The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Muhammadiyah is playing a significant, but understated role, in bolstering Indonesia-Malaysia ties.

Since its nascent days of independence, Indonesia has navigated a diplomatic tightrope with its close neighbor, Malaysia. This complex relationship has weathered several storms, including an armed conflict in the early 1960s, sparked by President Sukarno’s vehement objection to the formation of Malaysia—dismissed as a neocolonial puppet state. But the decades since, particularly under the rule of Sukarno, have seen concerted efforts to mend fences.

Fast-forward to 2022: Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo warmly congratulated Anwar Ibrahim on his election as Malaysia’s new prime minister. It was a gesture reflecting the countries’ evolving relationship, characterized by cooperative initiatives spanning the economy, border issues, and the welfare of citizens. With Malaysia being the largest recipient of Indonesian migrant workers, the stakes are high.

Yet, it’s not just state actors that breathe life into this intricate tapestry of international relations. There are the quieter, but equally pivotal, non-governmental actors—organizations like Muhammadiyah, one of Indonesia’s most influential Islamic NGOs. Known for its autonomy and a focus on education, healthcare, and fundraising, Muhammadiyah has a significant global presence through special branches and diaspora communities. Astonishingly, it has even played an understated role in bolstering Indonesia-Malaysia ties.

In 2021, Muhammadiyah, through its Special Branch Head (PCIM) in Malaysia, inaugurated its first international university, Universiti Muhammadiyah Malaysia (UMAM), in Perlis. The venture was greenlighted by Malaysia’s Council of Islamic and Malay Customs and holds promise as an educational bridge between the two nations. Hosting 15 study programs with an annual intake of 150-200 students, UMAM aims to be more than a mere institution—it seeks to be a crucible for progressive Islamic values, aligning with Muhammadiyah’s core tenet of progressive Islam.

But Muhammadiyah’s influence doesn’t end with academia. The organization also extends its reach into peace initiatives. In July, PCIM Malaysia participated in the International Interfaith Peace Conference in Kuala Lumpur, helping to draft resolutions and galvanize dialogue among Malaysia’s religious communities. This commitment to interfaith peace is not just a matter of moral imperative; it’s a practical response to the surge in global Islamophobia and serves to counteract extremist narratives that malign the faith.

Beyond educational and peace-building initiatives, PCIM Malaysia has invested in economic empowerment within the Muhammadiyah diaspora. According to Sulton Kamal, Secretary of PCIM Malaysia, the branch has 1,000-3,000 members, some of whom are migrant workers. Culinary initiatives like the promotion of soto ayam—a traditional Indonesian dish—have not only enjoyed commercial success but also functioned as cultural ambassadors, weaving together economic and diplomatic threads.

The emergence of Muhammadiyah as a multi-faceted diplomatic player illustrates how non-state actors can be instrumental in shaping global relations. As the NGO continues to spread its influence across multiple spheres—from education and peacebuilding to economic initiatives—there’s a call for even tighter synergies between the Indonesian government and Muhammadiyah. In the grander scheme of geopolitics, this NGO serves as a symbiotic force, underlining the unspoken, but undeniable, interdependencies that govern the nuanced dance of international diplomacy.

Muhammad Shalahuddin Al Ayyubi is a graduate student at the University of Indonesia where he is also an assistant lecturer. Muhammad is also a freelance writer, contributor at Modern Diplomacy, and author of 'Sang Watan'.