Indonesian President cannot afford to be seen as weak especially in dealing with foreign governments.

THE upcoming official visit to Malaysia by Indonesian President Joko Widodo – popularly known as Jokowi – will mark a renewed commitment by both countries to reaffirm and improve their relationship.

It is therefore an opportune moment to explore the opportunities and constraints in MalaysiaIndonesia relations under Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and Jokowi.

Much of the recent public discourse on Indonesia’s foreign and economic policies has been overwhelmingly focused on Jokowi’s seemingly assertive stance on a range of issues, most notably on illegal foreign fishing activities in the Indonesian waters.

This has sparked a degree of trepidation among some of Indonesia’s neighbours, including Malaysia.

It would do well, however, for Indonesia’s neighbours to understand the immense domestic pressures that Jokowi faces.

We therefore need to calibrate our expectations.

This presidential visit on Thursday will not somehow magically resolve the issues that have long complicated relations between the two countries – the treatment of Indonesian migrant workers, our overlapping territorial claims and the recurrent trans-boundary haze, among others.

While there won’t be any sidestepping of these issues, the two countries will need to strengthen cooperation on those that will keep relations on an even keel.

Najib and Jokowi are expected to explore ways to achieve the annual bilateral trade target of US$30bil (RM108.9bil).

The two countries have also expressed their commitment to bolster growth in the palm oil market, improve food security and revitalise the Sijori (Singapore-Johor-Riau) growth triangle.

If successful, these efforts would bind the two countries ever closer together and would amount to a decisive step forward in strengthening the Asean Economic Community.

The question that remains, however, is whether Jokowi will be able to continue the good work his predecessor and Najib have accomplished.

After spending a mere 100 days in office, Jokowi’s popularity has plummeted sharply at home.

The high expectations that accompanied his election have been deflated following perceived shortcomings in delivering his campaign promises, especially his vow to distance himself from political intrigues and backroom deals and to maintain a clean and corrupt-free government.

The latest incident has been Jokowi’s nomination of General Budi Gunawan – who has been declared by the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission as a suspect in a bribery case – as the Indonesian national police chief.

Even before, eyebrows were raised over Jokowi’s appointments to his cabinet, Attorney-General and Presidential Advisory Board – a number of which seemed inconsistent with his campaign promise to appoint a team that is largely comprised of technocrats.

Public dissatisfaction towards Jokowi has also been deepened by fuel-subsidy cuts and rising prices in goods and services, which saw the outbreak of demonstrations across a number of Indonesian cities last year.

Worse, there’s a growing sense that Jokowi is unable to resist pressures from his political patrons, principally Megawati Sukarnoputri, the president of his PDI-P party and former president of Indonesia.

There is widespread suspicion that these patrons have hampered Jokowi’s efforts to meet the public’s demands.

In other words, Jokowi has the difficult task of balancing the interests of the public who voted him into office, and the demands of his patrons who backed him during the campaign period.

That means that Jokowi will have limited political capital at his disposal and cannot afford to be seen as weak, especially in dealing with foreign governments.

Malaysia therefore needs to recognise Jokowi’s predicament even as it tries to achieve ambitious plans for the bilateral relationship.

At the same time, the Jokowi administration needs to realise that it can do a much better job at communicating its foreign policy.

The spectacular sinking of foreign vessels that have been found to have engaged in illegal fishing in Indonesian waters has needlessly generated the impression of aggressiveness on Indonesia’s part.

Jokowi is right in wanting to serve notice to the rest of the world that Indonesia will not tolerate any infringement of its sovereignty and interests.

But it would also serve Indonesia well to do all it can to reassure its neighbours and promote a more benign image to the rest of the region.

This may include a wide array of measures, from conducting regular briefings on Indonesia’s foreign and economic policies in neighbouring countries – both to their government counterparts as well as the business and scholarly communities – as well as promoting people-to-people links through cultural exchanges.

In short, Malaysia-Indonesia relations can only thrive when there is a deeper understanding of the unique circumstances that each side faces.

But for there to be understanding, a lot more communication needs to be done.

This article first appeared in The Star on 2 February 2015.

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