GE–14:When The Air Is Pregnant In Malaysia

April 22, 2018

When The Air Is Pregnant In Malaysia

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Thus, the air is pregnant with the exercise of one final democratic push, invariably, the collective choice of 15 million voters, to ensure the emergence of a new Malaysian democracy that is not stillborn.

By Mustaqim Abdullah

The birth pangs of any democracy are never easy. Not unlike any biological birth, it is marked by the usual dread and unnerving moments. On May 9, Malaysia will have its 14th general election, although one no less dramatic than an actual birth.

To be sure, the labor pains, and the breaking of the water, began as early as March 2008. That was when a motley crew of opposition parties banded together under Anwar Ibrahim’s vision and showed the country, against all odds, that a two-party system was possible.

The second phase culminated in May 2013 when that once motley crew now shocked the world by winning a majority of Malaysian hearts and minds – proving to people (and also to BN) that they could win, even an unfair election.

May 9 2018 is, therefore, the near equivalent of the third trimester of the Malaysian pregnancy. Do we have a new democracy or a continuation of a kleptocracy, May 9 would mark the delivery?

But in a world of democratic recession, where democratic governments seem to be falling like bowling pins, the electoral results of Malaysia does matter to Asia at the very least.

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To begin with, Asia is a diverse collection of different regimes, none of which can be declared an actual democracy, with the exception of Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. If one enlarges it to include Australia and New Zealand, the democratic sample still holds. These are the five countries that have allowed some transitions of power to happen.

To the degree India is included, no one is certain if India’s democracy may be considered too flawed to be ranked, since it hasn’t produced the desirable economic equity, and is itself succumbing to forces of racist chauvinism. The Philippines, too, cannot be included since President Duterte has rode roughshod over it.

With such a small collection of actual, and functional democracies, one where the opposition leaders are not intentionally sued to bankruptcy—-as is the case in Singapore—what happens in Malaysia truly matters to the rest of the world.

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As things stand, the ground is filled with hopes of a new democracy. One that can allow others to breathe not merely a sigh of relief but practically free air. If Najib wins the election on May 9, especially with a 2/3 super majority, his ruling party UMNO and coalition, would have seen it fit to redraw any electoral boundaries, or, add to the current 222 to make it impossible for the opposition leaders to have a second chance.

Age is not on the side of all of the opposition leaders now, including Anwar Ibrahim, who will be 73 this year, and if banned another five years after his release cannot seek any public office until he is 78.

Even Dr Mahathir Mohammad, the leader of the opposition coalition, otherwise known as Pakatan Harapan, is an oddity in motion. At 93 this July, he cannot feign any more stamina than what he has already shown through the length and breadth of the country.

Lim Kit Siang, an opposition stalwart, is in his mid 70s too. Another five years he would be an Octogenarian. Dr Wan Azizah, the wife of Anwar Ibrahim is well into her late 60s, and understands the urgency of this election like no other. Mohammad Sabu, a former Islamic leader, is in the same league of Wan Azizah too. If the opposition coalition loses, all these leaders would be staring at the prospect of Najib, who is now 65, leading Malaysia well beyond 2023.


That being said, Malaysians are waiting with bated breath to ‘kick’ him out. Income has been stagnant, while the chasm between the rich and poor continues to grow; on top of which the national debt has risen to USD 155 billion, with the likelihood to pass the threshold of USD 250 billion in a few years at current spending trajectory, with no indication that a more prudent economic plan is in the works.


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Thus, the air is pregnant with the exercise of one final democratic push, invariably, the collective choice of 15 million voters, to ensure the emergence of a new Malaysian democracy that is not stillborn.

The heart is willing, so is the mind of the Malaysians. But the body is in the control of Najib, as he holds all the levers of ensuring a fair and clear election. If Malaysians don’t appear in droves to phase Najib out, which essentially means a voters’ turn out of nothing less than 85 per cent, Malaysia is a goner, and so is Southeast Asia’s experimentation with democracy.

One could of course point to the existence of Indonesia. But with Prabowo Subianto, the former son in law of President Suharto, poised to challenge President Widodo Jokowi, no one is certain if what is witnessed in the West, where the democratic order kept failing away, will not be a pandemic in Asia too.

If the world isn’t watching Malaysia carefully, it should: it is the barometer of the things to come in Asia and the rest of the world.


Misunderstanding ASEAN

March 29, 2018

Misunderstanding ASEAN

by Bunn

“SO when is China going to join ASEAN?” a foreign news editor asked me in the early 1990s by way of introduction at a luncheon meeting in Tokyo.

He had asked when, not if, seeming to assume it was just a matter of time. There was no talk or even rumour of such a prospect at the time, so he must have just dreamt it up.

It was so ludicrous as to seem like a trick question.

Shouldn’t a foreign news editor be better informed about ASEAN and China than to even think of asking such a question? And yet so much about ASEAN remains unknown even among some of its national leaders.

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Turkey in ASEAN?– You must be joking, Mr. President
Last year Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte advocated ASEAN membership for Turkey and Mongolia. The Philippines at the time held the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN, and Duterte must have thought he could do as he pleased.
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Jokowi wants Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to keep him company in ASEAN. What a ridiculous idea.

This year it was the turn of Indonesian President Joko Widodo to dabble in the ridiculous. On a recent trip to Australia he told the media that Australia should join ASEAN.

Nobody else in ASEAN took either remark seriously, even if those statements made the news throughout the region. In case of lingering delusions resulting from these statements, some history may help.

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South-East Asia has had more than its share of regional organisations through the decades.

During the Cold War, the US and its allies fashioned the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) as a bulwark against international communism. It was basically a military grouping to turn the region into a Cold War zone. SEATO was a misnomer from the start, with six of its eight members from outside South-East Asia. Even the two members from this region, Thailand and the Philippines, were allies of the US in a Western-directed Cold War scheme.

Indonesia and Malaya (later Malaysia), which wanted no part of the Cold War, stayed out. So did most other countries in the region including Cambodia.

The Association of South-East Asia (ASA) was another attempt at regional identity politics. But with only three members Thailand, Malaya and the Philippines, it lacked credibility and purpose.

MAPHILINDO comprising Malaya, Philippines and Indonesia was yet another attempt by South-East Asian countries to create an organisation of the countries of the region themselves. MAPHILINDO came on the eve of Malaysia’s formation, with the undeclared purpose by Macapagal’s Philippines and Sukarno’s Indonesia to thwart the creation of Malaysia. Indonesia had its confrontation (konfrontasi) policy against Malaysia, while the Philippines pursued its claim to Sabah. Thus MAPHILINDO was diplomatically worded to favour Malaya over the others.

Still that did not work. With MAPHILINDO’s hidden purpose known to Malaya, it suffered from neglect and died an early death.

Soon after that Malaysia was born (September 16, 1963) with Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore and Malaya coming together to form a new federation.

Meanwhile, historic change was underway in Indonesia. Rebellion erupted against Sukarno’s rule, he was stripped of his life presidency, and konfrontasi against Malaysia ended when General Suharto assumed power in 1965.

Malaysian officials and their Indonesian counterparts had worked feverishly behind the scenes to manage an emerging situation with a fledgling new Indonesia. Within months, ASEAN was born in 1967.

Thus began a slow but steady process of regional institution building to ensure peace, stability and prosperity through fraternity. Since then, ASEAN has been at the heart of this process.

The other three co-founding members of ASEAN were Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore. With ASEAN, the dormant Philippine claim to Sabah stayed dormant between governments.

Since Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia had been locked in disputes over territory and Sukarno’s aggression, ASEAN had to come by way of a neutral partner country: Thailand.

So the Bangkok Declaration of August 8, 1967 saw the formation of ASEAN, following much spadework by Thai officials to ensure agreement. Malaysia acknowledged the hard work put in by Thai Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman, awarding him the title of “Tun” for his efforts.

However, right from the start, disparities existed among ASEAN member countries. There was a hulking Indonesia next to Singapore, while differences in economic development made for more variations.

For ASEAN to work, all members had to agree to certain basics: all members were equal regardless of size or wealth, decisions would be made by consensus, ASEAN chairmanship would be by rotation, none shall interfere in another’s internal affairs, and disputes had to be resolved peacefully.

Even as Thailand and the Philippines continued to host US military bases, these would only be temporary and never to be used against another member country. The ASEAN region would equate peace with freedom and neutrality, while rejecting all manner of nuclear weapons.

The spirit and essence of ASEAN is non-alignment. Today all 10 ASEAN members are in the Non-Aligned Movement, with Thailand, the Philippines and Brunei the latest to join in 1993.

When Duterte championed Turkey and Mongolia for ASEAN membership, many in the region were taken aback. Aung San Suu Kyi asked if he had considered geography and he said he had, showing instead how he had failed to grasp the subject and the question.

Neither Turkey nor Mongolia is in South-East Asia. Besides, Turkey is a member of NATO and is hoping to join the EU.

When Jokowi advocated Australia’s membership of ASEAN, he seemed to have lacked the luxury of thinking before speaking. To be fair he was probably prodded into a rash answer, or something must have been lost in translation.

His apparent enthusiasm has not been supported by his colleagues in government, among Indonesia’s elites or anyone else in ASEAN.

Australia is not in Asia, much less in South-East Asia. When Paul Keating was Prime Minister he insisted Australia was in Asia, but when he moved to a solemn academic post he admitted it wasn’t. Neither is Australia a non-aligned country, nor likely ever to be one. It is comfortably set in the US strategic alliance. Yet some senior Australian figures and establishments like the Asia Society Policy Institute recommend Australia joining ASEAN in 2024 together with New Zealand. Clearly, it is not just a deficiency in geography that is at issue.

One or even a few ASEAN leaders do not make decisions for a grouping that operates by consensus. When ASEAN was being formed in 1967, Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman reportedly favoured Sri Lanka’s membership.

Singapore opposed it, while the other three members were not particularly motivated either way. A decade later Papua New Guinea applied to join and ASEAN has kept it waiting ever since.

Some reports suggest even Pakistan and Bangladesh had been keen to join. Again, a better sense of geography and geopolitics would help to keep things in perspective. In 2011 Timor Leste applied to join ASEAN with the official support of Indonesia and Cambodia. Unlike the other hopefuls, the territory and people of Timor Leste had been in ASEAN before independence as part of Indonesia and as Indonesians.

No country joins ASEAN without a formal invitation, with that invitation resulting only from a consensus among all member countries. However, consensus is more accessible than unanimity.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

Book Review: Rebranding Islam: Piety, Prosperity, and a Self-Help Guru

March 26, 2018

Book Review:

Rebranding Islam: Piety, Prosperity, and a Self-Help Guru

James Bourk Hoesterey (Stanford University Press, 2016)

by Virginia Hooker
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A biography of a highly motivated, calculating, and media-savvy performer and preacher

This book is a study of Abdullah Gymnastiar, who was born in West Java in 1962. He is, however, better known as Aa Gym (older brother Gym), the name he chose to launch his career as a preacher, then to develop it as a television personality, motivational speaker, and leader of more than 20 corporate business enterprises. His “performances” and unique religious self-help program “Manajemen Qolbu”, (Heart Management) or MQ, rocketed him to pop star status for millions of Indonesian Muslims during the first decade of the new millennium. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the Bali bombings, his sermons about self-help for modern Muslims, Islamic ethics, morality, and civic duty attracted the interest of non-Muslims as well as Muslims.

It was Aa Gym’s reputation as a supporter of “moderate Islam”, and his influence on several million Indonesians (or more), that drew him to the attention of the Cultural Section of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. In January 2007, they were organising an itinerary of people-to-people visits for members of the Board of the Australia Indonesia Institute (a second-track diplomacy initiative of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) and in it they included a lunch with Aa Gym at his headquarters in Bandung.

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As a member of the Board of the AII, I met Aa Gym, who welcomed us warmly and gave us a tour of his extensive and orderly mini-village, Daarut Tauhiid (Abode of the One). We had discussions about his work and the nature of Islam in Indonesia. He invited us to return at any time and stay in the motel-type accommodation included in the complex, where thousands of his followers came for spiritual retreats. We had expected Daarut Tauhiid to be bustling with those followers, but it was quiet except for a small group of women who chatted with those of us who spoke Indonesian. A further surprise was the presence of an American who accompanied Aa Gym and introduced himself as James Hoesterey, from the Department of Anthropology, University Wisconsin-Madison. Aa Gym was the subject of his PhD dissertation and he was nearing the end of two years of field research as participant observer of Aa Gym’s activities.

Rebranding Islam: Piety, Prosperty, and a Self-Help Guru is the result of those two years observing and interviewing Aa Gym, his staff, and his followers. Aa Gym was particularly hospitable and cooperative, Hoesterey told us, inviting him to live in Daruut Tauhid and including him in many of his trips outside Bandung. To update his material for the book, Hoesterey supplemented his dissertation fieldwork with later follow-up visits, the most recent in 2014.

When I met Hoesterey in late January 2007 he must have been concerned about the future of his research, because on 1 December 2006 a journalist broke the story of that year: Aa Gym, idol of millions of Indonesians, had secretly married a second wife. His followers, especially women, felt betrayed by Aa Gym—their adviser on all matters Islamic—who had presented himself as the loving husband of the beautiful Teh Ninih, who was a religious teacher in her own right and the mother of their seven children. His disillusioned followers expressed their condemnation by shredding pictures of Aa Gym, denouncing him and his second wife on social media, and withdrawing their support for his programs and his commercial enterprises. The full impact of Aa Gym’s polygamy on his career was not evident when the Australian Embassy arranged our visit, but when we met him, Hoesterey must have known that his dissertation would become an analysis not only of the rise of a religious superstar but also his fall.

In an expansive Preface to his book, Hoesterey describes how he came to study Aa Gym and summarises the broader aims of the book in these terms: “It is about how a popular-culture niche of Sufis and self-help gurus has managed to recalibrate religious authority, Muslim subjectivity, and religious politics in post-authoritarian Indonesia.” But even within this popular-culture niche Aa Gym had succeeded in differentiating himself from other religious celebrities. He was not a Sufi nor a pesantren– or madrasah-educated religious scholar. Through the course of the book, the reader comes to see him as a highly motivated, calculating, and media-savvy performer, who enjoyed the limelight and making money. The material in the book gives little information about Aa Gym’s interior spiritual life so the reader, and perhaps Hoesterey also, is left none the wiser about this vital aspect of Aa Gym the man.

Material for the book is drawn from sympathetic Indonesian biographies of Aa Gym, from Aa Gym’s autobiographical videos of his achievements, from interviews with those who know him, including some critics, and from Hoesterey’s daily observations and personal interviews with him. When I met Hoesterey at Daruut Tauhiid in 2007, it was clear that he enjoyed privileged access to Aa Gym and his family. In the Preface, Hoesterey acknowledges his debt to Aa Gym for his willingness to trust him and involve him in so many of his activities. Hoesterey writes, “I had become part of the road show—a small price to pay for the opportunity to travel with Aa Gym around the country. Much like his devotees, and perhaps like many other ethnographic encounters, my relationship with Aa Gym was marked by economic and emotional exchange.” (p.xv).

In the context of leadership derived from religious authority, one of the main themes of his book, Hoesterey’s description of the relationship with his subject as “marked by economic and emotional exchange” is revealing. Hoesterey is, after all, not a Muslim and Aa Gym is not his leader. It can be argued that there is an affective and economic relationship between them but it is not the same as that between Aa Gym and his Indonesian followers, for whom Aa Gym’s religious authority is relevant. In Hoesterey’s case the affective relationship does not have a religious basis. Rather, it stems from an ethical and moral obligation that resulted from Hoesterey’s need for information from and about Aa Gym. Indonesian moral etiquette places the recipient of hospitality, gifts, and friendship (all of which Aa Gym gave him) under an obligation to the giver and Hoesterey would have been aware of this expectation. When Hoesterey told Aa Gym he was writing an article about his “fall”, Aa Gym told him, “Please feel free to use any documentation you have, as long as you first consult your conscience.” Both were aware that these words came with the unspoken understanding of Hoesterey’s debt of obligation.

Similarly, the economic relationship was to Hoesterey’s benefit, as he himself admits. The information Hoesterey derived from his access to Aa Gym enhanced Hoesterey’s career as an academic, just as most academics benefit materially from the information derived from living subjects who entrust it to them. Hoesterey thus walks a tightrope between obligation towards and familiarity with Aa Gym and the objectivity required for academic research and analysis. In this reader’s estimation, Hoesterey’s affective and economic relationship with his subject has sometimes made him wobble on the tightrope, tilting him closer to Aa Gym and away from objective analysis. These wobbles are evident when he recounts some of Aa Gym’s self-revelatory remarks without further discussion, even when they can shed light on Aa Gym’s character and motives. For example, without establishing a date for the quote or remarking on its significance, Hoesterey writes, “‘Media are like water buffalos,’ Aa Gym once told me. ‘You just have to lead them by the nose ring.’” (p.155). The thinking reader might wonder what implications and consequences this attitude has for Aa Gym’s affective and economic relationships with all his contacts.

Hoesterey presents an engaging and perceptive account of how Aa Gym constructed his trademark “brand” of religious authority: through his trendy yet semi-religious dress (trademark turban, well-tailored white jacket and dark trousers); discourse (feel-good homilies drawing on the Qur’an, the example of the Prophet Muhammad, and Aa Gym’s own life stories); and the supportive advice that he delivered with humorous anecdotes and in a “soothing psycho-therapy tone”. Hoesterey describes Aa Gym’s approach to his religion as “Islam was not just a religion to be lived but also a product to be packaged and sold.” (p.35) For many Muslims the idea of making money from their religion is anathema, so not all Muslims would respond to the commodification of Islam, especially when it is for personal gain. As the work of Fealy and White, and other scholars has shown, however, millions of Indonesians do “buy” Islam and it was to this market that Aa Gym made his pitch.

Hoesterey provides an excellent overview of the products that AA Gym developed, trademarked and licensed, and delivered. These included his flagship MQ (Heart Management Program) presented through “nationally televised sermons, self-help books, and Islamic training seminars”; the MQ Blessings firm that produced and marketed food, drinks, clothing and personal items; and also the entire Daarut Tauhiid enterprise with its bank, restaurants, souvenir and other shops and spiritual tourism facilities, as well as TV production studio and publishing house. Over twenty businesses were listed under the organisational umbrella of the MQ Corporation.

At least 700 staff, all dependent on his brand for their livelihoods, met every Monday morning at Daarut Tauhiid to listen to a pep talk by Aa Gym. As well, a significant number of “trainers” found work under the Aa Gym brand, teaching people how to apply various pseudo-psychology and self-help (or as Hoesterey says, “self-engineering”) programs for which they charged substantial fees. For example, a pre-retirement entrepreneurship program designed for 200 Bank Mandiri employees brought in $US100,000, and other programs regularly brought in similar sums. Hoesterey describes how two skilled Indonesian executives working for Aa Gym designed a program that adapted elements from American positive psychology thinkers—including from Tony Buzan’s “mind mapping” and Edward de Bono’s problem solving techniques. These Indonesian super-trainers “consciously tried to find the Islamic textual resources that could support the science” so that the programs appealed to Indonesian Muslim corporate executives. (p.112). In Hoesterey’s words, “… Aa Gym and the Muslim trainers transformed scientific knowledge into religious wisdom and also re-packaged and promoted transnational scientific discourse through print, radio, television and training sessions.” (p.96)

I take issue with Hoesterey’s use of the word “scientific” to describe the information Aa Gym was appropriating and re-packaging under that label. At best that “knowledge” is pseudo or popular science. Hoesterey acknowledges this only in a footnote concerning the properties of “Hexagonal water”, properties “discovered” by the Japanese Dr Masaru Emoto. This “special” water  was promoted on the basis of its “hexagonal crystals” and their alleged miraculous powers. In fact, as Hoesterey’s footnote explains, hexagonal crystals are present in all water. Products such as these were endorsed by Aa Gym, promoted in seminars at luxury hotels, and sold by franchises using pyramid sales techniques.

The book does not address the scale and destinations of the profits made by companies under the MQ Corporation umbrella. There are references to Aa Gym seeking financial backers for his programs and Hoesterey notes that Aa Gym’s private wealth gave him the flexibility to finance his own initiatives if necessary. But there are no further details about that private wealth. Perhaps Hoesterey was unable to gain that information, but a full understanding of the Aa Gym phenomenon is incomplete without consideration of who benefitted from the financial benefits of the enterprises and how the profits were used.

Nowhere does Hoesterey clearly point out that Aa Gym and his backers are duping followers and customers by claiming products such as water with special powers have been scientifically tested for their properties. The claims that the Aa Gym brand makes for its products are sometimes misleading, or worse, fraudulent. If the Islamic terminology designed to “Islamise” the products were to be stripped away, those products could be evaluated using the secular criteria of performance and value for money. Those selling the products might be charged with misleading advertising and forced to return money to their customers. The Qur’an condemns fraudulent dealings, but law enforcers seem reluctant to apply the usual norms of trading to “religious” products. It is an indication of the hubris of Aa Gym and his backers that they believed they could sell anything under their brand and escape investigation of their claims.

It was not, however, his commercial enterprises, but Aa Gym’s own behaviour that brought down his corporate empire and undermined the credibility of his religious authority. The Indonesian media broke the story of Aa Gym’s secret second marriage at the beginning of December 2006. Hoesterey does not comment on the coincidence of timing between Aa Gym’s active campaigning in support of anti-pornography legislation (and his star performance at a public hearing about the legislation in February 2006) with his decision to marry a second wife. The polygamous marriage must have happened around that time or soon after. The coincidence would not have escaped his followers, and his public professions of piety and morality compounded their perception of his hypocrisy and insincerity.

Hoesterey’s analysis of the Aa Gym “brand” emphasises that it depended totally on the support of Muslims who acknowledged his religious authority. He refers to those Muslims variously as “followers”, “admirers”, “disciples”, or “devotees”. He rarely refers to them as “consumers”, “customers” or “clients”, even though he describes their relationship with Aa Gym as one based on “economic and emotional exchange”. Hoesterey’s summary of Aa Gym’s “fall from grace” describes it as the “economic and affective exchange relationships between a preacher-producer, corporate consumers, and fickle devotees”. This description does not acknowledge that the “fickle devotees” had been groomed by Aa Gym and his trainers to “consume” the Aa Gym brand in order to become better Muslims. A vocal number of those Muslims felt let down and duped by their leader’s personal behaviour, so perhaps “fickle” more appropriately describes Aa Gym and his self-serving interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunna.

What does the Aa Gym phenomenon—the rise and fall of  a celebrity preacher—tell us about Islam in Indonesia? Hoesterey has used an anthropological lens and focused it to one individual. He argues that Aa Gym had “an ephemeral sort of religious authority” that was deliberately crafted to differentiate him from “conventional Muslim clerics” and that what brought him down was “the insincerity of publicly performed piety.” This is one set of conclusions derived from the Aa Gym focus. If we turn the lens onto his followers, other issues come into focus. They revolve around Indonesia’s Muslim “followers” or “religious seekers”. In general we can say Indonesians are “joiners”—particularly joiners of religion-based groups. The largest are, of course, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah but there are many others, particularly at regional levels. What proportion of their members also became followers of Aa Gym and similar celebrities? And if so, what did he offer that their “home” groups did not? And how many of the Aa Gym followers were first-time followers, or had followed other figures previously? It should not be too difficult to find answers to these kinds of questions. Whatever the details, using Hoesterey’s account of the Aa Gym phenomenon we can deduce that among contemporary Indonesian Muslims there are many who seek mainstream Islamic knowledge, guidance on how to apply it in their technology-savvy lives, and reassurance that its content and presentation is up to date, or to use Hoesterey’s term, “hypermodern”.

Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah offer programs in areas like Islamic psychology, domestic violence, entrepreneurship, leadership, social justice, and disaster relief but clearly there remain unmet needs. The Aa Gym phenomenon shows that enterprising marketers are continually working to identify those unmet needs. Their method is then to select a trendy pseudo-scientific template and fill it with content perceived to be Islamic. The sales team and teams of trainers and promoters can then spring into action backed by one or several of Indonesia’s corporate billionaires. If the seekers and followers go for the product, politicians will also lend their support to its promoters.

Hoesterey’s study includes many examples that indicate the age-old Indonesian creativity for syntheses between local and global influences is alive and thriving. He pays less attention to local West Javanese influences on Aa Gym’s expression of Islam. He does mention Imaduddin Abdulrahim’s training programs and campus outreach movements during the late 1970s and early 1980s, but does not refer to Rifki Rosyad’s very useful overview of the Islamic resurgence among Bandung’s young Muslims during that period including descriptions of the training sessions in Salman Mosque. Perhaps even more relevant to the honing of Aa Gym’s performance style is Julian Millie’s research into the techniques used by popular preachers in West Java.

Hoesterey’s book will be welcomed as a text for anthropologists, and not only those who study Islam in Indonesia. All readers will find this analysis of the rise, fall, and return of a honey-tongued preacher and entrepreneur intriguing. They will also find that its approach and carefully assembled materials provide the basis for lively debate, discussions, and gendered readings of Aa Gym’s attitude to women.

Virginia Matheson Hooker is Emeritus Professor and Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. She retired as Professor of Indonesian and Malay in January 2007. Her research has focused on Islam in Southeast Asia, literature and social change in Malaysia and Indonesia, and Indonesian political culture. Her most recent book, co-edited with Associate Professor Greg Fealy, is an award-winning sourcebook on contemporary Islam in Southeast Asia.


ASEAN’s renewed centrality

March 14, 2018

ASEAN’s renewed centrality

Author: Editorial Board, East Asia Forum

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US President Trump fired the first shots in what could become a global trade war this week with the imposition of 25 per cent tariffs on imports of steel and 10 per cent tariffs on aluminium. The action, taken under the national security provisions of US trade law (Section 232), risks provoking tit-for-tat retaliation by trading partners who, unlike Canada, Mexico and Australia, aren’t able to negotiate exemption from its impact, and corrosion of the WTO rules-based trading system.

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Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Tech Hun Sen

The White House announcement throws the international trade rulebook out the window. If the Trump administration’s imposition of these tariffs on a flimsy national security pretext does not outright flout the rules of the WTO, then it at least flouts its widely shared norms.

The response from the European Commission was to ‘do the same stupid things to respond to stupid things’ — promising retaliatory tariffs on a range of US exports into Europe, from Harley-Davidson motor bikes to bourbon whiskey. The tariff imposts also launched a process in which trading partners like Australia successfully begged exemption on various grounds both sound and spurious, all of which are nonetheless in clear violation of the understanding that trade will be conducted under internationally agreed rules, not ad hoc bilateral deals.

That’s the beginning of the rot; it may be a short-term tactical victory for countries like Australia, but it is certainly not effective strategic play.

What happens now?

US commentators reckon that a challenge of the Trump tariffs before a WTO dispute panel is a no-win game. If the European Union takes the United States to the WTO (as it has promised to do) and loses under Article XXI, which allows trade restrictions on national security grounds, the ruling will open countries to restrict imports however they choose on ‘national security grounds’. If the United States loses, it will surely reject the ruling, rendering the WTO dispute process effectively dead.

The strategic objective is to keep the WTO system alive in the face of this potentially mortal threat. The United States is playing itself out of the system. Learning to live without the United States as a rules- and norms-enforcer won’t be easy, but it is the only response that will protect the system and avoid the large-scale economic cost and dangerous political consequences of an escalating trade war.

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The strategic response to the Trump trade threat is more important to Asia than to any other major centre of international trade. Asia’s prosperity and political stability depends critically on its integration into the global economy through the rules-based trading system. The global trading system has underpinned the growth of Asian interdependence, Asia’s economic prosperity and its political security.

China, in particular, is in Trump’s cross hairs as ‘the cause of US trade deficits because of its violation of trade rules’. But China is also a crucial stakeholder in the rules-based system through its largely faithful observance of the protocols of its accession to the WTO in 2001 and the huge trade in Asia and around the world that has been built on that.

Locking in China’s entrenchment to the WTO system — and resisting the temptation to take retaliatory actions in the face of Mr Trump’s trade antics — is thus a major element in the system’s defence.

As China and the United States stare each other down with a potentially devastating trade war on the horizon, it may seem strange to turn to ASEAN, but it has a central role in the collective response to Asia’s present predicament.

ASEAN centrality has been an organising platform for Asian economic policy cooperation over the past half century, as explained in the issue of East Asia Forum Quarterly ‘ASEAN Matters‘ released today.

The retreat of the United States from leading the global order and the reversal of its pivot to Asia; the rise of China with its aggressive stance on the South China Sea and its infrastructure development ‘carrot’ in the Belt and Road Initiative; a putative ‘Quad’ configuration of Indo-Pacific power around the US, India, Japan and Australia; and the hot spot in North Korea all present challenges to ASEAN’s central role in the region.

ASEAN leadership in the negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in East Asia renews its centrality in Asia’s response to the present uncertainties.

RCEP includes not only the ten ASEAN economies but also Japan, South Korea, China, India, Australia and New Zealand. It is a coalition of countries with the economic weight to deliver a powerful message to the world. Without movement in ASEAN, RCEP is unable to go anywhere. The signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement without the United States (TPP-11) in Chile last week was a start in defence of the global trading system. But the TPP-11 is not systemically important enough to make the difference. RCEP is.

The threat to security in our region is now much more about the dangers to the multilateral trading system than anything else, despite the still unfinished business on the Korean peninsula.

The Australia–ASEAN summit next weekend is a singularly important opportunity for setting out joint interests on the economic dimensions of regional security and ASEAN’s role in achieving them. ASEAN, with Indonesia at its core, is a regional enterprise with a distinctly global outlook and objectives. A declaration from the Sydney summit that commits to elevating the momentum in RCEP will help cement a broader coalition of Asian economies, including China, Japan, South Korea and India, to holding firm on the international trading system. It will also ensure ASEAN’s continuing centrality in economic cooperation across the region.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

The latest edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘ASEAN matters’, is available to read here.

Moving from Defence to Offence on Trade Strategy

March 5, 2018

Moving from Defence to Offence on Trade Strategy

Author: Editorial Board, East Asia Forum

Image result for Trump declares a trade war  Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross with his Boss,President Donald Trump


The trade architecture in East Asia — the most dynamic region in the global economy — is up for grabs. The very system on which regional arrangements are built is under threat.

US President Donald Trump’s withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), his ‘America First’ agenda and his declaration last week of the first shots in a global trade war undermine the WTO and the global rules-based economic system that it underpins. Asia and the global community, including the United States, have relied upon and benefitted from that system for over 70 years.

Can East Asia put aside its differences and define a set of arrangements that protect its own economic security interests absent the United States? US leadership put this system in place and drove its expansion throughout the post-war years. Now the United States is generating the headwinds that threaten to unravel it. Just last week Trump announced the first salvo in what could be a trade war with a 25 per cent tariff on all steel imports and 10 per cent tariff on aluminium imports. The temptation for other countries is to retaliate with their own self-harm policies.

What’s at stake?

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The multilateral trade regime provides the cement and ballast that makes it easier to manage tricky rivalries and conflictual relationships of the kind that abound in Asia but around which large-scale economic interdependence and prosperity have been built. The ‘America First’ challenge threatens the collapse of that system and a descent into beggar-thy-neighbour protectionism and political conflict reminiscent of the lead-up to World War II.

How leaders in Asia respond to this challenge and the arrangements that the region settles on will matter for three important reasons. It will substantially affect the welfare of individual countries and the communities within them. It will affect the atmosphere for both economic and political cooperation in the region. And, given the size of the Asian economy, it will matter for whether the global rules-based economic system withstands the assault upon it.

No single country  acting on its own can lead a response to the vacuum that United States is daily creating in global governance. This US-sized hole in the Asia Pacific will have to be filled with leadership from the rest of the region as a whole.

Asian and Pacific nations have responded definitively so far. And leadership has come from one of the most unexpected places: Japan, traditionally shy to step out in front.

Once Trump declared that the United States was getting out of the TPP, Japan led the remaining 11 members towards the agreement’s conclusion without the United States. That deal is expected to be signed in Chile this week. The awkwardly named Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), otherwise known as TPP-11, would not have happened were it not for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s leadership. Australia’s also played a major role, but Japan (the Partnership’s largest economy absent the United States) was the decisive player.

As Shiro Armstrong explains in this week’s lead essay, ‘conclusion of the CPTPP does not deliver the big strategic goal of keeping the United States entrenched in Asia. Instead, it sends to Mr Trump a strong message of the region’s commitment to openness. Holding the line and pushing back against growing protectionist sentiment keeps the pressure up, with market opening and reform on which US businesses and consumers miss out’.

Most surprised about Japanese leadership are the Japanese themselves. As Armstrong says, Japan ‘has found itself in an unusual position. Japan has often relied on external pressure, usually from the United States, to advance its diplomatic goals and even to push domestic reforms’.

Asia cannot count on Japanese leadership alone, nor can it count on Japan’s continuing in this manner. In saving what’s left of the TPP, Mr Abe saw an opportunity to hedge ‘against the uncertainties that Trump has generated in regional and global trade policy, strengthening ties with other partners like Australia and India and laying the groundwork for improving relations with China’.

Australia almost single-handedly led the push back against Trump’s team  tearing up multilateralism as APEC’s central tenet at the summit in Vietnam last November.

With Australia having held the line in APEC and moved forward on the TPP, what is needed now is for the other powers in Asia to join Australia and Japan in preserving and protecting the global system.

The CPTPP, even if it expands membership to include other middle powers in East Asia, is not systemically important enough to do the job. With the United States in the agreement, the TPP would have accounted for 38 per cent of the global economy but without it the agreement accounts for only 13 per cent.

In East Asia, there is fortunately another vehicle that has the weight to do the job. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is currently being negotiated, involves the 10 ASEAN members plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. That grouping accounts for 31 per cent of global economy.

RCEP (perhaps the second-worst acronym in Asia after the CPTPP) is as important as it is difficult to realise with the required ambition. Including the major economies of Indonesia, India and China makes a tall order out of large and credible commitments to economic opening . The anxiety to get a deal done quickly could compromise the quality of the arrangement and therefore its impact. A hastily concluded RCEP deal that is not credible in its ambition would be a mistake and a huge lost opportunity, risking more harm than good. India is still playing its familiar role of spoiler by dragging the agreement down and other leaders have yet to expend political capital that they need to on RCEP.

There is no clear leader in RCEP. The Partnership is not China-led as is often wrongly claimed: ASEAN is the hub and inspiration, and the major powers, including China, are the spokes. The only leadership that China can show that Australia, Japan, India and others can accept is one where it commits to reforms and opening up its economy. That will benefit both China and the global economy.

RCEP is the best chance at an agreement that is inclusive of China and locks it into reforms. The CPTPP may be easier for countries to join than the original TPP since it has frozen ‘some of the more egregious provisions of TPP — especially the US-pushed intellectual property protections that were likely to benefit big business in the United States at the expense of consumers in the region’, as Armstrong explains. But expanding CPTPP membership to China is unlikely since it would close the door to any possibility that the United States might rejoin at some time in the future.

There is little chance of the United States rejoining the TPP under Mr Trump or even the president after him. Piecing together political leadership on trade in Washington will be difficult without making progress on an agenda for dealing with the issues that have led to the current problems: stagnant middle-class incomes, wider distribution of the gains from trade and a properly functioning social safety net. The US Congress is unlikely to agree to join an existing deal, even though the United States was the driving force of the original TPP. The United States’ joining a deal that China is party to any time soon is inconceivable.

If East Asia does not hold the line on corrosion of the global trade regime and protectionism, no one else is likely to.Crafting regional trade architecture without the constructive participation of the United States is the immediate challenge and will remain the challenge for the foreseeable future. Australia and Japan have led the initial charge, but China, India and Indonesia will need to step up.

Asian powers may not be ready for the sort of leadership that is needed, but the threat to their interests in the global system will not wait until they are.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.


Indonesia’s Rising Fundamentalism Gets Uglier in Election Year

January 18, 2018

Indonesia’s Rising Fundamentalism Gets Uglier in Election Year

by Dewi Kurniawati

Image result for Indonesia's Islamic Fundamentalism

Indonesia’s Islamic Owls

On December 12, hundreds of Islamists protested outside Facebook’s headquarters in Jakarta, accusing the social media giant of discrimination for blocking pages operated by hardline groups that allegedly inflame religious tensions.

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Habib Rizieq, spiritual leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI)

The protesters, many dressed in white and including members of the extremist Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), marched to Facebook’s offices demanding that they remove the blockage, accusing Facebook of Islamophobia in posters they carried and waved.

In December last year, a photo showing a piece of an agreement paper signed by several heads of local neighborhood Muslim units in Tangerang district purportedly listing several “Do’s and Don’ts for Non-Muslims” went viral through Facebook this week, steering yet another brouhaha through Indonesia’s netizens.

Among other things, according to the signed agreement paper, non-Muslim religious groups should be barred from having congregations at home, not allowed to invite preachers, and must bury their deceased within 24 hours, a teaching that is close to Islamic traditions.

Within hours however, the outrage over social media was “answered” by higher authorities who amended the agreement, saying it had not been “discussed, or approved” by them in its original form.

These scenes of various provocations and propaganda based on religion seem to be pouring straight through Indonesia’s political atmosphere after a tough presidential election in 2014 that delivered Joko Widodo, a Muslim moderate, to the presidency. Throughout the campaign, religious and ideological sentiments were used against him by supporters of his opponent, millionaire businessman Prabowo Subianto, a former Special Forces general and onetime son-in-law of the late strongman Suharto.

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Prabowo Subianto with Aburizal Bakrie

These same religious and ideological sentiments intensified against Basuki Tahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian universally known as “Ahok” during the gubernatorial election in February, which political experts describe as “the rise of Islamization in Indonesia.”

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Basuki Tahaja Purnama aka  Ahok

Ahok’s election campaign galvanized the country’s conservative base, with some religious groups preaching that Muslims shouldn’t vote for “non-believers.”  He was mischaracterized during a speech as having blasphemed the Quran, a charge that was widely disseminated prior to the election and played a major role in his defeat by Anais Baswedan, an ethnic Indonesian and Muslim even though he was considered arguably Jakarta’s most effective governor by far.

Months after the election, the Police arrested three leaders of an organized fake news syndicate known as Saracen that poured hundreds of thousands of bogus hacks onto the Internet, inflaming public opinion against Ahok, who was jailed after the election on the blasphemy charges. Worldwide human rights organizations have objected to Ahok’s imprisonment, calling it a political travesty.

According to research by the Wahid Institute, a moderate research center on Islam, in mid- 2017, as many as 11 million people are willing to take radical action. The data is based on survey results on radicalism and intolerance by the agency. The survey was conducted with 1,520 respondents using multi stage random sampling. As many as 0.4 percent of Indonesia’s population had committed what they called “radical” acts, while 7.7 percent said they would act radically if possible.

Image result for Jenny Zannuba Wahid,
 Jenny Zannuba Wahid, Director of the Wahid Institute


“That means 600,000 people have acted radically and 11 million people want to, including residents of Jakarta and Bali,” said Jenny Zannuba Wahid, Director of the Wahid Institute, who explained that economic disparities and hate-filled lectures are responsible for the development of radicalism in Indonesia.

Unfortunately, many political observers believe that the use of religion-based identities will continue during simultaneous regional elections this year as well as the 2019 presidential election, where Jokowi, as the President is known, will seek re-election.

This perception is fueled by the fact that Jokowi’s administration seems to be “waging war” against radicals, religious critics say. That perception has grown after he decided to disband the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) last year. HTI has been open about wanting to establish a “Khilafah” – a caliphate or Islamic state under former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. That has gained ground with the state originally turning a blind eye to their open movement.

However, in mid-2017, the government decided to disband them for conducting activities that contradict the state ideology Pancasila, which counsels five principles of moderation, as well as the principle of a unitary state of the republic of Indonesia.

The Law and Human Rights Ministry officially revoked HTI’s status as a legal entity on following the issuance of a regulation in lieu of law (Preppy) on mass organizations. It was the first group to be disbanded under the controversial regulation, which grants the government the power to disband any groups it deems to be anti-Pancasila.

The Perppy has sparked concerns over potential violations of the right to assemble as it grants the government the power to disband mass groups without due process.

The Head of the State Intelligence Agency, General Budi Gunawan, described Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia as a transnational organization that aims to replace the state of Indonesia in a written statement, an apparent reference to its similarity to the Islamic State, which sought to establish a caliphate in the Levant and was defeated by Russian, American, Syrian and Iraqi forces. It has since been disbanded and its brutal adherents have fled back toward their home countries.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has issued a radiogram after the dissolution of HTI by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, warning Indonesians to be aware of the possibility of violent activities carried out by former HTI members and their supporters. Local officials are also required to ban all activities that HTI may undertake.