A Wave of Change Across Southeast Asia? But counter-currents too

By Farish A. Noor

The latest results from the governorial elections in the provinces of West Java and North Sumatra, Indonesia, would suggest that a sea-change of sorts is taking place in Indonesia. Shortly after the shock election results following the General Elections held in Malaysia earlier this year, the governorial elections of Indonesia has led to the victory of the Justice and Prosperity party (PKS) and the National Mandate party (PAN), both of which are Islamist in character and both of which trace their ideological and intellectual geneaology back to the Islamist Masjumi party of the 1950s that struggled to make Indonesia an Islamic state until it was finally banned by President Sukarno in 1960.

What do these results entail and what does it say about the state of Indonesian politics today? More importantly, should the victories of PKS and PAN be seen as the victory of political Islam, and does this signify a shift towards a more Islamist-inclined politics for the rest of the country?

For a start, we should begin with some important observations comparing the results in Indonesia with the recent results in Malaysia. In both cases, the parties that won fielded candidates who are young and relatively unknown compared to the older veterans of the more established parties like Golkar in Indonesia. Yet, as was the case in Malaysia recently, it was precisely the relatively younger age and lack of exposure that perhaps accounted for the victory of the candidates of the PKS and PAN, for they were certainly not associated with the older modes of politics in the past and were not involved or implicated in many of the long-standing political and economic scandals associated with the old regime that dates back to the time of former President Suharto.

Secondly it should be noted that the Indonesian parties, like the opposition parties that did extremely well in Malaysia, campaigned on a reformist ticket calling for change and a new vision of politics for Indonesia. While speaking to Indonesian students at the Muhamadiyyah University of Surakarta and Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University of Jogjakarta, I was struck by the overwhelming consensus among all of them that Indonesia is thirsting for a new form of politics that breaks away from the norms of the old feudal past. Like Malaysia, Indonesia today has an entirely new generation of younger voters, many of whom will be voting for the first time during the General Elections of 2009, next year. Already many local analysts are predicting a major shift in voting patterns and are awaiting results that may shock all the older established parties.

Change, however, is always a contested process and needless to say it will take much more than an election to deal with the chronic problems of corruption, nepotism and lack of transparency and accountability in Indonesian politics. While the more modernist Islamist parties like PKS and PAN have totally abandoned the sectarian and divisive discourse of holy war, shariah and the calls for the imposition of an Islamic state and Islamic constitution in Indonesia; a counter-reaction is also brewing among the more conservative movements in the country.

While the members of the PKS and PAN celebrate their fresh victories, on the very same day the Indonesian government’s religious authorities have formally declared that the minority Ahmadi community – a sect that originated from South Asia but has spread all over the Muslim world – are deviants and that the sect should be banned ‘for their own good’. The reason behind this somewhat bizarre pronouncement is that many extreme right wing Islamist groups in Indonesia like the Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI), Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and others have openly declared total war against the Ahmadi communities.

Thus ironically on the same day that Muslim moderates of PKS and PAS celebrated their victories in West Java and North Sumatra, the leaders of the Islamic Defenders Front have openly called for the members of the FPI to go out and kill the members of the Ahmadi community all over the country. In a recorded public rally the leader of the FPI went as far as crying out: “Kill them all! Kill all Ahmadis! Wipe them out of Indonesia! Kill, kill, kill!”

Indonesian politics is likely to remain on the boil well into next year when the General Elections will pit the new Islamist parties like PKS and PAN against the old guard led by Golkar and even parties like the Partai Demokrat of current President Bambang Yudhoyono. While tempering their public discourse some leaders of PKS and PAN have already stated that they will not compromise on issues of public morals such as imposing a ban on consumption of alcohol for Muslims, stricter dress codes and personal morality laws for Muslims, bans on rock concerts and in particular the very popular form of local pop music known as Dangdut.

With the Islamists -both moderate and conservative- setting the terms for the debate on Islam and politics in Indonesia, it is clear that religion will remain one of the central issues of Indonesian politics for a long time to come. But what sort of religious politics? Will it be the modernist vision of the Islamists of PKS and PAN (which is already conservative enough on social and moral issues), or will it be the exclusive and sectarian vision of Islam currently pushed by the likes of the Indonesian Mujahideen Council? Only time will tell, but for now Indonesia remains a focal point for the battle for hearts and minds of two hundred million Muslims.

  1. #1 by Jeffrey on Friday, 18 April 2008 - 9:03 am

    World wide the phenomenon is rural urban drift where people, especially the young go to towns and cities and exposed to modern ideas communicating via the Net, and being enfranchised to vote, these younger political consumerists, with their watch word “reform” expect a political product that is different from older modes of politics identified with older veterans.

    The question is always reform to what.

    In context of this region, because majorities in Indonesia & Malaysia are muslims, the real and ultimate contest is between the more moderate Islam on one hand and the stricter, more austere face of Political Islam on the other generated from the Middle East. That is true here also: the fight of Opposition against feudal and patronage ways of BN is the immediate, the next after and ultimate will be between moderate version of Islam and that represented by PAS….That is why I say as DAP fights alongside PAS against BN now, it (as long as it wants to stand faithful to its own agenda of secular pluralism) cannot drop vigilance and forget that it has to fight PAS at the same time on the issue of the Islamic theocratic State.

    Secular Pluralistic Democracy – envisaging separation of faith from government, public from private morality – that is best formula in multi racial country especially where there are many non Muslims is subject to great strain of getting it acceptable amongst majority of populace whose faith, whether of the more moderate or the more extreme version, is currently interpreted by these majorities as being in conflict with Secular Pluralistic Democracy.

    Dr Farish Noor also said these about the “Moderates” -” While tempering their public discourse some leaders of PKS and PAN have already stated that they will not compromise on issues of public morals such as imposing a ban on consumption of alcohol for Muslims, stricter dress codes and personal morality laws for Muslims, bans on rock concerts and in particular the very popular form of local pop music known as Dangdut”.

    If DAP fights strictly to uphold Secular Pluralistic Democracy, it will not only have to fight PAS’s Theocratic Islamic State, but also some of the moderates within PKR as well. It will be tiring.

  2. #2 by Chong Zhemin on Friday, 18 April 2008 - 9:38 am

    off topic
    Uncle kit,

    It’s more than 24 hours since Chin Huat made his last post to urge the PR state government to grant Makkal Osai the authorization of printing for the state. What is DAP penang waiting for??

    We need immediate action. not condemnations on the suspensions of the printing license.


    Please take a clear stand on this. Is the penang government prepared to offer Makkal Osai the autorization letter to print for the state?

  3. #3 by pulau_sibu on Friday, 18 April 2008 - 9:44 am

    It would be bad to see little progress in Indonesia, Philippines, …after the topping of dictators. I hope Malysia will be different. I hope we will have a real change

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Friday, 18 April 2008 - 9:58 am

    Dear Chong Zhemin

    Leaving aside whether Chin Huat is right about his interpretation of Section 25 of Printing Presses and Publications Act, the question you have to ask is whether in relation to Opposition Parties’s oposition of BN Federal Government’s policy including banning of Makkal Osai, are Opposition Parties the same as Opposition controlled state governments in Federal-State relationship so that Opposition Parties role of opposing is carried on in Opposition Controlled States of opposing? If you and Chin Huat say its the same then may I ask can the Federal govt oppose Opposition controlled states as if the state governments were Opposition parties, by cutting off all federal funds notwithstanding the Federal Constitution??

  5. #5 by Chong Zhemin on Friday, 18 April 2008 - 10:31 am


    Are you suggesting that the five state government should work with the federal government and abandon their previous policies they have been fighting for?

    The five state governments should have the prerogative to carry out their own policies independently regardless of the federal policies. In this case, they must uphold the freedom of press.

  6. #6 by Bigjoe on Friday, 18 April 2008 - 10:59 am

    The answer to counterchange are systems – accountable, transparent systems – that is hard to do…

  7. #7 by Samuel Goh Kim Eng on Friday, 18 April 2008 - 11:41 am

    Only when positive changes are made for the better
    Will these changes be made more readily acceptable
    Maintaining individual rights and freedom without barter
    And without upsetting the daily food on the table

    (C) Samuel Goh Kim Eng – 180408
    Fri. 18th April 2008.

  8. #8 by Damocles on Friday, 18 April 2008 - 12:37 pm

    “The five state governments should have the prerogative to carry out their own policies independently regardless of the federal policies. In this case, they must uphold the freedom of press.” – Chong Zhemin

    You’re right.
    The whole aim of the electorate in voting for the PR is to have an administration that is different from the BN. One that is for the people.
    To follow the dictates of the Federal government will betray the trust the electorate had in putting their faith in the PR in the first place.
    As for Jeffrey’s remarks “may I ask can the Federal govt oppose Opposition controlled states as if the state governments were Opposition parties, by cutting off all federal funds notwithstanding the Federal Constitution??”, the answer is no.
    The BN has always treated the money in their coffers like personal property and used it to blackmail opposition held areas by depriving them of funds.
    Such an attitued is completely wrong because the money belongs to the taxpayers and those who reside in oppositon held states pay the same taxes. Also don’t forget that BN supporters also reside in these states! Unless they are prepared to move to BN held areas everytime the opposition won!
    In fact, cutting off funds was the first step that the BN took when they lost Penang. Anyone who has a shred of decency will know that it’s wrong. And you can be very sure that it’ll backfire on the BN when the time comes.

  9. #9 by wag-the-dog on Friday, 18 April 2008 - 12:54 pm

    Under threat? What threat?


    Since the recent general election, voices have risen up in a shrill warning cry that the Malays are now ‘under threat’. But perhaps the real threat is the threat to Umno hegemony.

    AND so it begins. Race-based rhetoric has raised its ugly little head in response to a democratic process. Over 49% of the people of Malaysia have voted for parties that have rejected race-based affirmative action in favour of a needs-based platform.

    VIsit http://www.wagthedog-malaysia.blogspot.com for details

  10. #10 by Jeffrey on Friday, 18 April 2008 - 1:01 pm

    Chong Zhemin ,

    In terms of role, the Opposition is different from states controlled by Opposition.

    In running a state government, it is true Opposition is entitled to implement Opposition’s policies in states controlled by it different from ruling BN but only to the extent permitted by Federal Constitution bifurcating what are areas designated to Federal’s responsibilities and jurisdiction, and what to states’.

    The enforcement of the Printing Presses and Publications Act is a matter of Federal Jurisdiction under Ministry of Home Affairs about which State governments have no jurisdiction. Opposition can oppose Makkal Osai’s ban in parliament, in media or in streets but not as part of running the state governments because state governments though controlled opposition is not opposition itself. It would not be responsible administration of state governments on Opposition’s part to stress Federal –State relations configured by Constitution by treating state governments as Opposition itself. Which is precisely why Federal Government cannot withdraw or withhold funding to states just because they are controlled by Opposition. If it does, it can be taken to task.

  11. #11 by Jeffrey on Friday, 18 April 2008 - 1:32 pm

    But there is another reason.

    I beg to disagree with Chin Huat’s reading of Section 25 of Printing Presses and Publications Act (“PPPA”): that states “Nothing in this Act shall extend to the publication or making of any documents or periodical by or for the Federal or any State Government or any statutory body” – and therefore if Opposition controlled states like Penang “offer Makkal Osai to publish for the State Governments”, Makkal Osai does not then need any licensing under PPPA because its publication “by or for” state government.

    This is very wrong reading.

    When Section 25 talks of printing and publication by State Govts (exempted from PPPA), it means those publication that state governments would normally do as part of its ordinary course of state government’s business for public dissemination. State government’s job is not to publish newspapers like Makkal Osai, it is not its role, nor is it sanctioned by Federal or State constitutions.

    Even if allowed, what is Makkal Osai going to publish for the State Governments – state government’s news, notification to public what’s happening in land offices that needs rectification or reform?

    Makkal Osai cannot under State government’s appointment play its normal role of disseminating news as Voice for certain sections of readership and catering their interest (so what’s the point of the exercise?) – for if it Makkal Osai were to continue do so, it means the State government would be involved in doing this kind of thing!

    Then Malaysiakini needing hard copies circulation and other publications banned by Federal government can also “back door” be adopted and appointed by opposition controlled state governments which will then take on additional role of Fifth Estate to champion media freedom as a new function totally unauthorised by either the Fdederal or State Constitutions.

  12. #12 by waterfrontcoolie on Friday, 18 April 2008 - 6:51 pm

    Is Harakah published under State status or party status? If State Gomen can publish, then PAS would have done it years ago. And Bahasa Malaysia should be the medium to do it.
    I do believe that the rural Malay population is deprived of the REAL news, more than the Chinese or the Indian.
    To BN, telling the truth is always painful so painful that it becomes a sin to do so.
    The saddest part of the issue is that in spite of all the lies, many still adhere to them even after the truth is known. Just look at the ONGs!

  13. #13 by Chong Zhemin on Friday, 18 April 2008 - 8:40 pm


    As Chin Huat always stressed. This is a loophole in the act. From what I understand, the state government can allow Makkal Osai to print by or for them but the contents of the newspaper is not constrained by state government news in the act(it can be like any other papers just like The Sun, the star or NST)

    3 days after the GE, Chin Huat has made this post telling the people asking free press from the state government. He also sugggest Malaysiakini to go for print.


    I just can’t understand what is taking the state government so long for this. This should be their top priority to free Makkal Osai at the moment.

    And for your statement – Opposition is entitled to implement Opposition’s policies in states controlled by it different from ruling BN but only to the extent permitted by Federal Constitution.

    How about PAS trying to implement Hudud laws in kelantan? It clearly contradicts the Federal Constitution. And also newspaper printed by or for the state government circulating in the state is clearly under the state’s jurisdiction. There is also no other act that could prevent the ‘exporting’ of papers to the other states. Technically, we can pronounce the death of PPPA.


    Harakah is published under party status. Despite the loophole made known to them two years ago, they decided to do nothing. Someone commented that this is PAS strategy since BN can ammend this act with their 2/3 majority(two years ago). Now they have lost it, it is time to proceed.

  14. #14 by cemerlang on Friday, 18 April 2008 - 9:11 pm

    Probably because Islam is making headway globally, so they think that it is time to make this religion their priority. In Indonesia. To think that Malaysians are importing the Indons by thousands to meet the workforce need.

  15. #15 by Jeffrey on Friday, 18 April 2008 - 9:21 pm

    ///How about PAS trying to implement Hudud laws in kelantan?It clearly contradicts the Federal Constitution///

    That’s why it cannot work.

    Hudud though enacted could not be implemented. PAS could, under Federal Constitution, enact sharia as it is under State’s jurisdiction but because the species of Sharia (Hudud) conflicts with Federal Law like Penal Code equally applicable to muslims, Federal Govt would not lend a hand to enforce it, so enforcement is suspended.

    PAS’s action is not defensible. Other opposition parties don’t support the move.

    PAS’s enactment of Hudud and failed attempt to enforce cannot justify Opposition controlled state governments (as distinct from Opposition parties themselves that control them) to directly operate newspapers like Makkal Osai.

  16. #16 by alaneth on Sunday, 20 April 2008 - 1:55 am

    The winds of change was first felt in Sarawak state elections….

    Then in Singapore’s GE where the opposition decides to contest in most seats…

    Next Malaysia, Then Taiwan…

    After that Indonesia,…

    Waiting for the BIG wind of change in the US this Nov!

  17. #17 by lakilompat on Tuesday, 22 April 2008 - 9:09 am

    Major cities in Sabah & Sarawak was captured by DAP, this is one big giant step into the future.

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