PUTRAJAYA (AFP) – The leaders of Malaysia and Indonesia on Friday pledged renewed efforts to resolve stubborn disputes over maritime borders that have long nagged at one of Southeast Asia’s most important bilateral relationships.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and visiting Indonesian President Joko Widodo held talks Friday morning and later told a joint press briefing they agreed to set up a new mechanism for resolving territorial issues.
Najib said the effort was necessary because years of negotiations had seen “no significant advancement.”
Widodo added that maritime disputes had “lingered for too long.”
The tension has centred on competing claims to potentially energy-rich seabeds in the Celebes Sea off the eastern coast of the vast island of Borneo, which the two nations share along with Brunei.
But they also have disputed maritime borders in other spots, and Indonesia has lately sought to crack down on illegal fishing in its waters, using explosives to destroy and sink a number of seized foreign fishing vessels, including from Malaysia.
Najib said each side would appoint special envoys “to lead exploratory talks and to find a formula that is acceptable to the governments and peoples of both nations.”
Widodo’s two-day stay is his first official bilateral trip abroad since taking office late last year and the choice of Malaysia appeared to underline the mutually-held importance of steady relations between two countries that sprawl across vital Southeast Asian sea lanes.
Another perennial bone of contention has been recurring reports of poor treatment of the hundreds of thousands of Indonesian maids and other workers, and the frictions surfaced again just before Widodo’s arrival.
Indonesia’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur said it had formally protested this week over an advertisement by a Malaysian distributor of automatic vacuum cleaners that said users of the product can “Fire your Indonesian maid now!”
The company’s website also was defaced, apparently by Indonesian hackers who posted a message on the page decrying the ad and calling for respect for their compatriots in Malaysia.
Najib and Widodo mentioned the labour issue only in passing, saying they agreed that Indonesian workers should only come to Malaysia via official recruitment channels to ensure their safety.
Over the years, relatively affluent Malaysia has attracted millions of migrant workers – both legal and illegal – from Indonesia, including large numbers of domestic workers.
An estimated 400,000 foreign maids are now employed in Malaysia, the vast majority of them Indonesian women.
But reports of physical and other abuse by Malaysian employers or recruiters have repeatedly sparked anger in Indonesia.