India-Indonesia Relations and Indo-Pacific Security

August 17, 2018

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Foreign Policy: India-Indonesia Relations and Indo-Pacific Security

by Vinay Kaura

Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 437

Publisher: Washington, DC: East-West Center
Available From: August 14, 2018
Publication Date: August 14, 2018
Binding: Electronic

Vinay Kaura, Assistant Professor at Sardar Patel University in Rajastan, explains that “Modi and President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo agreed to elevate the India-Indonesia relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Though India and Indonesia do have long historical and cultural linkages, strategic partnership has been a recent development. The two share multiple common concerns, one of which pertains to China’s rapid rise and its intentions in the maritime theater. Since 2014, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to boost India’s ties with many Southeast Asian countries as part of its ‘Act East Policy’ which was recently manifest in his visit to Indonesia in late May just ahead of his first-ever speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

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India, no longer content to look east, wants to be an active contributor to the regional balance of power by acting east. Although it is not India’s role to dictate the nature and scope of Indo-Pacific cooperation, through discussion and experimentation, India can find areas where increased cooperation will serve mutual security interests. In the words of Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s minister for maritime affairs, “India and Indonesia relations are important to the balance of power in Asia.” Clearly, Indonesia is equally keen to ensure that Beijing is effectively prevented from moving ahead on its current antagonistic trajectory.

The Modi government’s attempt to connect India to its traditional maritime neighborhood, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, is aimed at sustaining a rules-based liberal international order by ensuring free movement of people, goods, and services through the Strait of Malacca, one of the busiest shipping routes between the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. The freedom of navigation, availability of port infrastructure, and unhindered access to markets are mandatory for this purpose. Hence, the major focus of  Modi’s visit to Indonesia was to highlight that the two countries are close maritime neighbors. Modi and President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo agreed to elevate the India-Indonesia relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Their joint statement emphasized the “importance of achieving a free, open, transparent, rules-based, peaceful, prosperous, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region,” which would uphold “sovereignty and territorial integrity, international law, in particular UNCLOS, freedom of navigation and overflight, sustainable development.”

Jokowi, meanwhile, seeks to transform Indonesia into a maritime power, and is passionate about maritime sovereignty for his country. Hence, repeated assertions about protecting freedom of navigation is unmistakably targeted at Beijing which is engaged in hotly contested territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. Jakarta claims that it is not a party to any territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea; however, Indonesia has not hesitated in clashing with China over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands. Jokowi’s dramatic gesture of holding a cabinet meeting aboard a warship off the Natuna just days after a Sino-Indonesian naval skirmish in 2016 was seen as a show of resolve to Beijing.

Not as bitterly opposed to the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as India, Indonesia is also not as supportive as China expects. After their meeting, Modi sought to link India’s ‘Act East Policy’ and ‘SAGAR’ (Security and Growth for All in the Region) with Jokowi’s ambitious ‘Maritime Fulcrum Policy’.

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In the past, India-Indonesia maritime cooperation has remained largely confined to coordinated bilateral patrols, anti-piracy patrols, and search and rescue exercises. It is thus important for them to move to a more intensive engagement, as together they control the entry point from the Bay of Bengal to the Strait of Malacca. India’s interest in joining the Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP) – a four-nation arrangement between Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand – should be seen in this context. But Indian participation is easier said than done. A meeting among technical experts on May 10 in Bali explored the issue but soon revealed that the Indian side did not have full comprehension of the operational nuances of MSP. Since no forward movement seemed possible, the Modi-Jokowi joint statement merely noted that the May 10 meeting was “to explore ways in enhancing strategic technical cooperation on maritime security.”

Indonesia is the de-facto leader of ASEAN. As the security environment in the region is increasingly exacerbated by US–China rivalry, Jakarta wants ASEAN to be at the center of the conceptualization and evolution of the Indo-Pacific region. Jokowi has been outlining the Indonesian conception of the Indo-Pacific as “Open, transparent and inclusive, promoting a habit of dialogue, promoting cooperation and friendship, and upholding international law”. Modi’s Indo-Pacific vision sounds strikingly similar. He has indicated that India is keen to preserve a free and open regional security architecture in Asia with “ASEAN centrality”, and even without American leadership.

Although New Delhi has thrown its weight behind the Quadrilateral – the grouping of India,  United States, Japan, and Australia that is widely perceived as a counterbalance to rising Chinese geoeconomic and geopolitical assertiveness – in its quest to reshape the Indo-Pacific balance of power, India continues to pursue a hedging approach by both engaging directly with China and seeking to contain Chinese behaviour. Positive momentum generated by the ‘Wuhan consensus’ may have further exacerbated India’s skepticism on the quad.

Strategically, Indonesia is equally important to the United States and China as it straddles vital Indo-Pacific chokepoints.  Jakarta has secured Chinese investment without showing any evidence of a tilt towards Beijing. Being one of the very few countries in the region that has the capability and credibility in making significant contributions towards countering Chinese assertiveness, Jakarta now reckons New Delhi as a credible strategic partner. However, the possibility of Indonesia joining the quad seems remote.

Modi signed a deal with Jokowi allowing India access to northern Sumatra’s Sabang port, enhancing the Indian navy’s ability to maintain a forward presence in the Straits of Malacca. China is not oblivious to its implications. A day ahead of Modi’s trip to Indonesia, China’s state-run Global Times asserted that Beijing would not “turn a blind eye” if New Delhi sought “military access to the strategic island of Sabang,” advising India not to “wrongfully entrap itself into a strategic competition with China and eventually burn its own fingers.”

Given the irreversible geopolitical shifts, the Indo-Pacific has emerged as one of the major hotbeds of global power politics. India’s emerging consensus with Indonesia, as reflected in the elevation of their relationship to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership, can provide a basis for a closer engagement between the two countries to further develop the Indo-Pacific concept. Delhi and Jakarta have agreed to take concrete steps to accelerate economic and security cooperation in the maritime domain. But the renewed awareness that they are close neighbors, sharing broadly common challenges regarding sustainable use of the oceans must make it imperative for them to contribute more to the maintenance of the regional security order in the Indo-Pacific. The challenge for both Modi and Jokowi will be to institutionalize the maritime cooperation so that the Indo-Pacific becomes truly free, open, and inclusive.

Mahathir indicates possibility of a Malaysia-Indonesia car

June 29, 2018

COMMENT: This is going to be the shortest comment I intend to make. Stop wasting public funds by going into another car project. We have invested and lost millions of money on Proton. But you are free, Dr. Mahathir to put your own money in your proposed joint Indonesia-Malaysia car for the ASEAN market.–Din Merican

Mahathir indicates possibility of a Malaysia-Indonesia car

by Bernama

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Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad Friday spoke of the possibility of reviving the proposed project of a Malaysia-Indonesia car for the Asean market.

He said the idea was brought up when he test drove a Proton car in Malaysia in February 2015 with visiting Indonesian President Joko Widodo sitting beside him.

“I was no longer the prime minister then,” he said.

Mahathir was the prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and became the premier for the second time on May 10, 2018.

“I drove the car at a speed of 180 km per hour on the Sepang race circuit. The President (Joko Widodo) did not complain at all (when the car was driven at that speed),” Mahathir said at the joint press conference with Jokowi, as the Indonesian President is fondly called, in conjunction with his official visit to Indonesia.

Jokowi had recalled the test drive when he spoke earlier at the press conference and said he had no cause for worry because the person behind the wheel was Mahathir.

“I was not afraid because the driver was Mahathir,” he said.

— Bernama

Indonesia: Bribery Issues Mar Polls

June 28, 2018

Indonesia: Bribery Issues Mar  Polls

by Ainur Rohmah

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With Indonesia’s regional elections underway on June 27, 152 million Indonesian voters will choose governors, regents, mayors and representatives simultaneously in 13 provinces, 115 districts and 39 cities across the country in a process that is rife with bribery and influence-peddling.

Data collected by the country’s formidable Corruption Eradication Commission show that 78 regional heads have been tried on various corruption cases over the past 15 years. Since January alone, at least seven regional heads have been arrested on various charges of bribery and abuse of power. One, for instance, was Nyono Suharli, the regent of Jombang, who received bribes related to the licensing of government offices. The bribes were to be used for Nyono to fund his 2018 campaign.

Abdon Nababan, a prominent community activist in North Sumatra, described a typical case – involving his own abortive run for power. The country’s political mafia block independent candidates, he said, to effect make “investments” in people they can control through bribery. The system itself in effect thus blocks genuine independent candidates by making the nomination process nearly insurmountable.

“The conditions set (for independent candidates) by the electoral system in Indonesia are too heavy, and only rich persons and those sustained by (political) investors have the opportunity to run for election,” Nababan said.

Nababan for the past 20 years has championed the rights of indigenous peoples over their ancestral lands through the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN). He was rewarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award in August 2017 for his dedication to protecting the rights of indigenous people.

Encouraged to seek office to combat corruption and the sway of the so-called “land mafia,” Nababan said, he decided to run as an independent for governor in North Sumatra – one of the provinces whose leaders have often been arrested for corruption – in the upcoming local elections. Although not affiliated with a political party, surveys indicated that he would be one of the strongest candidates.

Political Dowries A Bar

Regional candidates usually seek to run as independents because it is considered cheaper than running through a political party, which requires candidates to put up what is described as a “political dowry” in order to be nominated for election. In fact, the requirement to run as an independent is equally difficult, since the candidates must collect the signatures and copies of the ID cards of at least 800,000 voters.

Nababan and his volunteers collected hundreds of thousands of signatures in four months before the General Election Commission (KPU) closed the registration process. His efforts failed because he was only able to collect 560,000, falling 260,000 short.

“The distance between my appointment as a candidate with the closing of the registration was too short so we didn’t have enough time to gather support,” he said.

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Shockingly, Nababan said he had been approached by a group of people he called “bandars” or political investors who offered him the chance to run through their political party, which he didn’t name, promising him up to Rp300 billion (US$21 million) to deliver victory.

“A month after the announcement of my candidacy, around August 2017, someone contacted me to request a meeting to discuss political support,” Nababan said. He subsequently met with three unnamed individuals who offered financial support in return allowing them control of the government after the election .

“They told me that they would prepare Rp300 billion for various expenses in my campaign,” Nababan said. “I do not know who they are but I think they have access to political parties, and they have big (financial) capital,” he said.

He assumed they represented a group of influential people in plantations, mining and property, he said, all of which have long-term economic interests in North Sumatra. In order for their business activities to run smoothly, he alleged, they were looking for elected leaders who would make it easy to provide licenses and commission projects.

Nababan is not alone. Faisal Basri, an economic analyst and political activist who ran as an independent for the governorship of Jakarta in 2012, told the highly-regarded Jakarta-based news magazine Tempo ( that he had been offered financial support of up to Rp200 billion (US$14 million) in return for promising to facilitate the donor’s project in the ​​Sundae Kelapa port area in Jakarta.

But the offer was rejected. “Such a fund could trap us,” Basri told Tempo.

High Political Costs

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Donal Fariz, the coordinator of the corruption division of the Indonesian Corruption Watch (ICW), said bribery occurs throughout the entire nomination process until the election. Fariz divides the system into three levels: pre-candidacy, candidate determination, and post-election.

“All three levels are highly loaded with transactions and bribes,” Donal said. At the pre-candidacy level, the prospective candidate’s “dowry” value reaches hundreds of billions of rupiah, paid to the party in order to be nominated. The electoral system requires that candidates gain support at least 20 percent of the party’s votes in the legislature.

“At this stage the political cost becomes the highest,” Fariz said, although he said he couldn’t confirm the size of the bribes to lawmakers. “If we asked to the candidates, they would not answer. If we asked the party, they would not admit it, even they claim to be the party who spend money,” he said.

However, some candidates have complained about the huge sums they have been asked for the dowries. In January, La Nyalla Mattalitti, the chairman of the East Java Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin), claimed he had been asked for Rp40 billion (US$3 million) by Gerindra Party Chairman Prabowo Subianto, the failed 2014 presidential candidate, in return for the party’s support in the East Java gubernatorial election.

Others are Dedi Mulyadi, a candidate for the governorship of West Java, who said he had also been asked for Rp10 billion (US$740,000) by an unnamed individual in Golkar, the country’s oldest party, to smooth his candidacy. Brig. Gen. Siswandi claimed the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) turned him down as a candidate for the Ceribon seat when he refused to pay a dowry. The Hanura Party reportedly suffered internal conflicts due to the same issue. Prabowo, Gerindra, Golkar, PKS, and Hanura have all denied asking for dowries.

Fariz of the ICW said he believes many other cases are not revealed to the public. In addition to political dowries, there are also “survey fees” by particular institutions to raise candidates’ electability, he said. The second level is candidate determination, which is the major cost required for campaign attributes and props, as well as bribes to voters.

As for the post-election level, bribes are usually awarded to election organizers from the lowest level to the most strategic one, including bribes to law enforcement officials dealing with electoral disputes. The Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, Akil Mochtar, was thrown into prison by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) for accepting bribes in adjudicating disputes over regional gubernatorial elections in 2014.

Consequences of Corrupt Process

The transactional and corrupt spaces have long-term consequences, such as the many heads of regions who abuse their power for corruption. “So do not be surprised why many elected regional heads are ultimately involved in various corruption scandal,” Fariz said.

“The system has to be improved because this kind of (corrupt) system is very expensive for good and potential people,” Nababan said. It will be almost impossible for Indonesia to elect independent, viable candidates without such reform.

Ainur Rohmah ( is a Jakarta-based correspondent and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.

Twenty years of Indonesian Democracy—how many more?

May 26, 2018

Twenty years of Indonesian Democracy—how many more?

When Indonesia’s New Order regime met its end in May 1998, I was a PhD student researching Indonesian opposition movements while teaching Indonesian language and politics at a university in Sydney.

Along with other lecturers and students, I watched the live broadcast of Suharto’s resignation speech, listening to the words of one of our colleagues as she translated the President’s fateful words for Australian TV. Clustered around a television screen in a poky AV lab, everyone present felt awed by the immensity of what we were witnessing, relieved that a dangerous political impasse had been broken, and nervously hopeful about the future after so many long years of political stagnation.


The extraordinary achievements of political reform in the years that followed formed one of the great success stories of the so-called “third wave” of democratization—the worldwide surge of regime change that began in Southern Europe in the mid-1970s and then spread through Latin America, Africa and Asia.

The post-Suharto democracy has now lasted longer than did Indonesia’s earlier period of parliamentary democracy (1950–1957), and the subsequent Guided Democracy regime (1957–65). While it still has another dozen years to pass the record set by Suharto’s New Order, Indonesian democracy has proved that it has staying power.

What few would question, though, is that the quality of Indonesia’s democracy was a problem from the beginning—and that under President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) democratic quality has begun to slide dramatically.

Earlier this year, the Economist Intelligence Unit gave Indonesia its largest downgrading in its Democracy Index since scoring began in 2006. With a score of 6.39 out of a possible maximum of 10, the country is now bumping down toward the bottom of the index’s category of “flawed democracies”, on the verge—if it sinks just a little lower—of crossing into the category of “hybrid regime”. This downgrading of Indonesia’s position follows similar drops for the country in other democracy indices like the Freedom in the World survey compiled by Freedom House.

Indonesia’s trajectory is not bucking the global trend. Around the world, democracy is in retreat. Freedom House says democracy is facing “its most serious crisis in decades”, with 71 countries experiencing declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017 and only 35 registering gains, making 2017 the twelfth year in a row showing global democratic recession.

Unlike during an earlier era of military coups, today the primary source of democratic backsliding is elected politicians. Leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán undermine the rule of law, manipulate institutions for their own political advantage, and restrict the space for democratic opposition. Elected despotism is, increasingly, the order of the day. Indeed, as I argue here, the primary threat to Indonesia’s democratic system today comes not from actors outside the arena of formal politics, like the military or Islamic extremists, but the politicians that Indonesians themselves have chosen.

Eroding democracy, in democracy’s name

Over recent years, successive central governments have introduced restrictions on democratic rights and freedoms in Indonesia. This process began during the second term of the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono Presidency, which began in 2009, but has accelerated significantly since the election of Jokowi in 2014.

The immediate backdrop to some of the most regressive moves has been the contest between Jokowi and his Islamist and other detractors, especially in the wake of the mobilisations against the Chinese Christian Governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok).

In July 2017, Jokowi issued a new regulation, subsequently approved by the national legislature, that granted the authorities sweeping powers to outlaw social organizations that they deemed a threat to the national ideology of Pancasila. The new law actually built on an earlier, somewhat less harmful version issued during the Yudhoyono presidency. The government quickly took advantage of the law to outlaw Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, a large Islamist organization that, while openly rejecting pluralism and democracy, has also pursued its goals non-violently.

At the same time, several critics of President Jokowi have been arrested on charges of makar, or rebellion (though it appears the authorities may not be proceeding with these cases). The government has coercively intervened in the internal affairs of Indonesia’s political parties so as to attain a majority in parliament. A prominent media mogul supportive of anti-Jokowi political causes was slapped with what appeared to many to be politically-motivated criminal investigations. Foreign NGOs and funding agencies face an increasingly restrictive operating climate.

Meanwhile, the military has been brought back into governance, at least at the lowest levels of the state, with the government re-instituting the Suharto-era of babinsa—junior officers assigned to villages—and promoting military involvement in non-security related functions as fertilizer distribution.

A related source of decline in the quality of Indonesia’s democracy, meanwhile, is intolerant attitudes toward religious and other social minorities, alongside narrowing public space for critical discussion of religious topics, and the growing ascendancy of religious conservatism in social and political life.

A few years ago, religious minorities such as Shia Muslims and members of the Ahmadiyah sect were the most frequent target of violent attack and restrictions; recently, the country has been gripped by an anti-LGBT panic. It is possible that Indonesia will soon criminalize homosexuality. At a time when many third-wave democracies, notably those in Latin America, are becoming more respectful of the rights of homosexuals and other sexual minorities, Indonesia is moving in the opposite direction.

While none of these government measures has in itself been a knockout blow against freedom of expression and association, taken together they constitute a significant erosion of democratic space. As the global democracy indices recognize, it already makes no sense to speak of Indonesia as being a full, or liberal, democracy. These developments point toward, at best, Indonesia’s becoming an increasingly illiberal democracy, where electoral contestation continues as a foundation of the polity, but coexists with significant restrictions on political and religious freedoms, and where the rights of at least some minority groups are not protected.

Defying the odds

But the picture is not unremittingly gloomy. Indonesia has a long way to go before it sinks to the level of Russia or even Turkey, and it is worth pausing to contextualize the recent trends in the context of the achievements of Indonesian democracy over the last 20 years.

Many of these gains remain firmly established. Democratic electoral competition has become an essential part of Indonesia’s political architecture. Apart from sporadic calls to do away with direct elections of regional heads (pilkada), no mainstream political force calls openly for electoral mechanisms to be replaced with a rival organizing principle. Even when the authoritarian populist Prabowo Subianto ran for the presidency in 2014, he had to disguise his anti-democratic impulses with talk of returning to Indonesia’s original 1945 Constitution—i.e. the version of the constitution that the Suharto regime had relied upon, but which seems attractive to many Indonesians because it resonates with Indonesia’s nationalist history.

Public opinion surveys demonstrate continuing strong support both for democracy as an ideal, and for the democratic system actually practiced in Indonesia. Moreover, Indonesia still has a relatively robust civil society and independent media, at least in the major cities. Political debate on most topics remains lively. For example, it is generally easy for critics of President Jokowi to express their views loudly and directly—not something that can be done in most of Indonesia’s ASEAN neighbors. Indeed, some of the recent attempts to curtail free speech has been prompted by concerns about the ease with which so-called “fake news”, conspiracy theories and wild rumors circulate through social media.

Moreover, it is worth emphasizing that many of the very people who pose the greatest threat to Indonesian democracy—its elites—have in fact bought into the new system. Elites throughout the country have benefited from the new opportunities for social mobility and material accumulation they have been able to secure through elections and decentralization.

A recent survey of members of provincial parliaments, conducted by Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI) in cooperation with the Australian National University, shows that while Indonesia’s regional political elites are certainly illiberal on many issues, they are strongly supportive of electoral democracy as a system of government. Indeed, on many questions their views are markedly more democratic than the general population.

For example, when asked to judge on a 10-point scale whether democracy was a suitable system of government for Indonesia, the average score provided by these parliamentarians was 8.14—not far from the maximum score of 10 for “absolutely suitable”, and a full point higher than the 7.14 given by respondents in LSI’s most recent general population survey in which the same question was asked. Likewise, these legislators were considerably less likely to support military rule or rule by a strong leader than were the population at large.

These responses are significant, because democracy is not simply a system favoring protection of civil liberties and ensuring accountability of officials to the public (areas where Indonesia has, to spin it positively, a mixed record). It is also a means of ensuring regular and open competition between rival political elites.

Viewed in this light—as a means of regulating elite circulation—Indonesian democracy looks more robust. Though elite buy-in does not preclude continuing erosion of civil liberties at the center, or guarantee protection of unpopular minorities, it does pose a considerable obstacle to the return of a command-system of centralized authority such as that which ruled Indonesia under the New Order.

A consolidated low-quality democracy?

It is in no small part due to this elite support for the status quo—in part begrudging and contingent, but nevertheless real—that Indonesian democracy has proven resilient to potential spoilers. This resilience is in itself an important achievement: there is a body of scholarly literature that suggests that once a country has experienced democratic rule for a lengthy period—one scholar, Milan Svolik, puts the figure at 17–20 years—it is very unlikely to regress toward outright authoritarianism.

Moreover, Indonesia’s present backsliding—as with the wider global trend—can arguably be viewed in part as a retreat that comes after a democratic high water mark is reached. If the last century is any guide, democratic progress and regression come in worldwide waves: the third wave of democratization which began in the 1970s was preceded by two earlier waves that came in the wake of World War I and World War II. In both periods, many of the newly democratic regimes that were established in the wake of the breakup of multinational and colonial empires did not last long. But in each case, these retreats were superseded by new waves of democratization.

Obviously, we need to be cautious when thinking about future trends. We are in the midst of a new world-historic transition and we do not know whether we are merely at the start of the worldwide retreat of democracy, or already near the turning of the authoritarian tide.

Most worryingly, some of the ingredients giving rise to democratic weakening in the current period are new, and do not yet show signs of abating. Strikingly, for the first time in decades, there are signs of weakness in advanced democracies—both in terms of declining popular support for democracy as measured in some opinion polls, and in the election of would-be autocrats such as Donald Trump. Wealth inequality in many countries is reaching levels not seen since the dawn of the age of mass democracy a century ago, with the result that the growing political dominance of oligarchs—a major focus of academic analysis in Indonesia—is a worldwide trend. Meanwhile, new communication technologies of the internet and social media are opening up participation in political debate, but also driving a polarization that undermines a shared public sphere and legitimizes opponents.

The forces conspiring to undermine democracy globally, the resulting unsupportive international climate for Indonesia’s democratic revival, plus the growing signs of democratic decline in the country itself, should make us cautious about celebrating the twentieth anniversary of reformasi with a tone of triumph.


Nevertheless, it is worth viewing contemporary predicaments from the perspective of those of us who watched Suharto resign 20 years ago. Back then, as we watched Suharto read out his speech, my friends and I mixed astonishment, excitement and relief with genuine anxiety about what was in store for Indonesia. Many expert commentators were very skeptical of the notion that Indonesia could become a successful democracy. Some urged caution, pointing to the acrimony that had dogged Indonesia’s earlier democratic experiment in the 1950s, and highlighting the under-development of civilian politics and the continuing influence of the armed forces.

Indonesian democracy exceeded most expectations back then. It might just do so again.

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.