Standing (tall?) next to Indonesia

IT WAS four days to D-Day for Malaysians. As we were mulling over whom to cast our treasured vote for in the 15th General Election (GE15), neighbouring Indonesia was on top of the world, playing host to the Group of 20 (G20) Summit in Bali. 

In a carefully choreographed moment, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and First Lady Iriana Joko Widodo were seen welcoming Chinese President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan. It made for powerful global branding. For a moment, the world saw a side of Indonesia that it does not usually witness: A growing leader in the global arena. 

Back home, our politicians were busy stoking the acrid flame of race and religion, firing on all cylinders. Everyone was flooding the social media space. 

One particular team in the contest had pulled out all the stops on TikTok, pumping out some rather unsavoury messaging. And, apparently, they harvested good gains when the votes were tallied. 

When it comes to claiming a spot in global leadership, Indonesia seems to be making a dent. Where is Malaysia headed? Is this nation no longer relevant on the world stage? 

I turned to some people who had done some heavy lifting on this front for answers. 

“Not irrelevant. But we haven’t stepped up. We don’t have a clear foreign and trade policy. We have not taken regional leadership on any matter for a fair bit of time,” said one of them. “We are still well respected, but we lack leadership. If we pull our weight, we can be relevant.” 

So, there is hope. 

But before we can do the magic abroad, the heavy lifting starts at home. Indonesia did not spring forward out of the blue. President Jokowi has been instrumental in bringing about changes to the way the country operated. Those changes allowed Indonesia to slowly, but surely, become a more favoured destination to foreign investors. 

The Indonesian leader was perspicacious in taking full advantage of Indonesia’s growing economy. He engaged the international community as he strived to push forward its economy. 

He comes across as a leader determined to showcase what the nation has to offer. His message is inclusive. No talk of race or religion. And he sent the right messages on corruption, though it is still a big nuisance there. 

Malaysia was once compared to Singapore. Now, they compare us to Indonesia. 

We had a good start. The nation had a good English education (guide to potentially bigoted readers: I’m not downplaying or side-stepping the Malay language). Malaysia also had an admirable civil administration, now fast disintegrating and riddled with corruption. 

The insecure national leadership, some of whom have lost the mastery of the English language, no longer demands attention. In fact, more often than not, nobody pays attention to them anymore. 

More and more, I gather that Malaysia is now becoming a sideshow at international conferences. To make matters worse, other developed countries may even have started distancing themselves from Malaysia. We should not be surprised if they start turning to Indonesia, if they have not done so already. 

Policy-wise, some key turn-offs for the world, as far as Malaysia was concerned, over the last few decades, would be issues like requiring foreign investors to divest their local holdings and the 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Bhd) case. 

The cutting-edge companies of today are headed to places like Singapore and China. Indonesia and the Philippines are starting to emerge on their radar. 

Indonesia has truly taken over our tourism tagline: Malaysia Truly Asia. They take pride in their diverse culture, even highlighting the Hindu heritage in their monuments and old historical sights. Instead of leveraging them, we bury them, in our naked desire to push a particular narrative. 

Of course, it is not a done deal for Indonesia to claim a top spot on the world stage, both politically and economically. Many things can still go wrong. 

Leadership is high on the list. Jokowi is now in his final full year as president. The neighbouring nation will hold presidential elections in February 2024. How the next leader steers the nation will have a huge impact on Indonesia’s next chapter. 

For Malaysia, our new leader, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, caught up with Jokowi in his first trip abroad as the PM. How he steers the nation — aided or otherwise by the unwieldy coalition that he’s shepherding — will have a huge impact on the nation. 

Anwar better hit the ground running with whatever key changes he has in mind. Looking at how politics is playing out, he may not even have the luxury of staying on as the premier for one full year, something that Jokowi does. — pic AFP

Habhajan Singh is the corporate news editor at The Malaysian Reserve.

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition