President Joko Widodo, left, walks with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak during his state visit on Friday in Putrajaya, Malaysia. (EPA Photo/Fazry Ismail)

Thorny Issues Abound During Jokowi's First State Visit to Malaysia


FEBRUARY 06, 2015

Putrajaya, Malaysia/Jakarta. The leaders of Malaysia and Indonesia pledged renewed efforts on Friday to resolve disputes over maritime borders that have long nagged at one of Southeast Asia’s most important bilateral relationships.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and visiting Indonesian President Joko Widodo held talks Friday morning and later told a joint press briefing that they agreed to set up a new mechanism for resolving territorial issues.

Najib said the effort was necessary because years of negotiations had seen “no significant advancement.”

Joko added that maritime disputes had “lingered for too long.”

The waters in contention involve competing claims to potentially energy-rich seabeds in the Celebes Sea off the eastern coast of the vast island of Borneo, which the two nations share along with Brunei.

While they also have disputed maritime borders in other spots, Indonesia has lately sought to crack down on illegal fishing in its waters, using explosives to sink seized foreign fishing vessels, including several from Malaysia.

Najib said each side would appoint special envoys “to lead exploratory talks and to find a formula that is acceptable to the governments and peoples of both nations.”

International relations expert Djayadi Hanan of Paramadina University said Joko was trying to show Malaysia that the archipelago is firm about Indonesia’s sovereignty, particularly in its crackdown on foreign vessels poaching in Indonesian waters.

“Joko must convince the Malaysian government that our maritime policy has nothing to do with our cooperation prospects with that country,” Djayadi told the Jakarta Globe.“This is important to prevent misunderstanding. We don’t want, every time we exercise our maritime policy, to face possible retaliation from Malaysia’s government through the maltreatment of our migrant workers there.”

Migrant issues

Joko’s two-day stay is his first bilateral trip abroad since taking office late last year. The choice of Malaysia appeared to underline assertions about the mutually held importance of steady relations between two countries, which sprawl across vital Southeast Asian sea lanes.

Another perennial bone of contention has been recurring reports of poor treatment of the hundreds of thousands of Indonesian maids and other workers there, with tensions resurfacing just before Joko’s visit.

Indonesia’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur said it had formally protested this week over an advertisement by a Malaysian distributor of robotic vacuum cleaners that exhorted consumers to “Fire your Indonesian maid now!”

The company’s website was also defaced, apparently by Indonesian hackers who posted a message on the page decrying the ad and calling for respect for their compatriots in Malaysia.

Najib and Joko mentioned the labor issue only in passing, saying they agreed that Indonesian workers should only come to Malaysia via official recruitment channels to ensure their safety.

Over the years, relatively affluent Malaysia has attracted millions of migrant workers — both legal and illegal — from Indonesia, including large numbers of domestic workers. An estimated 400,000 foreign maids are now employed in Malaysia, the vast majority of them Indonesian women. Reports of physical and other abuse by Malaysian employers or recruiters have repeatedly sparked anger in Indonesia.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said Joko would push for a new instrument to encourage better protection of migrant workers across the region under the framework of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose chairmanship rotates and is currently held by Malaysia.

“There are 10 countries in Asean; some of them support [the instrument] but some others have not yet,” Arrmanatha said in Jakarta on Thursday morning. “Indonesia will be at the forefront [of efforts] to encourage Asean to address this issue and produce an instrument to protect migrant workers, including those workers from Indonesia.”

Anis Hidayah, who heads Indonesian advocacy group Migrant Care, said in a press statement on Wednesday that she hoped Joko would push for greater rights for Indonesian migrant workers during his  Malaysian visit.

“We also demand that the Malaysian government stop using double standards and stop the criminalization of Indonesian migrant workers without legal documents,” Anis said, stopping short of elaborating on the double standards to which she referred. “After all, Malaysia’s plantation industry, which employs millions of undocumented migrant workers, has helped Malaysia’s economy to prosper.”

Joko and first lady Iriana Widodo flew from Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur around midday on Thursday, the first destination of the president’s six-day Southeast Asian tour that will include the Philippines and Brunei, which is set to conclude Tuesday.

Joko was seen accompanied by chief economics minister Sofyan Djalil, Manpower Minister Hanif Dhakiri, Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers (BNP2TKI) head Nusron Wahid and Trade Minister Rachmat Gobel as he departed from Halim Perdanakusuma Airport in East Jakarta.

Foreign Minister Retno L.P. Marsudi had arrived in Kuala Lumpur a day earlier to prepare for the president’s arrival.

Following tradition

Arrmanatha said the president’s visits to the three Asean member states followed the tradition of his predecessors, who commonly visited other Asean countries at the start of their presidencies.

“This visit to the Asean countries is part of the tradition, an introductory visit; although the president already met [other Asean leaders] in international forums, such as the Asean and APEC summits,” Arrmanatha said.

Less than a month after his Oct. 20 swearing-in as Indonesia’s seventh president, Joko made his first official overseas visits by attending the APEC summit in Beijing, the Asean and other related summits in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, and the G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia.

In Kuala Lumpur, later on Friday, Joko visited a factory run by Malaysian national car manufacturer Proton, where a memorandum was signed on exploring possibilities for Proton’s involvement in developing an Indonesian national car brand.

Southeast Asia’s car market is steadily growing, but it is unclear how successful such a project would be. Proton is undergoing restructuring after years of losses and an inability to compete globally.

Additional reporting from Agence France-Presse

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