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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Indonesian military might will win Malaysia's respect

Diaz Hendropriyono

(Jakarta Post, 25/10/2007):
Despite sharing commonalities, the relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia has turned sour in recent years. A few years ago, the two claimed ownership of the oil-rich Ambalat sea block, situated near Sipadan and Ligitan islands off the coast of Borneo. Tension grew stronger when Malaysian naval vessel KD Rencong rammed into Indonesian vessel Tedung Naga while patrolling in the area.

The continued mistreatment of Indonesian domestic workers by their Malaysian employers poses another problem. These workers, who represent most of the 240,000 domestic workers in Malaysia, are often considered second-class humans. Not only do most earn less than 25 US cents per hour (500 Ringgit per month), if anything at all, many have also been physically, sexually and psychologically assaulted by their employers.

Because of abuse, lack of freedom and other dissatisfactions, thousands of Indonesian maids have run away from their workplace. In June, trying to escape her violent employer, a worker tried to escape from a 15th floor apartment with a rope made of towels and bedsheets. In August, another maid made a similar attempt before being rescued from a seventeenth floor ledge, while a bruised body of an Indonesian servant was found dead at her employer's home in Kuala Lumpur.

The relationship between the two countries was further exacerbated when Malaysia decided to install harsher punishments for illegal immigrants in Malaysia five years ago, including longer jail time, heavier fines and caning. Such a practice was deemed "inhumane" and hurt Indonesia's dignity, especially following the forced return of some 400,000 Indonesian workers.

More recently, there have been other cases that have worsened bilateral ties. An Indonesian referee visiting Malaysia for the Asian Karate Championship was confronted by four plainclothes Malaysian police officers over a minor misunderstanding, and was handcuffed, arrested and beaten.

A sophisticated phone-tapping device worth Rp 3 billion and destined for the Malaysian Embassy's defense attache was confiscated at Soekarno-Hatta airport, where it was brought into the country by a Malaysian national. During an operation to weed out illegal immigrants, the wife of the Indonesian Embassy's cultural attache in Malaysia was detained by a volunteer security force known as RELA, which treated her like an undocumented guest.

The robbing of seven Indonesian students on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur and the raid on the house of the chairman of the Indonesian Students Association in Malaysia by RELA members put these Indonesians in a state of fear and further strained bilateral relations.

Indonesia also accuses Malaysia of stealing the folk song Rasa Sayange, believed to have originated from the eastern islands of Maluku. Malaysia is also accused of having claimed ownership of other traditional Indonesian heritage, including batik and wayang shadow puppets.

Indonesia has made several attempts to respond to these various problems. For example, Indonesia believed that the Ambalat dispute must be resolved through negotiation.

Responding to the Malaysian government's failure to act against errant employers, Indonesia's House of Representatives has considered reporting the cases to the UN Human Rights Commission. The House has also asked the government to request clarification from the Malaysian government about the discovery of the phone-tapping device.

After the RELA incidents and the beating of the Indonesian karate referee, Indonesia demanded an apology from Malaysia. And many Indonesians now see the need to copyright all Indonesian folk songs, especially those with anonymous writers, to avoid further claim by Malaysia.

Unfortunately, however, these efforts are short lived. An article in The Jakarta Post by Rizal Sukma on Sept. 3 noted that "many Indonesians feel there has been a growing tendency in Malaysia to look down on Indonesia ... [and] feel that Malaysia has become arrogant .... We are often hurt by the way our neighbor looks at us and perceives us".

If this were true, as long as Malaysia still looks down on Indonesia, the aforementioned policies could not guarantee that any similar future problems would not emerge.

It is no doubt that these solutions are wise and necessary, and it is not my intention to argue against these courses of action. Yet, a long-term alternative must be found and employed to supplement, rather than replace, these ad hoc strategies. Such a solution rests in the power of Indonesia's military.

Writing in the 18th century during the U.S. constitutional ratification debate, American founding fathers John Jay in Federalist No. 4 and Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 8 (essays supporting the Constitution over the Articles of Confederation), argued that a country's healthy defense represses, discourages and thus prevents war rather than invites it.

Following this reasoning, it is vital to rebuild Indonesia's defense system, improve the military's professionalism and push other internal reforms. Indonesia is currently on the right track in its attempt to modernize its military. For example, it recently signed a US$1 billion arms deal with Russia to buy submarines, tanks and military helicopters.

Despite a legal problem which has stalled the administrative process since 2002, Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono recently stated that Indonesia will continue with the procurement of Mi-17 choppers.

In an effort to increase the military's professionalism, the House passed Law No. 34/2004 mandating that the government take over all the military's enterprises within five years. Next, the military's Rp 33 trillion current budget must be increased to its ideal level, around Rp 100 trillion. The bigger allocation would enable the military to increase the welfare of personnel and to provide better training. Finally, to contribute further to the military's professionalism, the government of Indonesia should resolve the conflict between the military and the police, which according to the RIDEP Institute has seen at least 10 violent incidents this year alone.

Having a strong defense would change Malaysia's foreign policy toward its "big brother". It would remind the Malaysian government to be more committed to stopping the abuse of Indonesian workers. It would remind Malaysia not to encroach on Indonesia's territory. Most importantly, Indonesia's stronger defense would make the government of Malaysia and its citizens be more careful in their action toward Indonesia.

The writer is a PhD student at the Center for Public Administration and Policy, Virginia Tech University. He can be reached at


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