Indonesia and Malaysia Rivalry Pt 2

Not the Netherlands. Not Japan. Not Timor Leste. Indonesia’s biggest sporting rival is undoubtedly Malaysia.

Like Indonesia, what we now call Malaysia would not have existed without colonialism. Different states sharing no previous political unity were brought together in the face of colonialism. Malaya (before it became Malaysia) emerged from British rule far more harmoniously compared to the Indonesian fight for independence against the Dutch. The British lumped together other territories it occupied in the region, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah, with the Malayan peninsula when it was time to go (Singapore seceded from Malaysia after 2 years). At the time this mattered to the newly independent Indonesians full of patriotic zeal, as Sarawak and Sabah share land borders with the Indonesian region of Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. The charismatic Indonesian president Sukarno openly declared Malaysia an enemy as a result. The way he saw it, the new Malaysia had openly snatched Indonesian land away from Indonesia. A lot of Indonesians agreed.


This political spat is commonly stated as the beginning of the modern rivalry between the two. But the economic futures of the two countries were to take it to new heights. At the time of independence, Malaysian and Indonesian GDP per capita were comparable. In 2017 Malaysians enjoy a standard of living far higher than the average Indonesian according to most quantitative measures of life quality. The result is that many Indonesians now work as economic migrants in their smaller but wealthier neighbour. The fact that so many Indonesians depend so heavily on the Malaysian Ringgit for their income is often a humiliating experience for them.

Finally, it is important to understand the simultaneous cultural similarity and cultural isolation that Malaysia and Indonesia share with each other. No other major country in the world (we shall forget Singapore, Brunei Darussalam and Timor Leste for a moment) is culturally similar to the two, so it is natural for them to compare themselves to and compete with each other. And as the bigger nation in terms of population and geography, many Indonesians feel that they lead Malaysia with regards to cultural output.

Malaysia is the older sibling done-good with the college doctorate. Indonesia is the jealous younger brother who dropped out of high-school to join a band and got the girls.

Malaysia has the money and economic power, but Indonesia is supposed to be the one with more culture. But Indonesians believe that Malaysians claim many cultural icons and traditions associated with Indonesia as their own. Nasi Goreng? Malaysian. Batik fabric design? Malaysian. Dangdut electronic music? Malaysian. This is simply inexcusable. While they cannot contest economic indices between the two countries, Indonesians consider no compromise with regards to their cultural superiority, something all the more important as they as a nation are clearly poorer.

Fans Palembang

Though the origins of the rivalry between the two can be traced back to politics in the Mederka (independence) era and subsequent wealth disparity, the irritation Indonesians feel when their cultural superiority (as they would define it) in the relationship is not acknowledged is in many ways the key behind contemporary rivalry with Malaysians. It is important to remember however that this rivalry is very one-sided; Malaysians care much less about “getting one over” their neighbours than Indonesians do. As is often the case around the world, the medium used to settle these scores is Football. As one fan I spoke to put it;

“Our dream is to go to Malaysia and make chaos. We have to try it! We have to get a point as fans, more important than the players”

As Palembang and Jakarta host the Asian Games 2018 in 9 months, Malaysian citizens will be arriving in Indonesia to support their athletes. If the two clash at Football, Indonesians are likely to take the opportunity to be aggressive toward Malaysian fans. This fixture is unlikely, as there are far stronger Football sides in Asia, reducing the likelihood of Indonesian progression in the Football cup. But Indonesians continue to wait for their opportunity to “get a point as fans”.

Read Part 1 here.


7 thoughts on “Indonesia and Malaysia Rivalry Pt 2

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