By Theo L. Sambuaga
President Joko Widodo’s comment deploring the mistake in a Southeast Asian Games guidebook for VIPs in which Indonesia’s flag was printed upside-down saw him call for an apology, while advising people not to play up the issue. This was followed by an apology from Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman to the government and people of Indonesia for the inadvertent error, succeeding in calming Indonesian anger over the incident. Despite an outcry in Indonesia, sentiment against Malaysia did not blow up into major protests as in earlier years over issues of cultural theft, border disputes and worker mistreatment. It is an irony that as close neighboring countries with a lot of similarities, cooperation between Indonesia and Malaysia has been more significant in multilateral relations compared to bilateral ones. Both countries are ASEAN founders, members of APEC, the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organization of Islamic Conference. They have been working in tandem in the politics, security, economy and social affairs of those organizations and, with Singapore and Thailand, cooperate closely in the management of the Malacca Strait.
Total bilateral trade declined from $23.5 billion in 2012 to $14.3 billion in 2016 but there is still opportunity for improvement. Electronic and IT products, both software and hardware, automotive and transportation equipment, construction materials, garments and textiles are among potential trade goods. The number of tourists from both countries needs to be significantly increased to explore our similar cultural roots. Cooperation needs to be enhanced in education, science and technology. More lecturers and students should teach and study in universities not only in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur but reaching out to smaller cities. This will produce more professionals and create friendships among future elites. Such elites in later life will work in many areas, for instance in the security field, helping to speed up dispute resolution over border issues. Malaysia and Indonesia must free themselves from the climate of the era of Confrontation and the dispute over the contested islands of Sipadan and Ligitan. They should learn from the past and seize the future.
The annual haze problem caused by fires from illegal slash-and-burn practices used to clear land in Indonesia must be resolved with a comprehensive solution. All these challenges can be solved if the two countries can reduce prejudice, develop mutual understanding and encourage mutual respect. Indonesia does not need to be envious of Malaysia’s progress. Malaysians should not look down on Indonesians because they work in their country as unskilled labor, since those workers have contributed significantly to the progress Malaysia now enjoys. Envy and arrogance are part of the love-hate relationship that springs from the shared legacy or serumpun, though that is no excuse for the mistreatment of Indonesian domestic workers. Meanwhile allegations of cultural theft associated with Malaysian adoption of songs, dances, arts and crafts must be replaced with pride that one nation’s culture has been adopted by another. The bottom line is empowerment of people-to-people contact. We have so much in common but as independent countries we also have many differences. This makes it more important to develop people-to-people activities. Student, youth, women and teacher exchange programs should be extended to the district and village level. Exchange programs should include journalists, professionals, social activists and young political leaders. With this hopefully we can develop mutual understanding and respect.