Bilateral tensions amongst ASEAN states: Ambalat and migrant labour

Updated On: Apr 06, 2007

As ASEAN prepares to celebrate its 40 years of its existence in August this year, several bilateral issues continue to “bug” relations between ASEAN member states.  

While there appears to be some cooling of tensions between Thailand and Singapore over  the Temasek-Shin Corp deal, ongoing spates between Malaysia and its neighbours over Ambalat and various issues continue to appear daily in newspapers in the region.

The dispute over oil-rich Ambalat remains unresolved in spite of nine meetings by a Malaysia-Indonesia technical committee. The situation worsened when the Indonesian media reported an apology over alleged encroachments on Ambalat waters by a Royal Malaysian Navy vessel last month by Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, and which the latter refuted.

Najib said he met Indonesian Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono at an informal meeting of Asean defense ministers in Bali on March 23 but the issue of Malaysia`s apology was not discussed at all.

"I did not offer an apology to the Indonesian defense minister in Bali recently. I did have a conversation with him. I said that we need to have an understanding to prevent any untoward incidents. And he agreed that we need to adhere to the rules of engagement at the level of military leadership on the ground," Najib told a news conference.

Malaysia’s stance has been viewed by Indonesian officials as being increasingly aggressive and ‘expansionist.’ In response, Andreas Pareira of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) faction, said the only way for Indonesia to drive Malaysia away from Ambalat waters was to strengthen its maritime fleet in the area.

Elsewhere, Dedy Djamaluddin, a member of the House of Representatives (DPR)`s Commission I representing the National Mandate Party (PAN), called for the two countries to hold a dialogue immediately to prevent unwanted incidents from happening.

Yet, incidents have already begun to develop, as Malaysia arrested 23 Indonesian fishermen on early April 4 for encroaching into the country’s territorial waters. According to Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency's Regional Enforcement Chief for Sabah and Labuan First Admiral Ahmad Puzi Abdul Kahar, the fishermen were aged between 17 and 40, and their four boats and a barrel of fish were seized, and handed over to the Fisheries Department for further action.

Bilateral tensions over territorial sovereignty were also extended to other nationalities, as the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency earlier detained 40 Vietnamese fishermen late last month.

Another issue of tension between states in the region lies with migrant labour. Malaysia’s plan to halve the number of Indonesians (900,000) working in the country in January this year – following a clash between the police and Indonesian workers – had received harsh criticism from Indonesian officials.

The riot purportedly came about when police officers attempted to detain some Indonesian workers at a textile factory for taking drugs. Just a month ago, another riot had occurred involving more than 1,600 illegal Indonesian immigrants at a detention camp in southern Johor.

Indonesian Manpower Minister Jacob Nuwa Wea had earlier warned that Malaysia’s move can incur a backlash with a greater influx of illegal workers as Indonesians wanting to work in Malaysia in the future would more likely enter the country illegally rather than go through the official process. Former Manpower Minister Bomer Pasaribu also said that Malaysia’s plan would worsen Indonesia’s employment crisis.

Besides problems with migrant workers from Indonesia, Malaysia has also stepped up pressure on the Philippines for hampering the former’s efforts to deport thousands of illegal Filipinos. According to Musa Aman, the chief minister of Sabah state, Manila was not cooperating in accepting its nationals back.

“What I want to say here is that we will continue to round up the illegal immigrants in Sabah to ensure they are sent back to their home countries," Musa said. "However, to repatriate them all is not easy because some countries, particularly the Philippines, have failed to give decent cooperation, causing the process to send their nationals back taking a very long time," he added. (5 April 2007)


KL's ban on RI workers a 'time bomb' (Jakarta Post, 29 January 2007)

40 Vietnamese Fishermen Detained For Encroaching Malaysian Waters (Bernama, 21 March 2007)

MP : Malaysia indeed becoming more expansionist (Antara, 1 April 2007)

Legislator calls for RI-Malaysia talks on Ambalat issue (Antara, 3 April 2007)

23 Indonesian Fishermen Held, Two Turtles Set Free (Bernama, 4 April 2007)

Malaysian state blasts Philippines on illegals (AFP, 4 April 2007)