in the press could influence public opinion. This would put him in great difficulty if he is perceived to ignore sensitive issues touching on Indonesian citizens in Malaysia. This could have an adverse effect for continued warm and cordial Malaysia/Indonesia bilateral relations. He reiterated that the controversies had to be well managed even though he did not envisage the bonding at the governmental level could be affected. He emphasized he has no problem with his Malaysian counterparts.
During the same visit I met the Foreign Minister of Indonesia Hassan Wirayuda prior to the Ambalat/Sulawesi Sea and the demarcation of our maritime borders negotiation. I had a four eyed meeting with him. We exchanged very frank views on the prevalent anti Malaysia sentiments in Indonesia and the strained relations. I asked for his perspective on the underlying factors that had caused this situation. Inter alia he outlined to me a number of issues that he said caused anger and negative public perceptions in Indonesia on Malaysia. Among them he cited, the mistreatment of Indonesian workers, the loss of Ligitan and Sipadan and the current overlapping claims on Ambalat/Sulawesi Sea. He emphasized these issue cannot be seen as if Indonesia is making any compromises. These issues are considered explosive and continue to be an irritant to our bilateral relations unless it can be resolved amicably.
In another visit I had the opportunity to meet Alwi Shihab, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs Indonesia. He took the view that historically, when Malaysia first became independent, Malaysia depended on Indonesia on many things including providing teachers, lecturers and medical doctors. Now that Malaysia is doing well and surpassed Indonesia’s development, Malaysia had forgotten Indonesia’s good deeds and the special bond that exist between them. He also opined that a way must be found to bring back the warm and cordial relations on track.
Over the five decades both countries have really travelled their own separate journeys regionally and globally. To me this is to be expected as each country has its strategic and national interests. Naturally this could not necessarily be in the same direction all the time. There was bound to be divergence in some foreign policies approaches of both sovereign states consistent with their own national interest. There are many examples of this happening. Another such example was when Malaysia established diplomatic relations with China. Indonesia was unhappy with it. It was the first and only ASEAN country then to do so. This was made worst because at that time Indonesia/China relation was strained.
Deep in the Indonesian psyche they still consider Malaysia as a younger brother who should pay respect and reverence towards the big brother Indonesia. I remember Gus Dur (Abdul Rahman Walid) the late Indonesian President told me during his first official visit to Malaysia that Indonesia should cease to treat Malaysia as its younger brother but instead view the relations as that of equals.
When Mahathir took the helm of the country’s political leadership as the Prime Minister, he played an active role in international relations. Many differences emerged at the political and foreign policy level between Malaysia and Indonesia. Notwithstanding this both sides managed their differences well at the government and media level. In the late 90s for example Mahathir advocated the creation of an East Asian Economic Caucus which created a lot of controversies. It was also resisted by some ASEAN member states and their western dialogue partners. The US and its allies were totally against it. The idea of collaboration between East Asian countries under East Asia banner was not acceptable. During the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur in 1997 a way out of the impasse was found through a meeting of leaders from China, Japan and South Korea under the style of ASEAN + 3 Summit. This Summit was historic and gained acceptance until today. At that time the political climate was such that the plus three consisted of China, Japan & South Korea which is in reality East Asia did not matter, so long as it is not called East Asia Group or Caucus through this mechanism East Asia cooperation evolves. This was a successful mechanism that built confidence and understanding between ASEAN and its dialogue partners.
In December 2005 the 1st East Asian Summit was held in Kuala Lumpur expanding the membership of the process to include India, Australia and New Zealand even though it is not within the geographical footprint of East Asia. This was a political decision. Meanwhile Russia that has the necessary geographical footprint in East Asia was rejected as there was no consensus among ASEAN members. Indonesia was one of the countries in ASEAN that did not support Russia’s admission as the US was totally against it. This was in contrast to Malaysia who supported Russia to be part of the East Asia Summit process from the beginning. Malaysia’s position was made very clear when during the first Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia invited President Putin to attend the opening and spoke as a friend of the Chair. Of course today US and Russia have been admitted as a component of East Asia Summit.
Without a doubt Malaysia’s foreign policy stance has been more aggressive and assertive at the regional and international level under Mahathir. Indonesia was even said to be unhappy in the way Malaysia played a leadership role of the OIC, after all Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation in the world.
In one of my interactions in Jakarta with Malaysian and Indonesian think tank to deliberate on Indonesia/Malaysia relation, we discussed in depth on the state of our relations and came to the conclusion that both countries had abandoned the historical and cultural linkages that previously made the relationship special. Malaysia/Indonesia had moved from the basics in the bilateral relations. The participants lamented with nostalgia when Des Alwi and General Trusitno talked how special the relationship was. They stressed on the bondage that used to exist at the political, educational and personal levels. The late Ali Al-Attas succinctly said to me the relationship is like a time bomb if not properly managed. He was quite emotional when he said there is a perception in Indonesia that Malaysians have a low opinion on Indonesian workers and consider them ‘stupid’. He then likened the relationship to that of the US/Vietnam relations during the US/Vietnam conflict. He stressed at that time the Vietnamese considered the Americans as “the ugly Americans”, even though the Americans thought they were helping or doing favour for the Vietnamese. The current Indonesia/Malaysia position is in the similar mode as Indonesians view Malaysians as “the ugly Malaysian”. Coming from a very renowned and respected diplomat, who is considered as a good friend of Malaysia is a clear indication how bad the situation has become.
I also had the opportunity to meet a number of Indonesian media representatives in their visit to Kuala Lumpur organized by ISIS. The Indonesian journalists were brought to Wisma Putra for exchanges of views on the state of relation between the two countries. I was asked to begin by giving the Malaysian perspective. After that we invited the participants to question and answers with me. One of them from Antara News Agency said that he had a lot of admiration for Malaysia and its leadership in the international arena. He ended by seriously stating he could not understand why Malaysians treated Indonesian maid so inhumanly, as if the government empathized with such abuses. I was surprised with that remark. He also said Malaysia as a rich country should have an open door policy and allow Indonesian workers (since Indonesia is poor) to work in Malaysia without any restrictions.
Again this is another example that demonstrated the gap that exists between Malaysia and Indonesia. They ignored the fact that there is already more than a million Indonesian workers legally and illegally in Malaysia. The Indonesian public may have the same view as expressed by the Indonesian media representatives during my interactions with them. Indonesia/Malaysia relations definitely require a change of mindset. The track two activities conducted as an ongoing exercise by different groups of think tanks have been useful in looking at the many issues objectively.
Under Indonesia’s transformation to democracy, one of the beneficiaries of the new regime is the media. With press freedom’s euphoria, a myriad of new print and electronic media sprung up. With the available space for freedom in Indonesia their presses sometimes choose to undermine Malaysia/Indonesia relation by discrediting and humiliating Malaysia. When Malaysia complained about it, their Indonesian counterparts just said nothing can be done as they also suffer the same fate. It is quite humorous to hear comments made by some Indonesian Members of Parliament on press freedom. The Indonesian politicians feel the heat from the same freedom phenomena. Jokingly they had commented that if previously they were oppressed by the army, now it is the press.  The press had shown enmity at times in inciting Indonesian public opinion against Malaysia. They offer no apologies for it, nor do they consider how it will affect bilateral relations between the two countries. The justification is public interest in Indonesia comes first. However, I am sure they do not operate in a vacuum.
They media have their supporters and sympathizers within the Indonesian political mass and also in Malaysia itself. Opposition party leader like Anwar Ibrahim, had established very close rapport and networking with many Indonesian politicians, leaders, ministers, media and civil society. This network sometimes collaborated with the Indonesian media to cause unnecessary irritation for their own narrow political ends.
In today’s globalised world, mobility of people from country to country has been a source of strength for development as well as the cause of strained relations between countries. Amongst ASEAN countries, Malaysia is one of the biggest recipients of migrant workers brought by its rapid economic development. In order to sustain this growth she had relied heavily on labour from ASEAN and other countries. The largest number is from Indonesia whether legally or illegally.
On the other hand Malaysian public thought, for this reason alone, Indonesia should show gratitude as their citizens earn their livelihood in this country. Malaysia therefore contributed a large amount of Indonesia’s foreign exchange revenue. There is a feeling in Malaysia that Indonesia takes the view that Malaysia is duty bound to accept their workers. There is no denying that the workers have contributed to the growth of the Malaysian economy. However unless both Malaysia and Indonesia are able to tackle and manage this issue in a very balanced manner it can affect the existing warm and cordial bilateral ties.
The inhumane treatment of Indonesian workers had raised new problems between Indonesia and Malaysia. However on the Malaysian side it is also a fact that many victims of accidents and careless handling by the maids of those under their care are seldom highlighted. Today within the broader Malaysian society there is resentment resulting in pressure to move away from being too over dependent on the Indonesian workers. Thus this resulted in recruitment of workers from other ASEAN and South Asian countries. When this shift of policy was announced it is perceived as an anti Indonesia act.
During Tun Mahathir’s era of fast, socio economic development in the 1980’s and 1990’s there was a steep increase in foreign workers intake into Malaysia, especially from Indonesia. This was tolerated and pushed by demand. In the plantation and constructions sectors they were on high demand. It then extended to domestic maids, restaurant and factory workers. Nonetheless the financial crisis of 1997/98 made Malaysia more cautious and selective in their intake of foreign workers.
Malaysia decided after the crisis to focus its economy and industry to technology and knowledge based sector which should reduce its dependent on workers. With this it is expected Malaysia could reduce the number of foreign workers. As is always the case Indonesian workers generally are recruited for the dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs that locals themselves are not willing to take up. As a consequence these foreign workers are lowly regarded in Malaysian society.
I can conclude in term of relationship common language and culture are not the only binding factor, as through time cultural gaps have even widened. It is undeniable that maids living under one roof with the employer can be a source of conflicts, which will ultimately cause problems for both sides.
The relationship between countries whether in the developing or developed world is very much determined by the personality and style of leadership of the leaders. We can compare the leadership of Razak, Mahathir and Abdullah Badawi in term of the consequential dynamics in the conduct of domestic as well as foreign policies.
During Tun Razak’s era, there was a shift from being pro British under Tunku Abdul Rahman to be more independent and neutral in its international relations. In ASEAN previously golf diplomacy was seen to be working during the era of Tunku and Tun Razak but not under Mahathir. Even amongst the Foreign Ministers there are less and less Foreign Ministers who are golfers. Undeniably these informal personal settings contributed to strong personal rapport and a positive working relationship.
However the relationship was under constant strain during Tun Mahathir’s premiership when he was seen more aggressive, assertive and pragmatic in leading the nation towards industrialization. Though he believed in the philosophy of “prosper thy neighbor”, his views and stance were perceived as being anti West. Indonesia on the other hand takes a softer stance and was more accommodative towards the West.
Tun Abdullah was more gentle and consultative in his approach. The current leadership of Najib is seen steering Malaysia to a new era of political and economic collaboration and cooperation with all countries. He seeks a warmer and friendly approach to Malaysia’s big trading partners especially US and Europe.
In the case of Indonesia the different styles between Sukarno, Suharto and finally under Yudhoyono when the democratic process had stabilized are conspicuous. Sukarno was nationalistic and adopted genuine socialistic policies in managing Indonesia. He viewed Malaya, as it was then as an example of British neo colonialism and with the establishment of Malaysia he declared confrontation. Subsequently, during Suharto’s era he focused more on building a market oriented economy for Indonesia, with emphasis on improving the standard and quality of lives of its people. When democratic movement took shape in Indonesia, there was a quick change of leadership, from Habibie to A.Rahman Wahid to Megawati . Under a new constitution Yudhoyono was elected as President of Indonesia. The country has emerged as a democratic, politically stable country that wants to focus its attention on economic development as well as play a more profiled role internationally consistent with its size and population.
The NGOs and individuals play an equally significant role in highlighting the plight of the workers and to a lesser extend the employers. Unless Malaysia is able to tackle the issues raised by them in a responsive, fair and equitable manner, it would be another source of problem between Malaysia and Indonesia. The physical abuse and nonpayment of wages are some of the issues that are argued on fundamental human rights. This can cause the building up of anger and prejudice against Malaysian employers. Here again what is needed is the intervention of the government to provide the umbrella for the protection of workers’ rights. Even the operations to rid Malaysia of illegal migrant workers have become contentious as they saw the handling by the police, immigration and RELA against illegals as humiliating.
We should go back to the basics and re-establish old ties in the form of students and academic exchanges which can contribute to improving bilateral relations. Networking and cooperation in multifaceted areas between Indonesia and Malaysia will be essential to sustain positive and good bilateral relation. The educational intellectual and social linkages should be re-established for deeper political and economic ties between the two countries. Relying on purely conventional diplomacy will not suffice.
The views contained in this article are my personal views and perceptions shaped during my service as Malaysia’s Foreign Minister.
 Literal translation giving the meaning that a relationship akin to the properties of water which is impossible to sever
 This was an exception as Dr. Mahathir considers the act of Serbia on attacking Kosovo an act of genocide Indonesia on principle did not support US action as it was inconsistent with multilateralism process of the UN.
 Paper on Managing –Indonesia Relations Post Mahathir years by Khadijah Md Khalid and Shakila Yacob