Monday, September 21, 2009

The Indonesian-Malaysian rivalry is getting nasty

From this article last week in The Australian:

"The large gang of thugs milling with bamboo spears in the main street of Menteng, Jakarta's most fashionable old-money district, said it all. Calling themselves the Benteng Demokrasi Rakyat (Bendera), or People's Democratic Front, they began by handing out miniature red-and-white Indonesian flags, the kind sold by hawkers at city intersections for as little as 1000 rupiah (12c).

But as the traffic backed up on Jalan Diponegoro...things turned ugly. Fuelled by weeks of anti-Malaysian rhetoric in the Indonesian media, the Bendera bovver boys started demanding ID cards from the cars' occupants. Every resident in the country, citizen or not, is required by law to carry one. The gang, part of a floating mass of Jakarta youths generally available for affiliation with whoever pays the most, was looking for Malaysians - people with essentially the same racial features as themselves, only with allegiance to a different flag. They didn't find any, and eventually police moved them on without making arrests, but it was enough to prompt President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to call for calm two days later."

Bendera and others have been talking up going to war with Malaysia, and have been stockpiling weapons and supplies in case of that eventuality. It is worth noting that the Bendera members who were searching the streets for Malaysians to attack received little more than a stern talking to from law enforcement. Indonesia has never been good at stopping mob rule.

Ah, nationalism, the refuge of the ignorant. Obviously groups like Bendera are right out there on the whacky fringe of Indonesian society, but they are a reflection of some serious problems in relations between the two countries. Indonesian resentments have been building towards Malaysia, over a variety of issues, mostly trivial. Given that the countries share an almost identical cultural history as well as a border, much of the ill-will is over claims that Malaysians have been appropriating Indonesian culture and claiming it as their own. For example:

There is an ongoing dispute over the oil-rich Ambalat region off the east coast of Borneo, which was exacerbated recently when a Malaysian naval vessel sailed into the area.

A Malaysian tourism ad recently displayed Javanese-style shadow puppets (wayang kulit) and a Balinese traditional dance (pendet), showing them off as Malaysian culture.

An Indonesian recording company has alleged that the Malaysian national anthem, "Negaraku" is a rip-off of an old Indonesian popular folk song called "Terang Bulan". The songs are similar, but that's because both are based on an 18th Century French tune which the Sultan of Perak (in Malaysia) had heard while in exile on the island of Seychelles.

Another folk song, "Rasa Sayange", which originates in the Indonesian region of Maluku, was also used in a Malaysian tourism campaign ad (below).

It might sound strange, but another issue that Indonesians are seething about is Malaysians claiming the dish rendang as their own. Which is a delicious dish that Indonesia should rightfully be proud of, but can you imagine two countries going to war over a beef curry?

Oh, and did I mention that the bomb-making mastermind of the most devastating recent terrorist attacks on Indonesian soil has been Noordin Mohammad Top - a Malaysian? (I can just hear someone saying "You took all our culture, and this is what you gave us back?")

As well as the cultural appropriations, Indonesians are pissed about the continuing stories of abuse and maltreatment of Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia. To top it off, an Indonesian worker in Malaysia was recently sentenced by Sharia court to a caning and 12 months in jail for drinking alcohol in a bar.

There is a widespread perception among Indonesians that their wealthier neighbours the Malaysians have an arrogant attitude towards them. And Indonesians have a point. In culturally similar neighbouring countries (Australia and New Zealand, or England and Wales) there is always going to be some friendly rivalry and mild derision. But there is plenty of edgy history between these two - they once fought a border war in the 60s when President Sukarno tried to annex the northern part of Borneo. And the relationship is further tainted by economics; with Malaysia's greater wealth, it is a magnet for poor Indonesians looking for work in construction or as domestic helpers. But the inherent power imbalance between the two nationalities in Malaysia leads to a condescending attitude among some, exacerbated by the reality that most Indonesian workers in Malaysia are from humble backgrounds with little education.

Of course, Malaysians don't really get what the fuss is all about.

The reality is of course that although many cultural traditions may indeed have originated in Indonesia, both these countries are colonial constructs. The entire SE Asian archipelago, including also the Philippines, East Timor and Brunei) is very similar culturally, and such divisions into separate states only exist because of which European power took over which area. The people of Java and Sumatra have far more in common with Malaysians than they do with the people of Indonesian West Papua. The Indonesian language is basically a variant of Malay, for heaven's sakes.

Since ancient times there has been a cultural osmosis between these countries, with ideas, people, food and traditions flowing in both directions. So to claim certain aspects of culture as being solely Indonesian or Malaysian is problematic. Take rendang for example. The dish is generally acknowledged as being from the Minangkabau culture in Sumatra, but it was adopted in Malaysia over 500 years ago. It is unlikely that anyone in Bali, Sulawesi or Kalimantan was eating rendang until considerably later. So you could argue that Malaysians have more claim to rendang as "their" dish than many Indonesians do. Malaysian rendang tastes different anyway, as does Malaysian satay. (Certainly not better, just different.)

It's all ridiculous really. Let's all take a deep breath and chillax, people. My Indonesian brothers and sisters, take a freakin' chill pill. Why get angry over a song or a beef preparation? Malaysians, lose the arrogance a bit, huh? And let us claim our dances, songs, recipes and islands. You already have so much more money, won't you at least let us have our pride?


  1. Oh no, does that mean we can't be friends anymore since I'm still a Malaysian passport holder??? NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!.....hahahaha...I agree, all that fuss over nothing...although Malaysians are dead serious when it comes to food, so I can somehow understand the passion over satay/rendang...

  2. Um, Ching, I don't think I should be talking to you anymore...