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SHOPPING PARADISE: Malaysians are flocking to Indonesia, ignoring 'tensions' arising from allegations of our 'cultural theft'
A TRIP to Bandung, West Java, last week has left me wondering what the fuss was all about -- the talk that Malaysia and Indonesia are in deep confrontation again over trivial matters.
No such thing. Bandung, Indonesia's fourth largest city about two hours by road from Jakarta, turned out to be a Malaysian escapade as always. Like they say, if you had stood in the city centre and thrown a stone over your shoulder, you were bound to hit two Malaysians gleefully walking about without the slightest fear of any threat of bodily harm.
It was that safe, more so for Malaysians who love bargains. They travel the world for them. And Bandung is one place they flock to for a cheap and easy shopping spree.
I did a little test by asking a few local people about the latest controversy that was said to be causing tension -- allegations that Malaysia was yet again committing cultural theft by claiming a Mandailing dance as its own.
From the look on the faces, these Bandung residents might as well have replied: "Tension? What tension?" And when I explained what the issue was about, businessman Asep Durman, one of those I had posed the question to, brushed it all aside: "Oh that? Nothing at all. Probably confined to a small section in Jakarta where a group of people with extreme sentiments stage protests at will against anything at all. They even demonstrate against the president every now and then and it's common."
Asep might have his reasons based on business interests when he said what he said. But then many others shared his views. They considered the matter as too petty, probably just as frivolous as some Malaysians making a big fuss over claims of ownership by Singapore on chicken rice or rambutans or durians.
Indeed, Bandung was so friendly to Malaysians, probably because its businesses thrive partly from the spending habits of those from across the border who come in droves.
The flights to and from Kuala Lumpur are reportedly full most of the time and many shops accept ringgit despite Malaysian currency regulation, which makes the ringgit not internationally tradable since the Asian financial crisis 15 years ago.
There was Bobby, a textile trader at a bazaar called Pasar Baru in downtown Bandung, who spoke Malay like Malaysians do, with a particular accent and mixing a few words of English. He was selling all kinds of imported fabric at irresistible prices. Understandably, most of his customers were Malaysians. That's why perhaps he threw in the name Jakel, the Malaysian textile specialist, in his sales pitch.
Bobby had Indian facial features and could pass off as a Malaysian, like one of those traders in Kuala Lumpur's Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. He said he got the name Bobby from the hit Hindi movie of the same name in the early 1970s.
Bobby's business seemed to be booming and was a reflection of the flourishing Indonesian economy.
Bandung itself has changed so much over the last 10 years and the types of cars plying the city's congested streets provided some indication. Unlike before, there were hardly run-down vehicles moving about, but rather spanking new ones, mainly multi-purpose vehicles. Motorcycles, of course, still reigned and everyone looked busy doing one thing or another.
The Indonesians also seemed to adopt the one-district-one-product strategy well. For instance Garut, about 60km from Bandung, is a town that specialises in producing and selling leather goods -- shoes, handbags, jackets, wallets, you name it, they have it and at a real bargain.
They don't carry big designer brand names like Loakes, Bruno Magli or Ferragamo but they are of export quality and, more importantly, affordable.
The bottom line is, Indonesia is going through a positive economic transformation. And there are far more advantages for Malaysia to tap into this than to be embroiled in foolish pettiness.