Land and maritime negotiations with Indonesia are ongoing, and disputed areas include the controversial Tanjung Datu and Camar Wulan border area in Borneo and the maritime boundary in the Ambalat oil block in the Celebes Sea.

In 2009, The Straits Times reported: Anti-Malaysian sentiments in Indonesia erupted again after an incident in disputed waters near the Riau archipelago in August 2009. Seven Malaysian fishermen were arrested in what Indonesian maritime officials claimed was Indonesian waters. A nearby Malaysian sea patrol begged to differ and in retaliation detained the three Indonesian officials. All those arrested were soon freed, but many Indonesians felt slighted by the incident and demanded that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono take a strong stand against Malaysia. Yudhoyono attempted to calm the situation with his speech— standing firm on Indonesia’s territorial claim but urging that diplomacy be given a chance — was predictably jeered by the warmongers. While his speech had gone as far as possible in staking out Indonesia’s position, some would not have been satisfied with anything short of a declaration of war. And looking at the public reaction to the speech, the warmongers appear to have widespread support. [Source: The Straits Times, September 14, 2009]

In the 1960s, Indonesian President Sukarno instituted a policy of “Confrontation” and threatened war against Malaysia on several occasions, primarily over the Malaysian-Indonesian border on Borneo. See Konfrontas Below

Tensions between Malaysia and Indonesia have run high over the deportation of illegal Indonesian workers in Malaysia. University of Malaya scholars Khadijah Khalid and Shakila Yacob warned that the question of Indonesian labor in Malaysia remains the most "contentious issue" in their relationship. See Labor, Maids


Indonesia opposed the Federation of Malaysia. For a number of years it supported guerilla attacks against Sarawak, Sabah and Malaya. In 1960, the northern states of Borneo, , which bordered on Indonesian Kalimantan, were somewhat reluctant to join Malaysia. Indonesian President Sukarno saw himself as the true leader of the Malay people. Indonesia supported an attempted revolution in Brunei and railed against British imperialism. The Indonesian army increased its budget. British forces provided assistance to Malaysia in their fight against the Indonesians. A brief war—known as Confrontation (Konfrontasi) —soon involved Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China and eventually settled rival claims in Borneo.

The Indonesian government led by Sukarno contended that the new federation of Malaysia was a neocolonialist plan to prevent Indonesia and Malaysia from combining into a Greater Malaysia, an entity that Malaysian leaders had previously supported. Soon after the Federation of Malaysia was established, Indonesia attempted to spark a popular revolt in the fledgling country by engaging in acts of terrorism and armed confrontation in various places. However, these actions strengthened popular support for Malaysia, and in 1964 Australia, Britain, and New Zealand sent troops and military aid to Malaysia.

Sukarno was backed by the powerful Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). Indonesia backed a Communist insurgency in Sarawak, mainly involving elements of the local Chinese community. The Indonesian army mounted offensives along the Kalimantan–Malaysia border and the PKI demonstrated in the streets in Jakarta. Indonesian irregular forces were infiltrated into Sarawak, where they were contained by Malaysian and Commonwealth of Nations forces.

On September 23, 1963, Sukarno, who had proclaimed himself President-for-Life, declared that Indonesia must "gobble Malaysia raw." Military units infiltrated Malaysian territory but were intercepted before they could establish contact with local dissidents. When the UN General Assembly elected Malaysia as a nonpermanent member of the Security Council in December 1964, Sukarno took Indonesia out of the world body and promised the establishment of a new international organization, the Conference of New Emerging Forces (Conefo), a fitting end, perhaps, for 1964, which Sukarno had called "A Year of Living Dangerously."

The period of Konfrontasi—an economic, political, and military confrontation—lasted until the downfall of Sukarno in 1966. An abortive coup attempt in 1965 forced Sukarno to step down, and on August 11, 1966, Indonesia and Malaysia signed a peace treaty.

Brunei Revolt in December 1962

In the 1960s, Indonesia supported an attempted revolution in Brunei and railed against British imperialism there. In 1962, an armed rebellion linked to Indonesia was put down in the Sultanate of Brunei. President Sukarno of Indonesia supported a left wing inspired rural insurrection against the Brunei government. Although flying in police units from British North Borneo and Gurkhas from Malaya swiftly put this down, a hidden jungle campaign continued throughout Borneo for several subsequent years. British troops led by a Gurkha contingent together with the Brunei police and the new Royal Brunei Malay Regiment, saw-off these erstwhile "liberators". Unfortunately, the experience proved a watershed for democratic reform. The experiment with democracy was ended and the legislature dissolved.

Prof. Michael Leigh wrote in the New Strait Times, “On the night of Dec 8, 1962, simultaneous attacks were launched against the government and police throughout Brunei, in Limbang and down as far as Sibuti in Sarawak. Why such violence? In the most recent elections, the Parti Rakyat Brunei (PRB) swept all but one of the elected seats in the Brunei legislature, and expected the win would lead to legislative and executive power. The sultan, his British advisers and the Malayan government were not happy with PRB exercising real power in Brunei. So, the sultan kept postponing any meeting of the legislature, and meanwhile, was actively discussing the terms under which Brunei would become part of the proposed Malaysian federation. PRB was opposed to that policy, and firmly committed to a Borneo Federation of Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo, with Brunei’s sultan as the constitutional monarch of “Bornesia”. [Source: Professor Michael Leigh, New Strait Times, September 13, 2014 \~]

“Frustrated, a number of PRB members commenced military training in the jungles of Brunei and in the Lawas district of Sarawak. Their armed wing, Tentara Nasional Kalimantan Utara (TNKU), obtained a small supply of weapons from various sources. For the PRB, the constitutional path remained blocked, and they feared that security powers would shortly be handed to a new Malaysian government, as was the British intention in Singapore. Influential PRB members then planned to forcibly take over power in Brunei, and adjacent areas of Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah), and to do so during celebrations on Christmas Eve — when it was assumed that the British would be least capable of responding! Arrests of TNKU leaders in Lawas precipitated the early action and the revolt did not go as planned. Capturing the sultan was key to success, as was his cooperation, but PRB failed to reach him. Instead, the sultan was surrounded by expatriates, and with their encouragement, he requested British military assistance to defeat the rebellion.\~\

“Greg Poulgrain, in his book, The Genesis Of Confrontation, sees that revolt in the context of broader British strategy to undermine President Sukarno. He accords a more manipulative and Machiavellian role to the UK in the abortive revolt, but I think he gives too much credit to British intelligence. However, there is still much to be discovered about the events of December 1962. After some significant casualties, especially in Seria and Limbang, the Brunei revolt was suppressed, but it sent shockwaves throughout Sarawak.” \~\

Impact of the 1962 Brunei Revolt

Prof. Michael Leigh wrote in the New Strait Times, “The government immediately gazetted a range of emergency powers and gave wide publicity to these new threats of violence. Newspapers were proscribed, political activists arrested and held without trial, and the participation in the revolt of many Malay and Kedayan Sarawak United Peoples PARTY (SUPP) members, especially those in the Sibuti area, was widely publicised. Following the crackdown, there was a steady flow of young Chinese communist cadres across to West Kalimantan, training in preparation for armed struggle. TNKU was headed by a highly influential Sarawak Malay leader. [Source: Professor Michael Leigh, New Strait Times, September 13, 2014 \~]

“This threat to public order had a decisive impact on public opinion in Sarawak and was crucial in swinging Dayak opinion in favour of Malaysia. No longer was it easy to argue that Sarawak should continue as it was, or seek independence just on its own — as SUPP had been arguing. With the welter of government publicity, there was a groundswell either toward active support for the idea of federation or the passive view that Malaysia was a better option than Indonesia.The Sarawak government made much of the links between PRB leader Azahari and Indonesia, even though it has since been shown that top Indonesian security officials had no confidence in Azahari’s ability to work strategically. \~\

“The government trumpeted clear that the simple choice for Sarawakians was a promising future in Malaysia. Radio Sarawak, beamed throughout the state, gave considerable publicity to resignations of native members of SUPP, and certain government officers pressured influential Dayaks to abandon their membership and support for SUPP, stressing the themes of communist influence and subversion. Just the month before statewide elections in Sarawak, credibility was given to government arguments when Indonesian “volunteers” attacked the Tebedu police station, seizing weapons and killing officers — including the brother of Sarawak’s future first chief minister.” \~\

Brunei Revolt and the Indonesian ‘Konfrontasi’

Prof. Michael Leigh wrote in the New Strait Times, “That was the start of the Indonesian armed konfrontasi against Malaysia. One might well argue that the title Bapa Malaysia should be held jointly by Tunku Abdul Rahman and President Sukarno, for without Indonesia’s support for the PRB and commencement of armed confrontation, it is quite unlikely that a majority of Sarawak’s Council Negri would have supported Sarawak making Malaysia. [Source: Professor Michael Leigh, New Strait Times, September 13, 2014 \~]

“The actual outcome from the 1963 District Council elections was much, much closer than many care to remember. The actual votes cast gave the SUPP/Parti Negara Sarawak (Panas) coalition 35.7 per cent, the Alliance 34.2 per cent and Independents 30.2 per cent. In 1963, the composition of the Council Negri was based on a three-tiered system, with each district council selecting members of the Divisional Advisory Councils (DAC). They would then chose who would represent them in the Council Negri. At each level it was “winner takes all”. Whether the Alliance would carry the day was actually in doubt until the last minute. That was because Panas and SUPP had formed a coalition, a link based upon pragmatism, not ideology. Panas and its leader, Datu Bandar, were savagely attacked for “selling out the Malays”. \~\

“Intervention of the Malayan Alliance added ferocity to that attack and the intense hostility between the top leaders of Barisan Rakyat Jati Sarawal (BARJASA) and Panas became both personal and political. After polling, the SUPP-Panas coalition controlled the 1st DAC and only needed to win a majority in the 3rd DAC in order to nominate 21 of the 36 elected members of Council Negri. In the 3rd DAC, the Alliance and the coalition had secured 10 votes. The outcome swung on the support of one independent member of the Binatang District Council, who held the pivotal swing vote. \~\

“Had the Panas/SUPP coalition then won the 3rd DAC, with the support of just one of four Mukah independents, they would have gained control of the Council Negri. The Panas/SUPP coalition agreement, signed by their respective leaders, stipulated that the United Nations conduct a referendum before the implementation of Malaysia. Had that agreement held, it is doubtful that the Tunku would have waited for a favourable outcome, given the international and domestic pressures bearing heavily upon his government, and his absolute refusal to merge with Singapore prior to the inclusion of the Borneo states.” \~\

Cultural War Between Malaysia and Indonesia

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “ For decades, Uni Histayanti has performed the enigmatic movements of her country's traditional pendet dance. She learned the rhythms as an infant and years ago opened a dinner theater in Jakarta where, dressed in native costume, she performs nightly. As she flutters her arms bird-like, darts her eyes and tilts her head at exotic angles, she invokes the welcoming spirit of the Hindu-majority Bali island where it originated centuries ago. That's why it floored her to hear that neighboring Malaysia had reportedly tried to seize the pendet as its own. It's pure cultural piracy, Histayanti insists. And it makes her mad. "It's a symbol of our heritage, not theirs," she said as she applied makeup in a backstage dressing room of her theater. "If you have something and someone tries to steal it, you take it back." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2009 ]

“These two predominantly Muslim neighbors, which share ethnic and physical traits, are engaged in a tense struggle for superiority. Nowadays, the rift is widening. It's cultural. It's political. And recently, it has gotten personal. Many Malaysians dismiss the teeming Indonesian archipelago as a source for the low-class maids, parking-lot jockeys and waiters who work in Kuala Lumpur and other cities in Malaysia. For their part, Indonesians icily counter that Malaysia is so desperate for a culture that it will resort to anything — even outright theft — to acquire one.

“The pendet dance tiff is only one example of battle over so-called proprietary traditions. “A fresh skirmish of the culture wars breaks out now and then when Indonesians claim Malaysians have yet again plagiarized their indigenous art and music. Malaysians have reportedly laid claim to the Indonesian reog performances — a mix of dance and magic, as well as the angklung, a bamboo musical instrument, activists say. In 2007, Indonesia threatened legal action against Malaysia for allegedly co-opting Indonesian songs and dances in its national tourism campaign. That resulted in a high-profile panel being convened to settle the dispute.

“Many in Indonesia claim that even Malaysia's national anthem borrows from an Indonesian song. Experts solicited to settle the fight reported that both songs borrow from a 19th century French tune. At home, many Indonesians say, Malaysians are protective of their own culture. When a wave of Indonesian pop music began receiving play on radio stations there a year ago, officials sought to set a strict quota: 90 percent Malaysian songs and 10 percent Indonesian.”

Cultural War Between Malaysia and Indonesia Get Ugly

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ““The pendet dance tiff emerged in the summer of 2009 when rumors spread that Malaysia was responsible for television ads claiming the invention of the pendet dance. Within days, a private company producing a program for the Discovery Channel admitted they were behind the ads and that they had mistakenly picked the wrong dance to promote their upcoming program. The Malaysian government, they explained, had nothing to do with the foul-up.” [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2009 ]

“But it was too late. Indonesia's feathers had been ruffled. Indonesia's tourism minister demanded a written apology, which he said was needed for the record. Meanwhile, outraged Indonesians waged a "Crush Malaysia" campaign reminiscent of a nationalistic tirade in the 1960s. This time, mobs burned the Malaysian flag, which features a crescent moon and sun, and threw rotten eggs at the embassy in Jakarta.

“For days, protesters wielding sharpened bamboo sticks stopped traffic in search of Malaysian motorists and pedestrians. Six Indonesians were arrested. No one was injured, but the Malaysian Embassy complained about the safety of its citizens. Internet hackers attacked Malaysian government websites. One nationalist youth group began collecting signatures on the Internet for volunteers willing to go to war with Malaysia. Though the leaders of the youth group concede that such a face-off is extremely unlikely, they say they have stockpiled food, medicine and weapons such as samurai swords and ninja throwing-stars.”

The Straits Times reported: “The curious tiff between Malaysia and Indonesia defies rationality. Vigilante gangs in Indonesia have sought to "sweep" Malaysians out at roadblocks. Protesters have pelted the Malaysian embassy with bad eggs. These came about after Indonesians accused Malaysians of hijacking a Balinese dance for a promotional campaign on Malaysia. The affair is doubly irrational when one considers the fact that the error was committed not by Malaysia but by the widely watched cable Discovery Channel. [Source: The Straits Times, September 14, 2009]

Bitter Feelings Behind the Cultural War Between Malaysia and Indonesia

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Such high jinks baffle many Malaysians, not to mention Indonesians."These guys with pointed sticks, they're from the loony left," said Ong Hock Chuan, a Malaysian-born public relations consultant who lives in Jakarta. "If it wasn't Malaysia, they'd vent their anger at something else." But many others here say the resentment is widespread and runs deep. Newspapers run stories about mistreatment of some of the 2 million Indonesian workers by their bosses in Malaysia. Last year, Indonesia temporarily stopped sending maids to Malaysia until better security was provided for the workers. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2009 ]

"Many who want to invade Malaysia are former migrant workers or people who know one," said Aleksius Jemadu, a political scientist at Pelita Harapan University in Indonesia. "There is a sense that Malaysians look down on us. They insult us. And to tell you the truth, many Indonesians are secretly envious because they view most Malaysians as being better off than us." The two governments also remain at loggerheads. "Each wants to be seen as the regional leader in Southeast Asia," he said. "They both claim to be the leading Muslim nation."

“The vitriol and bad feelings spill over into politics. Animosity rose this summer after two Jakarta hotels were bombed, an attack apparently planned by a Malaysian citizen linked to Al Qaeda, Noordin Mohammad Top, who was later killed. Ong, the Malaysian Indonesian consultant, writes on his blog that Indonesians should be angry at their own government "for doing so little to capitalize on their culture, which is varied and rich beyond description, and hence letting great opportunities slip away." But Ong says there is much blame to go around. The Malaysian government, he says, "needs to get off its high horse" and treat Indonesian officials as equals. For now, Histayanti says, she will continue to perform the pendet dance for all her customers — even Malaysians. "I feel sorry for them," she said. "They're just jealous of us."

The Straits Times reported: “ Malaysia has progressed much faster than Indonesia and jobs are more plentiful than could be created in Indonesia for its much bigger population. The economic gap has resulted in a flood of surplus Indonesian workers into Malaysia to do '3D' (dirty, dangerous and demeaning) jobs in sectors such as construction, plantations and household help. Against this backdrop, ordinary Indonesians rile against being treated as second-class by their kinsmen. Some insensitive Malaysians exacerbate matters when they assert their position in the superior-subordinate relationship. The curious tiff between Malaysia and Indonesia defies rationality. Vigilante gangs in Indonesia have sought to "sweep" Malaysians out at roadblocks. [Source: The Straits Times, September 14, 2009]

“Both countries would do well to stress their common and shared cultural heritage, rather than allow their citizens to score nationalist points by declaring exclusive ownership of cultural symbols. As one Malaysian minister has noted, India did not make any noise about Hindi songs being sung in Malaysia and Indonesia. (To buttress the point, India has also never protested against the use of its great Ramayana and Mahabharata epics in Indonesia's wayang kulit.) [Ibid]

Malaysia’s Arrogance Versus Indonesia’s Envy

Endy M. Bayuni wrote in the Jakarta Post, ““Malaysians are arrogant, Indonesians are jealous” was how Ali Alatas, Indonesia’s foreign minister from 1988-1999, put it during a seminar that looked at relations between the two countries. He made this remark two years before his passing in 2009, when anti-Malaysian sentiments flared in the wake of near skirmishes between Indonesian and Malaysian naval ships in the disputed Ambalat block in the Sulawesi Sea. If Alatas was still with us today, he would surely have used the same explanation for the recent resumption of tensions between the two nations. [Source: Endy M. Bayuni, Jakarta Post, September 4, 2010 ]

“Anyone looking for a rational explanation as to why two nations — which could not be more similar because of their shared Malay cultural roots — are at odds again for the umpteenth time can’t go wrong by remembering what Alatas said. The Malay commonality has made this relationship special, more so than with other neighbors such as Singapore, Australia and Timor Leste, with whom Indonesia has its share of disputes and tensions. But as the recent development illustrates, this Malay commonality has also become the source of a problem, especially when it is underpinned by the perceptions that one country is arrogant, and the other is envious.

“The series of spats in the relationship, from the Ambalat case to accusations of Malaysia’s theft of Indonesia’s cultural heritage to constant reports of abuses against Indonesian workers, contribute to the perception of Malaysian arrogance. Malaysia started its development at the same level as Indonesia in the 1970s and even received assistance from Indonesia, which sent teachers and lecturers to Malaysia. The fact that Malaysia today economically is far more successful than Indonesia makes the case for Indonesian jealousy.

“It is also for this reason that rather than the “love/hate” sentiment that usually develops between close friends, Indonesian and Malaysian relations today are looking more like the “hate/love” kind. Indonesian diplomats, whose task it is to resolve disputes with other countries, often jest that Indonesia has far better relations with Iceland than with its close neighbors Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. They are not wrong to use the total number of conflicts to measure the warmth of any relationship.

“One of the consequences of having a deep and intense relationship is that there are bound to be frictions. The more intense the relations, the more likely and frequent the frictions will be. This is exactly what is happening between Indonesia and Malaysia. Relations have become deeper, more intense and more complex. There are more than two million Indonesians working in Malaysia (of which half are undocumented), and thousands of Malaysians are also working in Indonesia, as well as investing in the Indonesian economy. The exchange of visits by people of the two countries is not only underpinned by the economic interests of the two countries, but it goes deeper to include social, cultural and even political interests.

“There will be more Indonesians arrested on criminal charges and facing death sentences, and there will be more Indonesians abused by their employers, given that there are two million Indonesians working in Malaysia. There may be more skirmishes in the disputed areas, and there may be more accusations of Malaysia stealing Indonesia’s cultural heritage. And there will be new issues emerging in the future. The task for any country is how to manage these frictions and prevent them from dragging on and becoming an open conflict.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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