Time to sit down and end feuds with neighbors

Posted by Admin on Saturday, 26 January 2008 | Opini

The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Sat, 01/26/2008 2:38 AM

Sayidiman Suryohadiprojo, Former Governor, Nation Resilience Institute (Lemhanas), Jakarta

Indonesia is now mixed up in a quarrel with some neighbors. First is the deterioration in relations with Malaysia caused by the problem of illegal Indonesian workers in that country. Now another problem has come up because of the Singaporean foreign minister’s demand of extradition from Indonesia of persons accused of terrorism.

The problem with Malaysia would not have happened if some very important Indonesian officials did not make angry comments that triggered no less angry comments by Malaysian officials. The media, especially television, also contributed to the bad atmosphere when thousands of Indonesians watched how the unlucky workers and their families were expelled from Malaysia and had many difficulties to get a place on a ship to go home. Plus their sorrows after they arrived in Indonesia.

Obviously, many Indonesians reacted emotionally in regard to the tragedy faced by the unlucky workers’ families. That was the impetus for an emotional demonstration at the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta. There would have been no serious consequences if it was limited to a normal demonstration. But when the Malaysian national flag was burned by some demonstrators and the front gates torn down, a different situation emerged.

Of course, a strong reaction in Kuala Lumpur was expected. Relations between Indonesia and Malaysia are now on the decline again, reminding us of the dark situation during the ""Confrontation"" policy of Indonesia against Malaysia in the early 1960s.

Although the problem with Singapore is much less serious, we cannot afford to let the problem grow into a dispute that can badly affect future relations between the two nations. That a very high-level Indonesian government official has issued a statement which will certainly become an issue of debate among the wider public, even outside the country, is already bad enough for maintaining smooth relations.

The general public in Indonesia, especially the Muslim community, has also reacted immediately and rather strongly. When people are having so many problems because of bad economic conditions, it is very easy to become emotional. Moreover, politicians use every opportunity to gain an advantage for their political position by exploiting certain events and developments, especially ahead of the 2004 general elections.

But anyhow, all these quarrels among neighbors of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a very negative development for the region. The leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore as well as other ASEAN countries should realize that ASEAN is of high importance in their respective national interests. Every member should place ASEAN as a high priority in their national policies. ASEAN is important for all the nations in Southeast Asia for political, economics and security as well as cultural and social reasons. Although initially ASEAN did not want to be seen as a political association, this limitation has been proven to be unrealistic. The emergence of the ASEAN Regional Forum was clear evidence.

It is extremely important that all members should always maintain and strengthen ASEAN’s cohesiveness and cooperation, and avoid a split and worsening of relations between members. Member governments should realize the need to harmonize national interests with that of the region. And that ASEAN interests should be at least pursued with equal sincerity and determination by each member as the pursuit of national interests.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Although there is more talk of the necessity of a pluralistic view and attitude, this is not easy to practice, particularly if people are facing many, difficult problems. The impact of the still weak international economy is felt by every ASEAN member nation and their people. The troubles in each nation make life more difficult.

The leadership in each nation should bear the responsibility of guarding ASEAN unity. It is therefore very wrong if high ranking officials like Cabinet ministers and members of legislative bodies, indulge in a shouting war. And since we are guardians of a free press, it is impossible to censor negative public statements. So we will have a duel of public statements among neighbors that might delight the media, but which is very negative for the common ASEAN interests.

Indonesian officials should recognize that Malaysia has the right to have its immigration regulations and that those must be enforced. However, Malaysia’s statesmen should also recognize that enforcement of regulations must take circumstances into consideration, especially if it is going to hurt hundreds of thousands of people from a neighboring and friendly nation.

We cannot entirely blame the rather rough police handling of the Indonesian migrants, because they are faced with a situation of having to deal with hundreds of angry people daily. And it is definitely wrong that Indonesian demonstrators burned the Malaysian national flag. It was wrong for the Indonesian labor minister Jacob Nuwa Wea to publicly accuse his colleague the foreign affairs minister Hassan Wirayuda and his staff for not doing enough to support the expelled Indonesian workers.

It is also wrong that the Speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly, the person with the highest legislative position in Indonesia, began a war of words with Malaysia. But also the Malaysian foreign minister need not feel lacking in nationalism if he does not respond to Amien Rais’s statements about Malaysian law enforcement.

Problems among nations, especially among neighbors, are inevitable. Today it is the problem of Indonesian illegal workers in Malaysia, tomorrow it might be something else. However, problems should be resolved in a quiet and civilized manner. Quiet diplomacy is not inferior to a highly exposed diplomacy.

And let all officials be aware that in today’s world, diplomacy is not the monopoly of professional career diplomats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Even private business can be involved in productive diplomacy. The more so a minister in charge of labor affairs.

And knowing the Malay mentality of Indonesians and Malaysians, a silent approach, avoiding the loss of face, will be much more effective and productive than indulging in a war of words. Indonesia and Malaysia, for the sake of ASEAN and the two nations individually, should channel their efforts through a better approach.

Since the problem between Indonesia and Singapore is still new, we also request these governments to respect wisdom. We all know that since the U.S. embarked on its ""War on Terrorism"", many nations were not in the position to argue against U.S. President Bush, that whoever does not join the U.S. in its war is a defender or actor of terrorism. However, Singapore’s statesmen should not overact or make conclusions in a rush. Let responsible people of both nations meet and discuss to reach the best solution for all concerned.

And let us, from now on, try to harmonize our national interests with ASEAN regional interests. We can be assured that it will contribute to a better future for all of us

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