December 18, 2012
All Eyes are on President SBY
By Karim Raslan@http://www.thestar.com.my
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s visit is very important in the face of the many opportunities and challenges for the two neighbours as they seek to enhance bilateral ties.
WHEN the leader of the world’s fourth most populous nation and Asia’s fifth largest economy (by Purchasing Power Parity) makes a foreign visit, the host nation takes notice – all the more so when that host nation is Malaysia.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s arrival in Kuala Lumpur today is therefore very important – economically, politically, militarily and even culturally. As China gathers in strength to the north and ASEAN’s resolve is challenged time and again, the Malaysia-Indonesia bilateral relationship, (one of the regional grouping’s core foundations) becomes ever more critical.
Moreover, having been in power since 2004, Susilo, as Indonesia’s first leader to have participated in the G20 meetings, is very much a leader on the global stage.
And whilst many Indonesians feel that Malaysians refuse to acknowledge (and/or are blind to) the Republic’s dramatic turn-around since Soeharto’s fall from power in 1998, the truth is quite the opposite.
Malaysians – and especially business and political leaders – are all too aware of Indonesia’s emergence and its growing might.
Indeed, it has become the source of considerable concern. For example, it is clear that the tide that swept Indonesian labour to Malaysian shores in the 80’s and 90’s has now receded. The Republic’s mounting prosperity will keep workers at home. Meanwhile a critical factor in the Malaysian economic miracle – cheap labour – will have to be recalibrated.
However, to my mind there is one core problem that will continue to bedevil the bilateral relationship. Speaking now as a columnist and a media practitioner working with colleagues and friends in both Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, it’s clear that neither side has yet to come to terms with the fundamental socio-political differences that evolved post-Second World War and post-Merdeka.
Malaysians and Indonesians tend to look at one another through the lens of our own respective historical and cultural experiences.
We stress our similarities – the shared linguistic, religious and ethnic composition, the serumpun – and forget the very real differences, and needless to say the differences are substantial. In essence, Malaysia has been ruled by a quasi-aristocratic Malay elite (of which I’m a paid up member!) since 1957.
By way of contrast, Indonesia’s history has been tumultuous and dramatic. Consider the pro-Marhaen, ultra-nationalist rhetoric of the Soekarno years, followed by the traumatic blood-letting of the mid 60’s, Soeharto’s Orde Baru and then a second period of uncertainty before Susilo’s ascendance.
Our respective historical narratives have shaped how we think, how we behave and how we interact with one another: changing us irrevocably. Yes, we speak the same language but what we’re saying is at times mutually unintelligible. Ironically, what this means is that we share too much to be cool, dispassionate and pragmatic.
Nonetheless, we’re fortunate that both national leaders are by nature rational, unexcitable gentlemen. Both reject flamboyance and rabble-rousing. This has helped calm the potential turbulence.
However, with the political temperature rising in both countries due to the imminence of national elections, the two men’s ability to temper the more colourful (and at times downright abusive) personalities will diminish.
With domestic politics assuming centre-stage, both sides will need to take care not to give offence.Certainly it would be unwise for Malaysian leaders to speculate too openly (as other regional capitals have done) as to the possibility of a Prabowo presidency.
We need to remember that Susilo is a shrewd operator with an immense national support base. Furthermore, the 2014 presidential polls are a marathon.
Given these factors, I suspect the President may well be planning to take a leaf out of the Lula (Brazil’s much-loved former President) play-book.
Back in 2010, Lula was in much the same situation, having completed two terms as president. Recognising that his political lieutenants were unsuitable for the highest office, Lula selected Dilma Roussef, a loyal and capable technocrat (also his Chief of Staff) to carry on his legacy.
Using his powers as an incumbent and his undeniable popularity, Lula secured Brasilia for his protegee thereby ensuring his role as the eminence grise of her administration. Don’t be surprised, then if Susilo reaches across to Brazil for his strategy.
Similarly, the upcoming Malaysian general election promises to be a bruising and divisive experience – one that Malaysians have to undergo by themselves.
Whilst the bilateral meetings will be diplomatic and elegantly managed, rest assured there’ll be many more dramatic incidents as both countries gear up for elections, especially as long as the fundamental differences I’ve outlined are ignored.