Indonesia President Jokowi in Malaysia on first bilateral trip

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo inspecting the Royal Malay Regiment Guard of Honour during a welcoming ceremony at the Bunga Raya complex at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on Feb 5, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo inspecting the Royal Malay Regiment Guard of Honour during a welcoming ceremony at the Bunga Raya complex at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on Feb 5, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Indonesian President Joko Widodo arrived in Malaysia on Thursday for his first bilateral trip abroad, with the two sides hoping to shore up an important relationship frequently strained by diplomatic spats.

Widodo, who took office last October, and his host Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak will discuss a range of issues including sticky disputes on maritime borders and the treatment of Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia, Jakarta's foreign minister spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir told AFP.

Trade, economic, and security issues also will be broached when the two men meet Friday morning, he said.

Widodo also is scheduled to visit a factory run by Malaysian national car manufacturer Proton on Friday, after Najib last year revived a decades-old proposal for a jointly produced "Asean car", referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Widodo has expressed interest in the idea, which would seek to capitalise on a booming regional car market as incomes rise.

Despite their common cultural, linguistic and ethnic backgrounds, relations between the two predominantly Muslim countries are frequently rocky.

A number of territorial disputes fester, and ties are tested nearly each year by slash-and-burn farming in Indonesia that sends a pall of choking haze over neighbours including Malaysia and Singapore.

Another bone of contention - poor treatment of the hundreds of thousands of Indonesian maids working in Malaysia - was highlighted just before Widodo arrived.

Indonesia's embassy in Kuala Lumpur said it had formally protested this week over an advertisement by a Malaysian distributor of automatic vacuum cleaners that said users of the product can "Fire your Indonesian maid now!"

Nasir said discussions could include how to provide education to children of migrant workers. Labour groups accuse Malaysia of failing to protect workers from abusive employers or provide adequate social services.

The visit also is an opportunity to touch base on Malaysia's hosting of Asean meetings this year, at which it intends to push forward plans for a single regional economic market.

Indonesia is Malaysia's sixth-largest trading partner and third-largest in Asean. Bilateral trade totalled about US$16.6 billion (S$20.75 billion) last year, down from about US$17 billion in 2013, according to Malaysian figures.

Widodo participated in a series of multi-lateral summits late last year but Malaysia marks his first official bilateral visit abroad.

The Proton visit comes after the carmaker last year expressed interest in the "Asean car" proposal, first floated in the 1980s.

Proton is struggling, however, and Indonesia has no national car brand of its own. Any regional project also would face tough competition from foreign giants like Toyota and Ford, which are already established in Southeast Asia.

Widodo - a former businessman popularly called "Jokowi" - is the first president elected from outside Indonesia's political and military elite, and his rock-star popularity has fuelled hopes of a new era.

By contrast, the 58-year-old regime now headed by Najib has recently fallen back on its authoritarian ways, pressuring critics and the opposition following a string of election setbacks.