04 September, 2010

Malaysia’s arrogance VS Indonesia’s envy

Endy M. Bayuni, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

“Malaysians are arrogant, Indonesians are jealous” was how Ali Alatas, Indonesia’s foreign minister from 1988-1999, put it during a seminar that looked at relations between the two countries. He made this remark two years before his passing in 2009, when anti-Malaysian sentiments flared in the wake of near skirmishes between Indonesian and Malaysian naval ships in the disputed Ambalat block in the Sulawesi Sea.

If Alatas was still with us today, he would surely have used the same explanation for the recent resumption of tensions between the two nations.

Anti-Malaysian sentiments have erupted again after an incident in disputed waters near the Riau archipelago early last month. This time the war drums sounded by Indonesian public opinion are louder. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s attempt to calm the situation with his speech on Wednesday — standing firm on Indonesia’s territorial claim but urging that diplomacy be given a chance — was predictably jeered by the warmongers.

The latest incident concerned the arrest of seven Malaysian fishermen in what Indonesian maritime officials claimed to be their waters. A nearby Malaysian sea patrol begged to differ and in retaliation detained the three Indonesian officials. All those arrested have since been freed, but many Indonesians felt slighted by the incident and demanded that Yudhoyono take a strong stand against Malaysia.

While his speech had gone as far as possible in staking out Indonesia’s position, some would not have been satisfied with anything short of a declaration of war. And looking at the public reaction to the speech, the warmongers appear to have widespread support.

Anyone looking for a rational explanation as to why two nations — which could not be more similar because of their shared Malay cultural roots — are at odds again for the umpteenth time can’t go wrong by remembering what Alatas said.

The Malay commonality has made this relationship special, more so than with other neighbors such as Singapore, Australia and Timor Leste, with whom Indonesia has its share of disputes and tensions. But as the recent development illustrates, this Malay commonality has also become the source of a problem, especially when it is underpinned by the perceptions that one country is arrogant, and the other is envious.

The series of spats in the relationship, from the Ambalat case to accusations of Malaysia’s theft of Indonesia’s cultural heritage to constant reports of abuses against Indonesian workers, contribute to the perception of Malaysian arrogance.

Malaysia started its development at the same level as Indonesia in the 1970s and even received assistance from Indonesia, which sent teachers and lecturers to Malaysia. The fact that Malaysia today economically is far more successful than Indonesia makes the case for Indonesian jealousy.

It is also for this reason that rather than the “love/hate” sentiment that usually develops between close friends, Indonesian and Malaysian relations today are looking more like the “hate/love” kind....more

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