Indonesia’s Rising Fundamentalism Gets Uglier in Election Year

January 18, 2018

Indonesia’s Rising Fundamentalism Gets Uglier in Election Year

by Dewi Kurniawati

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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.

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 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.

Ownership and Control in 21st century Malaysia

January 17, 2018

Ownership and Control in 21st century Malaysia

by Charles Brophy

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In a series of public lectures beginning in 2016, Professor Terence Gomez began to distil the findings of his latest research into corporate governance in Malaysia. The first finding was a marked reduction in the holding of private directorships by members of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. The second was a major growth in the influence and power of Government Linked Companies (GLCs; individual state-owned enterprises) and Government Linked Investment Companies (GLICs; state-owned investment vehicles) over the Malaysian economy.

What such findings did was to challenge typical understandings of “money politics”, and the relationship between politics and business, in Malaysia. The data pointed not towards the direct influence of the political class over private enterprise, but rather a growing centralisation of economic and political power in the Office of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance (an office which is today held concurrently), and the influence of the state over the economy through the GLCs and seven large GLICs. The resulting book, Minister of Finance Incorporated: Ownership and Control of Corporate Malaysia, written alongside Gomez’s team of research assistants, has brought into the spotlight not only problems of political centralisation and GLC/GLIC governance reform, but also the effect of the very structure of the Malaysian economy on the country’s continuing prospects for development. (Disclosure: the author works for Gerakbudaya, the Malaysia/Singapore publisher of Prof Gomez’s book, but writes here in a personal capacity.)

Malaysia’s state developmentalism

Many of the GLICs have their origins in the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, and during this time came to play an important role in the project of state developmentalism. Gomez, however, marks the Asian Financial Crisis—and the political and economic crisis it produced—as a crucial moment in the emergence of GLCs and GLICs. With highly indebted, “too-big-to-fail” companies in the private sector bankrupted by the crisis, GLICs were mobilised by the government to bail them out. After Anwar Ibrahim’s failed challenge to the leadership of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, GLICs were mobilised to appropriate the businesses of Anwar’s cronies.

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The growth of GLICs was then a means to resolve the contradictions and limitations of the political and economic development that arose under Mahathir. This was to continue during the fallout of the conflict between Mahathir and Daim Zainuddin—which saw the assets of Daim’s allies and proxies transferred to GLICs—and a program of bank consolidation which, in the name of rationalisation, drastically increased the role of government in the banking sector.

The growing importance of the GLICs to economic development seen in the attention paid to them by Malaysia’s next two prime ministers. Under Abdullah Badawi the GLC Transformation Programme was launched. It sought to have GLCs operate on a more commercial basis, divesting from non-core investments, offering higher dividend returns, cooperating more with the private sector, and internationalising their operations. Just as significantly, through the emphasis on the vendor system, they were to help link up Malaysia’s large SME sector with local and foreign supply chains.

When Najib came to power with his transformation agenda, he noted the way in which rent seeking and patronage was harming the economy. Through the New Economic Model he called for the reduction in the role of the state in business, an overhaul of the system of race-based affirmative action, and the reform and privatisation of GLCs. Nevertheless, pushback from prominent politicians such as Mahathir and right-wing Malay NGOs led to a reversal of this policy. By 2013, Najib had unveiled the Bumiputera Economic Empowerment (BEE) policy which, against the prescriptions of the New Economic Model, mobilised GLCs to promote “market friendly affirmative action” through the Bumiputera Vendor Development Programme. From 2009 onwards, Najib would increasingly tap GLCs to generate growth and infrastructure development, as well as to draw investments from foreign State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), particularly from China, which saw the state come to play an increasingly dominant role in the economy.

This about turn was more than anything rooted in the political legacy of the New Economic Policy, with its twin-pronged focus on state intervention to correct race-based distributional inequalities and to promote continuous economic development.

Ownership and control

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When James Puthucheary, from his cell in Changi Prison, embarked on his investigation into the structure and organisation of the Malayan economy, it was to the twin problems of ownership and control that he turned. Defined, he argued, by an uneven and unequal model of colonial development, the central economic problem of Malaya was not the role played by the Chinese middleman but the domination of foreign clearing houses and foreign capital over key areas of economic life. This structure was, he said, central to understanding the exploitation of the peasant as well as the limitations on the future development of the Malayan economy. To overcome this, Puthucheary would argue for a program of state intervention in the economy to mobilise the state to overcome existing inequalities and unevenness and to transform the dominant model of ownership and control.

Post-1969, intervention occurred under the New Economic Policy, but without reaching a fundamental resolution to the uneven patterns of ownership and control. While foreign ownership of the economy was reduced, this was largely undertaken without radically affecting major foreign interests in the economy. Malaysia’s development was to continue to depend heavily on foreign direct investment rather than domestic capital, ensuring that, unlike South Korea and Taiwan, Malaysia wasn’t to nurture domestic giants such as Samsung or Foxconn. Rather, the state, in alliance with wealthy tycoons, was to play an increasing role in the economy, maintaining a centralisation and inequality of assets and wealth, both through systems of selective privatisation and later through the GLCs.

More recently, one of the findings of Gomez’s research is the resurgence of foreign ownership in the Malaysian economy, with companies such as Digi, Nestlé, and British American Tobacco leading the list of Malaysian companies by market capitalisation, highlighting the continuing dependence and openness of the Malaysian economy. Meanwhile, in the realm of rural development, the focus was not on major land redistribution—which kickstarted economic miracles in South Korea and Taiwan—but more selective land distribution through FELDA and rural development schemes.

Central to Puthucheary’s analysis of ownership and control was the problem of national development, both in terms of the development of a nation out of the various races of Malaya and the mobilisation of the economy for the development and prosperity of such a nation. In similar terms, central to the critique of Gomez and others of the NEP has been its inability to promote such a meaningful and broad-based national development. Gomez’s research into relations between politics and business has been highly critical of the role of selective privatisation and bumiputera equity quotas in the promotion of money politics at the expense of meaningful economic development.

In a 2005 report, Gomez, alongside Lim Teck Ghee, was also to note how the focus on bumiputera equity had ignored the problem of the broad-based development of the Malay community and the growth of the country’s SMEs. He noted how within the SME sphere successful multi-ethnic business relations were being fostered outside of the scope of the NEP. In his latest book, Gomez has highlighted the role played by the concentration of economic control in the Ministry of Finance in disincentivising industrial growth and investment for fear of expropriation of business by the state—evidenced, he argues, by Malaysia’s premature deindustrialisation, and the growing dominance of the service sector within the Malaysian economy.

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Here the problem of the middle-income trap emerges as central to the contemporary pattern of ownership and control as outlined by Gomez—and thus the problem of the inner limits of modes of development, as proposed by Puthucheary, becomes restated. Today, can a political economy model defined by high levels of centralisation, and dominated by the interests of GLICs, provide the kind of broad-based economic development that can move Malaysia, and bangsa Malaysia, towards high-income status? Or is a new model of ownership and control required?

The new developmentalism in Southeast Asia

In an earlier co-edited volume, Government-Linked Companies and Sustainable, Equitable Development, Gomez and other scholars highlighted the growing importance of GLCs and SOEs in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis in challenging liberal capitalist understandings of economic development. Taking a broader view, Joshua Kurtlantzick has highlighted the contemporary resurgence of state capitalism within global political economy. Fundamental to this has been the growing importance of SOEs, from Petrobras in Brazil to Gazprom in Russia or Deutsche Bahn in Germany.

This tendency is becoming increasingly evident in Southeast Asia’s contemporary political economy.

In Indonesia, SOEs have formed the centrepiece of Joko Widodo’s developmental agenda, being mobilised to fill the gaps in the development of major infrastructure projects, where the private sector has been reluctant to invest in high-risk or capital intensive projects, while busying itself with rent-seeking behaviour. More recently, Danang Widoyoko has read the fall of former Jakarta governor Ahok as a struggle between Ahok’s SOE-centric development agenda—evident in the major land clearance projects in Jakarta—and politically-connected private interests who came to resent the increased role of SOEs in key economic sectors. The struggle in Jakarta was thus, on Widoyoko’s reading, a struggle between two factions of capital: state, and crony.

In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte has begun to pursue a similarly ambitious development agenda, headlined by massive infrastructure plans, under his “Build, Build, Build” program. Similar to the case of Indonesia, in the face of private sector inertia in infrastructure development the state has moved in to directly finance and organise such infrastructure projects both through the mobilisation of SOEs as well as through the promotion of public-private partnerships. The emphasis in the Philippines, however, is on the public sector’s leading projects through “Hybrid PPPs”, with projects then subsequently bid out to the private sector. Such a program relies heavily on Chinese official development assistance, with Duterte keen to see the Philippines integrated into China’s Belt and Road initiative.

In Thailand, control and reform of SOEs has been a point of struggle between the military and the followers of Thaksin Shinawatra. SOE reform has emerged as an important plank of junta policy, led by an attempt to form a strategic holding company capable of managing SOEs, similar to Singapore’s Temasek or Malaysia’s Khazanah. More recently, in response to a slowdown in the Thai economy, the government has ramped up spending through SOEs, in particular through a new series of infrastructure projects with the aim of boosting growth.

Yet this trend does not represent the re-emergence of a postcolonial developmental state, of the kind Puthucheary and his contemporaries examined. Instead, a new model is emerging, one which tends to blur the difference between the state and market, led by the growing importance of substantially commercialised GLCs, GLICs and SOEs.


If in the 1980s the emergence of “state corporatism”—with concepts such as Malaysia Incorporated—saw close cooperation between the corporate sector and the state, the growing importance of GLCs and GLICs has increasingly promoted parts of the state which do themselves function as corporate entities.  Such arrangements allow the state to assume the organisational effectiveness of the market-driven corporate organisation, in combination with the executive authority of the state and offering governments the ability to both financialise assets and render debts “off the books”.

Such strategies are not only economically useful, but also relevant in electoral terms in Southeast Asia. In the context of Indonesia, Eve Warburton has talked of the emergence of a new developmentalism, which places a developmental nationalism at the heart of the political arena—not dissimilar to the effect of Dutertenomics in the Philippines. In the Malaysian context Bridget Welsh has talked of a commercialisation of electoral politics, highlighting the importance of financial transactions emanating from the state and big business in the accrual of electoral support.

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In both of these forms, GLCs and GLICs have emerged as central to electoral politics. In the case of Malaysia they have formed the direct vehicles through which the government can raise (or launder) campaign finances, and provide electoral groups with patronage resources during election periods. More generally, they have become vehicles to fill the gap created by the demise of the classic developmental state, exemplified by the establishment of GLC foundations from Yayasan 1MDB, to Yayasan Rakyat 1Malaysia and Yayasan Hasanah, and through the practice of corporate social responsibility. In the same way, GLCs are increasingly used as vehicles for policies of affirmative action or “sustainable” and “inclusive” development.

Alternative visions

This process does not continue uncontested. In Malaysia, a debate is emerging regarding the role played by GLCs and GLICs, and around the role of the state in the corporate sector. The liberal Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) has called for government divestment from GLCs, particularly highlighting the tendencies for GLCs to crowd out private sector investment (to which one prominent GLIC responded at length). The G25, a group of Malay thought leaders, has called in a new report for a review of the economic efficacy and impact of GLCs and GLICs, urging the privatisation of non-strategic GLCs and the regulation of existing GLCs to turn them into a catalyst of private sector growth.

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Political contestation has also emerged within UMNO over the management of GLICs. Members of Najib’s inner circle and UMNO Youth executive council member Rahman Hussin have accused Khazanah Nasional of underperformance resulting in low dividend returns and a lack of reinvestment into the Malaysian economy. This comes at a time when Khazanah prepares for a change of top management in 2019 amid calls for a new strategic direction.

The opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan used its 2018 Alternative Budget to note the contemporary problem of premature deindustrialisation, and argued for an industrialisation policy driven by SMEs. A key component of this is the privatisation of GLCs, to produce a more level playing field for private enterprise. To this end, Pakatan Harapan proposes to promote a better environment for FDI as well as incentivising domestic direct investments through tax cuts. Yet whether or not this will remain possible, and whether or not it would lapse into FDI-driven privatisation and liberalisation, remains an important question.


For his part, Gomez has noted the ability of GLCs to perform well and contribute towards economic growth. Yet he remains a critic of their centralised political control, and of their use as mechanisms for race-based affirmative action by a predatory state. Such a dichotomy is also applicable to many developing states: while SOEs can help resolve some of the contradictions of economic liberalisation and privatisation, and can act as engines for growth, their ability to act as engines of economic transformation—raising states up the economic value chain—remains more doubtful, as does their ability to produce broad-based and inclusive economic development.

Today this realisation is itself at the centre of ongoing processes of reform within the developmental state. Yet such projects of reform have been undertaken within the context of self-imposed limits, guaranteeing such reforms remain largely conservative: the resurgence of the developmental state in its contemporary form does not imply a substantial redistribution of economic power, let alone its democratisation.

The political power of labour has continuously been suppressed through a curtailment of labour organisation. Welfare policy has been restricted to hardcore poverty alleviation largely through micro-credit schemes and cash transfers, as against more robust responses to marketplace disadvantage. In the area of investment, the emphasis upon fiscal restraint and debt management has meant not only a lack of industrial investment programs, but also a lack of meaningful investment in education and skills, particularly through higher education reform. Similarly, while the rationalisation of the state apparatus has been a central theme for many governments, a more meaningful redistribution of public funds towards development and away from traditional power centres, such as the security sector or bureaucracy, has been ignored. Most importantly, the question of inequality has been constrained to the arena of populist politics, leaving the economic and political problems of unequal distributions of wealth, income, and opportunity unresolved. In short, the “revolution from above” has been particularly wary of any “revolution from below”.

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This program of limited reformism has reproduced a limited model of development, one which a growing source of discontent. On the one hand a politician such as Rodrigo Duterte has been able to rise to power on an impatience with the outcomes of state-led reform, while on the other hand there has emerged a growing politicisation of current models of development in the form of growing labour activism, popular protests (such as those in Malaysia against GST and the TPP), as well the growth of political movements that place at the centre of their politics problems of labour, welfare, investment, state reform, and inequality.

What is needed today is a critique of contemporary processes of reform capable of exposing their limitations and contradictions, and which therefore lays the groundwork for a politics of development that brings into question contemporary patterns of ownership and control, and their effect on development. Terence Gomez’s critique of government–business ties in Malaysia’s current model of development, and their relationship to the rise of GLCs and GLICs, marks a particularly important step in this direction.



Contemporary Indonesian Art: Artists, Art Spaces, and Collectors Yvonne Spielmann (NUS Press, Singapore, 2017)

January 14, 2018

Image result for Indonesian artist Arahmaiani Feisal at the Art Stage Singapore “Indonesia Pavilion” in 2013. (Photo: Tyler Rollins Fine Art)

Book Review:

Contemporary Indonesian Art: Artists, Art Spaces, and Collectors Yvonne Spielmann (NUS Press, Singapore, 2017)

Reviewed by Virginia Hooker

In November 2017, The Australian newspaper’s Review featured “the launch of Indonesia’s first large-scale contemporary art museum”, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara.

Image result for Haryanto Adikoesoemo.MACAN’s Haryanto Adikoesoemo.


Known by its acronym, the Museum MACAN, it is hailed as the first gallery of its kind and is privately funded by Indonesian philanthropist Haryanto Adikoesoemo. The director appointed to lead this venture is Australian Aaron Seeto, who comes with experience as curatorial manager of Brisbane’s highly successful 2015 Asia-Pacific Triennial.

Seeto explained that Mr Adikoesoemo “understands this is a museum for all of Indonesia: that is why education is a big part of it…. We know that in a place like Indonesia that is multi-ethnic and multi-racial, art and culture help people to better understand their own societies and their histories.” The Museum MACAN project underlines the importance of Indonesia’s contemporary art to all Indonesians—and for others seeking to better understand Indonesia.

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Bung Karno Amidst The Revolutionary War (1966) by Dullah (Indonesia)–MACAN Museum

By coincidence a new book on Indonesian contemporary art, also acknowledging its importance to better understanding present day Indonesia, came out earlier in 2017. Dr Yvonne Spielmann’s Contemporary Indonesian Art: Artists, Art Spaces, and Collectors appeared first in German in 2015. With the support of the Nanyang Technical University Centre for Contemporary Art, Goethe-Institut Singapore, and Indonesian art collector Deddy Kusuma, it has been translated into English.[1] Dr Spielmann specialises in new media and intercultural communication and was Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. This put her close to the commercial centres of the regional art market represented by branches of international auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s in Singapore and Hong Kong. Her book begins with their contribution to the internationalisation of contemporary Indonesian art.

This review will describe Dr Spielmann’s presentation of ‘contemporary Indonesian art’ and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. It also takes her topic a little further by looking more closely at why Indonesian contemporary art is relevant to our understanding of Indonesian culture, society, and history.

Image result for Putu Satiwijaya’s paintings featuring the face of Soeharto (image via Indonesian National Gallery)

From the 1990s, Dr Spielmann writes, dealers, curators and collectors increasingly acquired works by Indonesian artists. By the mid-2000s, the international art market reflected this interest and in 2007 and 2009, paintings by two Indonesian artists Putu Sutawijaya and I Nyoman Masriadi sold for the record-breaking prices of US$90,000 and more than one million US dollars respectively. After a brief discussion of the two artists, Dr Spielmann takes her readers into the narrative with only a table of contents to guide them.

Dr Spielmann divides her book into three substantial chapters: “Contemporary Indonesian Art in the Southeast Asian Context”; “Positions in Modern and Contemporary Art”; and “Aesthetics of Reflection and Transformation”. Each chapter is self-contained and can be read independently of the others. Selective readers can use the index to go straight to the material that interests them but a reader who engages with the book as a whole will be irritated by the repetition of information already given in the previous chapters.

The first chapter, “Contemporary Art in the Southeast Asia Context”, moves from the investment value of works by well-known contemporary Indonesian artists to a section on what “contemporary Indonesian art” means. Dr Spielmann indicates the complexity of locating contemporary Indonesian art in its own context as well as the wider regional and global contexts. She supports the views of respected Indonesian artist and art critic/historian, Jim Supangkat, who argues for a definition that recognises diversity, experimental developments, and change as important characteristics of contemporary art.

In the sub-section, “Indonesian Circumstances”, Dr Spielmann explains the origins and orientations of Indonesia’s two state-sponsored tertiary art programs in Bandung and Yogyakarta. She emphasises that although a National Museum and, since 1998, a National Gallery exist as buildings, minimal state funding reaches them. As a result, it is difficult to provide appropriate storage for collections (obviously essential in a tropical climate) and conservation of artworks, let alone outreach or education activities. State-funded galleries also cannot afford to purchase many of Indonesian works auctioned on the international market. This leads to one of the book’s best argued points: that contemporary Indonesian art has been and continues to be nurtured by private collectors and galleries who identify and promote emerging artists, curate and show their works, and publish catalogues that position their works for national and international audiences. It is this private sector that attempts to bridge “the gap between private sponsorship and public neglect.” (p.27).

Chapter One also includes an overview of women artists charting their rise and the challenges they have faced. Several of them appear again in the following two chapters. There is a substantial section, “The Southeast Asia Context”, presenting a wider survey of contemporary art in the Asia-Pacific region. Here Dr Spielmann mentions the major biennials, triennials and art fairs that show contemporary works. These include the pioneering Fukuoka (Japan) Asian Art Triennale started in 1992 and Queensland Art Gallery’s Asia-Pacific Triennial first held in 1993. Dr Spielmann notes that the wider Southeast Asian region, represented by the member states of ASEAN, has shared experiences that are reflected in its contemporary art. She writes, “Much art in the region is critical of societal, economic, and political conditions; many artists put themselves on the line even in times of rigorous censorship and dictatorship. … [I]njustice, repression, inequality, and corruption became topics of discussion, for which purpose regionally and locally engaged artists privileged performance, installation, and video—not primarily as a reaction to the current genres on the commercial art market, but rather as an expression of direct connection with the public.” (pp.27-8). Dr Spielmann provides overviews of the history, styles, leading artists, major art events and galleries that characterise the art of each of the ASEAN member states. Although she lived in Singapore at the time of writing her German version of the book, she pulls no punches about the restrictions facing artists who work there. While acknowledging Singapore’s status as a role-model for arts infrastructure, she points out that it is not a democracy, criminalises criticism of the government, and “imposes restrictions on privacy and expressions of sexuality, nudity and homosexuality and censors artistic performances in the public space.” (p.38).[2]

Image result for Indonesian artist Arahmaiani Feisal at the Art Stage Singapore “Indonesia Pavilion” in 2013. (Photo: Tyler Rollins Fine Art)

There are weaknesses in this section on the regional context. Brunei Darussalam is not included and the information on Malaysia does not mention the many Malaysian artists whose art is inspired by Islam and expressed in a range of media including digital. There is also no mention of the very impressive Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia (opened 1998). The paintings of Malaysia’s highly respected and very gifted artist, the late Latiff Mohidin, are misunderstood and dismissed as “far removed from the country’s social and political problems.” (p.37).

Chapter One concludes with the section “Tradition and Identity in Contemporary Indonesian Art” and an appreciation of the pivotal position contemporary Indonesian artists play in the Southeast Asian region. Dr Spielmann quotes from Indonesian art scholar and curator, Rifky Effendy, who describes Indonesia’s emerging artists in the catalogue for Art Stage Singapore. 24–27 Jan 2013 as follows: “[they]… are moving towards conceptual painting, objects, and installations, photography and new media—with themes that focus on issues of identity, environment, religiosity and sociocultural issues, especially how artists respond to globalisation and the complexity of daily sociocultural life.” (p.43).

This quotation from Rifky summarises well the perspective and interests of Indonesia’s next generation of artists.

The middle chapter of the book provides a more detailed history of the pioneers of Indonesian modernism and the establishment and influence of Indonesia’s leading tertiary-level art academies in Bandung and Yogyakarta. To do this in just 20 pages means that Dr Spielmann uses broad-brush generalisations that can be misleading and are occasionally inaccurate. The language is often dense and hard to follow. Describing 1990s debates about the future of Indonesian art, for example, she writes:

A substantial potential for resistance to the “danger” of cooptation in the global postmodern discourse on contemporary art, which is exposed to the reproach of being a new universalism, can be explained, on the one hand, by the delayed beginning of the debate on Modernism and contemporary art in Asia and Indonesia. On the other hand, it aims at maintaining a difference, because the reference to an autonomous Indonesian Modernism, which must be critically appropriated, is still powerfully active and multi-layered. (p.55)

It is with relief that many readers will move from the first section of Chapter Two to its later sections where Dr Spielmann presents  beautifully illustrated overviews of Indonesia’s leading modernist artists and describes several stunning private collections. She also continues the descriptions of private galleries already mentioned in her first chapter and underlines their role in the development of contemporary art. She concludes Chapter Two with examples of the wide variety of “art spaces”, art fairs, informal venues, and artists’ collectives that emerge and provide places for “unknown” artists to create and often also distribute their works. Dr Spielmann emphasises the twin aspects of Indonesian art distribution: the privately sponsored, project-oriented independent initiatives and the “increased professionalization through commercial galleries, auction houses, and art fairs in Asia.”

In her third and final chapter, Dr Spielmann seems more comfortable presenting the works of artists she has interviewed and met personally. The chapter begins with another summary of what she terms the “de-Westernisation of aesthetics and discourse” in Indonesian art, material that has already appeared in the previous chapters. It continues with vignette presentations of thirteen artists whose works appear in international collections and exhibitions as well as in Indonesia. The well-placed colour plates allow readers to engage directly with the works and perhaps see in them elements that Dr Spielmann does not mention. Readers may not agree with all of her views, but they will feel they have been offered a diverse and generous selection of major works by Indonesia’s contemporary artists.

The cover image for Dr Spielmann’s book is a Pythonesque, eclectic, highly-detailed, pop-art version of a giant skateboard crammed with a bizarre mix of objects. Propelled by wheels and paddles, the skateboard’s cargo includes (among many other items) pieces of machinery and plumbing ducts, toys, logos, political symbols, a mosque loudspeaker, chainsaws, weapons and a selection of explosive devices. The “vehicle” may be under the control of a multipurpose robot seated at the rear. Entitled Makan Besar (The Big Meal) it is the work of graphic design and pop art duo the Indieguerillas (Mike Bawono and Santi Ariestyowanti), completed in 2014. As Dr Spielmann notes, they use a style powerfully charged with references. Makan Besar could also serve as a visual image for Dr Spielmann’s book, which like “The Big Meal” tries to balance too much on a limited base and overwhelms the message with an overabundance of detail. Let me briefly explain.

In just 178 pages (including bibliography and index), Dr Spielmann’s Contemporary Indonesian Art: Artists, Art Spaces, and Collectors seeks to present the history of Indonesia’s modern and contemporary art from the end of the colonial period to 2014. This is almost impossible and has, I suggest, been attempted at the expense of the subject. The “classic” account of the origins and development of contemporary art in Indonesia is Astri Wright’s Soul, Spirit, and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters (OUP, 1994). Wright’s narrative concludes two decades before 2014, when Dr Spielmann’s book ends, yet Wright’s book is more than double the size. It is based on research undertaken for a Cornell University dissertation, and Wright immersed herself in Indonesia’s art world between 1987 and 1989 to examine the works of over 200 painters. Dr Spielmann was not able to spend such an extended period of intensive contact with her subjects. She relies on secondary sources and personal interviews with only some of those mentioned in her work. She also does not come to her topic as well prepared as Astri Wright, who graduated from Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program. Nevertheless, a selective comparison of their works helps identify the strengths and weaknesses of Dr Spielmann’s book.

Firstly, as already mentioned, the book lacks an introduction that connects the author with her readers, explains her purpose and what inspired her to write it. Crucially, there is no explanation about the readership she is targeting nor an outline of the structure of the book to guide readers through its sections. Secondly, Astri Wright’s English style is direct, uncluttered and succinct, communicating easily with readers. Unfortunately the opposite is the case with Dr Spielmann’s style, or at least the style in which the English version of her book appears. Perhaps the original German communicates her meaning with greater clarity, but there are too many sentences in the English version that require several readings to extract their meaning. Thirdly, Wright anchors her approach in the metaphor of “the mountain” and that trope is sustained throughout the work and examined from different perspectives and through the diverse ways artists understand and interpret it. Dr Spielmann’s subtitle, “artists, art spaces, and collectors” is an accurate description of her book’s foci. She approaches Indonesia’s contemporary art through its physical manifestations: the artefacts/art works and their creators; the galleries that exhibit them; the commercial networks that buy and sell them; the collections that preserve them; and the teaching institutions that prepare the new generations of artists; and the informal networks that support “alternative” artists. This approach identifies and emphasises the “Indonesian gap” caused by the failure of the state to provide adequate infrastructure to support emerging artists and to exhibit iconic contemporary works. As Dr Spielmann points out, the infrastructure gap is filled by private collectors, galleries, and art spaces. The most recent example of this, opening too late to be included in the book, is the Museum MACAN, funded by an Indonesian philanthropist.

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Dr Spielmann’s focus on the material and the physical manifestations of contemporary art neglects the deep spirituality that inspires many of Indonesia’s contemporary artists, and is evident throughout Wright’s study. This perhaps explains at least one serious omission in Dr Spielmann’s book—art that is inspired by Islam.[3] This is a surprising omission because the leading Islam-inspired artists, Ahmad Sadali (1924–1987) and A.D. Pirous (1933–), were both Professors in the Fine Arts Department, Institute of Technology Bandung, an art academy mentioned several times in Spielmann’s book. Sadali is regarded as the father of abstract art in Indonesia and his works with those of Pirous are internationally known and fetch high prices at auctions. Edwin Rahardjo of Edwin’s Gallery (referred to several times in Dr Spielmann’s book) has an extensive collection of Sadali’s works. In 1997, Edwin organised a retrospective of Sadali’s paintings, for which Jim Supangkat wrote an excellent catalogue essay in English, entitled Hidden Works and Thoughts of Ahmad Sadali. Edwin has said that he learned to “see” art after spending hours looking at Sadali’s paintings.[4] In 2014, the National Gallery of Indonesia held a major retrospective celebrating Sadali as an Indonesian “Maestro” and showing his influence on the works of contemporary younger artists. A.D. Pirous’s works and philosophy have been deeply and sensitively analysed by Kenneth M. George, Picturing Islam: Art and Ethics in a Muslim Lifeworld (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Without reference to these major internationally respected artists, no survey of contemporary Indonesian art is complete.


It is also surprising that Dadang Christanto (1957–), again an internationally recognised Indonesian artist, is given only two cursory mentions in the book. His works, especially his installations, bear witness to the effects of violence and oppression in all forms and in all places, earning him the title “the artist of conscience.”[5] He is represented in major galleries through Southeast Asia and Australia, and his works are regularly selected for the Brisbane’s Asia-Pacific Triennials.

Any book seeking to engage with contemporary Indonesian art should be welcomed as a contribution to acknowledging the talent and creativity of Indonesia’s artists and the position they hold in Indonesian society. Most of them feel a responsibility to draw attention to corruption, hypocrisy, oppression, violations of human rights, and destruction of the environment. Dr Spielmann makes this point by quoting the words of Eko Nugroho, master artist and activist. In 2013 he said, “If you live in Indonesia, you will understand that it is impossible to exclude politics from everyday living. Nearly 90% of the art here is a response to or influenced by the socio-political conditions of our surroundings.” (p.153.)

Indonesia’s artists are its intellectuals of the visual. Acutely observant of the political as well as the social aspects of their society, they hone in on abuses of power and the suffering that results. These artists re-invent and play with “tradition” knowing their viewers will understand the innuendos and allusions, using earthy humour and lyrical grace with all shades in between, to exquisitely express their subjects. When censorship, intimidation or even violence is used against them, they are not silenced and continue to create their art. This is why Indonesia’s contemporary art matters.

The book has its weaknesses and it could have been better. Returning to the image of the “Big Meal”, we suggest that some of the items piled on the over-laden skateboard could be jettisoned (especially the duplicates—and here a good editor could lend a hand). The cargo could then be re-packed in better order (with less detail and jargon) and basic art information such as the dimensions and media of each work supplied. And the driver should not begin the journey without telling passengers where they are going and what route they will be taking. Now that the Museum MACAN is open, Indonesians and overseas visitors can see permanent displays of Indonesia’s vibrant contemporary art with their own eyes and also visit Edwin’s Gallery nearby, the oldest private gallery in Jakarta.


Virginia Matheson Hooker is Professor Emeritus 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 Dr Greg Fealy, is an award-winning sourcebook on contemporary Islam in Southeast Asia.

[1] Mitch Cohen is the translator and the 2017 English translation is an expanded and updated version of the German. Without comparing his work with the original it is not possible to say whether the sometimes stilted and opaque style reflects the original German or whether it is the result of infelicitous translation. It may be a combination of both.
[2] Dr Spielmann also notes that art is viewed through an economic lens in Singapore and the success of local artists is gauged by their ability to find employment in creative industries or education (p.39).
[3] The works of artists inspired by Islam are included in Wright 1994.
[4] Edwin Rahardjo, Edwin’s Gallery, 2 November, 2017 in conversation with Virginia Hooker.
[5] Caroline Turner has published extensively on Dadang Christanto, see for example her ‘Wounds in our hearts’ in Kathryn Robinson (ed.) Asian and Pacific Cosmopolitans: Self and Subject in Motion, London, 2007.


Populist Politics in Indonesia

December 8, 2017

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Number 407 | December 7, 2017


Populist Politics in Indonesia

by  Ehito Kimura

Indonesia’s Varieties of Populism

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Indonesia–From Sukarno to Jokowi–Prabowo next? “Prabowo offered his angrier and even demagogic populist style. He railed against corruption, called for economic nationalism and for more “firm leadership.”  Prabowo’s populism looked backwards, with the candidate self-styling himself on the image of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president”.–Ehito Kimura

Populist politics burst onto Indonesia’s national stage in 2014 during the country’s presidential election which pitted two leaders with starkly contrasting styles. Joko Widodo, dubbed a “polite” or “technocratic” populist campaigned against the establishment by portraying himself as an affable “man of the people” and a pro-poor reformer with a track record of getting things done. Prabowo Subianto also campaigned against the establishment but more angrily and bombastically, condemning corruption and economic ‘traitors.’ More recently, Jakarta’s 2016 gubernatorial elections saw a surge of Islamic forces engaging in populist-style politics, organizing mass rallies against the Chinese Christian incumbent and claiming that he had committed blasphemy.

What explains the rise of this form of politics in Indonesia?  Is it part of  a global wave of populism seen in places as disparate as Austria and the United States? What role do Indonesian national and local conditions play?  Part of the answer is that populism is not just a movement but also a political strategy. Indonesia is the world’s second largest democracy and voting rates are high.  The varieties of populism in Indonesia can in part be understood as a function of the varied roots of populism and its appeal to different kinds of audiences.

Global Roots

Populism is often associated with reactions against globalization and neo-liberal reform policies.  In Europe, the recent spate of populist elections suggests a frustration with free and open trade as well as migration and immigration, both of which are components of a more globalized world.

Indonesia is no stranger to the politics of globalization, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis led to the fall of the Suharto regime and the transition to democracy.  Since then, Indonesia has been experiencing broad based economic growth, although globalization and neo-liberal development policies over the years also arguably led to rising inequality, a large urban poor, and an emerging but fragmenting middle class including an Islamic middle class which may feel that they have not reaped the full benefits of developmental policies.

In this context, one audience of populist politics is the constituency which views the global economy and ‘foreign powers’ as culprits in their own economic malaise.  This became a central part of Prabowo’s campaign in 2014. It may also be part of the structural foundations of an Islamicized populist politics which in 2016 came to frame the discourse of an ethnic Chinese Christian as incompatible with or even hostile to economic and spiritual well-being. But global factors only partially explain populist appeal.

National Context

Nationally, Indonesia was not experiencing any profound degree of economic or political turmoil in 2014. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration oversaw not just an era of broad-based economic growth but also a decade of political stability, including the institutionalization of many parts of the political system.

However, deep structural problems persist. The sheer size of Indonesia’s population meant that even though poverty rates fell to about 16 percent, tens of millions still lived below the poverty line. Corruption too remained endemic. The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) investigated and prosecuted several high level officials for financial improprieties including graft and extortion. In 2012, investigations tarnished the president when several members of his own party were accused of corruption, with some eventually jailed. Furthermore, in the waning years of his term, President Yudhoyono engaged in nepotistic tendencies, pushing to transfer power to his other family members, a prospect that led many voters to eventually abandon his party.

By the 2014 election, it became clear that Indonesians were ready for a change, and both Jokowi and Prabowo offered stark contrasts to the Yudhoyono era. Jokowi emerged as the fresh and humble candidate, forward-looking and drawing on his own biography and his local experiences as mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta.  Prabowo offered his angrier and even demagogic populist style. He railed against corruption, called for economic nationalism and for more “firm leadership.”  Prabowo’s populism looked backwards, with the candidate self-styling himself on the image of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president.

Local Roots

Finally, local politics mattered too. In the wake of Indonesia’s democratization and ‘big-bang’ decentralization in the late 1990s, local leaders had been empowered in new and unprecedented ways. In some cases it led to the decentralization of corruption and personalist politics in the regions. But it also produced leaders like Joko Widodo, whose national popularity emerged from his local level success.

A decade before becoming a household name, then-Mayor Widodo implemented pro-poor reformist policies in areas such as healthcare, education, welfare, and infrastructure. He gained a reputation as a leader who embodied both pro-investment and also pro-poor goals, and he was charismatic yet “down-to-earth” and humble. Under his tenure, his city, Solo rose to the top ranks in national governance and business attractiveness surveys and Mr. Widodo gained national and international recognition.

By the end of his second term, Jokowi’s popularity soared to the extent that in his reelection campaign, he received an extraordinary 90% of the vote. He rode that momentum from the mayor of Solo to the governorship of Jakarta and then all the way to the presidential palace. In other words, Jokowi’s ‘technocratic’ populist appeal can only be understood from its local beginnings.


If recent trends are any indication, the 2019 presidential elections in Indonesia will once again feature populist politics though in what configuration is still impossible to say.  Today, President Jokowi’s popularity remains relatively high, especially around his technocratic agenda such as infrastructure development initiatives. At the same time, the sheen of his reformist and populist image has worn off somewhat as he has become mired in the everyday politics of governing. Prabowo may be seeking an electoral rematch and honing his angry and demagogic populist style. And the role of Islamic populism which surprised many in 2016 may also have a pivotal role to play.

About the Author

Ehito Kimura, is Associate Professor and Undergraduate Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawai’I at Manoa. He can be contacted at

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Rethinking Southeast Asian civil society

November 7, 2017

Rethinking Southeast Asian civil society

by Kevin

In the mid-1990s, there was a lot of enthusiasm for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the expansion of civil society in Southeast Asia. At the time, there was an efflorescence of activism as activists campaigned against trade agreements, foregrounded gender issues, worked to reduce poverty, improve health, protect the environment, advocated for workers and consumers, exposed corruption, bolstered human rights and agitated for democracy.

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The optimism of the decade was driven by a feeling of confidence that democracy was taking root in the region, growing on a foundation of thriving capitalist economies. The resonance of 1960s modernisation theory was palpable—the “Third Wave” of democratisation was said to be washing over the region. This was emphasised by the triumphs of popular uprisings in the Philippines (1986), South Korea (1987), Thailand (1992) and Indonesia (1998). These events were associated in the theory with the rise of the middle class and an expansion of civil society.

Two decades later, this optimism has faded. There is now more pessimism about civil society and democratisation. To understand these changing perspectives, it is necessary to give attention to recent political events, and rethink how we conceptualise civil society and its role in Southeast Asian politics today.

Civil society and democratisation

The notion of “civil society” has meanings embedded in the development of capitalism and the end of absolutism in Europe, and the consequent reduction of the weight of the state. The idea of a space relatively autonomous of the state developed quite late in colonial and postcolonial Southeast Asia. While anticolonial, socialist and communist movements, religious and educational organisations, trade unions and the like were established from the late 19th century, they were usually repressed.

When writing of civil society in late 20th century Southeast Asia, analysts tended to emphasise the non-state nature of civil society organisations (CSOs). Many have agreed with David Steinberg, who defined civil society as:

composed of those non-ephemeral organizations of individuals banded together for a common purpose or purposes to pursue those interests through group activities and by peaceful means. These are generally non-profit organizations, and may be local or national, advocacy or supportive, religious, cultural, social, professional, educational, or even organizations that, while not for profit, support the business sector, such as chambers of commerce, trade associations, etc.

The organisations mentioned can be formal or informal, may be charitable, developmental or political. Yet when considering democratisation, authors usually associate civil society with efforts to expand political space. Some authors identify a “political civil society,” where “non-violent … organisations and movements … seek to promote human rights and democratisation…”. Their efforts mean that the political space of civil society becomes a site of intense competition and struggle—including for the organisations that occupy this space.

Civil society and political conflict

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But this conceptualisation of civil society—one which views the groups making up civil society as only being non-violent and peaceful—is too limiting. Civil society and its political space is open to many groups, not just those considered “democratic” and “progressive”. That space can also be occupied by state-sponsored, right-wing, anti-immigrant and anti-democracy activists, and many others considered nasty, fascist, and reactionary. That the groups occupying civil society’s political space will sometimes be violent, and will oppose other groups, should be no surprise when we consider that all societies are riven and driven by conflict over all manner of resources.

Thinking this way of political space and civil society is not uncontroversial. Much of conventional political science, heavily imbued with modernisation theory, has romanticised civil society as the natural domain of individual and group freedoms, and sometimes conceived of NGOs and CSOs as representative interest groups. Such a perspective treats conflict and division as pathological, and misses the fact that political space is created through contestation with the state and with other groups in society. It is a view that fails to give sufficient attention to how civil society groups have actually behaved.

Contestation within civil society

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Bersih Movement in Malaysia

When we think of civil society as a site of struggle, it becomes clear that it is not always a ballast for democratisation. Islamic militias in Indonesia, racist Buddhist gangs in Myanmar and right-wing ultranationalists in the Philippines and Thailand are not forces for a democratic society—yet each undoubtedly occupies the space of civil society.

Islamic militias have re-emerged at various times during Indonesia’s reformasi era and engaged in mobilisation and violence. While the use of violence might exclude such groups from the romanticised approaches to civil society, militias have occupied a space created by democratisation, even if their activities are meant to mobilise anti-democratic groups and against some freedoms. A recent example of such anti-democratic opposition was seen in the defeat of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in the 2017 Jakarta governor’s election. The Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI) joined with several political parties to oppose Ahok in an acrimonious contest that involved the mobilisation of Islamic identity in huge demonstrations that targeted Ahok as a Chinese Christian portrayed as “threatening” Islam. Eventually, Ahok’s opponents gained the support of elements of the state to jail him on charges of blasphemy and inciting violence.

In Myanmar, religious groups have also engaged in racist and xenophobic activism. Radical Buddhists such as the ultra-nationalist 969 Movement and Ma Ba Tha (Myanmar Patriotic Association) have been able to mobilise mass demonstrations against Muslims and have fuelled extreme communal violence since 2012. Such groups have also been supported by elements of the state and by elected politicians, all the while taking advantage of the expanded political space created by Myanmar’s political transition to mobilise and propagandise.

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Buddhist monks walk during a prayer ceremony for the victims of the recent unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay, at Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar’s capital Yangon on Friday, July 4, 2014. (Reuters)


Indonesia and Myanmar demonstrate how extremists use the political space of civil society, and elements of electoral democracy, to oppose and challenge the freedoms that have come with democratisation. These groups are connected with some of the most regressive elements that continue to populate some state agencies. So far, they have not managed to destroy the political basis of these new democracies. But to see how the political space of civil society was used to re-establish authoritarianism in a Southeast Asian “democratic success story” of years past, we only need to turn our eyes to Thailand’s decade of high-octane political contestation.

Thailand: civil society for military dictatorship


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The Yellow and Red Shirts of Thailand

Thailand’s recent political mobilisations have been designated by the colours that define their motivations. Their massive street demonstrations mobilised many, including NGOs and CSOs. The broad Red Shirt movement and the official United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship bring together supporters of electoral politics, those opposed to military interventions, and supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra. The Red Shirts, of course, developed to oppose the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirt movement. The latter initially coagulated as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), wearing yellow to announce their royalism. Yellow Shirts tend to support the status quo, are anti-democratic, ultranationalist, and supported the 2006 and 2014 military coups.

In the 1990s, Thailand’s civil society, dominated by middle class interests, gained a reputation for opposing the military’s domination. NGOs and CSOs also tended to support the liberalising ideas that permeated the so-called People’s Constitution of 1997. When Thaksin was elected under the rules of this constitution in 2001, his government gained the support of many NGOs and CSOs. This support was forthcoming because of Thaksin’s initial nationalism, and his attention to grassroots issues and poverty eradication. That early support quickly drained away, with Thaksin coming to be viewed as authoritarian and corrupt.

The PAD, which was formed to oppose and bring down the popularly elected Thaksin, came to include many CSOs and NGOs which, at the time, would have been bundled into the broad category of “progressive civil society”. As the anti-Thaksin campaign expanded, the middle class, including spokespersons for civil society groups, began to denigrate the grassroots. The latter appreciated Thaksin’s “populist” policies and, especially in the north, northeast and central regions, voted for his parties in large numbers. Mobilised Yellow Shirts vilified this grassroots support for Thaksin, labelling those who voted for his party as ignorant, duped or bought.

As pro-Thaksin parties won every election from 2001 to 2011, the Yellow Shirts began an inevitable shift towards the denigration of the electoral processes itself, while declaring themselves the protectors of “true democracy”. The Yellow Shirts—the PAD and its clone, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC)—emphatically rejected electoral politics, arguing that electoral victories amounted to a dictatorship of the majority. In the 2013–14, PDRC protesters opposed an election called by then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Yellow Shirts blocked candidate registration, prevented the distribution of ballot papers, and tried to prevent voting on polling day. The PDRC argued that no election could be “free and fair” until the “Thaksin regime” had been destroyed. Their ultimatum was that the Yingluck government had to be thrown out, replaced by an appointed government and an appointed “reform” committee to purge those associated with Thaksin’s rule.

Backed by Bangkok’s middle class, including CSOs and NGOs, PAD and the PDRC campaigned for a “democracy” that rejected voting and elections. They wanted a greater reliance on selected and appointed “representatives”, usually opting for a royally- appointed government of “good” people. This paternalism was taken up by protesters, who claimed to champion transparency and anti-corruption while begging the military for a coup. Such Orwellian doublespeak was also in evidence when the military responded and seized power in 2014. The junta defined a coup and military dictatorship as a form of “democracy”. One pronouncement called on:

all Thai citizens [to] uphold and have faith in the democratic system with His Majesty the King as Head of State. [The] NCPO [junta] fully realizes that the military intervention may be perceived by the West as a threat to democracy and a violation of the people’s liberty. However, this military intervention was inevitable, in order to uphold national security and to strengthen democracy (emphasis added).

The result has been more than three years of military dictatorship that has narrowed political space and heavily restricted much civil society activism. Red Shirts had championed electoral politics, arguing that winning elections should count for something and reckoned that electoral democracy was the appropriate platform for political reform. Under the military junta, they have been demobilised, jailed, and repressed.

Interestingly, most of the PAD and PDRC-affiliated NGOS and CSOs have either supported, or at least not opposed, the junta. Some have continued to receive state funds. However, the relationship with the junta remains tense, not least because the junta sees some of these groups as contingent supporters, worrying about their capacity for mobilising supporters and considering them more anti-Thaksin than pro-junta. Few high-profile leaders of these groups have expressed regrets about having supported the 2006 and 2014 coups.

Complicating “civil society”

The travails of electoral democracy in Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand are not unique in Southeast Asia. Certainly, any notion that increased national wealth results in a civil society that becomes a “natural” ballast of democratisation should be rejected. Democratisation does increase the space identified as civil society. However, this space is not always a stronghold of progressives. As a site of struggle, civil society can be occupied by groups that are anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist, and sectarian. As the experience of Thailand and other countries has made clear, much abstract talk of “civil society” runs the risk of crediting its constituent parts with a uniformly pro-democratic outlook that they manifestly do not hold.

This post appears as part of the Regional Learning Hub, a New Mandala series on the challenges facing civil society in Southeast Asia, supported by the TIFA Foundation.

Are Minilaterals the Future of ASEAN Security?

October 2, 2017

Are Minilaterals the Future of ASEAN Security?

by Grace Guiang, Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation Inc.

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The Indonesia–Malaysia–Philippines Trilateral Maritime Patrol (Indomalphi) implemented its first joint patrol in June 2017. Almost a year since signing the trilateral framework in August 2016, the recent attack by the Maute group in the Philippines emphasised the urgent need for cooperation. With a growing number of common threats, how will trilateral or minilateral arrangements such as Indomalphi contribute to ASEAN security? And what are the implications for ASEAN security cooperation?

On the sidelines of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in Laos in May 2016, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines agreed to pursue trilateral patrols in the Sulu and Celebes Seas. Despite the increase since then in crimes committed at sea such as kidnapping, piracy and smuggling, the agreement did not have the momentum for an immediate launch until the Marawi siege on 23 May in the Philippines.

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Not surprisingly, the consultations on crafting the standard operating procedures stalled due to sovereignty issues. The customised standard operating procedures allow the military personnel of the contracting parties to enter each other’s waters in times of emergency with prior knowledge of the state being entered. This is only applicable at sea and does not apply if the chase reaches land.

Aside from patrols and communication hotlines, the three countries will establish military command centres for intelligence sharing in Tarakan in North Kalimantan, Tawau in Sabah and Bongao in Tawi-Tawi. They further agreed to establish transit corridors for commercial activities. In July, Indonesia and the Philippines created new shipping routes connecting the cities of Davao, General Santos and North Sulawesi Province.

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Foreign Ministers and Defence officials of Malaysia,  Philippines and Indonesia agreed to work together to share information, track communications and crack down on the flow of arms, fighters and money, amid what experts says is the biggest security threat facing Southeast Asia in decades.

Security cooperation such as joint maritime patrols and the exchange of information is not new for these littoral states. The Philippines and Indonesia, who signed a pact on boundary delimitation in 2014, have been jointly patrolling the Celebes Sea since 1986. The two navies traditionally carried out drills in communications, replenishment of logistics at sea, medical missions by military personnel and joint search and rescue operations. Malaysian and Philippine navies also conduct coordinated patrols twice a year. And Kuala Lumpur has been working with Manila on anti-smuggling since 1967 and with Jakarta on avoiding incidents at sea since 2010.

But bilateral arrangements are no longer enough to address the convergence of challenges. First, the environment in this part of the region is characterised by porous borders and governance difficulties, which allows extremists, including supporters of the so-called Islamic State, to easily coordinate and transact with contacts around the area — creating networks and strengthening terrorist groups’ foothold in Southeast Asia. The terrorist threats the three states are confronting are clearly transnational in nature, thus requiring wider and deeper coordination among them.

Second, the growing threat raises questions regarding the capabilities of regional navies and coast guards, their resources and the effectiveness of existing bilateral cooperation in maritime law enforcement. While it has been argued that the tri-maritime patrol is asymmetric in terms of the needs, capabilities, political will and priorities of each state, the inadequacies of each party could instead be seen as an opportunity for cooperation, helping each state to develop their own capabilities.

Considering the success of the Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP) in deterring piracy since 2004. And now this newly launched Indomalphi, minilateral arrangements seem to have become a promising model for maritime cooperation compared to ASEAN-wide cooperation. The approach is specific to states that are directly involved in the problem, making it fast, flexible and feasible.

This arrangement is not necessarily exclusive to littoral states. Thailand became a party to MSP in 2006, while Vietnam and Myanmar are observers. Meanwhile Singapore, Brunei and Thailand have been invited to be Indomalphi observers.

On one hand, with the littoral states taking the lead and neighbours being invited to observe or participate later, minilateralism advances ASEAN security by testing the waters and preparing states for regional cooperation — sometimes called the bottom-up approach.

On the other hand, minilateralism challenges ASEAN to address issues collectively. It tests how ASEAN will manage to make this kind of arrangement beneficial for the entire region. For instance, the region has several bodies of water shared among its member states, including the complex South China Sea. Indomalphi demonstrates that cooperation can be done even with territorial disputes, political differences and reservations on sovereignty issues.

If ASEAN wishes to maintain its centrality and leadership in the region, it must recognise that the threats to the security of its member states are ever-evolving. If minilateralism demonstrates that it can work effectively, then ASEAN should use it to push for broader regional security cooperation mechanisms.

Grace Guiang is Research Assistant at the Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation IncA version of this article was first published here in APPFI.