The Malaysian government is now scrambling for a public-relations boosting exercise globally following the dent in its reputation made by its hard crackdown on the BERSIH 2.0 rally that caught worldwide media attention.
Within two days of the rally, several commentaries appeared prominently on foreign dailies, including in Indonesia and Singapore, putting the Malaysian government in a tight spot.
What is most interesting is that a ‘reprimand’ from Indonesia has actually spurred the Malaysian government to accelerate its damage-control exercise.
In an unprecedented move, the United Malays’ National Organization (UMNO) – the dominant party of the ruling government – had sent its secretary-general Tengku Adnan Mansor to Jakarta. News portals reported that Adnan held a press conference on July 11 to explain to local reporters the Malaysian government’s stance on the BERSIH rally, following a biting editorial that appeared in one of Jakarta’s most established newspapers.
In a commentary by the Jakarta Post on July 11, it said Malaysian leaders were laboring under an old paradigm that said a nation could have either development or democracy, but not both. “The lengths the government went to in trying to prevent and then break up the Bersih 2.0 rally in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday shows that the nation’s leaders were still not prepared to let go — even when an increasing number of Malaysians of all races have been pressing for more freedom and justice.
“We have news for them: You can be rich and free at the same time,” the editorial wrote.
Adnan was quoted as having said that the Malaysian government feared that visits to the country by Indonesians might fall if the former did not provide full explanations to the latter, citing Indonesia’s importance to Malaysia’a economy.
Indonesia is after all, one of Southeast Asia’s sexiest economies currently, and is dubbed as the “New China” in this region, thanks to its booming middle-class and young population. Indonesian workers also play a prominent role in Malaysia’s economy, especially in labor-intensive sectors. Equally important are Malaysian businesses in Indonesia, which range from the financial services to the plantation and mining sectors.
No doubt, economics is a trump card for Indonesia to wield its influence on Malaysia. By 2015, Indonesia’s economy is expected to account for half of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations’ (ASEAN) gross domestic product (GDP). That makes Indonesia the member country to lead the region.
As Indonesia gains prominence in terms of economic growth and population size, it is also stepping up as ASEAN’s “Big Brother” in political terms, by coming out to resolve disputes among its members. Recent developments have shown that Indonesia has acted as mediator for border-disputes between Thailand and Cambodia during the ASEAN summit, which Indonesia has chaired this year.
Political analysts say ASEAN is still largely seen as a toothless tiger compared with the European Union and it may take some years before ASEAN emerges as a powerful bloc, but the potential shown in this region may become a catalyst for ASEAN to push its agenda harder.
ASEAN is brimming with promise, thanks to a generally young population residing in this region. To the business community, it means high productivity and strong consumerism, putting the region alongside China and India. If ASEAN operates as a single economy, it will be Asia’s third largest economy, boasting an overall population of 600 million people and a GDP of US$1.8 trillion.
From this wider perspective, Malaysia will also want to ride on the prospects of ASEAN, rather than operate on its own.
Times have changed. In the ’90s, Malaysia had enjoyed the status of a tiger economy and was once a darling among foreign fund managers. However, the country has lost its shine among foreign fund managers as a singular investment destination, compared with the likes of Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Nevertheless, a fund manager in Singapore says Malaysia may still be able to find a sweet spot among foreign investors if the country hangs on to the collective brand name of “ASEAN”.
Put simply, Malaysia is now living in a gated community with some very promising and affluent neighbors. And no one likes to be embarrassed, especially by neighbors and in front of other neighbors. From this context, Malaysia is right to listen to its neighbors seriously.