Indonesia should make the most of Anwar’s visit: Experts say

Anwar's strong personal relationship with Jokowi have raised hopes that the two leaders will make strides in resolving long-standing disagreements.

Yvette Tanamal

Yvette Tanamal

The Jakarta Post


Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim speaks during a press conference to announce new cabinet members at the Prime Minister’s office in Putrajaya on Dec. 2, 2022.(AFP/Arif Kartono)

January 9, 2023

JAKARTA – Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s state visit to Jakarta next week will offer an opportunity for Indonesia to strengthen its ties with Kuala Lumpur and address persisting bilateral issues, experts say, amid regional and global tensions.

Anwar is scheduled to arrive in Jakarta on Sunday and to meet with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Monday.

His strong personal relationship with Jokowi and his position as a champion of reform and democracy in Malaysia have raised hopes that the two leaders will make strides in resolving long-standing disagreements.

“The primary global politics discourse has been shifted to the rivalry between superpowers. It is only ideal that Indonesia and Malaysia resolve some of their bilateral problems to not further jeopardize our regional integrity,” said Andrew Mantong, an international relations expert at the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), on Friday.

Strategic neighbors

At least two primary bilateral challenges stand in the way of a problem-free relationship between the two nations: border disputes in the South Malacca Strait and the Sulawesi Sea, as well as the protection of Indonesian migrant workers.

Meeting his Indonesian counterpart in Jakarta last week, Malaysian Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir told reporters that Anwar’s visit would likely tackle these two problems.

At least three agreements were in the pipeline, he said, namely the Cross-Border Agreement, the Border Trade Agreement and the Indonesian Domestic Helper Agreement (PDI). Additionally, matters related to the economy and investment would be discussed.

Eva Kusuma Sundari, an executive board member of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), said the PM had come at a fitting time to address the issue of cross-border human trafficking and worker protection.

Indonesia could use last July’s temporary freeze on all Malaysia-bound migrant workers as leverage, she noted.

“It will be a good time for Indonesia to put its foot down on the matter. When Jakarta stopped sending its workers abroad, it was clear that Malaysia faced challenges,” she told The Jakarta Post.

“And before these agreements are signed, a thorough consultation must take place. For instance, the term used to describe workers as ‘helpers’ in the PDI Agreement is far from ideal.”

Experts noted that greater cooperation between the two nations would not only be advantageous domestically but would serve as powerful capital for the region as a whole.

“Anwar’s visit will be an invaluable opportunity for Indonesia, whom he sees as a strategic ally. It is especially important considering Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship and the turbulent politics within the organization,” said Riza Noer Arfani, an international relations expert from Gadjah Mada University (UGM).

“There is a plethora of ongoing problems these days. There is Ukraine; there is Taiwan. All these issues require the neighbors to coordinate adequately. The bilateral relationship between the two will contribute to Indonesia’s position in the region,” added Andrew.

The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), for example, required cooperation between the regions’ maritime powers, he said.

With China’s presence in the region complicating ASEAN’s maritime problems – such as in the South China Sea – both Indonesia and Malaysia could benefit by resolving their own maritime disputes.

Managing expectations

Noting that Malaysia’s domestic politics had not fully stabilized after its general elections in November, Andrew warned that Jakarta should manage its expectations about what successes could be achieved in the short term.

It was unlikely that any ground-breaking changes would occur in Malaysian foreign policy for now, he said.

“The most likely event would be for [Anwar’s government] to keep its foreign policy continuity. His visit will be symbolic for the most part. What we can expect and hope would be for Malaysia’s consistency with its stance, especially concerning Myanmar,” he said.

Eva echoed Andrew’s sentiments, adding that former Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah played an essential role in ASEAN’s response to the Myanmar crisis.

“Saifuddin was a vocal voice in ASEAN, a valuable asset to the organization. It is hoped that Zambry will [be as well],” she said.

Anwar’s trip to Indonesia will be his first state visit since his inauguration as prime minister in November.

His new position has been celebrated by a number of Indonesians who regard him as a voice of democracy and human rights.

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