Timing of Habibie, Mahathir meeting ‘puzzling’

Analysts wonder why the meeting was held in the thick of the Indonesian election campaign.


AFTER a period of cool relations between Indonesia and Malaysia, the two heads of state finally met yesterday in Batam, Dr B. J. Habibie’s industrial showcase island to-be.

Ironically, Batam is also where Dr Habibie met the daughter of ousted Malaysian Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim more than six months ago and cast aspersions on political reform in Malaysia, much to the chagrin of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Analysts and diplomats believe it led to a dip in bilateral ties and could have triggered Kuala Lumpur’s decision to cancel a US$1 billion (S$1.7 billion) loan to its crisis-struck neighbour last month.

But political expediency, now driven by election-campaign requirements in Indonesia, seemed to have quashed any principled concern for the favourite Malaysian politician of Dr Habibie and members of the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (Icmi).

The outcome of the half-day meeting was less important than the fact that the meeting was held at all.

There were no joint communiques nor concrete policy initiatives for the eager 100 local and foreign journalists who turned up at the quiet and scenic Nongsa Resort in anticipation of a major announcement.

After two hours together, the two leaders only offered hope and pledges for greater cooperation.

The timing of the summit would have certainly raised eyebrows.

The frenzy of campaigning in Indonesia had started and it was just a matter of weeks before the general election, with the government in caretaker mode.

So, why did they meet?

Malaysian officials said that Dr Mahathir received a note from his Indonesian counterpart for a summit earlier this month. The note suggested a meeting on “political, economic and cultural matters”.

Kuala Lumpur would presumably have been happy to meet at any time.

But based on normal government conventions, the Malaysians would not have proposed a leader’s meeting without any pressing business right in the middle of an election campaign in Indonesia.

What made Dr Mahathir go ahead with the meeting?

If Jakarta was uncomfortable previously with the way Anwar was treated, this meeting sends a clear signal to him that Indonesia will not let differences over that matter soil ties.

But there are risks for Dr Mahathir as well.

Giving Dr Habibie a political hand during the campaign will not be appreciated by the likes of Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri, Mr Amien Rais and Mr Abdurrahman Wahid, who could end up winning the election.

For the Malaysian leader, however, the domestic payoff in terms of the Anwar question may be more important than securing better relations with a future Indonesian government. He may have also calculated that Dr Habibie’s chances of being re-elected were much better than those of his rivals.

As for Dr Habibie, conventions matter little at this point in his political career, especially when a lot of mileage can be gained from meeting Dr Mahathir, whom he described as his “senior partner”.

A Western diplomat noted: “It is this Indonesian thinking where they believe in the importance of international support vaguely defined. It boosts their political credentials to say the Americans, Australians and now Malaysians are backing them.

“It is a bit of political grandstanding for Habibie. It gives him a chance to act as a statesman and right whatever ill-feelings he might have generated in Malaysia over his support for Anwar.”

Icmi optics are also at work.

The Straits Times understands that several Icmi members of Dr Habibie’s inner circle, particularly Cooperatives Minister Adi Sasono, who eyes the Malaysian economic model, had advised the President on the need “to return to the basics” of that relationship and repair the rift quickly after the Anwar affair.

Dr Habibie made no bones yesterday about what those basics were: race, language and culture. Ironically, for ages it was the Malaysians who pushed the “serumpun concept”.

Observers believe such political symbolism is all the more important for the ruling Golkar party in its bid to win votes in the ethnic Malay enclaves of Sumatra.

For many hoping for more tangible results, yesterday’s meeting would have seemed unnecessary.

But in the middle of an election campaign, a lot of unnecessary things seem necessary.

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