Indonesia’s complex political landscape, and why we should be aware of it — Farish A. Noor
MAY 9 — I write this with a heavy heart, for yet again I am convinced that I suffer from the Cassandra complex. That is, being in a position to see what might happen in the near future but not having anyone listen to me and to end up being summarily dismissed as a worrisome bore instead.
I am sad because yet another row has emerged between Malaysia and Indonesia, and once again ties are strained over the issue of foreign workers in Malaysia. I am sad because, yet again, I see Southeast Asian citizens falling back into the neatly demarcated enclaves of national identities and forgetting the simple fact that the region was once a criss-crossing overlapping patchwork of communities that were perhaps less divided than they are today.
I am sad because, yet again, I see narrow nationalism overcoming regionalism, and countries trying to score points at each others’ expense.
The backdrop to this is the recent controversy about statements made by Malaysian activists about working conditions of workers in the country. Complicating matters is the fact that the statement/s were taken up by the Indonesian media, given some coverage, exploited perhaps by some parties, and eventually leading to investigations — rather than dealing with the real issue of workers lives and rights.
I will not comment on the personalities involved here, but I wish to make some observations about the state of Indonesian politics at the present that may be useful for some people.
Firstly, many of us simply do not understand and realise how complex and plural Indonesian politics has become in the post-Suharto era, where the country can be said to be going through a period of ‘hyper-democracy’, with the proliferation of so many new parties.
Gone are the days of Suharto where Indonesian politics was made up of three major parties — Golkar, PDI, PPP — and where government-to-government relations were handled on the elite level.
Suharto’s demise has also led to the weakening of the formerly dominant Golkar party, opening up new opportunity structures for new aspiring political entrepreneurs and wannabe elites who see party membership as a means for upward social-economic mobility.
Secondly, Indonesia has also experienced radical changes in terms of the relationship between the formerly powerful centre and the periphery. If during Suharto’s era the country was predominantly centrist in its organisation, Indonesia today has experienced a steady process of decentralisation since the era of Megawati.
Local elections, proportional representation (at party candidature level), local ordinances, etc have shifted power from Jakarta to the outer island provinces as never before, lending the impression that there is no longer a singular Indonesia focused on Jakarta, but rather many competing centres of power.
Thirdly, with the opening up of civil society and democratic space, and with the rise of local politics and political entrepreneurialism, politics has saturated all levels of Indonesian society in a myriad of ways, most noticeably in the domain of NGOs and CSOs. Compounding matters is the blurring of the distinction between NGOs, CSOs and political parties — many of which support each other and are mutually dependent.
Fourthly, in the present climate of an Indonesia undergoing rapid and visible transformation, one salient feature seems to be the relative absence of ideological contention between the parties, NGOs and CSOs. Many of the new social movements and parties in the country foreground a broad nationalist agenda, and quite a few of them articulate a vision of a dominant, powerful and even aggressive Indonesia vis-a-vis the rest of Asean.
It is against this context that groups like the hyper-nationalist Laskar Merah Putih and other groups have emerged, calling upon Indonesia to be more aggressive towards other countries. Over the years as I watched Indonesia’s political centre move slowly to the right, such developments alarm me due to their populist nature and their capacity to mobilise crowds against the perceived threat of outsiders and “enemies”. Malaysia has become the punching bag of some of these groups, and attacks on the Malaysian embassy have grown more frequent, and dramatic in their symbolism.
Here it has to be emphasised that many ordinary Indonesians are unaware of the fact that the Malaysian media and civil society has not followed the same path as theirs. My Indonesian friends and students are often surprised when I tell them that Malaysians generally do not attack the Indonesian embassy in KL.
It also has to be stated categorically that despite the tone and tenor of the more radical anti-Malaysian groups in Indonesia, thus far not a single Malaysian has been assaulted or injured in any way, and that the level of hostility thus far is largely symbolic, and confined to the extreme right-wing fringe of the political spectrum only.
Now it is with these factors in mind that my own stand on the question of foreign workers in Malaysia has been a nuanced and calculated one. Often, I have been asked by students and activists in Indonesia about the state of foreign workers in the country.
My response can be summarised as follows:
1. While host countries are obliged to protect the rights of foreign workers in their country, they are, I feel, obliged to protect the rights of their local workers too. It is unfair to simply criticise the host country if the Indonesian government does little to secure the rights of their own workers abroad.
2. While some of these Indonesian NGOs are so vocal about the abuse of workers in foreign countries including Dubai, the UAE, etc., why is it that they remain relatively silent about the poor working conditions of Indonesian workers at home? And if so, whose agendas are they really serving?
3. And if these Indonesian NGOs are so concerned about how workers are being cheated by employment agencies in foreign countries, why are they relatively silent about the cheating that takes place in Indonesia, by the recruitment agencies there?
It is for this reason that I am weary and wary of compounding matters further, and of unwittingly aiding the extreme right-wing hyper-nationalists in Indonesia by taking sides in any argument. My deepest worry is that with the rise of hyper-nationalism all across Southeast Asia today, in so many Asean countries, my longing to see the emergence of a peoples’ Asean that is bound by people-to-people contact fades further into the distance.
Asean will undoubtedly face its most challenging decade yet, and the economic, political and structural pressures on all the countries of the region will grow.
The only way that Asean can get through this in one piece is if and when the leaders and communities of Asean realise that we are one region that has a common destiny, and that we need to foster the centripetal (rather than centrifugal) forces in the region.
This latest development has dashed my hopes yet again, and I feel that the dream of an Asean decade and an Asean future more distant than ever. Worst of all, it reinforces my suspicion that despite our common historical past and geographical proximity, we remain alien to each other.
Now will someone — anyone — please heed my advice, and create a Malaysia-Indonesia Friendship Society?
* Dr Farish A. Noor is a Senior Fellow at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider