Center for Strategic Communication

The 17 September death of Noordin Top at the hands of Indonesia’s anti terror squad Densus 88 brought a sense of relief to many in Southeast Asia. Noordin was Southeast Asia’s most wanted terrorist. Following the July 17 hotel bombings in Jakarta, a message attributed to him signaled a split from Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), and a move toward more radical and deadly tactics.

A not-so-subtle subtext of Noordin’s death is the strained relationship of Indonesia and Malaysia. Noordin was Malaysian and graduated from Malaysia’s Technological University, but he resided and committed terrorist acts in Indonesia (and killed Indonesians). This might be enough to promote some hostility between the two countries, but the story is much more complicated. Rather, the tense relationship between the two countries goes back decades but includes some recent events as well.

Malaysia’s early 1960s decolonization plan included containing the provinces of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo. Indonesia had its eyes on these regions and hoped to merge them with its province of Kalimantan (South Borneo). A low-level conflict called “Konfrontasi” broke out between the two states, but with the aid of the British, Malaysian was victorious. Some Indonesians have retained resentment over this outcome.

There are more recent examples, however. In 2002, the International Court of Justice awarded to Malaysia two islands in the Ambalat region (off the Borneo coast). This infuriated many Indonesians, some of whom hold “territorial integrity” sacred. Some were still smarting from East Timor’s independence following a 1999 UN referendum. There remain competing claims at the border between the two neighbors (recently refered to as a “Time Bomb” by Indonesian media). Indonesia and Malaysia have since been making moves to bolster their competing claims, and a naval skirmish was narrowly avoided in 2005.

Malaysia has also been accused of stealing Indonesian culture. In 2007, the Malaysian Tourism Board used a song (“Rasa Sayang”) that Indonesians claim as their own. This year, a Balinese dance (Tari Pendet) was used by the Discovery Channel in a feature on Malaysia. These provoked accusations of thievery by Indonesians, and led to the use of the nickname “Malingsia;” Maling means thief. This youtube video is exemplary, including its belligerent tone and images of the Indonesian military. More tangible threats came from the Barisan Muda Betawi (Betawi Youth Front). The BMB threatened to “sweep” Tangerang for Malaysian citizens and target them for harassment. The Jakarta police reacted to other groups’ intimidation by making arrests.

Use of the term Malingsia is prominent in blog posts and websites and is used in many contexts that concern both Indonesia and Malaysia. Malaysians don’t have quite as catchy a nickname for Indonesians, but their vitriol is expressed in other ways. For example, Malaysians mock Indonesia’s lower levels of development and education. Comment threads inevitably turn to name-calling and swearing.

This perception of Malaysia is so common that it colored coverage of (the Malaysian) Noordin Top’s demise. Malaysian Interior Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein issued a statement denying that his country was “exporting” terrorists or selling them weapons. This statement was echoed by Malaysian PM Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who parried by arguing that Noordin was influenced by Abu Bakar Bashir, an Indonesian considered the head of JI.

Yet some of the statements coming from Malaysia may have stoked Indonesian feelings of resentment. Malaysian newspaper Utusan Malaysia erroneously reported that Noordin blew himself up in the raid. Interior Minister Hishammuddin stated he hoped Noordin’s body could be returned quickly, which was viewed by some as making the feelings of a known terrorist’s family (one of them at least — Noordin had one Malaysian wife and two Indonesian) more important than the post-event investigation. He also stated he thought it was a shame than Noordin was killed as life is sacred and perhaps Noordin could have been rehabilitated. These cheery thoughts are no consolation to Noordin’s victims in Indonesia.

Although the two countries have officially maintained cordial relations despite the hue and cry from the blogosphere, a recent story quoted spokesman Musni Umar of the Malaysia-Indonesia Eminent Persons Group as stating that Noordin’s death will improve relations between the neighbors. Official positions aside, given the history and depth of the animosity the cybersparring will continue, stoked by whatever event comes next. Thankfully they’ll continue to just be words on the internet, more vent than event.