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Understanding anti-Malaysianism in Indonesia

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Farish A Noor longs to see the day when the political and ideological boundaries between Malaysia and Indonesia will be overcome by a higher humane spirit that transcends the narrow parochialism of cheap, crass politics.

Map: rjgeib.com

And so, as it happens time and again, there appears to be yet another diplomatic spat looming over the horizon between Malaysia and Indonesia.

The cause of it, this time round, is a dispute over border-land markers somewhere in East Malaysia/Kalimantan that appear to have been moved by persons yet unknown and unidentified. Some Indonesian legislators have called for an investigation, while others have tried to ease tension by saying that spurious accusations without proof are useless at this stage.

I will not comment on the exact circumstances and details of this dispute, for I am frankly in the dark about what really happened — along with millions of other Malaysians and Indonesians. Thus far according to some accounts it has been suggested that some of the border-markers may even have been moved by Indonesians themselves, who seem to think it would be better to live in Malaysia. Should that be the case, however odd and unlikely, it would still be a legal matter that has to be investigated before any resolution can come.

My concern here has less to do with this singular issue, but rather the wider picture of Malaysia-Indonesia relations and the internal politics of both countries.

The Malaysian press has highlighted that the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta has once again been surrounded by angry members of the infamous Laskar Merah-Putih, right wing preman (gangster) types who seem to have nothing better to do than to threaten to “sweep” the streets of Malaysians. These are the same Laskars who, last year, threatened to seek out and sweep Malaysian tourists in Jakarta, and whose exploits include throwing rubbish and even faeces at the Malaysian embassy compound. Needless to say such pyrotechnics do little to cool tempers, and we will recall that during a similar dispute last year the Malaysian flag was also trampled upon, spat on, torn and burned. The result was as expected, with Malaysians suddenly becoming united in a show of trumpeted patriotism and jingoism, befitting a bad slapstick comedy.

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So while this latest episode meanders on at its own slow pace (to be forgotten, for sure, like all other episodes in the past), allow me to interject with some points that I think need to be borne in mind by my fellow Malaysians and Indonesians alike:

Firstly, let us remind ourselves that this is yet another political event, and like all political events it is hostage to realpolitik and political calculations and interests. It is almost a truism by now that whenever the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia are at some crisis point, they seek out external bogeymen — real and imagined — to project their own insecurities. Yes, Indonesian politicians seem to use Malaysia as a punching bag all the time, but should Malaysians be surprised by this? How many times have Malaysian politicians done the same, hitting out at the so-called ‘evil West’ (America, Australia, UK and the rest of Europe minus Monaco)? We should all be familiar with this by now, and realise that much of this is just chest-thumping and grandstanding, nothing more. Malaysian leaders have also condemned the West tirelessly, but aren’t America, UK, Australia and Europe among our most important trading allies?

Secondly, the fact that a few Indonesian politicians seem to be in a Malaysia-hating mood at the moment does not mean that all Indonesian politicians agree with them. Credit must be given to level-headed Indonesian statesmen like Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who has called upon other politicians to get to the facts of the matter, and not play to the gallery or their rowdy followers. In the same way that one Abu Bakar Ba’asyir does not and should not be equated with the entire Muslim community, likewise a handful of hoodlums under the banner of the Laskar Merah Putih must not be seen as the public face of all Indonesia and Indonesians.

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Thirdly, let us look at some real facts and figures: Malaysians and Indonesians remain the closest relatives in the wider Asean family till today. For a start millions of Malaysians (this writer included) happen to be of Indonesian origin; and we have never abandoned our friends in Indonesia next door. Look at the number of Malaysian tourists going to Indonesia and spending money there: At the peak of religious violence in 2001-2004, in the wake of the Tsunami of 2004, and even at times when Indonesia was put on ‘terror alert’ by Western agencies, Malaysian tourists and students continue to go to Indonesia because we love the country as much as our own. Others may have abandoned Indonesia when it was deemed unsafe for foreigners, but never Malaysians. The Malaysian ringgit has been instrumental in keeping up Indonesia’s tourist industry, and Malaysians in turn bring back with them happy memories, friendships and learning experiences that have enriched them too.

Fourthly, lets look at some more figures: Despite the threats of “sweeping Malaysians”, beating up Malaysian students, burning the Malaysian flag, etc., exactly how many Malaysians have been attacked, beaten up, abused by these right-wing groups? The figure, I believe, is zero. There are tens of thousands of Malaysians who live, work, do business and study in Indonesia. There are also thousands of Indonesians and Malaysians who happen to be married and who have mixed Indonesian-Malaysian families where the children enjoy the best of both worlds. Yet not a single Malaysian student or tourist in Indonesia has been violently attacked or killed by any of these so-called nationalist ‘mobs’. No Malaysians have been bombed or murdered. Which underscores my point that one must see beyond the rhetoric of a small number of vocal nationalists and understand the complexity of Indonesian society.

In the final analysis, Indonesia and Malaysia have a unique relationship that neither country has with any other country in Asean: We joke together, laugh together and at times even insult and abuse each other.

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But consider this: How many Malaysians joke about Thailand? Or Cambodia?

And how many Indonesians joke about Laos? Or Burma?

We don’t, for the simple reason that in the subjective and relative gradations of familiarity and difference, we — Malaysians and Indonesians — know that we are infinitely much closer to each other than the rest. And talk about who is the ‘elder brother’ and the ‘younger brother’ in this relationship is equally silly and non-productive. The fact is that Indonesia and Malaysia are twins, separated at birth perhaps.

So back to the current brouhaha over the border markers in East Malaysia and Kalimantan. One hopes that in the days and weeks ahead cooler tempers on both sides will prevail and that the issue will not be played up by either side just as an expedient means to exteriorise local, domestic problems that need to be addressed anyway. I personally have little faith in some of our politicians (on both sides), for we have seen how some of them are prone to hysterics and hyperbole when they think that it might win them a vote or two.

But my faith lies elsewhere, and it is in the peoples of Malaysia and Indonesia themselves, who have shown time and again that despite the cupidity and unscrupulousness of some of our politicians, we are still more level-headed, human and humane, then those whom we have elected to high office.

As a Malaysian of distant Indonesian origins myself, I long instead to see the day when the political and ideological boundaries between the two countries will be overcome by a higher humane spirit that transcends the narrow parochialism of cheap, crass politics. May that day come sooner than later, and in the meantime, let us keep visiting, joking, shopping, loving and courting one another!

Dr Farish Noor, an Aliran member, is a Senior Fellow at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

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