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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part one. Regional dynamics and globalisation

The Strait of Malacca: an inland sea

Nathalie Fau

Texte intégral

1February 2011

2The Strait of Malacca is a major axis in worldwide maritime traffic and a vital artery of intra-regional commerce. It is located at the crossroads of the transoceanic merchandise shipping lines between the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean, intra-Asian lines and east-west circumterrestrial maritime routes. Often considered solely as a narrowing of the maritime region in which navigating conditions frequently become difficult, the Strait of Malacca is rarely considered as a separate territory structured by longitudinal as well as latitudinal flow. What is unique about the Strait of Malacca is that it is both a zone of major exchange and transit in international commerce, in which the countries situated along its coasts have always been deeply integrated, and a region in itself, shaped by, despite the borders that separate the opposing coasts, a tight web of commercial and cultural relations between the two coasts.

3The north-south configuration of the Strait, which is 1,000 kilometres in length, has led to a geographical organisation comprised of two zones of cross-border cooperation, known since the beginning of the 1990s by the generic term, “growth triangle”. The southern triangle, or SIJORI, later known as IMS-GT, is a zone of cross-border cooperation bringing together Singapore, the states of Johor, Melaka, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan in Malaysia and the provinces of Riau, the Riau Islands, West Sumatra, Jambi, Bengkulu and South Sumatra in Indonesia. The northern triangle or IMT-GT includes all of the provinces of the Sumatra Island, the Malaysian peninsular states except Johor and Pahang and 14 regions in southern Thailand.

4These two zones basically operate according to the same logic; that is to say, the principles of international labour division are applied on a subregional scale. They take advantage of the geo-economic hiatus resulting from the national borders. The way in which they operate depends on economic gradients (the cost of labour, the level of industrialisation and development of the service sector), demographics (the availability of labour) and politics (protectionism or free trade) between the countries bordering the Strait. In the IMT-GT, for example, the structures of the main elements of production vary considerably between the three partners. The northern part of the Malaysian Peninsula spends (per capita revenue) three times greater than the countries of northern Sumatra and of southern Thailand. Although the south of Thailand and the north of Sumatra appear in many ways to be under-industrialised in comparison to the Malaysian region, the land available is, on the other hand, a considerable advantage for their future development. This has allowed Penang to strengthen its economic ties with its two neighbours. Throughout the 1990s the flow between Penang and Medan grew considerably. The industrial zones in the city of Medan have welcomed Malaysian companies specialising in the agricultural industry (fish-freezing factories and fruit canneries) and the manufacturing of wicker furniture or plantation-wood furniture (Hevea, in particular). Businessmen, who had decided to relocate their production units to Medan and northern Sumatra, did not do so for the low manual labour costs, but for their abundant and under-used natural resources.

5The development of the “growth triangles” led the bordering countries to take into account the diversity of maritime shipping in the Strait, rather than merely passing legislation on the security of international maritime shipping. The traffic separation scheme of 1st December 1998 is thus the first legal text to establish maritime zones reserved for coastal traffic and transversal shipping. This scheme guarantees greater security for inshore navigation and for fishermen by separating the international transit from inshore and transversal shipping. There is much transversal shipping linking the two sides of the Strait of Malacca. Small capacity cargo ships, outrigger fishing boats, ferries and even sampans making daily runs from Medan or Tanjung Balai to Penang and Port Klang, from Dumai to Malacca and to Port Klang, and from the islands of the Riau Archipelago to Singapore.

6Since the reopening of borders in the Strait of Malacca, numerous ports have appeared and the number of passageways across the Strait has increased. The policies of the Indonesian and Malaysian governments have contributed to this growth by favouring the development of small ports specialised in “barter trade” (commerce based on compensation or exchange), in particular. In each of these ports, the coastal populations are allowed to carry out commercial transactions of up to 600 ringgit (130 euros – the average monthly salary being 120 US dollars in Indonesia and 850 US dollars in Malaysia) per crossing, without customs duties or administrative authorisation. The aim is to allow the coastal populations, which are often isolated from the big cities, to supply themselves with basic goods and farming tools. As a result of the economic crisis, activity in these small ports is expanding rapidly, to such an extent that the local authorities have asked their respective governments to increase duty-free transactions to 6,000 ringgits (1,300 euros).

7Transnational shipping does not only exist when and where political powers favour it, it also develops under a strategy of circumvention of nations and their borders. Thrown into an informal, hidden and illegal sphere, this flow has its own hubs, logic and traces to a geographic map separate from that of the official circuits. On the east coast of Sumatra, the main hubs of illegal flows are the port city of Tanjung Balai and the Riau Islands (Batam, Bintan and Karinum). Contraband shipping uses the same circuits and the same fruit and vegetable boats as the circuits used for illegal migration. Those involved in smuggling are by no means adventurers operating at night in order to escape from being seen; they are businessmen engaged in, to borrow the expression used by the local population, “legal smuggling”, and they benefit from the support (in exchange for being reimbursed) of customs officials and the army. For the smugglers of Riau, these activities are not illegal, but are simply the pursuit of their role as intermediaries, reflecting commercial continuity against a backdrop of political change. These two “grey zones” operate in tandem and cover each other’s activities: the smugglers of Tanjung Balai state the Riau Islands as their final destination and vice-versa. This system takes advantage of a legislative weakness about which the customs officials complain regularly. Tanjung Balai is specialised in smuggling goods to Malaysia and in particular, Port Klang, whereas Bintan and Batam are involved in far more widespread illicit networks, which have developed throughout East Asia and are based in city-state of Singapore. Singapore is easily becoming the hub for shipments escaping Indonesian customs taxation, as they are not deemed as illegal in the city-state, which is a duty-free port. According to this liberal logic, it is the banning itself that has led to the smuggling.

8Throughout the time that the Suharto government held office, the cultural flow that unites the two sides of the Strait in a tight web has been deliberately cut off, and sometimes even forbidden. Any reference to a Malay world that went against the principle of territoriality of the new nation-states was, in the eyes of the central government, the dregs of an ancient and outdated past. At present, however, as a result of a move towards decentralisation in Indonesia, this Malay world is taking shape once again in the region of the Strait of Malacca and is giving rise to a re-emergence of the serumpun. The concept of serumpun from bangsa serumpun, meaning “people of the same ethnic background” or “blood brotherhood” based on ethno-cultural affinity, is often mentioned as being the special bond, which is the basis of relations between Malaysia and Indonesia. Transnational organisations play an important role in reviving awareness of the unity of the Malay world. The term, “transnational organisation”, refers to organisations that have stemmed from local initiatives and which cooperate with Malay communities in other countries without resorting to the intervention by the central government. It therefore consists of cooperative efforts between local Malay figures living in different countries.

9Transnational groups increased significantly in the 1990s. Among the last regional initiatives, the creation of the Dunia Melayu Dunia Islam (Malay Muslim World) in Malacca, in 2000, should be mentioned. The President of the DMDI is the Prime Minister of the state of Malacca. The goal of the DMDI is to group the various Malay communities into a single Rumpun Melayu and to promote cooperative ties. These initiatives do not merely represent a revival of collective memory, but rather the creation of networks to promote economic cooperation between Malay populations. Malay businessmen from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia thus met to establish an economic forum that would take the form of a Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the serumpun Malays (Dewan Perniagaan dan Perusahaan Melayu Serumpun). These meetings aim to facilitate the exchange of technological and commercial information with the aim of creating circumstances that favour the creation of transnational enterprises. As a result of the political changes, the historic networks are being reorganised according to new procedures.

10Considering the Strait as an inland sea allows us to go beyond the uniquely land-based territorial logic, which places the coastline at the outskirts of the nation, allowing it to act as a border. Before we consider the Strait, and more generally the maritime zone, as a breaking point, they should first be considered as a link. In the Malay world, the sea has never been seen as an obstacle.

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