GE14: The Politics of Personalities

March 31, 2018

GE14: The Politics of Personalities

By Chandra Muzaffar

If after 60 years of independence and 13 general elections, we are mired more in personality-driven politics today than we were 40 or 50 years ago, we should be deeply concerned about our nation’s future.–Chandra Muzaffar

I agree with him about the state of our politics, despite his tilt towards Najib Razak and FLOM Rosmah Mansor.–Din Merican

Malaysian politics has become overly personal. It is increasingly dominated by personal attacks. Vicious, vituperative comments are made about one’s political opponents.

When politics assumes a vicious personal dimension, it remains stunted. It fails to grow and mature. If after 60 years of independence and 13 general elections, we are mired more in personality-driven politics today than we were 40 or 50 years ago, we should be deeply concerned about our nation’s future.

The present state of affairs is partly due to some of the major personalities involved in the run-up to the 14th general election.

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Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s vilification of his adversary, Prime Minister Najib Razak, has exceeded all bounds. He has characterised him as a thief who has pillaged every wealth-generating agency in the country. This is a wild, reckless allegation.

Every now and then, Najib’s wife is also targeted. Even her hair-do has come under scrutiny!

Najib has been no less scathing in his attacks on Mahathir. While concern about Mahathir’s age is legitimate, the way it is caricatured borders on cruelty.

In almost every public address, even when it has no relationship to party politics, Najib takes pot shots at his 92-year-old opponent and scorns the policies he pursued when he was in power. It is as if Mahathir’s 22-year stewardship of the nation was an abysmal failure.

Najib, it must be remembered, was part of Mahathir’s government. If Najib has been uncharitable towards the elder politician, the latter has been equally dismissive of the Prime Minister’s efforts to address the nation’s current challenges.

It is because their mutual animosity and antagonism is so pronounced that even the barbs that they trade are so alike! Many months ago, Najib questioned Mahathir’s ethnic ancestry in a disparaging manner.

Mahathir then retaliated with equally deprecating remarks about Najib’s ancestry. By so doing, both sullied the unheralded endeavours of numerous civil society groups to strengthen ethnic harmony in multi-ethnic Malaysia.

Inter-personal antagonism colours electoral politics to such an extent today that issues of grave importance are not given the emphasis they deserve.

Though the question of integrity — the most critical challenge facing the nation — has come to the fore through 1MDB, none of the political actors has sought to explain why the lack of integrity has become ubiquitous in recent decades as mirrored in a multitude of cases, and how it can be overcome.

Image result for Mahathir and NajibThe Games Malaysian politicians  play


The inability to come to grips with the root causes of the decline of integrity could be because party politics and the politics of personalities have ensnared scandals like 1MDB.

Similarly, while some ad hoc solutions are propounded in order to combat the rising cost of living, the structural causes are not addressed since our politics revolves around personalities, not issues.

If interrogating power is a vital attribute of a flourishing democracy, is it possible that the neo-feudal attitude of unthinking loyalty to leadership practised within most political parties in the country impedes the growth of values and attitudes conducive for the nurturing of a democratic milieu?

Is the personality-oriented nature of Malaysian politics also one of the reasons why the underlying challenges in forging national solidarity have not been subjected to closer examination? In this regard, the role of religion in the public sphere — a weighty issue in a multi-religious society — has not elicited the sort of reflection that it urgently demands.

Here again, it is unlikely to happen when issues and trends are marginalised in favour of the politics of personalities.

How will a society like ours move away from its preoccupation with the politics of personalities with all its negative consequences?

Civil society groups can play a role by chastising political leaders who transgress the boundaries of “good behaviour and morality” envisaged in the Rukun Negara when they confront their political adversaries. They should impress upon these leaders the significance of “restraint”, “moderation” and “balance” in their political conduct.

At the same time, Malaysian citizens have a sacred responsibility to persuade politicians of whatever hue to focus upon fundamental issues related to integrity, the economy, democracy and national integration.

The media should also commit itself to these twin challenges. It is a pity that through their reporting and analysis, a number of journalists have also contributed to the strengthening of the politics of personalities.

Underlying trends and concerns may not attract readers and viewers as stories about personalities do. But more than civil society and the media, political personalities themselves should make the effort to change the tone and tenor of politics.

Najib and Mahathir should reach out to one another. As the person who wields more authority and is 28 years younger, Najib should initiate a grand gesture that will compel Mahathir to modify his own behaviour, which will make him less acerbic. What is that grand gesture?

If Mahathir offers himself as a candidate for Parliament in the coming election, the BN should not field a candidate against him. Let him be returned unopposed. Of course, PAS should also agree not to contest against Mahathir.

There are two reasons for this proposal. One, it will reduce the acrimony and the rancour between the two men and will be seen as an act of goodwill by all sides.

Two, taking into account all the pluses and minuses of Mahathir’s prime ministership, it is recognition of what he had done for the country.

He had transformed the nation’s economic base and its social structure. This transformation encompasses not only the relative peace and stability the nation enjoyed but also its international stature as a state that successfully preserved its independence and sovereignty in the face of major challenges.

I say this as someone who, unlike those who are savaging him today, was his critic right through the 1980s when he was at the peak of his power. And I had paid the price on at least two occasions for my stand against him.

And even today, while I am on the same page with him on the adverse impact of IMDB, I am critical of the alliances he has forged and the U-turns he has made in pursuit of his goal of ousting Prime Minister Najib.

Nonetheless, the nation as a whole should acknowledge the role he had played in the past. Allowing him to win his parliamentary seat uncontested would be a civilised move from a civilised people.

For Najib, a gesture of this sort will not only boost his image; it may even enhance the BN’s standing with the people.

Dr Chandra Muzaffar has been writing about Malaysian politics since 1970.

The Washington Post Editorial: Malaysia’s Fake News Bill is Censorship

March 31, 2018

The Washington Post Editorial: Malaysia’s Fake News Bill is Censorship

By Editorial Board

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All right-thinking Malaysians are one with Nazir in abhorring fake news, especially those based of lies and falsehoods maliciously aimed at inciting hatred or ill-will, but the Anti-Fake News Bill is not the answer to the problem of combating such fake news.–Lim Kit Siang

MALAYSIAN PRIME Minister Najib Razak is no stranger to muzzling free expression. His government has used existing laws to prosecute bloggers and journalists for satire and criticism of Mr. Najib, who has been embroiled in an epic corruption scandal. Now the Malaysian cabinet has gone a step further, proposing a law that would impose stiff fines and jail sentences on those who publish what it deems “fake news.” The proposed law is a warning of the danger when governments decide what is true and what is not.

Mr. Najib, seeking reelection to a third term, is being investigated by several countries, including the United States, on allegations that he and close associates diverted $4.5 billion from a Malaysian government investment fund for their own use, including $730 million that ended up in accounts controlled by the Prime Minister. He has denied wrongdoing involving the 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund, known as 1MDB. But a surefire outcome of the law, should it be passed, would be to chill media discussion of the corruption scandal.

The legislation would define as fake news “any news, information, data and reports which are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.” It would cover those who create, offer, circulate, print or publish fake news or publications containing fake news, and impose a 10-year jail term, a fine of up to $128,000, or both, at the whim of the government. The law would apply to those overseas as well as inside Malaysia. A fact sheet outlining hypothetical examples includes anyone who knowingly offers false information to a blogger, as well as cases that seem to encompass acts of slander or false advertising.

We don’t take lightly the problem of truth in today’s information whirlwind. But an open society must guarantee the right to express a wide range of views, including criticism of its leaders, with very few limitations, accompanied by due process and rule of law. The Malaysian proposal looks more like a tool of arbitrary government control and intimidation. Singapore is holding hearings on a similar scheme. Other closed systems, such as China, long ago perfected the art. It is called censorship.

President Trump has championed the moniker “fake news” to mean any news report he dislikes, and to undermine the legitimacy of the news media by creating confusion over whether news is true or false. An army of people on social media likewise muddy the waters, spreading reports that are corrosive and malicious. In this environment, a free society has to be dedicated to unfettered speech, allowing it to flourish and regulating it extremely carefully. Yes, publishers, platforms and people must be vigilant for garbage and pollution in the news stream. But imposing governmental controls will only yield one thing: real fake news.

Malaysia’s anti-fake news law raises media censorship fears

Fareed Zakaria: Trump’s Art of the Deal isn’t working in Foreign Policy

March 31, 2018

Fareed Zakaria: Trump’s Art of the Deal isn’t working in Foreign Policy

by Fareed Zakaria

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By way of explanation for some of President Trump’s bizarre foreign policy moves, we are often told that he is “unconventional” and that this could well be an asset. It’s certainly true that he doesn’t follow standard operating procedure on almost anything, from getting daily intelligence briefings to staffing the State Department. But his most striking departure from previous presidents has been in his rhetoric. American presidents have tended to weigh their words carefully, believing that they must preserve the credibility of the world’s leading power.

The United States has built up its credibility and political capital over the last century. The Trump administration is raiding that trust fund for short-term political advantage, in ways that will permanently deplete it.–Fareed Zakaria

And then there is Donald Trump, for whom words are weightless. During the campaign, he excoriated Saudi Arabia as a country that “want[s] women as slaves and to kill gays,” only to make his first presidential trip abroad to the kingdom and warmly embrace its rulers. He said NATO was obsolete and then simply affirmed the opposite. China was a currency manipulator that was “raping” America, until it wasn’t.

The loose rhetoric and idle threats have often backfired. After Trump was elected, he decided to try to threaten China by musing about recognizing Taiwan. The Chinese government called his bluff and froze relations with Washington. Trump had to call President Xi Jinping and eat his words.

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But there are situations where such “flexibility” might work. On North Korea, Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” on the country, only to now welcome a meeting with its leader. Trump’s supporters say this kind of maneuvering could well produce a deal that has eluded more conventional approaches to the problem.

We should all hope that it will. But so far, it’s worth noting that the circus-like atmosphere of Trump’s alternating threats and embraces have obscured a key point: It’s Trump who made the concession, not Kim Jong Un. The American position has long been that until North Korea took some concrete steps toward denuclearization, there would be no talks. Until recently, the Trump administration itself insisted that it would not reward the nuclear buildup with negotiations.

Now, there is a good argument to be flexible on this procedural issue. But we should be aware that, so far, Kim Jong Un seems to be executing a smart strategy brilliantly. He embarked on a fast-track buildup, creating a genuine nuclear arsenal with missiles that can deliver the weapons around the world, risking tensions and even his relations with China. With the arsenal built, he is now mending relations with China, reaching out to South Korea and offering to negotiate with Washington.

Trump’s skill here might well be his willingness to totally abandon a past position and endorse a new one. The United States will have to accept something less than its long-declared goal — complete denuclearization — and maybe Trump will be able to find a way to sell this.

There is, however, a different kind of tough talk that is more worrying. The administration pushes hard on some issue — trade with South Korea, for example — and then announces a deal, claiming to have won significant concessions. In fact, mostly these have been symbolic concessions made by allies to allow the administration to save face. South Korea, for example, agreed to raise the number of cars each American auto manufacturer can sell in the country from 25,000 to 50,000. It’s an easy concession to make. No American company sold even 11,000 cars there last year.

America remains a superpower. Its allies search for ways to accommodate it. The Trump administration can keep making outlandish demands, and it will obtain some concessions because no one wants an open breach with the United States. If Trump says the Europeans have to come up with some changes to the Iran deal, they will try to find a way to do so, because they don’t want to see the deal collapse and the West fall into disarray.

This is not a sign of power but rather the abuse of it. When the George W. Bush administration forced a series of countries to support the Iraq war, this did not signal American strength — it actually sapped that strength. This is a style that goes beyond the presidency. In recent years, America has grown accustomed to all kinds of special treatment. For example, the state of New York has used the power of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency to force foreign banks to pay fines and make settlements. It works, but it creates enormous resentment and leads countries like China to search for ways to work outside the system because they believe the existing one grants too much license to the U.S.

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The United States has built up its credibility and political capital over the last century. The Trump administration is raiding that trust fund for short-term political advantage, in ways that will permanently deplete it.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Mike Pompeo has a crisis to handle — even before the North Korea summit

March 31, 2018

Mike Pompeo has a crisis to handle — even before the North Korea summit

by Fareed Zakaria

Mike Pompeo has a crisis to handle — even before the North Korea summit

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If confirmed as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo will arrive at a State Department that has been battered by proposed budget cuts, hollowed out by resignations and vacancies, and neutered by President Trump’s impulsive and personal decision-making style. But Pompeo’s most immediate challenge will not be rebuilding the department and restoring morale; it will be dealing with an acute foreign policy crisis that is largely of the President’s own making — the Iran nuclear deal.

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Pompeo will have to tackle a genuine foreign policy challenge soon. Trump has agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un before the end of May. This could be a promising development, defusing the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and across Asia. Yet before Trump even sits down with Kim at the negotiating table to discuss a nuclear deal, the administration will have to decide how to handle the preexisting deal with Tehran.

Trump has already announced that the United States will no longer abide by the Iran nuclear pact unless European leaders agree to “fix the deal’s disastrous flaws.” (And from the outset, he has been cheered in his hard-line posturing by Pompeo.) European nations seem unwilling to endorse more than cosmetic changes, and Iran has flatly refused to renegotiate. That means by May 12 the United States is set to pull out of the agreement, which could lead Iran to do the same and restart its nuclear program. This would happen at the very same time as the summit with North Korea — when the United States will surely be trying to convince North Korea of the benefits of signing a similar agreement.

To understand the virtues of the Iran deal, recall that a quarter-century ago, the United States was negotiating a nuclear accord with Pyongyang. At that point, North Korea had a nuclear program but no nuclear weapons. The Clinton administration was trying to get the regime to freeze its program, agree to some rollbacks and allow intrusive inspections. But the accord that was ultimately reached was far more limited than hoped for. The inspections process was weak, and the North Koreans cheated.

The Iranians in 2015 also did not have nuclear weapons (and insisted they had no intention of ever making them). Still, the nuclear deal required them to scale back significant aspects of their program, dismantling 13,000 centrifuges, giving up 98 percent of their enriched uranium and effectively shutting down their plutonium reactor at Arak. The International Atomic Energy Agency has cameras and inspectors in Iran at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle — from mines to labs to enrichment facilities. The IAEA attests that Tehran has abided by its end of the deal. Even Pompeo himself has conceded as much.

The Iran accord is not perfect, but it has stabilized a dangerous and spiraling situation in the Middle East. Were the deal to unravel, an already simmering region would get much hotter. (The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, recently affirmed that his kingdom would go nuclear if Iran did.) And, again, this would all be happening just as the Trump administration would be trying to convince the North Koreans to agree to limits, freezes, rollbacks and inspections of its own nuclear program. Why would Kim sign a deal while he watches the United States renege on the last one it signed?

The tragedy here is that this is an entirely self-inflicted crisis. There was already enough instability in the world that the administration did not need to create more. Pompeo should recognize that his job as secretary of state will be to solve problems, not produce them, and he should preserve the Iran accord and spend his time on North Korea. But that would still leave a considerable challenge regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons. There, too, the administration’s position — and his — has been maximalist, vowing to accept nothing less than the total denuclearization of North Korea. But that’s a negotiating position that can and should be adjusted over time, depending on North Korean behavior.

Pompeo should take a page from his boss’s book. Trump has reversed course on issue after issue, often with little explanation. He declared that NATO was obsolete only to say later that it was not. He promised to label China a currency manipulator and then decided against it. He insisted that talking to North Korea would be a waste of time and then eagerly announced that he would. And who knows, maybe Trump understands the public’s inattention and mood better than most of us. In any case, whatever Pompeo said about the Iran deal months ago is now ancient history. He should simply declare that right now, under the circumstances, the deal is worth preserving.

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POTUS 45 : Is he tactical or strategic on Foreign Policy?

There are significant costs to America’s credibility and reputation if Washington keeps reversing its positions on core foreign policy issues. Yet there are greater costs to stubbornly persisting with the wrong policy. So, Mr. Pompeo, repeat after me: “The Iran deal was bad, but now it’s good.”

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Foreign Policy: Tenets of Thailand’s ASEAN Engagement

March 30, 2018

Foreign Policy: Tenets of Thailand’s ASEAN Engagement

by John Blaxland and Greg Raymond, ANU

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(L-R) Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak, Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesia President Joko Widodo and Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith join hands during a family photo before the 31st Asean Summit in Manila on Monday, November 13, 2017. AFP PHOTO

ASEAN member states have different perspectives on the significance of the grouping. As one of the founder member states, the second largest economy and a leading state within ASEAN, Thailand’s view is important. A survey of 1800 former and current Thai officials conducted from 2014–17 on Thailand’s relationship with great powers demonstrates that despite Bangkok’s reputation for hard realism in its foreign policy, ASEAN surprisingly seems to matter a great deal to Thailand in terms of regional security and prosperity.

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Thailand’s Prime Minster Prayuth Chan-ocha

Respondents considered ASEAN to be very important in terms of regional prosperity, with 72.3 per cent rating it eight or higher (very important) out of ten on the Likert scale. In terms of ASEAN’s importance to security and stability, the rating was not as high but still significant, with 67.36 per cent rating it eight or higher.

Positioned centrally among the mainland Southeast Asian states and with relatively advanced infrastructure, Thailand benefits from closer integration with its Southeast Asian neighbours. That benefit is shared across the region as the reach of transport and infrastructure projects increases.

Not surprisingly, Thai respondents saw the advent of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 as a positive development. Intra-ASEAN trade is now bigger than trade with any single external partner. In Thailand’s case, exports to ASEAN are bigger than exports to China, the United States, Japan or the European Union. As ASEAN’s share of world gross domestic product continues to increase, this market of more than 640 million will offer opportunity to reduce reliance on external powers.

Security is a more complicated question. While the creation of ASEAN was never ostensibly about any form of mutual security pact, its formation always had a security dimension that was internal to ASEAN rather than external. After the US withdrawal from Vietnam (in 1975) and the consolidation of communist regimes in mainland Southeast Asia, Thailand decided to prioritise relations with its neighbours. For Thai policymakers, ASEAN has remained integral to Thailand’s security and is perceived as almost an article of faith.

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Yet this faith is not blind and Thai respondents frequently pointed out ASEAN’s shortcomings. There is no expectation that ASEAN will present a unified front to the world in political or foreign policy terms. A senior Thai prime ministerial adviser argued that ‘if ASEAN was a nation it would be very mixed. Brunei is a monarchy, others are communist. Some are democracies, some are not. Some are Buddhist, while others are largely Muslim or Christian’. Similarly, a serving Thai military officer declared that making progress on security, humanitarian assistance or even joint task forces would take time because of the differences in politics, economies and levels of prosperity.

Balancing the great powers is a key issue for Thailand. ASEAN now organises a wide range of meetings to help member states’ relations with external powers. One officer declared: ‘In ASEAN I speak with many people. They don’t want the superpowers to come in and dominate. That is the concept. There are various mechanisms to balance the powers’.

This task is complicated further by China’s growing influence across the region, notably in Cambodia and Laos. Like these two countries, Thailand is on a path of integration with the Southeast Asian mainland, including with southern China. The greater inter-connectedness with China impinges on member states’ perceived freedom of political and economic action.

History plays a role too. As noted by one senior intelligence official, the unity of ASEAN is ‘a little bit weak and shaken’ because of the past: ‘Thailand, for instance, used to invade Laos and Cambodia, and Myanmar invaded Thailand. That makes achieving consensus within ASEAN all the more difficult’. As suggested by the same intelligence official, ASEAN members will need to learn how to forgive and overcome past grievances if the organisation is to become ‘stronger and more united’.

Despite the enduring reasons for distrust and enmity, countries involved in various ASEAN-related forums remain eager to participate — in part to keep a check on each other’s intentions and initiatives. In the case of the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) forum, the significant work undertaken by expert working groups feeds into the ADMM Plus summits and provides much of the detail for the practical application and development of ideas to enhance collaboration. Collaboration in the ADMM Plus realm covers the domains of cyber security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime security, peace-keeping operations, and military medicine and humanitarian mine action.

Progress has been slow and steady but over time these groups have generated significant outcomes, including seminars, workshops, exercises and conferences. Combined, they provide an extraordinary range of opportunities for enhanced cooperation, increased mutual understanding and familiarity with other member states.

In essence, the Thai establishment sees ASEAN as a proto-great power. Thanks to the perpetuation of the notion of ASEAN centrality and despite its remarkable diversity, ASEAN gives comfort to its members that their otherwise relatively insignificant international roles amount to more than the sum of their parts. That sense of centrality, fragile though it is, has been perpetuated through the various forums that have ASEAN at their core. Thais argue that it remains in the interests of the member states for this centrality to continue. But in an era of growing great power contestation that may be increasingly difficult.

John Blaxland is Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and Director of the Southeast Asia Institute, The Australian National University.

Greg Raymond is a Research Fellow in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University, and co-editor of the journal Security Challenges.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, Why ASEAN matters’. John Blaxland and Greg Raymond’s research was funded by the Minerva Research Institute.

Deciphering Jokowi’s Javanese card in ASEAN-Australia relations

March 30, 2018

Deciphering Jokowi’s Javanese card in ASEAN-Australia relations

by Dedi Dinarto

Research Associate with the Indonesia Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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In an interview with Fairfax media in mid-March, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said that “it is a good idea” for Australia to join the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) to increase political and economy stability in the region. This prompted speculation among political analysts. Some have interpreted Jokowi’s implied invitation to Australia as a “Javanese response” – giving an ambiguous answer to please others.

Mission impossible?

Observers argue there is little chance Australia will join ASEAN. This is due to various reasons, including their different defence policies.

Australia is tied to military-based defence pacts, including the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS Treaty) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The aggressive nature of these pacts goes against ASEAN’s non-interference principle. ASEAN emphasises the absence of external military hostility as its core principle.

Another barrier possibly comes from other ASEAN member states. As ASEAN is run by consensus, all ten members must approve the proposal of having Australia as the bloc’s 11th member. So far, other members have not responded to Jokowi’s suggestion.

In the past, ASEAN leaders, including Indonesia, have resisted the idea. In 2002, the then Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, rejected attempts by his Australian counterpart, John Howard, to build closer ties with ASEAN. The previous Indonesian President, Megawati Sukarnoputri, also expressed reservations.

In 2017, former ASEAN secretary-general Rodolfo Severino rebuffed the idea of Australia being part of ASEAN. Australia was “not Southeast Asian”, he said.

Stereotyping Javanese residents

Jokowi’s presidency has reinforced an old pattern in Indonesian politics that the President should be of Javanese ethnicity.

Only one out of seven Indonesian Presidents was not Javanese. The Sulawesi-born B.J. Habibie received the presidential mandate after Suharto resigned following student protests in 1998. And even Habibie is half-Javanese.

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President B.J. Habibie

With the unwritten rule that the Indonesian president should be Javanese, political analysts have often connected Javanese culture with Indonesian leadership. In the case of Jokowi’s comment on ASEAN membership for Australia, analysts believe he was being polite by giving an ambivalent answer.

However, it is important to note that Javanese culture is not simply about being overly polite and giving safe answers.

The richness of Javanese culture comprises both belligerent and benevolent elements, such as ambition, influence, interests, power, harmony and thoughtfulness (ngugemi rasa) – the idea of being inoffensive and considerate to the feelings of others.

In the past, Indonesian leaders have expressed Javanese culture in various ways for diplomatic purposes.

Strenuous Sukarno

Sukarno, nurtured by Javanese traditions like the wayang stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata, left his mark in history as a strong leader who fought colonialism and imperialism with assertive political tactics, bolstered with his unforgettable charisma.

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The Charismatic Orator President Sukarno seen with US President John F. Kennedy

Javanese believe that such a pattern of foreign policies carries a certain logic, which is depicted through the symbol mandala.

Indonesian historian and academic Soemarsaid Moertono defined mandala as a circle that symbolises the dynamics of influence, interests or ambitions and reflects the Javanese idea of pursuing world domination and universal peace under a sole supreme ruler.

During the 1960s, Sukarno demonstrated a belligerent worldview against Dutch colonialism over West Irian (now West Papua). He also confronted the formation of Malaysia in 1963, which he believed was the extension of British colonial rule in the region.

In this case, Sukarno’s leadership style was a confrontational expression of Javanese culture.

Suharto’s soft and hard approach

Suharto, in contrast, expressed a more benevolent notion of Javanese culture. A native of the Javanese heartland, Suharto avoided open disputes. He preferred solving disputes behind closed doors.

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President Suharto with Cambodia’s  Norodom Sihanouk

One of Suharto’s achievements was to push the “benevolent” Javanese notion of “achieving and maintaining harmony as one of the primary goals of social life” to become ASEAN’s fundamental principles, known as the “ASEAN Way”.

However, Suharto also exercised the belligerent notion of Javanese culture. His campaign against communism in Indonesia and the country’s invasion of Timor Leste (now East Timor) in 1975 are examples of this.

Jokowi’s leadership style

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President Jokowi embodies Javanese politeness and diplomatic courtesy

Jokowi’s statement on Australia joining ASEAN is therefore unsurprising. His statement is an expression of ngugemi rasa, or thoughtfulness.

However, rather than emphasising Jokowi’s Javanese politeness and diplomatic courtesy, the concept of ngugemi rasa might explain his intention not to offend Australia in order to maintain harmonious relationship with ASEAN’s largest southern neighbour.

Therefore, Jokowi’s statement should not be taken lightly. In fact, this is not the first time that Southeast Asian leaders have opined about granting membership to non-Southeast Asian countries.

In May 2017, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pushed for the inclusion of Mongolia and Turkey in ASEAN, a move that dismissed the importance of geographical boundaries and shared historical experience.

Although Australia is not a member of ASEAN, their relationship is inseparable as they are interconnected in the economic and security realms. Jokowi’s statement can be understood as a compliment for Australian contributions to the region, instead of an explicit statement of support for Australian ASEAN membership.

It is important for Australia to understand the significant role of Javanese culture in Indonesia’s diplomacy. Taking for granted statements from Indonesia’s Javanese leaders may lead to misunderstandings and misinformed responses.