03 September, 2007

From The Jakarta Post - Relations with Malaysia require a realistic approach

Relations with Malaysia require a realistic approach
(Opinion News - Monday, September 03, 2007)

Rizal Sukma, Jakarta

Indonesia's relations with Malaysia face another hurdle. Many in Indonesia feel that we are continuously treated with little respect by our closest neighbor. The latest incident -- the assault of Indonesia's chief karate referee Donald Peter Luther Kolopita by four Malaysian police detectives -- is only the tip of the iceberg.

In early 2004, all politicians expressed their anger when Malaysia's authorities decided to whip Indonesia's undocumented migrant workers for violating the immigration law in that country. Many of us were also angered with Malaysia in early 2005 over a dispute regarding the ownership of the Ambalat area in the Sulawesi Sea.

What is our response to such problems, both in Indonesia and Malaysia? We keep saying that Indonesia and Malaysia are bangsa serumpun -- two nations coming from the same roots. We believe we share the same language. We are also told we share the same cultural traits. By invoking this serumpun concept, we would hope that any problems would automatically disappear. Because we are serumpun nations, we tend to fool ourselves by saying these problems should have never existed in the first place.

Because of this way of thinking, many feel there should not be any problems between the two countries. We tend to think both nations should live harmoniously like a prince and princess in a fairy tale. In other words, the serumpun way of thinking tends to create irrational expectations from both sides about each other. We expect Malaysia to treat us according to our wishes, and Malaysia expects the same from Indonesia, despite the fact the management of inter-state relations is not a simple matter.

The fact is, we often fail to understand each other. Many Indonesians feel there has been a growing tendency in Malaysia to look down on Indonesia, as reflected in various recent stereotypes about Indonesians. Indonesians have come to be seen as the perpetrators of crime, illegal workers and uneducated maids. Many Indonesians feel that Malaysia has become arrogant due to its economic success. We are often hurt by the way our neighbor looks at us and perceives us.

On the other hand, Malaysians feel it is Indonesians who are arrogant. They believe we still behave like a big brother. Indeed, many of us still use the word "Malay" when we want to mock something, for example the expression spion Melayu (Malay spy).

We also often fail to understand why each side behaves the way it does. For example, Malaysians were amazed when many in Indonesia were calling for another konfrontasi (confrontation) with Malaysia over the Ambalat issue. Malaysia also had difficulty understanding why we were upset when it wanted to enforce its own law against undocumented Indonesian migrant workers there. It is also difficult for ordinary Malaysians to understand why the Indonesian government cannot provide enough jobs for its own people, meaning many Indonesians have to go to Malaysia to find work. Malaysia also fails to understand why we have never been able to resolve the problem of bad calo (agents) responsible for creating the problem in the first place.

Cases of mistreatment involving Indonesia's undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia continue to hurt Indonesia's dignity. We fail to understand, if we are indeed serumpun nations, why Malaysia has to deport -- and whip -- Indonesian undocumented migrant workers rather than show more understanding.

Recently we were also not satisfied when Malaysia was slow to offer an apology in response to the beating of an Indonesian karate referee in the country. As the argument goes, if we are indeed serumpun countries, Malaysia should have not hesitated to offer an apology.

Why is there such a wide gap in our expectations and perceptions of each other? The problem lies exactly in the use of the serumpun concept. We forget that Indonesia and Malaysia are two sovereign nations with their own national interests. We ignore the fact that Indonesia and Malaysia are two separate and distinct entities. Because of the serumpun concept, we tend to pretend we know each other well. However, as demonstrated by repeated problems, we do not know each other well enough. The way we stereotype each other clearly demonstrates this fact. The feeling of sentimental closeness, as implied in the serumpun concept, often leads to irrational expectations of each other.

Therefore, in the future we should no longer use the serumpun concept in the way it has been used in the past. Whenever the notion of serumpun is employed, it is expected by those who employ it that the other side should be "more understanding." What it really means is that one side expects the other to give in. In other words, the relationship becomes irrational, emotional and sentimental.

We should not fear that without the serumpun concept bilateral relations will worsen. The rational foundation of Indonesia-Malaysia bilateral relations is strong. Both share common security interests in the Malacca Straits. Both share common interests in strong and deep economic cooperation. Both share strong interests in eradicating global misperceptions of Islam. And more importantly, Indonesia-Malaysia bilateral ties are strongly institutionalized and anchored within the framework of ASEAN.

Therefore, this bilateral relationship has to be built upon a rational foundation, not upon a sentimental or romanticized base, as implied in the serumpun concept. And that rational foundation should be the imperative of managing both converging and diverging national interests between the two countries on the basis of normal principles and common norms in inter-state relations, namely mutual respect, equality and mutual benefits. In other words, the relationship between the two nations should be about the management of national interests -- not about the cultivation of sentimental feelings.

The writer is the deputy executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).



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