Vendors sell "Wayang Kulit" (shadow puppets) by lantern light in Jakarta. Pic: AP.

By Marshall Clark 

The Indonesia-Malaysia relationship can be described as one of the most important bilateral relationships in Southeast Asia. Both states are committed to the relationship and a great deal has been made about their similar ‘stock’ (serumpun) and much vaunted ‘sibling’ identity (persaudaraan). But over the last decade or so bilateral relations have been strained by various issues.

The year 2009 was a particularly bad year, with anti-Malaysia demonstrations in Jakarta associated with the Ambalat territorial dispute and the alleged mistreatment of the Indonesian model Manohara by her Malaysian husband, the Prince of Kelantan. Moreover, there was a public outcry in Indonesia after Malaysia allegedly lodged intangible cultural heritage claims with UNESCO to a variety of supposedly Indonesian cultural forms.

The staking of claims over each other’s culture came to a head when UNESCO recognised batik, a wax-resistant dyeing technique, as a distinctly Indonesian form of intangible cultural heritage. This was seen in the region as a snub to Malaysia. Inflaming the situation, allegations also emerged suggesting that the melody of the Malaysian national anthem was plagiarised from an old Indonesian keroncong song. During the same period several Malaysian tourism advertising campaigns inadvertently appropriated brief clips of Indonesian art forms.

All of the present tensions can be blamed, ultimately, on colonialism and nationalism. As many scholars have argued, the colonial encounter has irrevocably determined the manner and extent to which friends in the Malay world, otherwise known as ‘Nusantara’, have become strangers, or worse. Many commentators have highlighted the mistreatment of Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia as the key source of disquiet in the relationship. This issue has been quietly bubbling away for decades until the present day, despite the Indonesian government placing a moratorium on the sending of maids and other workers to Malaysia for much of 2010 and 2011. In November 2011, after the negotiation of improved protection arrangements for Indonesian workers, the moratorium was rescinded, for better or worse.

Malaysia’s alleged cultural heritage claims: 100% fiction
But there is another issue eating away at the bilateral relationship – the widespread notion within Indonesia that Malaysia has laid claim to Indonesian cultural and art forms. Arguably, this notion is responsible for much of the anti-Malaysia sentiment in recent times. It should also be stated from the outset that the alleged cultural heritage claims did not occur.

According to several UNESCO officials in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia has never submitted an official claim for a UNESCO listing of any disputed forms of intangible cultural heritage, including batik. Why not? Apparently the Malaysian government does not want to deliberately antagonise their much larger and more powerful neighbour. This has meant that Malaysia has held back from lodging legitimate claims for much of its best-known cultural heritage, including batik and wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre).

Malaysia’s efforts to placate Indonesia seem to have fallen in deaf ears, most recently demonstrated by the 2011 SEA Games, held in Jakarta and Palembang during the month of November. For many Malaysians, the 2011 SEA Games were memorable for two things: 1) the strident anti-Malaysianism demonstrated by both crowds and officials alike; and 2) Malaysia winning the gold medal football final against Indonesia in front of a partisan crowd of 100,000 at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta.

Harimau vs Garuda
In Malaysia, Indonesia’s generally discourteous reception attracted a lot of media attention, adding spice to the wave of national euphoria in response to Malaysia’s victorious U23 football team, dubbed the ‘Harimau Muda’ (Young Tigers), who were pitted twice against the host nation’s ‘Garuda Muda’ (Young Eagles). Malaysia’s victory was made much sweeter by the parochial crowd dynamics of the cauldron-like Soviet-style Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, which was built in 1958 with the help of the Soviet Union. Before both matches, the Malaysian media milked the bilateral rivalry for all it was worth, describing it as a ‘no-holds barred encounter’ between two ‘bitter rivals’ with a massive crowd packing the stadium in the hope of witnessing ‘the Indonesian bull gore the Malaysian matador’.

As has been well publicised on YouTube and other Internet chat forums, preceding the grand final match the rendition of the Malaysian national anthem, ‘Negaraku’, was drowned out by a large proportion of the parochial crowd. The Malaysian players and officials were obviously uncomfortable, but continued to sing the anthem nonetheless. The sell-out crowd figure of approximately 100,000 could have been quite conservative, as many of the tens of thousands of fans without tickets milling outside the stadium were granted entry, to avoid a stampede. This was not the first time in the tournament the stadium was filled to capacity, either, as Indonesia had already played Malaysia before in the group stage. The group match was also marked by the Malaysian national anthem being drowned out.

Media hype, backslapping and soul searching
There are several salient points worth observing regarding the SEA Games in general and Malaysia’s gold-medal football team in particular. First of all, the Malaysian media seemed unusually interested in Indonesia’s anti-Malaysia histrionics. Several photographs appeared in a number of Malaysian newspapers depicting the Malaysian football squad being ferried to and from their matches in Indonesian army ‘Barracudas’, which are armoured vehicles with bulletproof windows. Much was made of the fact that the Malaysian coach refused to let his team practice on an outdoors pitch, due to the expected hostile reception of local Indonesians. Instead, the Malaysians trained behind closed doors within the hotel grounds.

Second, the Malaysian media correspondents based in Jakarta and Palembang made it quite clear that the anti-Malaysia sentiment was pervasive. The Malaysian karate team was booed throughout the three-day tournament, the entire badminton team was not spared and even Malaysian pole-vault athletes had to contend with an openly hostile crowd. None of this hostility was directed at the other nations competing. As the Malaysian chef-de-mission Datuk Naim Mohamad observed, the Indonesian fans directed almost all of their invective and jeers at the Malaysian competitors.

Finally, when the dust settled, the backslapping and soul searching began. In terms of the backslapping, it appeared that apart from boasting the prized gold medal in football, Malaysians could reflect proudly on the fact that they would never bow to intimidation nor would they ever be ungracious hosts. For example, in the week after their triumph in Jakarta, the Young Tigers played an Olympics qualifier against Syria, in the Bukit Jalil National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur. The manner in which the crowd conducted itself, and particularly the manner in which the Malaysian crowd stood up respectfully for the rendition of the Syrian national anthem, was worthy of a mention in the eagle-eyed Malay-language Sinar Harian. The fact that the exhausted Malaysians lost 2-0 to lowly Syria was of little concern.

Still basking in the Jakarta victory, media commentators congratulated Malaysians on appearing to overcome, at least momentarily, the barely-suppressed socio-political divisions which still seem to be threatening the national fabric at its most fundamental levels. Very little was made of the Chinese ethnicity of the U23 coach, Ong Kim Swee, for example (although some TV commentators remarked somewhat patronisingly on his good command of Malay). According to Chok Suat Ling of the New Straits Times:

On [the night of the Young Tiger’s victory], an aircraft might have detonated in mid-air and no one would have noticed as almost every single Malaysian – including those who don’t know what ‘offside’ means – was glued to the television. Only sports can bring everyone – whether tall, short, thin, horizontally challenged, rich, poor, a Barisan National or opposition supporter, Malay, Indian, Chinese, and “dan lain lain” – together. Indeed, sport is a unifier like no other.

Of course, in the days and weeks afterwards the all-encompassing glow of the Young Tiger’s glorious efforts seems to be slowly but surely diminishing as everyday reality kicks back in.

In terms of soul searching, some commentators were happy to fan the bilateral flames and others preferred to play everything down. In one of the last front-page reports on the SEA Games fiasco, Malaysia’s Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek called for a sense of perspective. He insisted that there was no ‘bad blood’ with Indonesians and if there were any isolated expressions of hostility it was just among a ‘small number of people’ and certainly not a reflection of the close relationship shared between the two governments:

I believe the love-hate relationship between Indonesia exists because we are so close. It is a tendency among neighbours to have more than a few squabbles.

At least one Malaysian newspaper article paused to consider the underlying causes of the open hostility (beyond the much-quoted notion that Indonesia was seeking revenge for losing a previous clash between the two in 2010), namely social media claims that ‘Malaysians are known for abusing housewives and maids’ and ‘Malaysia stole the copyrights of Indonesian traditional textiles’. Of course, many Indonesians feel aggrieved that Malaysia has attempted to steal or rather ‘claim’ their cultural heritage. This is now such a widely-held belief that the verb ‘mengklaim’ (to claim) has now entered the Indonesian language over the last five years or so. During the same period the neologism ‘Malingsia’ has also been coined as a pejorative synonym for ‘Malaysia’ (‘maling’ is an Indonesian word for thief or robber).

But as mentioned earlier, we can have some confidence in the knowledge that Malaysia has not officially claimed any of what Indonesians might regard as distinctly ‘Indonesian’ cultural heritage forms. Moreover, in recent years, Malaysians have demonstrated little interest in responding to Indonesian hostility on the cultural front. Indeed, when it comes to batik, UNESCO’s listing of batik as a distinctly Indonesian intangible cultural heritage has barely registered on Malaysia’s national barometer.

Malaysian batik: from strength to strength
Despite UNESCO’s ruling in favour of Indonesia, in Malaysia the batik industry continues to experience a prolonged period of resurgence. Batik plays an important commercial role in the national GDP. In 2008, the total sale of batik crafts amounted to as much as RM 62.5 million, which is 0.0118% of Malaysia’s GNP totalling RM 528.3 billion. The robust popularity of batik is demonstrated by the large number of Malay women wearing batik fashion on a daily basis. The bustling nature of Malaysia’s batik industry is demonstrated in many other ways, including through the publication of numerous high-quality coffee-table books and magazines on batik, most of them focusing on Malaysian batik in particular.

A woman arranges batik in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Pic: AP.

Malaysia can also boast an impressive number of museums, exhibitions, galleries and fashion shows devoted to showcasing batik art, design and fashion. This trend was perhaps inspired by the late Datin Seri Endon Mahmood, the wife of former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who established the annual Malaysian Batik Week as well as other innovations such as an annual competition for batik designers. Endon Mahmood is also known as the inspiration behind ‘Batik Thursday’, when all public servants have to wear batik (made in Malaysia, of course). Finally, there are numerous batik innovators in Malaysia, including batik artists such as Fatimah Chik and Datin Sharifah Kirana, as well as truly interesting batik ‘modernisers’, such as Datuk Radzuan Radziwil, who has been collaborating with a group of prisoners at the Kajang Women’s Prison.

In terms of bilateral tensions and cultural contestations, it appears that Indonesians are constantly making a great deal of fuss about nothing. Malaysia, meanwhile, seems to be doing what it does best, which is to weather the latest storm from its noisy neighbours and focus on developing its own cultural heritage both artistically and economically, with or without UNESCO recognition.

Dr Marshall Clark is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations, Australian National University. He has just published a book (co-authored with Juliet Pietsch), Indonesia-Malaysia Relations: Cultural Heritage, Politics and Labour Migration (Routledge 2014). He can be contacted at: marshall.clark@anu.edu.au

This article first appeared on New Mandala