Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Indonesia and Malaysia - The ties that bind need to be strengthened

IN recent years, the ties between Malaysia and Indonesia have come to be defined by the issue of migrant workers.
For many in Indonesia, the face of Malaysia is of heartless employers who maim and kill poor, hapless domestic workers who left home in hope of earning money to send back to loved ones.

Malaysia is also seen as a thief who steals the arts and crafts of Indonesia and claims them as its own.

For many in Malaysia, on the other hand, Indonesia is associated with illegal migrant workers blamed for petty and violent crimes that often end in injury and death.

It is tragic that bilateral relations have deteriorated to such narrow perceptions after 52 years of diplomatic relations.

It is well worth the efforts of both governments to dispel such perceptions, as the ties between the two countries are far deeper and more meaningful than these narrow perceptions.
For a start, the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta could have a public affairs section to respond to accusations and queries from the Indonesian press and groups ranging from labour unions to human rights advocates. The embassy lacks such a section at present.

For one recent example, the perception here is that Malaysians were behind a website mocking Indonesia, leading to demonstrations outside the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta, but there was no official response from Malaysian representatives.

Nor has there been any refutation of the accusation by the fringe nationalist group, Bendera, that one Indonesian migrant worker dies in Malaysia every day through abuse and neglect.

A public affairs section would also be invaluable in engaging with Indonesia's press, civil society, non-governmental organisations and other groups to foster better relations.

The Indonesian press has grown into a large, powerful and influential force.

The combined national and local print media number an estimated 1,000 publications, according to the Indonesian Journalists Alliance.

Good ties with the press will help put a fair perspective on important issues, or whenever Malaysia needs the Indonesian press to explain and disseminate its side of the story.

Indonesia is a country of great importance to Malaysia and the rest of the region. It is Southeast Asia's largest economy and has the world's fourth-largest population with 240 million people. Malaysia's population is about 12 per cent of Indonesia's.

Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago spread across 17,000 islands and shares a long border with Malaysia.

Behind the headlines of maid abuse and criminal migrant workers, Malaysian and Indonesian investors have been cooperating to create jobs and wealth for both countries in agriculture plantations, telecommunications and mining.

It is important for that to be more widely known among Malaysians and Indonesians alike. How many realise that Malaysia is Indonesia's fourth-largest investor?

Last year, Malaysia's approved investments in Indonesia totalled US$2.35 billion (RM8 billion), according to official figures.

Bilateral trade jumped 14 per cent last year to total RM44.9 billion from RM39.1 billion in 2007.

While many Indonesian students study in Malaysia, Indonesian universities also play host to 5,900 Malaysians.

Fuelled by leisure and business travel, Malaysian tourist arrivals in Indonesia rose to 800,000 last year. Every weekend, Malaysians flock to the hillside city of Bandung for retail therapy at the dozens of factory outlets offering a wide variety of clothes, jeans and T-shirts at cheap prices.

The number of Indonesians visiting Malaysia is far greater, totalling 1.8 million.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono chose Malaysia as the first foreign state to visit after his re-election to a second term in July.

It was a gesture of goodwill deeply appreciated by Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who had attended Susilo's inauguration for a second term on Oct 20.

These are positive signs for Malaysia-Indonesia ties. Indonesia's newly-appointed Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa described Susilo's visit to Malaysia as having a "great, great outcome".

"All the dynamics and chemistry were extremely positive, emphasising why bilateral relationships are so important," Marty said upon his return to Jakarta.

* The writer is NST's Jakarta correspondent

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