The surprise release of migrant worker Siti Aisyah from Malaysian custody and her escape from a murder charge seem to count as a definite win for the government in its efforts to protect Indonesian citizens abroad. Beyond the all-out diplomatic exercise, however, Siti’s discharge, albeit without an acquittal, constitutes a success for interagency cooperation as evinced in the good work of Siti’s legal team, officials and state intelligence.
Siti, 27, had been on trial in Malaysia for the past year-and-a-half alongside a Vietnamese woman, Doan Thi Huong, for the 2017 murder of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un. Both women had denied the murder, saying they were tricked by North Korean spies into carrying out the Cold War-style hit using the globally banned VX nerve agent, and believed it was a prank for a reality TV show.
As Siti walked free on Monday, Huong will continue the trial on her own, although any new evidence the prosecution can muster may bring the Banten native back to court.
Under the leadership of Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi, the protection of Indonesian citizens overseas has become a priority issue for the country, especially with a mobile population of millions comprised mainly of migrant workers and low- or semi-skilled workers.
With the general elections just around the corner, Siti’s release also bodes well for incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who needs all the PR he can get to secure the votes of migrant workers.
Even the tacit dismissal of Indonesian lobbying efforts by Malaysia’s elder statesman, Mahathir Mohammad, can be seen as a face-saving measure — a small concession that may very well lead to closer cooperation between the neighbors in the future. Mahathir’s government announced last year the abolition of the death penalty, a feat which has eluded Indonesia.
Unfortunately for Siti, her very public return to Indonesia also has its downsides: She has complained about burnout from overexposure in the media, and her personal situation may not have much impact on the protection agenda for millions of other Indonesians abroad.
Painting a picture of Indonesia’s elusive millennial generation of migrant workers, Siti was thrust into the public eye in what almost amounts to a parading of the victim – bragging rights for a government seeking reelection.
Instead of competing for the public’s attention for short-term gain, government agencies should focus their energy and resources on collaborating to bolster protection measures and address existing regulatory flaws.
Even with the level of attention afforded to citizenship protection, two Indonesian hostages remain in the custody of armed groups in the Philippines, and the government is still no closer to a solution for Saudi Arabia following the execution of two migrant workers there last year.
Most importantly, Indonesia is still struggling with its transition from sending labor for profit to providing its mobile citizens with adequate protection.
If anything, let the moment of Siti’s release mark the start of a commitment to realization of better protection for our citizens abroad, whether they face small legal hiccups or find themselves entangled in bizarre murder plots.