Improving ties via music, exchange programmes

This is my editor's opinion on ways to improve diplomatic and trade ties between Indonesia and Malaysia in the spirit of Asean community.

What do you think?

What is happening between Malaysia and Indonesia is certainly disturbing, and the fact that it has happened before makes it unhealthy.

The effects of it are rather straightforward: Malaysians may cancel plans to holiday and shop in Indonesia, parents may think twice about sending their children to study there and investors may not expand as fast as they want to. Indonesians may also have second thoughts about the same things.

Fortunately, these are not happening. But it does not mean Malaysians and Indonesians are not worried. Optimists would say that what is happening is akin to a brotherly spat, which happens in other countries as well.

One example is the relationship between America and its neighbour Canada. Being next door to the world's biggest economy obviously has its advantages and disadvantages. Having had the pleasure of studying in Canada, I have some insights into this interesting relationship.

Many famous Canadians sometimes are mistaken for Americans, much to the chagrin of Canadians. Singer Celine Dion and actor Jim Carrey are Canadian. As both societies are quite open, they like to make fun of each other: a classic is how Canadians say the word "about" and how they like to end their sentences with "eh".

Sports that are now made famous by the US have their roots in Canada. Basketball, for instance, is known the world over for producing millionaire American stars like Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal, but the game was invented by a Canadian.

Both countries also have serious disputes like territorial claims in resource-rich Arctic area. According to a 2008 US Geological Survey, about 22 per cent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas could be in the areas above the Arctic circle.

This is still being worked out by both countries in a calm and cordial manner.

But the tension between Malaysia and Indonesia appears to be getting worse following the recent maritime territorial dispute. Businessmen worry that these unfortunate actions could spread and, even worse, turn violent.

A bank chief executive recounted how certain branches in Indonesia have been pelted with eggs, while at one branch, a more brazen group of people forced the staff out of the office to pledge allegiance to Indonesia.

Malaysian companies operating in Indonesia plan to lobby the government there to help bring the political temperature down a notch. But what they worry about is that leaders could play to the gallery and if this happens, it will be a lot harder to cool tempers on the ground.

Still, there are other things that can be done to improve the relationship over the long term. Here are some ideas;

* Make songstress Siti Nurhaliza our unofficial relationship representative. Siti is one of our best exports to Indonesia and thanks to her music, she is well known by most Indonesians. In fact, one of the best lines that I've heard from Indonesian protesters is "Ganyang Malaysia, Selamatkan Siti Nurhaliza". Indonesians love music and what better way to improve ties than having concerts with both Indonesian and Malaysian singers in both countries.

* Let's start with the children. We could have exchange programmes where top Indonesian and Malaysian schools swap students for a certain period of time. If we want to understand each other better, we should start with the young.

* Continue with the working adults. Multinational companies move their people around the world. Companies with big operations in Malaysia and Indonesia should have stints where staff could easily move and work in either country. Governments should encourage this and give incentives.

While Malaysia and Indonesia may have their differences, the reality is that both countries need each other. Indonesians and Malaysians work in both countries in search of economic opportunities. There may be problems along the way but the bigger picture is more important, and for this to happen, cool heads must prevail.

I believe Marvin Gaye said it best when he sang "we've got to find a way to bring some lovin' here today". On that note, I wish everyone - Malaysians and Indonesians - a happy and safe Hari Raya.

Leave a Reply