It has been more than half a century since Malaysia and Indonesia initiated diplomatic relations back in 1966. Even decades after independence, Malaysia-Indonesia relationship has a unique dynamic, a love-hate relationship – from territorial and maritime claims to cultural theft.

Once part of the same territories ruled by various kingdoms one after another, these two nations possess long history of trade, conquest, war, colonisation, brotherhood and nation-building.

The obvious implication of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty 1824 was the partition of the Malay World into two main sovereign nations – Malaysia and Indonesia – the fundamental legacy of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty 1824 that remains to this day.

Should Indonesia keep accusing us of cultural theft?

The Malay Archipelago or Nusantara, as it is popularly known in Indonesia, was home to several bygone empires of the Malay race namely Langkasuka, Srivijaya, Majapahit, Malacca and Acheh. The core centres of political power of these kingdoms scatterred all over Nusantara, particularly on the islands of Sumatra, Java and the Malay Peninsula itself. These kingdoms flourished by exploiting maritime trade that flowed via the Straits of Malacca and Singapore and the Sunda Strait.

After the sacking of the Sultanate of Malacca in 1511, the heirs to the throne of Malacca, Sultan Muzaffar Shah and Sultan Alauddin Riayat Shah II established the Perak and the Johor-Riau Sultanates respectively, claiming territories once ruled by Malacca. While Perak remained a backwater kingdom, Johor-Riau fluorished into a formidable Malay power commanding over the Strait of Malacca controlling one of the world’s major shipping route.

In 1619, the Dutch established Batavia on the island of Java and were successful in expanding their influence into Malacca in 1641. In 1685, the British arrived in Southeast Asia and erected Fort Marlborough in their newly-founded colony of Bengkulu (Bencoolen) in Sumatra.

In early 1600s, Aceh rose as a major native power in the region and colonised most parts of northern Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, subjugated Johor and Kedah under its power. The gradual fall of Aceh after the death of Sultan Iskandar Thani in 1641 strengthen Johor’s position as the foremost Malay power taking control over the Strait of Malacca.

By 1680, Riau (part of the Johor-Riau Sultanate) became the foremost trading port in the region as affirmed by the Dutch governor of Malacca at that time, Thomas Slicher who described that Riau was a thriving port with bustling shipping activities. The Dutch was not keen to develop Malacca as they put more importance on Batavia, their capital in the East.

The more serious competing claims began between the British and the Dutch in the Malay World when Stamford Raffles, the then Governor General of Bencoolen decided that the British needed other strategic settlement particularly on the Malay Peninsula to counter Dutch hegemony in this region. Initially, Bintan was identified as a possible candidate but finally Raffles had his eyes on Singapore, then a territory of the Johor-Riau Sultanate. In 1824, Singapore was ceded to the British by the then ruler of Singapore, Tengku Hussein.

Despite the gradual encroachment of European powers into the Malay World, local Malay kingdoms were largely left untouched until the Anglo-Dutch Treaty 1824 was concluded. This treaty was entered into by these colonial powers without taking into consideration its effect on the socio-political scenario of the Malay World. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty 1824 – the momentous treaty that carved the Malay World into two parts – while Singapore and the Malay Peninsula were placed under British influence, Sumatra and the Riau Islands went into the sphere of influence of the Dutch.

Upon independence of Malaysia in 1957 and Indonesia in 1945, these sovereign countries inherited territories not drawn by previous kingdoms or sultanates, but by their former colonial masters, uniquely shaping the Malay World to become what it is today.

What are the effects of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty 1824 on modern Malaysia and Indonesia?

The Natuna and Anambas Islands

The Natuna and Anambas Islands are located in the middle of the South China Sea, smacked halfway between Peninsula Malaysia and the Malaysian state of Sarawak. Despite its geographical proximity to Malaysia, these islands are now part of Indonesia. This created a unique Indonesian enclave in the South China Sea. How was this possible?

Historically, the Natuna and Anambas Islands were part of the Johor-Riau Sultanate. The Sultanate of Johor-Riau reached its pre-eminence in the 16th century having territories extending beyond Peninsula Malaysia to include Sumatra, the Riau Islands and the Lingga Islands in the South China Sea.

In 1824, the Anglo-Dutch Treaty divided the once mighty sultanate into two halves – the Sultanate of Johor and the Sultanate of Riau-Lingga. The Sultanate of Johor inherited territories located within the Malay Peninsula and managed to retain its independence for a few decades before it was made a British protectorate in 1914. The Sultanate of Johor exists until the present day, having been incorporated into the Federation of Malaysia.

Meanwhile, the Riau-Lingga Sultanate exercised its sovereignty over island territories of the former Johor-Riau empire which included the Natuna Islands. This Sultanate, unable to withstand the might of European imperialism was forced to accept Dutch overlordship and subsequently dismantled and annexed as part of Dutch East Indies in 1911.

This resulted in a unique Indonesian enclave ‘in the middle’ of Malaysia. Although Natuna and Anambas islands were historically and geograhically closer to Malaysia, Dutch colonisation through the Anglo-Dutch Treaty 1824 has placed them today as part of modern Indonesia.

Cultural Theft

The Anglo-Dutch Treaty 1824 separated the Malays into two nations, causing confusion in cultural identity that persists till today. In past years, some Indonesians have protested against Malaysia for allegedly ‘stealing’ Indonesian cultures such as tari pendet from Bali, the rendang dish from Sumatra, Batik from Java and the Rasa Sayange song from Maluku. In 2010, this problem escalated as Indonesia was not happy with Malaysia claiming angklung as part of its national heritage. This dispute continued up to 2012 when Malaysia was said to have ‘unethically’ recognised the Tor-Tor dance and the musical instrument Gordang Sambilan as part of its own culture.


The anti-Malaysian sentiment was particularly intense in 2009, 2010 and 2011 to the extent that the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta was attacked a number of times and there were also attempts to ‘sweep’ Malaysians off the streets of Jakarta. In addition, there were also intemperate calls for war against Malaysia though they were never taken seriously.

Despite being part of the ‘Malay race’, the understanding of the term ‘Malay’ is different in both countries. While Malaysia defines ‘Malays’ to include Bataks, Javanese, Buginese, Minang, Acehnese and other related Indonesian ethnic groups, Indonesia defines ‘Malays’ more narrowly. ‘Malays’ in Indonesia are generally regarded as people of Malay ancestry that inhabit most parts of Sumatra, the Riau province, Peninsula Malaysia and coastal areas in Borneo. This differing definitions of the word ‘Malay’ has to a certain extent contributed to the ambiguity over cultural heritage and the misplaced notion of ‘cultural theft’ alleged against Malaysia.

The Malaysian history is quite significantly influenced by Indonesia. The Malay Peninsula was once under the influence of Srivijaya and Majapahit, both of Sumatran and Javanese origins respectively. In fact, the powerful 14th century Sultanate of Malacca was a maritime empire ruled by Srivijaya princes of Sumatran origin.

Being people so closely related to the sea, these facts show that the people of the Malay Archipelago used to move around from one place to another within the archipelago long before Malaysia and Indonesia were created subsequent to decolonisation. How could people of the same roots commit cultural theft? Be that as it may, the Malays are still the same people – in Malaysia or Indonesia. This cultural confusion is undoubtedly the grim result of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.

The Anglo-Dutch Treaty 1824 has significantly shaped the political and socio-economic history of the Malay Archipelago. The separation of the Malay World was done to maximise the interests of the Dutch and the British without taking into consideration its impact that could still be felt until today.

Malaysia and Indonesia were the indirect products of this treaty. One could not change history but one could shape the future. As successor States of the former glorious kingdoms of Srivijaya, Mahapahit and Malacca, both Malaysia and Indonesia should realise that they are in fact one kin co-existing in two nations. It has been 193 years since the division of the Malay World. It is now time for Malaysians and Indonesians to put their differences aside and work towards building a stronger Nusantara, stronger Southeast Asia.


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