No, Neo-Colonialism is Never the Answer

By Farish A. Noor

I recently had a conversation with an Indonesian political analyst in Singapore, where I am currently based. In the course of our discussion about the state of Indonesian politics, he let slip a statement that I felt terribly uncomfortable with. While lamenting the state of Indonesia’s convoluted politics, he opined thus: “I wonder if Indonesia’s problems could be solved if we allowed a foreign government to run our country?”

Now, talk like this usually sends shivers up my spine. We will recall that up to the late 1990s, it even became fashionable to talk about the necessity for the re-colonisation of Africa. This sort of nonsense was all the rage in some American political magazines and journals, and of course this neo-colonial bile was dressed up in the discourse of altruism and universal humanism, as if the colonisation of any country was an altruistic act between fellow human concerned about the fate of others. Never mind the fact that the ones doing the colonising would be the same Western powers and the ones being colonised would be the same hapless denizens of the Third World.

It is true that Indonesia’s political situation at present is a mess to say the least. With the next elections almost half a year away, the political parties – and there are more than 35 of them, at the last count – are already campaigning in earnest. Vast amounts of money are being spent (or rather wasted) on publicity campaigns and electoral drives that are designed to puff up the already inflated egos of political aspirants than to do any real good to the people. On top of that the political discourse of parties like Hanura and Gerindra seem full of fluff and froth as the leaders have little to say on how they will actually set about changing things for the better.

But in the case of Indonesia, as it is with the other countries of Southeast Asia, the perennial problem is the same: Aspiring elites want to speak for the people and represent them, but they don’t even know what the people want. The political disconnect between the elites of Jakarta and the masses across the archipelago is mirrored in the disconnect we see among the elites of Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Manila and Bangkok too. Why?

Answering this question may also lead us to the answer to the earlier comment about the need for Indonesia to be re-colonised for its own good.

The bottom line is that the governmental structures of Indonesia – as it is for Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and many other post-colonial societies remains rooted in the structures of colonial rule. Now colonial rule was unique in the sense that the colonial governments could govern with scant attention paid to the colonial subjects themselves, hence the ‘success’ of British colonial rule in Burma, Malaya and Singapore and Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia. The British, French, Dutch, Spanish and American colonisers who governed Southeast Asia were not answerable to their colonial societies, but rather the metropolitan capitals of London, Hague, Paris and Washington. Thus British Malaya, Burma and Singapore were governed at a long-distance, with orders from London being enacted and executed in Malaya. Likewise orders from the Hague were put to work in Indonesia. At no point was this metropole-colony relationship an equal or reciprocal one.

Today the structures of colonial rule persist with colonial laws such as Malaysia’s Internal Security Act still in place; and the ruling elite of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and other countries are likewise distanced from their own people. Like the colonial masters of the past, they view their own fellow citizens with incredulity, and fail to understand how plural and complex their societies really are. The ‘success’ of colonial rule – if you could call it that – was that it blanketed the real pluralism and differences in these colonised societies and made them look homogenous.

Today, Southeast Asia’s internal pluralism and difference are coming to the forefront in no uncertain terms. Indonesia’s complex political landscape merely mirrors the complexity of Indonesia’s plural society, a fact that was thinly disguised during the three decades of Suharto’s centralised authoritarian rule. But we need to remember that the manifold forms and modes of socio-political activity we see in Indonesia today, that includes also the new ‘radical’ groups like the Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia, the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and even mainstream Islamist parties like the PKS are the genuine expressions of Indonesian pluralism too. The MMI, HTI and PKS are not from Mars or Sweden: they are part and parcel of Indonesian society and the products of the same political processes that created the political elite in Jakarta who do not understand them.

It is imperative therefore that we recognise two things: That postcolonial societies have yet to jettison the colonial mindset of colonial governmentality; and that we need to develop a new mode of representative politics that reflects the complexity of the societies we reside in. Indonesia’s new political elites may be jockeying for position and running for the biggest prize of all – the Presidential seat – next year. But they need to remember that to be President of Indonesia today means being President of one of the most complex, confounding, plural and interally-differentiated societies in the world. The sooner the political elites of Indonesia (and Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines) realise this, and the sooner they behave like democratic representatives rather than colonial bureaucrats, the better it will be for everyone.

  1. #1 by k1980 on Wednesday, 5 November 2008 - 6:50 pm

    Had African countries such as Congo, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda and others be still ruled by their former colonial powers, they would had not been the cesspools they are today. Just imagine–no Idi Amins, no Mugabes, no genocide by the Hutus and Tutsis, no Darfurs…

    Similarly in Indonesia, no Suharto and his murder of a million people in 1965. Instead Indonesia with its enormous natural resources would be the richest country in Southeast Asia today

  2. #2 by Loyal Malaysian on Wednesday, 5 November 2008 - 7:18 pm

    If neo-colonialism is not answer, what is?
    In our country, the UMNOputras want democracy ‘our’ way.
    Where they can use the security apparatus of the state to arrest a reporter for 19 hours and detained a PR MP for 7 days then released her without charge.
    I know these are extreme examples but we can make long lists on how the federal government is trying to victimize the PR state gocernments.
    Yes, Dr farish , you are right, things can only change for the better if those political elites stop behaving as colonial bureaucrats and stop treating the wealth of the country as their personal property.

  3. #3 by izrafeil on Wednesday, 5 November 2008 - 10:53 pm

    Obama paved the way for non-Malay as PM, I am looking at Lim Guan Eng!!

  4. #4 by swipenter on Wednesday, 5 November 2008 - 11:37 pm

    I cannot agree more with k1980. The indigenous population sometimes is not capable of governing their own countries after gaining independence. Sad but true. No matter how much we dislike colonailism they did a relatively good job in governing their colonies.Take a look at our own country, arent the Umnoputras behaving like the white tuans before them maybe even worst.

  5. #5 by chengho on Wednesday, 5 November 2008 - 11:48 pm


    you live in Singapore the hospital of SEA everything is organise for you . as long as you do not touch LKY and family you are safe .

  6. #6 by OrangRojak on Thursday, 6 November 2008 - 12:08 am

    Are you sure the shivers up your spine aren’t some kind of spastic reaction? Perhaps your colleague meant ‘run from outside’ like Kosovo. While I’m unconvinced Kosovo will be any more successful than any other “constructed nation” in the last 100 years, it doesn’t seem like the worst option to me. When successive internal attempts to improve the conditions of a nation’s citizens fail, perhaps there’s room for a ‘Plan B’? It seems from your article that ‘re-colonisation’ is your own idea. You’re right of course, colonisation – re- or not – would be an abomination, but right about an idea that only you have, which isn’t anything to be terribly proud of. Maybe your colleague was suggesting something involving outsiders that wasn’t colonisation.

    The problem with some of Earth’s developing nations is that they wish to join a global community composed mainly of and by countries with centuries-long histories of intensive political and philosophical development. Some of those countries do not have that history. How can this process be fast-tracked? It’s a reasonable question! Should it be fast-tracked? There’s another reasonable question, to which I’d ask this: if developing nations wish to go through their own political and philosophical development process for several hundred years, how far behind will they be when they’ve reached the stage ‘developed’ countries are at now?

    It would be wonderful for a nation that didn’t exist when some of its citizens were born to lead the world in political ideology and quality of life for all its citizens within a person’s normal lifespan. Imagine! All its citizens could sing “We did it … Our Way” with even more pride than Frank Sinatra! But no nation has ever done that in the history of the world. Who is more credible: the man that suggests they know the answer when the planet’s history suggests no such solution exists, or the man who says “maybe we should seek some outside advice”?

  7. #7 by waterfrontcoolie on Thursday, 6 November 2008 - 12:19 am

    I am quite sure millions of Africans, except the politicians would like to have LKY governing them! Even when Marcos was the President of Phillippines, A Filipino Father of the Church mistaken me as a Singaporean, asked if they could RENT LKY to govern them for a term or two!! I told him, sorry I wasn’t a Singaporean!
    A leader needs not be brilliant but honest, sincere and Greedless is all we need! But sad to say, most of ours are African Politician Standard!! With such characters they are likely to be manipulated by the Western Powers upon becoming leaders of their countries. They can only shout at the Western Power from a distance like a dog barking at the moon; then quickly find an occasion to praise them before the westerners decide to expose them on their bank accounts.
    Hence many so-called middle class western educated group would happily proclaimed democratic practices; but just ask those who have to toil under the sun! bread or your so-called freedom?
    I think it is time Asians come out with its own brand of government with leaders who can stand scrutiny based morality and honesty. They don’t need to belong to any political organisation!!

  8. #8 by resident.wangsamaju on Thursday, 6 November 2008 - 3:20 am

    It ain’t that bad, colonization. What’s the difference between British colonization and BN rule? We never left 1957 actually; it’s just the British who left. We are now left with racism, corruption and incompetency. Malaysia would have made greater economic progress than left to run on our own. What’s the point of having your own cake when it’s a smaller piece.

  9. #9 by undergrad2 on Thursday, 6 November 2008 - 3:57 am

    “A leader needs not be brilliant but honest, sincere and Greedless is all we need! waterfrontcoolie

    You’re clueless!

  10. #10 by hadi on Thursday, 6 November 2008 - 6:14 am

    The hue and cry of Barrack Obama as president elect of the United State of America.
    Don’t forget, Obama father is black, his mother is white and his religion is Christian, just a point to ponder, that is why he is accepted by the majority Americans.
    There are two other black Americans in the USA, former Chairman Chief of Joint Staff General Collin Powel and Rev, Jessie Jackson. Both names were toyed around to enter the political fray of American president and both of them well aware and realized the reality of American dream as these two well known Americans are different breed from Obama and they knew they will not be accepted.
    Point to ponder for all Malaysians.

  11. #11 by Bigjoe on Thursday, 6 November 2008 - 9:37 am

    Neo colonialism is not that different than neo-conservatism that the Bush admin has miserably failed in. The difference between US and us is their system can get rid of failed ideas while we continue at it year after year…

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