Friday, 11 January 2008

Indonesian president on fence-mending Malaysia visit

Indonesian president on fence-mending Malaysia visit
AFP copyright

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) — Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono arrived in Malaysia Thursday for a visit aimed at improving relations between the neighbours which observers have said are at their lowest point in decades.

In talks Friday with Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the leaders are expected to tackle irritants like the treatment of Indonesian migrant workers, as well as border issues and trade and investment.

Relations have been dogged by a series of spats including abuse of Indonesian labourers and maids, the assault of an Indonesian referee here, and charges that a traditional Indonesian dance and song was appropriated for a Malaysian tourism campaign.

Andreas Pareira, a member of the Indonesian parliament's foreign affairs commission, said bilateral ties were "at the worst point" in the past four decades, the Antara state-run news agency reported Wednesday.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said problems and misunderstandings, including on the labour issue, would take centre stage during the visit, the official Bernama news agency reported.

Indonesia has more than 1.1 million migrant workers in Malaysia -- with the figure running to as high as two million when undocumented workers are included -- and protests have been mounting over their treatment.

"There are clearly issues to be addressed in bilateral relations," Indonesian presidential spokesman Dino Patti Djalal told AFP in Jakarta.

"But the important thing is that both sides acknowledge that there are problems to be addressed and that they have the determination to address those issues, rather than just shove them under the carpet," he said.

Malaysia's influential Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said this week that the neighbours had too much in common -- with the same language, culture, history and religion -- to allow petty squabbles to dominate.

"We should not allow a popular folk song like 'Rasa Sayang' to sour our relations", he said, referring to the recent controversy.

Najib said that both sides gained from the presence of Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia, and insisted that the government treated cases of worker abuse seriously, with offenders taken to court.

"But we must not allow such incidents to affect our relations. As the Malay adage goes, 'one should not burn the mosquito net just because of one mosquito'."

Djalal said that during the visit, officials are also hoping to form a joint commission that will be tasked with seeking ways to promote trade and investment between the countries.
Other topics include cooperation in trade of forestry and commodities such as palm oil, cocoa and pepper, he added.

The president is accompanied on the trip by foreign minister Hassan Wirayuda, trade minister Mari Pangestu, and energy minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro, among others.

Malaysia's king is to host a dinner for Yudhoyono Thursday where he will be awarded a royal honour.