Indonesia’s Neighborhood Disputes

Nationalist passions are rising in Jakarta over a series of diplomatic spats with close neighbors Singapore and Malaysia. Lawmakers have forced Jakarta and Singapore to shelve two crucial treaties signed by both governments less than six months ago, the country is going after Singapore’s state-owned Temasek Holdings on monopoly charges.

Malaysia and Indonesia, meanwhile, are staging a comic-opera squabble over a supposedly Indonesian song that is being used in Malaysian tourism promotions. That has prompted demands from some Indonesian legislators for legal action by the government to copyright the country’s heritage, but there are more serious problems over the treatment of Indonesian citizens in Malaysia.

Malaysia's prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have all, at least so far, stayed out of the fray. Nonetheless, the Yudhoyono administration clearly suffered a major defeat at the hands of legislators over the Singapore pacts. Foreign Affairs Minister Hassan Wirajuda had said in April that the treaties represented a "very significant step" forward because they resolved issues that had been a "constraint" on relations between the two countries. Yudhoyono's fragile support in parliament could lead to even more trouble ahead for bilateral relationships with both Singapore and Malaysia

The Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) and an extradition pact signed by the defense ministers of both Singapore and Indonesia in April, which appears to have been postponed indefinitely, is important to both countries. Singapore, whose air force can’t even get the wheels and flaps up before it’s in international territory, badly needs access to Indonesia to train its military forces. Indonesia badly needs the extradition treaty to bring home fleeing bankers who stole billions of dollars in the wake of the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis and deposited the money in Singaporean bank accounts.

At one point Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo, addressing the city state's parliament, warned that Indonesia's insistence on last-minute changes to the defense agreement put both treaties in jeopardy. Nonetheless, the main political factions in Indonesia's House of Representatives (DPR) rejected the pact on the grounds that it would undermine Indonesia's sovereignty. The extradition treaty, by default, now enters the same state of limbo.

Added to that, the country's Business Competition Supervisory Commission (KPPU), in a 109-page report that followed a three-month investigation, has accused Temasek of price-fixing through its dominant position in Indonesia’s telecommunications market. Temasek’s subsidiaries own 42 percent and 35 percent respectively of Indonesian mobile telecoms providers Indosat and Telkomsel, which are the Alpha dogs of Indonesia’s mobile phone sector. Temasek has denied charges of cross-ownership between the two companies, maintaining that its subsidiaries have their own boards of directors. It also pointed out that price-fixing for mobile phone charges would be difficult since the Indonesian government is Telkomsel's majority shareholder.

Temasek, perhaps used to the docile state-controlled media in Singapore, also responded in a statement that it was surprised that details of the case had appeared in the press before Temasek had a chance to reply. Few in Indonesia are surprised, as the local media has been full of detailed accounts of one man's unflagging campaign against Temasek.

That man is legislator Marwan Batubara, who was sacked earlier by Indosat from his position as general manager. Batubara has been the prime mover in stirring up nationalist sentiment against Temasek in the corridors of power. Temasek pledged to vigorously defend its legal rights, hiring one of Indonesia’s top lawyers, Todung Mulya Lubis, a well-known human rights lawyer.

Meanwhile, In Malaysia…

A Malaysian tourism board “Truly Asia” advertisement that used the song “Rasa Sayang,” or “Feeling of Love,” has prompted demands from some Indonesian legislators for legal action by the government to copyright the country’s heritage. Indonesia claims the song originated from the Maluku islands, but Malaysia claims it belongs to both countries.

Unfortunately for Malaysia, Jakarta is on the warpath over more than a disputed song. After an Indonesian karate referee was kicked and severely beaten in Malaysia by undercover police while handcuffed in a car, angry anti-Malaysia protests were held in Jakarta and in Surabaya. He had been in Kuala Lumpur for the 8th Asian Karate Championships, and was apparently mistaken for an illegal immigrant. The protests caused four Malaysians due to play in a major badminton tournament in Indonesia to flee home amid security concerns. The angry demonstrators had carried banners emblazoned with the words “crush Malaysia,” harking back to the days of the konfrontasi in the 1960s over the incorporation of Borneo into Malaysia.

Then earlier this month the 500,000 strong vigilante force known as Malaysia's People's Volunteer Corps allegedly arrested the wife of an Indonesian diplomat based in Malaysia who was out shopping. She was accused of being an illegal migrant although she had proper identification.

Wirajuda said the government has demanded “corrective actions” over both incidents, which reflected “rude treatment of Indonesian citizens”. According to Speaker Agung Laksono, the DPR may even consider reporting Malaysia to the UN Human Rights Commission over violent acts against Indonesians.