By DATUK ZAINAL ABIDIN BAKAR
THE month of August will always represent a significant milestone to Indonesia and Malaysia. It marks the celebration of Independence Day of Indonesia and Malaysia, and as its founding members, the commemoration of the anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an organization that continues to advance the growth of the region. More importantly, and in the context of our presence in Jakarta and other important cities in Indonesia, we celebrate the establishment of our official diplomatic relations immediately after Malaysia gained its independence on 31st August 1957.
Historically, our relations with Indonesia can be traced to as far as the 7th century when both countries were part of the ancient empires and kingdoms of Majapahit, Aceh, Srivijaya and Johor-Riau. Some of the ethnic groups, including Minang, Bugis, and Javanese had migrated to the Malay Peninsula and formed significant communities in modern day Malaysia.
The shared history results in many similarities between Malaysia and Indonesia, be them in religion, culture, history and language. These commonalities facilitate a unique socio-cultural relations, and allow for a special relationship often referred as kinship or ‘serumpun’. We see each other as our closest friend, a strategic partner and an important neighbour.
Bilateral ties have continued to be fundamentally strong. Our cooperation with Indonesia continues to expand, generating greater trust and mutual benefits for both countries. There is strong commitment on both sides to further strengthen our relations at every levels and in all fields.
This has been demonstrated through active engagements between both sides, where high level exchanges continue to shape the framework for Malaysia-Indonesia relations moving forward. The Heads of Government and State of Malaysia had recently visited Indonesia to further invigorate what is already a colorful relations. In June 2018, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, the Honourable Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamed was in Jakarta facilitating crucial decisions and reaching important understanding, particularly on palm oil, an ASEAN car project, corruption eradication, connectivity, good governance and outstanding boundary issues. A State Visit by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong or the King of Malaysia, His Majesty Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah Ibni Almarhum Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Al-Musta’in Billah followed in August 2019. In demonstrating an intimate relations, His Excellency Mr. Joko Widodo, President of Indonesia chose to visit Malaysia as his first country in August 2019, after being re-elected for the second term. These high level exchanges are supplemented by a continuous stream of visits at other levels, including among parliamentarians. All these exchanges had positively contributed to the overall close bilateral ties between Malaysia and Indonesia.
As leaders of both countries provide a sound framework for the relations to prosper, economic cooperation has greatly benefitted both sides. Bilateral trade between the two countries stood at USD 16,805 billion in 2019. Indonesia is currently Malaysia’s 9th largest trading partner and the 3rd largest among ASEAN countries. Malaysia is also the 5th largest investor in Indonesia with investment over USD 15 billion in areas such as banking, plantation, construction, toll-road, transportation, food industry, chemicals, oil and gas, energy, as well as telecommunications. The strong participation of Malaysian companies signaled Malaysia’s keen interest to continue investing in Indonesia, which is underpinned by the confidence in the country’s economic trajectory and reforms initiated by President Joko Widodo’s Administration, especially in improving bureaucratic effectiveness for investors.
Notwithstanding the advanced economic cooperation, challenges continue to be aplenty. One of the more current challenges that we face together is on the increasingly disturbing discrimination against palm oil. Insofar, Malaysia and Indonesia, as the world’s leading crude palm oil producers and exporters continue to cooperate through the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries (CPOPC), often time sharing the same voice in fighting discrimination against palm oil. This is an area where our commitment will not waver, especially for the benefit of our peoples whose livelihood depends on honest businesses, such as palm oil plantation. Our close cooperation in this particular area is also replicated in other areas, including transnational crime, terrorism and disaster management, among others.
To illustrate, we are quick to extend humanitarian assistance to each other in the face of tragedy. For instance on MH370, Indonesia offered its assistance in the search and rescue (SAR) mission. Similarly, Malaysia mobilized its assets in the SAR mission of the earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi. These show the fondness that we always have towards each other when times are hard. The ties between Malaysia and Indonesia have remained strong and we believe will continue to stand the test of time.
Malaysia and Indonesia shares extensive land and maritime boundaries. While disputes over the land and maritime boundaries continue to linger, engagements to resolve these issues have always been in a friendly and peaceful manner with the aim to ensure mutual benefits to both countries. A significant achievement is marked by the technical teams’ agreement on the settlement of 4 out of 9 outstanding land boundary problems and two joint proposals at Sulawesi Sea and Straits of Malacca which have proved the commitment of both sides in achieving an amicable solution.
Being one of the founding members, ASEAN remains the cornerstone of both Malaysia and Indonesia’s foreign policy. Our close relations have ensured and contributed significantly to the regional stability, peace and ASEAN Community. We also work closely in various regional and international organisations. These forums have provided the opportunity for Malaysia and Indonesia to coordinate and cooperate together in addressing global challenges.
Malaysia and Indonesia are two recognized Muslim countries globally. We share similar challenges in fighting the threat of extremism and Islamophobia. We have the same voice in championing the Palestinian rights and the rights of other Muslim minorities across the world. Malaysia and Indonesia are both modern, progressive, and yet we still maintain our Islamic virtues and values.
In the face of new challenges created by the global COVID-19 outbreak, both Foreign Ministers have continued to collaborate closely, bilaterally and within the framework of ASEAN in addressing the impact of the pandemic. At the same time, due to travel restrictions and reduced frequencies of flights, the Governments and embassies of both countries have assisted stranded citizens of both countries to return home to their loved ones. We understand the challenges that many Malaysian-Indonesian families are facing due to border closures. In line with “Malaysia Prihatin”, the well-being of these families is one of the Malaysian Government’s main priority. We will continue to work with our Indonesian counterparts to explore ways to reunite them.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged both Indonesia and Malaysia, it has strengthened our resolve to work together, bilaterally, and also within the ASEAN framework. Malaysia will continue to work hand-in-hand with Indonesia to revitalise both countries’ economies, including the previously booming tourism industry now adversely affected by the pandemic. Talks on a travel bubble remain in the immediate agenda of both Governments.
Malaysia believes in a win-win collaboration and the larger concept of ‘gotong-royong’. While the Governments may have countless agreements and memoranda that seek to strengthen our cooperation through bilateral mechanisms, we value greater activism and participation of the people on both sides to seek and further promote mutually beneficial collaboration. Greater participation simply means a brighter future for the future generation of Malaysia and Indonesia.
Today, after 63 years of building relations, we wish to cement our engagements with greater success in the future, thus fulfilling the hopes and dreams of our peoples.
(The article was published in Jakarta Post, 5.8.2020)
• The writer is the Ambassador of Malaysia to the Republic of Indonesia