By Philips Vermonte and Herizal Hazri
The visit to Indonesia by Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin – starting today and ending with a meeting with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo tomorrow morning – is a reflection of the sheer urgency and necessity for the two countries to work together in these uncertain and challenging times.
Taking place amid a viciously virulent pandemic, this is Muhyiddin’s first overseas visit since becoming Malaysia’s prime minister.
That and the simple fact that Jokowi agreed to host Muhyiddin under these circumstances – even as the prime minister’s visit will be a swift one – are testaments to how the two governments place a premium on the bilateral relationship.
So what should be the focus of the discussions when the two leaders meet tomorrow morning at the Merdeka Palace?
In a relationship that is as deep, complex and comprehensive as the one between Indonesia and Malaysia, there is hardly the risk of having little to talk about.
But it is probably safe to assume – without the privilege of having insights into official deliberations – that at least three issues will be at the top of the agenda.
First and foremost is how the two countries can further cooperate in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Indonesia and Malaysia have undoubtedly been hit hard by the wave upon wave of infections that have claimed the lives of many, bludgeoned their economies and stretched their public health systems beyond previously imagined limits.
Both countries have recently seen new record highs in their daily infection tallies, taking cumulative infection rates to almost 1.1 million in Indonesia and over 225,000 in Malaysia.
Muhyiddin will undoubtedly be interested to learn more from Jokowi about Indonesia’s experience in its massive rollout of the Sinovac Biotech vaccine.
And with Malaysia eagerly expecting to receive its first batch of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the end of February, the two countries will soon be able to share the wealth of experience and expertise gained from their respective vaccination programs, including in some of the most challenging terrain such as that in Borneo.
But we should hope that the two leaders will also take a longer-term view and start deliberations about how the two countries can cooperate in dealing with the radically changed world that the pandemic has wrought.
The fact of the matter is that few countries are truly prepared to deal with the onslaught of changes – hastened and given greater impact by the pandemic – to geopolitics, the role of government, the future of work and how all of this is going to impact societies around the globe.
Indonesia and Malaysia should not be passive and merely react to these changes.
Instead, they must seek to combine their resources and talents to anticipate them.
The second topic that will probably dominate tomorrow’s discussion is economic cooperation.
Indonesia and Malaysia share so much economic interests together and a closer partnership will ensure sustained growth for both nations.
One area of interest could possibly be sustainable palm oil.
As countries that account for about 85 percent of global palm oil output, it is inevitable that Indonesia and Malaysia would be concerned by the shrinking access and demand for palm oil in the European market, in particular.
The European Union’s decision in 2019 to phase out palm oil from biofuels by 2030 has struck a major blow to the palm oil sector.
After factoring in the increasingly negative consumer sentiment towards palm oil in Europe, one should not be surprised that the EU’s imports for the 2020/21 season are expected to be the lowest levels in a decade.
Despite being fierce competitors in the international market, Indonesia and Malaysia are reportedly joining hands to mount an international public campaign to fight negative perceptions towards palm oil.
This is only to be welcome, but so should a growing readiness by Indonesia and Malaysia to tackle the serious and legitimate concerns raised about the labour and environmental practices of the palm oil sector.
Both leaders would certainly do well to put in train a joint effort by the two countries to ensure that that palm oil companies are required to adhere to standards that promote sustainability and well as human and worker rights, irrespective of where they operate.
The days of blaming the lobbyists and interests of competing edible oils for the poor reputation of palm oil should be behind us.
There is no better publicity to be gained for palm oil than a demonstrable commitment towards the environment and the well-being of workers.
The third and perhaps most important aspect of today’s meeting between Jokowi and Muhyiddin is for them to set the tone and general direction of the bilateral relationship.
And on this score, there is much work to be done.
The bilateral relationship is undeniably strong and stable.
It is certainly in better shape that it was in the 2000s and early 2010s, when maritime boundary disputes and the origins of cultural objects such as batik assumed unusual prominence in bilateral ties.
But it is hard to escape the impression that complacency may have seeped into the bilateral relationship.
There is this sense that all that the two countries could do together has already been done.
That is why the two countries should work towards elevating the bilateral relationship, with the aim of declaring it a “special partnership” by 2022.
Regarding our ties as a “special partnership” merely reflects the undeniable and inescapable reality that Malaysia and Indonesia are bound together by culture and history, and that their security and prosperity are indivisible.
And far from merely attaching a new appellation to Malaysia-Indonesia ties, the process of finding ways to elevate the relationship to justify the label will help encourage new thinking and infuse new life to this all-important partnership.
This is indeed a process in which the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta and Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia will promote through Track Two diplomacy.
The first step in this new era of close collaboration will be reflected through CSIS Indonesia and ISIS Malaysia’s partnership.
Philips Vermonte is executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta. Herizal Hazri is chief executive of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia.
This article was first appeared in The Jakarta Post on 4 February 2021.