The political economy of anti-Malaysian demonstrations in Indonesia — Farish A. Noor
JUNE 25 — By now, most of us have heard, seen or read news and images of demonstrators attacking the Malaysian embassy in downtown Jakarta, and many of us are equally familiar with images of Indonesian demonstrators burning the Malaysian flag.
Distasteful though some of these images may be, it would be wise for intelligent Malaysians and Indonesian to work together and understand the nature of these demonstrations, and to ask the following questions:
1. Why do they happen?
2. Who is behind them?
3. Whose interests are being served?
4. How can well-meaning Malaysians and Indonesian work together to generate more goodwill, understanding and genuine fellow-feeling between the two nations?
Let us start with the first question, of why these demonstrations have been happening and why they seem to be occurring with some frequency.
Well, unfortunately, my prognosis at this stage is not a happy one, for I believe that these demonstrations will not only continue but also increase in frequency over the next couple of years.
The reason for this is simple enough: Next year (2013) will mark the beginning of an intense round of year-long campaigning in the lead-up to the presidential elections of 2014. And as practically all of the contending parties have made it a campaign issue to decry President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) as being “soft” on Malaysia (and other Asean countries), then Malaysia-bashing will certainly be one of the main themes that all parties will hark upon.
This addresses the second question, which is, who is behind them? The answer is many of the newly minted political parties of Indonesia, that includes a swathe of hyper-nationalist parties led by politicians whose discourse seem surprisingly alike in their lack of imagination and pyrotechnics.
Indonesia is witnessing a boom at the moment, but this is also happening in a country where wage and income differentials remain stark and where outstanding issues (such as the struggle in West Papua, the Lapindo mud slide in East Java) remain unresolved.
Unfortunately in such circumstances, to jump the gun and to unfurl the banner of hyper-nationalism is too easy an option, and many will go for it. Lest it be forgotten, it should be noted that President Yudhoyono — notwithstanding his weakness on some issues — has probably been one of the most pro-market, pro-FDI and pro-Asean Presidents over the past decade. During his time relations with Malaysia, Singapore and the rest of Asean improved tremendously.
However the entry of foreign capital (which has been crucial to Indonesia’s economic bounceback) has also been criticised by SBY’s opponents as a case of “selling the country to foreigners”, and as such we should not be too surprised to see the rise of hyper-nationalism in Indonesia today.
This in turn answers the third question, which is, whose interests are being served? The answer is simple too: Basically all the new parties and wannabe-Presidential candidates who are trying to ride the high horse of patriotism and nationalism, and to unite Indonesians against every external threat, real or imagined. While that happens let us not forget that in so many countries that have experienced crisis (including Malaysia, in the past) the search for scapegoats and punching bags is often the first option taken.
These newly emerging interests belong to the new socio-economic classes and groupings that have been rising since the fall of Suharto in May 1998. Note that since then almost all the old parties have suffered an eclipse in popularity.
The Golkar party, which won around 70 per cent of the popular vote since the election of 1971 has since been declining, with its vote share dropping to 20 to now 14 per cent at the last election of 2009.
What does this mean? In simple terms, Indonesia is now experiencing what analysts call “hyper-democracy” with an inflation of new political parties and mass movements (Ormas, or Organisasi Massa). Golkar alone has splintered and from it we see new parties like Prabowo’s Gerindra, Wiranto’s Hanura and Surya Paloh’s Nasdem emerging.
Is it therefore surprising if all these new parties and social movements are in search of an issue to animate and mobilise their members? And is it surprising that Malaysia is the one to be picked on?
What Malaysians have to realise are two crucial points.
Firstly, that despite the images we see on TV and the news we read in the press, it is my contention that for an overwhelming majority of Indonesians, Malaysia is NOT seen as the enemy. For despite the overheated rhetoric we hear at times, millions of Malaysians and Indonesians remain tied by links of a common history, language, culture and our bonds of kinship and family ties, work and business commitments and studies.
Malaysians should therefore be cautious and not over-react to the news of groups demonstrating in front of the Malaysian embassy, for every day there are tens of thousands of Malaysians who work, visit and study in Indonesia, and thus far no harm has come to them.
Indonesians should also remember that when the world was told not to visit Indonesia for fear of some bogus “terrorist threat”, Malaysians continued to visit and spend their money in Indonesia, simply because Malaysians love going there.
This is the plain truth that extreme nationalists cannot stomach: That despite their attempts to divide us, Malaysians and Indonesians love each others’ countries.
Secondly, in the same way that one Muslim militant does not mean that every Muslim is a terrorist, likewise a small fraction of Indonesian demonstrators does not mean that all Indonesians hate Malaysia. The question “why do they hate us?”, therefore, does not arise, and indeed should not even be asked in the first place.
However despite these observations, I do register in my analysis a shift in the tone and tenor of Indonesia’s mainstream political discourse. The rest of Asean will be watching Indonesia closely from next year onwards, as President SBY runs the last lap of his second Presidential term.
I personally hope that the other states of Asean will bestow upon him the recognition he deserves as the most Asean-friendly leader Indonesia has seen for a decade. But who will be his successor, and which parties will dominate the next coalition government in Indonesia? That is the question, and for some analysts that is also the worry.
Indonesia-watchers would know that since the 1960s Indonesia has had a long history of nationalism and even urban militias, such as the numerous preman gangs we see hired to take part in the noisy demonstrations in Jakarta and elsewhere.
Much of this has been part of the performative nature of Indonesian politics, and is for local/domestic consumption. Notwithstanding Indonesia’s own unique political landscape, crowded as it is today by so many new parties, NGOs, civil society organisations and mass movements, as well as militias and preman gangs, I hope that some rational median point will be reached by all actors concerned and that there will emerge the realisation that Indonesia needs Asean as much as Asean needs Indonesia.
But understanding Indonesia’s complex politics means having to understand the political economy behind its political culture too, and for this Malaysians in particular need to begin to learn more about Indonesia — which is, after all, our oldest, closest and most similar cultural/civilisational neighbour even before the nation-states called “Malaysia” and “Indonesia” were formed.
* 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.