Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Repairing Malaysia's tattered image in Indonesia

FREEDOM of expression in Indonesia is never freer, and the volume never louder, than when it comes to fringe nationalists groups venting their wrath on Malaysia.

The anti-Malaysia sentiment is played unfettered over the airwaves and in cyberspace, the print media and text messages. "Are you ready to war, ready to attack Malaysia and to defend our country, our people, our land? Let's join with us, BENDERA, Indonesian fighters. (4ward to others)", says a text message sent by Bendera.

Bendera, or Benteng Demokrasi Rakyat, an extremist nationalist group, wants to invade Malaysia to avenge the alleged abuses suffered by Indonesian migrant workers in the country. While inflaming the passions of some disenchanted youths, retired military officers and former migrant workers mistreated in Malaysia, they, however, do not represent the majority.

Bendera is led by 32-year-old Mustar Bonar Ventura, a former activist who was part of the student movement that helped toppled the late president Suharto, but many of his former fellow activists have refused to join him.

"I was asked several times but I refused because I don't believe in their cause," said Abdul Rahman, a former student leader. "Bendera is backed by a major political party."

Other former student activists view the anti-Malaysian movement as an attempt by certain quarters to distract the public's attention from social and economic issues affecting Indonesia.

Bendera claimed 200 volunteers were scheduled to arrive in Malaysia last week as part of the first phase of "invasion". The numbers were expected to increase to 1,500 by the end of the month.

But to date, all is peaceful on the Malaysian front.

Apart from cataloguing a long list of abuses suffered by Indonesian migrant workers, the group is perennially on the lookout for Malaysia's "sins". Another opportunity came early last week: "Victims of the earthquake threw stones at Malaysian military plane for distributing aid goods which were expired. Forward to others", Bendera said in a text message.

One private TV station played up the expired foodstuff issue, their camera zooming in on the date "12-2008". But there seemed to be no Indonesian TV cameras present when Malaysian officials explained that the foodstuff inside the boxes was fresh, but that stickers with new expiry dates pasted over the boxes had fallen off.

Malaysia is constantly portrayed as a land of cruel people -- TV stations regularly broadcast footage of abused Indonesian maids with their faces badly swollen and scarred at the hands of Malaysian employers.

Malaysians' own condemnation of such abuse never makes it to the Indonesian press.

With 1.8 million Indonesians working in Malaysia, many illegally, exploitation is bound to befall the undocumented worker. The number of abuse cases, as a proportion of the huge Indonesian population working in Malaysia, is small. But whatever the scale, every single incident is a blot on its image.

Every year, migrant workers remit billions of ringgit from Malaysia back to Indonesia, paying for schooling for their children, homes for their parents, and capital to start up small businesses to generate income for their families. This, too, is ignored by the local media.

Instead, what gets reported is how Malaysian employers do not pay their maids and retrenched Indonesian factory and construction workers are not paid compensation. No wonder Indonesians view Malaysians as thieves, robbing Indonesian workers of their rightful wages. Many Indonesian netizens now refer to Malaysia as "Maling-sia" ("Maling" means "thief" in Indonesia.)

Malaysia's cause was not helped by the fact that Noordin Muhammad Top, the terrorist mastermind shot dead by Indonesian police last month, was a Malaysian.

A sizeable number of Indonesians actually believe in the conspiracy theory that Malaysia had sent Noordin Top to wreak havoc on Indonesia. His death will remove at least one of the many thorns in Malaysia's relationship with Indonesia.

Another major agitator is the controversial website, which posts derogatory articles and pictures of Indonesia. In August, the website posted a spoof of Indonesia's national anthem Indonesia Raya, with the lyrics changed to mock the country.

This provoked great anger and Indonesians demonstrated outside Malaysia's embassy in Jakarta. No one knows who is behind the website, but most Indonesians assume it is the work of a Malaysian. Regrettably, no Malaysian official has denied the country's involvement.

There are unconfirmed reports that another nationalist group, Laskar Merah Putih, plans to occupy Petronas stations in Indonesia over the insult.

Malaysia must remember that Indonesia is a nationalistic nation, whose people fought a bloody and courageous war to gain independence from the Dutch. That sacrifice remains deeply ingrained, and any real or perceived insults will trigger a strong reaction.

While the Indonesian media's sometimes sensationalist coverage of bilateral issues is a factor in provoking tensions, the Malaysian government has to play its part by doing more to respond to the accusations hurled against it.

The admirable Asian trait of resolving issues in a low-profile and quiet way have not worked in improving ties and Malaysia's image with a very close and important neighbour.

Indonesia today is very different from that of the Suharto era, when he ruled with absolute power and foreign governments only needed to negotiate with him to resolve outstanding issues.

To win hearts and minds in a free and democratic Indonesia where power has been devolving from the centre to the regions since 2000, it is not enough to gain President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's approval alone.

It is equally important now to forge ties with all the major stakeholders -- provincial governments, the military (which remains a cohesive and influential institution), community leaders, student groups, labour activists, and Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, the country's two largest Muslim organisations, among others.

And, of course, the powerful and free press.

By Amy Chew NST's Jakarta correspondent

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