Indonesia reacts to its neighbours: Righteous or childish?

Updated On: Oct 12, 2007

The last few weeks have seen Indonesia-Malaysia relations sour at an unprecedented rate.

Stemming from resentment over Malaysia’s perceived bossy superiority and ill-treatment of Indonesian nationals, the anger has grown such that anything connected to Malaysiasparks off more protests. The most recent issues have been the apparent cultural theft of Indonesia’s folk song, Rasa Saying, for Malaysia’s global tourism campaign and the mistaken arrest of a diplomat’s wife as an illegal immigrant by Malaysian volunteer corps, RELA.

Indonesians are so furious that parliamentarians are calling for measures to “teach Malaysiaa lesson”. Yusron Ihza Mahendra, deputy chairman of a parliament commission on foreign affairs, said, “Things like these happen again and again. If we stay silent they will think we Indonesians are stupid. We must take strong action that sends a clear message that we are angry.” Permadi of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle criticized, “The government should not stay calm but take concrete action, including withdrawing our ambassador and suspending sending migrant workers in revenge against the Malaysian operation.” Indonesian House Speaker Agung Laksono threatened, “If such cases continue to happen, the House of Representatives will consider to report the cases to the UN Human Rights Commission.” He however added that Indonesianeeded to reduce its anti-Malaysia sentiment while Malaysianeeded to treat Indonesians better.

Already the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpurhas sent a protest note to Malaysia's Foreign Ministry. Embassy official Shanti Utami Retnaningsih complained, “They treated her like an illegal immigrant. It’s unacceptable,” Retnaningsih said. "This incident shows disrespect to members of our embassy.”

Fortunately, the Indonesian government is not joining the bandwagon of Malaysia-bashers, and have been quite measured in its response. Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said, “We are concerned about the cases which, although they were different in nature, generically reflect rude treatment of our citizens. We demand corrective actions from the Malaysian government.” To that end, presidential spokesman Dino Patti Djalal said that there was a need for Malaysiato reform its RELA force of about 450,000 members in light of all the recent abuses, including the rape of an Indonesian and also the break-in of an Indonesian student’s home.

This is not the first time RELA has got into trouble for its vigilantism. Human rights groups have often complained about RELA. Critics have said that while RELA members number more than the total sum ofMalaysia's police and military personnel, they have little training to justify their work. Aliran, a Malaysian human rights group, said, “A 10-day course and a uniform do not transform anyone into a professional overnight.” It suggested that RELA be transformed into a volunteer corps for disaster assistance.

However, RELA Director-General Zaidon Asmuni told Reuters that it was imperative RELA remained. He said, “It will not be disbanded just because of a few bad hats. Rela is becoming a force to be reckoned with ... so there are groups trying to distract Rela by harping on human rights.” He cited the success rate of RELA in rounding up illegal workers in 2007 being 27,300 so far, when the total number for 2006 was only 26,000.

Whatever it is, the ill-treatment of Indonesian workers in Malaysiahas frightened off potential workers to Malaysia. The Malaysian government this week announced a plan to allow recruitment from India,NepalLaosand Vietnamas the numbers from Indonesiahad dipped significantly due to the bad press. Raja Zulkepley Dahalan, president of the Malaysian Association of Foreign Housemaids Agencies told the Associated Press “fewer Indonesian maids are applying to work in Malaysiabecause salaries here are lower than in other countries, and also because many are scared away by media reports that maids are physically abused by Malaysian employer”.

The furore in Indonesiaover Malaysia’s bad attitude leaves the latter bemused. Indeed, Malaysians are wondering why Indonesiais kicking such a big fuss over separate incidents, especially the Rasa Sayang song. Moreover, Indonesiais not only trying to push its weight around with Malaysiaas Singaporehas also recently borne Indonesia’s tantrums.

Lecturer of Universityof Indonesia, Bantarto Bandoro, commented that why Indonesiabehaves so badly against Singaporeregarding the extradition treaty and defence pacts is out of envy. He said, “Indonesiahas at times played the bully. At other times we have made our richer neighbour a scapegoat for our domestic chaos. But outward-looking Singaporecontinues to prosper, leaving its friend,Indonesia, far behind.” Furthermore, he lamented that while relishing its “big brother role”, Indonesia “fails to exhibit maturity in policies towards its neighbours, particularly when its political desires are frustrated”, citing Indonesia’s ban on sand exports to Singapore as example of puerility.

Ultimately, Bandoro may be right –that Indonesiais “becoming more xenophobic” as it perhaps is struggling to “cope with a growing inferiority complex” amid its prospering neighbours.  (11 October 2007)


Dealing with tantrums of a big brother (Straits Times, 5 October 2007)

We’ve lost that loving feeling (Star, 11 October 2007)

House mulls reporting Malaysiato UN Human Rights Commission (Jakarta Post, 11 October 2007)

House tells govt to get tough on Malaysia(Jakarta Post, 11 October 2007)

Malaysiato hire maids from South AsiaLaosand Vietnamto fill shortage (IHT, 10 October 2007)

Indonesiaprotests to Malaysiaover detention of diplomat's wife (AP, 9 October 2007)

Indonesian MPs urge action against Malaysia(Reuters, 9 October 2007)

RI waiting for M’sia’s clarification on detention of diplomat’s wife (Antara, 9 October 2007)

RI asks Malaysiato discipline "Rela" volunteers force (Antara, 9 October 2007)

RI-Malaysia ties somewhat sensitive, minister warns (Jakarta Post, 9 October 2007)

Embassy blasts Rela officers (Star, 9 October 2007)