This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on March 13, 2023 - March 19, 2023
There has been no better moment in a long time than now for Indonesia and Malaysia to get closer together and, with the long-standing five-plus-one members, to get Asean moving more vigorously in addressing regional and global challenges.
But, first, Indonesia and Malaysia must get closer together. There is a fount of goodwill in Indonesia for Malaysia’s Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. His relationship with leaders and institutions there is rock solid, deep and extensive. However, this happy situation is not sufficient. Two further conditions must be fulfilled.
First, there must be an attitudinal change in Malaysia — including in the government, for Anwar is not all of the government — towards Indonesia and its people. It is not realised in Malaysia how Indonesia has progressed by leaps and bounds economically, socially and politically while Malaysia has moved sideways, stagnated and regressed, especially in political governance.
While there is some acknowledgement of Indonesia’s economic progress — its eight unicorns stand out (Malaysia just now has 10 potential unicorns) — and growth numbers and huge infrastructure plans (like the new capital Nusantara) hit the headlines, the more important thing in Indonesia is the quality of that growth.
Indonesia could teach Malaysia a thing or two about how to clamp down on corruption. Talk to Marzuki Darusman, the attorney-general in the post-Suharto era at the turn of the last century. Learn about the development of democracy since then, about rights and tolerance in one of the most complicated countries in the world. Admire the corporate leaders, such as Nadiem Anwar Makarim (minister of education, founder of ride-hailing giant Gojek, Indonesia’s first start-up valued at over US$10 billion [RM45 billion]) or Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno (minister of tourism, a leading businessman and investor) who gives back to society and country, instead of raiding millions out of loss-making companies or getting totally consumed by wealth, power and creating an autocracy of privilege.
I know of many more business leaders in Indonesia — such as Indika Energy’s Arsyad Rasjid, the chairman of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the dynamic chair this year of the Asean Business Advisory Council, to whom some of our corporate leaders cannot hold a candle — and people in politics and government whose capability and sense of service put to shame many of Malaysia’s.
Yet, too many Malaysians feel and act so superior. They are ignorant of how good Indonesia is becoming. It is a core reason that many of us treat Indonesian workers in our country so badly. Even those who make big the “serumpun” (people of common stock) argument, think of their blood brothers as country cousins.
Nothing grates on the Indonesians more than the way Malaysians treat their workers here. At one of the many Asean Leaders dialogues with the Asean Business Advisory Council that I attended, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi cornered and berated me: “You guys think we are half-people? No rights and services, and just working us to death.”
Alas, I told her, I am not a member of the government. I did pass on the strong message, of course, but our government then was too busy destroying what we had of domestic political stability to be bothered with nurturing the relationship with the most important country in the region.
Second, Malaysia must fulfil its promises. During his visit to Indonesia in the first half of January, Anwar promised to step up protection of Indonesian migrant workers. The Indonesian media reported that Anwar “swore” to do so. A lot hangs on this promise.
If unfulfilled, it would have been better if it had not been made at all. Whatever goodwill there is for Anwar in Indonesia will erode. To deliver, the prime minister and government of Malaysia must cut through the thicket of complexity, processes, procedures and human trafficking syndicates (there is a trafficking network in Indonesia, too) and work towards a Malaysian attitudinal change, to deliver. The prime minister had spoken of a single-channel digital platform, but all this needs first the human touch.
The exploitation of Indonesian migrant workers as a mere commodity must end.
I know the Indonesian ambassador to Malaysia has his finger on the pulse and he is not particularly impressed with the Malaysian implementation of the prime minister’s promise. Minister of Home Affairs Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution (a serumpun name) has to get his team cracking and convince the Indonesians that decisive, well-planned action is being taken.
At the meeting with Anwar in Bogor, the Indonesian president had requested the building of a community learning centre for the education of the children of Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia. This should quickly be implemented by getting the big companies employing Indonesian migrant workers to contribute.
When Indonesia and Malaysia are close, and working together with other important Asean countries, a lot more can be achieved to improve the regional grouping’s performance.
I had met Retno Marsudi in Jakarta at the end of January, going on as I usually do about the lack of leadership in Asean and why this year is important for Asean to make progress on a number of issues — with Indonesia, the most significant member, holding the chair.
She stopped me in my tracks with one poignant remark: “Indonesia misses Malaysia.” That is indisputable because Malaysia has been mired in the 1Malaysia Development Bhd corruption scandal and governmental instability for almost a decade, and it has been absent from meaningful participation in international and regional discourse. More recently, since 2020, it has been led by unknowns as prime minister.
With Anwar as prime minister, however, there is an opportunity to significantly re-engage. Indonesia looks to him to give Malaysian support for Indonesia’s year as chair of Asean, but also to provide continuity to an Asean agenda beyond its revolving chairmanship.
It is about time the 1967 founders of Asean got their act together and not be a bystander to those who joined only in the second half of the 1990s. In the many dialogues with Asean leaders and economic ministers that I have attended, these latter members, such as Cambodia, seem to make the running in discussions. And, Asean being Asean, the first-mover advantage often defines the parameters.
Next year, Laos takes over from Indonesia. Assuming a more active Indonesian leadership with support from Malaysia and other early members, are we going to see Asean going into reverse gear then? When Cambodia took over from Brunei last year, there was an engagement with Myanmar which ignored the strictures of the five-point consensus agreed by Asean with the military junta in April 2021. Only when this failed was there a meek return to the consensus. Myanmar showed itself to be a recalcitrant with whom engagement — the main argument used for its membership of Asean in 1997 — has had no effect whatsoever on state behaviour.
The running sore of Myanmar is something Indonesia must take on with the support of Asean’s important members. There should be a discussion and a plan to go into 2025, when Malaysia takes the Asean chair, on what to do about Myanmar. That discussion should include suspension of membership if there is no progress in ending the violence in that country. An estimated 30,000 lives have been lost in the civil war there and two million people have been displaced, crossing into Asean borders.
Asean avoids hard issues. Little wonder, then, that it makes little progress on difficult, festering matters.
Just the code of conduct, let alone resolving the territorial disputes China has with a number of Asean member states in the South China Sea, has been outstanding for 21 years. China has clearly been dragging its feet. Indonesia is to be commended for taking this up with China, as announced last month, but all other Asean states, including Malaysia, of course, must come out in support of the push to get the code of conduct done.
During his recent successful visit to the Philippines, Anwar renewed his strong relationship with the president and, in a telling interview, he disclosed that the two leaders discussed the South China Sea disputes, and thought that higher-level multilateral discussions between Asean and China should take place to arrest the frequency of territorial violations by Chinese vessels and achieve workable solutions.
When Malaysia takes the chair in 2025, the achievements and shortfalls of the Asean Economic Community 2025 will no doubt be reviewed. There will be reams and reams of reports that will overwhelm some essentials. For instance, the essential requirements of a single market and production base: free flow of goods; free flow of services; free flow of investment; free flow of capital; and free flow of skilled labour. Have they been met, even as higher level aspirations will be declared?
The Asean Trade in Goods Agreement (ATIGA) is being reviewed. What about enforcement against non-adherence?
Should Asean not take a stand against protectionism — within the region and in the world at large — whether by the European Union or the US, or by any in the region, including its member states, especially in the use of non-tariff barriers? Its frequently pronounced centrality must involve taking a stand on important issues in its own interest, and does not only mean providing a platform and organising big meetings.
Asean must take a long, hard look at itself, and not get fobbed off by the amiable Asean Way. Indonesian leadership at this time of Asean is so significant, to identify priorities to be carried forward which would not be subjected to the predisposition of the next chair. Just imagine what would happen if the next chair was Myanmar?
Indonesia, with Malaysia and the older member states, must come forward to ensure Asean is revitalised with rededicated leadership and direction. Anwar has been making some encouraging statements in this regard, particularly on Myanmar, but he should not forget that Asean has this great capacity to get you bogged down. Most of all, he must remember nothing will move in Asean without Indonesia. Now is the time.
Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid is chairman of CARI Asean Research and Advocacy
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