Indonesia, Malaysia Diplomatic Spat

The governments of Indonesia and Malaysia are embroiled in a growing diplomatic spat over a seemingly gratuitous but certainly offensive insult by Malaysia’s former information minister, Zainuddin Maidin, who called former Indonesian President BJ Habibie a traitor and dog of imperialism.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono joined the fray Tuesday prior to his departure for Malaysia for annual high-level talks with Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, saying Zainuddin’s comments are unethical and overstep the boundaries of decorum. The comments, he added, have jeopardized relations between the two countries and said he would raise the matter with Najib during his visit. Indonesian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marty Natalegawa said the government would send a formal protest over the article. Lawmakers have also protested, calling on Yudhoyono to cancel today's scheduled visit.

Zainuddin wrote the comments first in his blog, then published them in the Malay-language broadsheet daily Utusan Malaysia, describing Habibie’s decision to free what was then the Indonesian province of East Timor in October of 1999 when Habibie was serving as Indonesia’s president in the chaotic days following the downfall of the strongman Suharto.

In the article, headlined "Similarities Between B.J. Habibie and Anwar Ibrahim," Zainuddin took aim at the close friendship between the two and said Habibie would not have fallen from the Indonesian presidency if he had done the right thing. He also accused Habibie of being an accomplice of the United States and said he had helped Anwar Ibrahim in seeking vainly to topple former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Zainuddin refused to apologize last week despite calls to do so.

Habibie, who left the presidency in 1999 to be succeeded by Abdurrahman Wahid, has descended into a kind of genteel obscurity since, concentrating on the technological concerns that occupied him prior to being selected as Indonesia’s vice president near the end of Suharto’s reign.

That raises the question why Zainuddin took after the 76-year-old technocrat. It appears more than anything else to do with the fact that Habibie is an Anwar friend who regularly visits Habibie in Indonesia, most recently to speak at an event marking the anniversary of the Habibie Center in Jakarta.

Utusan Malaysia is wholly owned by the United Malays National Organization, Malaysia’s biggest ethnic political party. More than any of the other party-owned publications it serves as the party’s Rottweiler, especially going after opposition Chinese politicians, but also going after Anwar and other Malay opposition figures as well. It regularly raises the unlikely specter of Christian missionaries attempting to convert ethnic Malays, who by the country’s constitution can only be Muslims.

In July 2011,in the middle of one of those controversies over supposed conversions, Free Malaysia Today, a Kuala Lumpur-based blog, argued that "The mainstream media, for as long as they pander to the government, enjoy immunity from public prosecution. But Utusan Malaysia has earned a special place within this untouchable clique simply by the virtue of being owned by UMNO. This privilege has spawned relentless attacks on the opposition and increasingly frequent inflammatory reports on race and religion. But while most urbanites can see right through Utusan Malaysia's thinly-veiled propaganda, its rural readership remains staunch believers.” It isn’t just Habibie, although he is a more convenient target than the Indonesian president himself, who in July gave a major speech at a high profile public forum in Jakarta on the subject of political reconciliation. Anwar was one of the featured panelists and the president greeted him from the podium, calling him "my good friend."

This was apparently the first time Yudhoyono had acknowledged Anwar in public, although the two know each other reasonably well. Numerous sources have said the Malaysian government was furious about the incident. "The Utusan editorial would appear to be in retaliation for the face Anwar is getting in Jakarta, and it is interesting that SBY would publicly comment on it," said a senior political observer in Jakarta.

"Even on a good day there is little love lost between Malaysia and Indonesia, but of late Anwar's appearances here are certainly a reminder that Indonesia is a democracy while Malaysia falls short."

Is Jakarta also hedging its bets on UMNO losing in the next election? "Almost certainly,” the observer said. “But even without that, there is nothing quite so much fun in Jakarta as getting the Malaysians all hot and bothered over the little things."