Malaysia in the dumps

October 22, 2016

Malaysia in the dumps on account of Najib’s racist politics and bad economics

by Greg Lopez

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Malaysia has been governed by the same ruling coalition (Barisan Nasional) since independence in 1957. This coalition provided capable leadership to address the four cross-cutting issues that enabled high and sustainable growth. But the Najib Razak administration appears not only to be faltering in managing these challenges but is actively undermining these achievements to remain in power.–Greg Lopez

Malaysia’s leadership troubles could provide a valuable lesson for other middle-income countries on the importance of effective leadership to sustain long term growth. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has denied allegations of corruption made by The Wall Street Journal. But can a leader and his administration that has been rejected by the electorate drive long term growth?

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In May 2008, the United Nations Commission on Growth and Development issued a report that attempted to distil the strategies and policies that produced sustained high growth in developing countries. It is clear from the report that politics and leadership are key to successful development. In particular, there are four cross-cutting issues that good leadership delivered: promoting national unity; building high quality institutions; choosing innovative and localised policies; and creating political consensus for long-run policy implementation.

Malaysia is among 13 nations (Botswana, Brazil, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malta, Oman, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand) that the report identified as having sustained growth rates of above 7 per cent for 25 years or more. These 13 countries had five strikingly similar characteristics: they fully exploited global economic opportunities; they maintained macroeconomic stability; they mustered high rates of savings and investment; they let markets allocate resources; and they had committed, credible, capable governments.

Malaysia has been governed by the same ruling coalition since independence in 1957. This coalition provided capable leadership to address the four cross-cutting issues that enabled high and sustainable growth. But the Najib Razak administration appears not only to be faltering in managing these challenges but is actively undermining these achievements to remain in power.

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The Wharton educated Playboy

At the 13th Malaysian general elections, the Barisan Nasional coalition only managed to secure 47.4 per cent of the popular vote while the opposition coalition secured 50.9 per cent. This is the first time that the ruling coalition has lost the support of the majority of Malaysians. Najib took a presidential approach to the election and committed to spending an estimated US$17.6 billion of targeted development pledges and 1 Malaysia Programs. So it was a shock when the majority of Malaysians opted for a ragtag coalition that included an Islamist party and a socialist party led by a discredited leader.

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Malaysia’s Rosie Mansor, not Rosie O’donnell

Malaysia’s Najib’s popularity had been on a downward trend, from a high of 72 per cent in May 2010 to below 50 per cent in January 2015. But the series of damaging allegations has not only damaged his reputation irrevocably, it has also cemented a negative perception of the government. The majority of Malaysians no longer look favourably upon their government and its institutions. The most recent survey — polled in October 2015 after Najib admitted receiving a US$700 million ‘donation’ into his private bank account — found that 4 out 5 Malaysians were unhappy with the current government.

More damaging perhaps is the fact that only 31 per cent of Malays — the bedrock of support for the United Malays’ National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition — were happy with the government’s current performance. The fall among Malays is drastic. It stood at 52 per cent in January 2015 and had never gone below 50 per cent since the independent pollster Merdeka Centre began tracking this data in February 2012. More Malaysians are also of the opinion that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Significantly, this change in sentiment began in the beginning of 2014, several months after the 13th general elections.

In response, Najib has taken several measures to protect his leadership position. These measures have further undermined Malaysia’s national unity, institutions and policy process.

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Najib and Hadi–Malaysia’s Political Laurel and Hardy

Despite the rhetoric of being the leader of all Malaysians, Najib has actively pursued a ‘Malay and Islamic’ supremacy strategy. And he has cosied up with UMNO’s mortal enemy, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party. The rise of fundamentalist Islam — as in the rest of the world — is a threat in Malaysia. But Najib has sought to bolster his credentials by appealing to conservative Muslims. This has empowered and emboldened the conservative Islamic elements within Malaysia.

Policy making and implementation have been insulated from public scrutiny since the government of long-serving former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed. But under Najib it has even been insulated from scrutiny by the cabinet, let alone the parliament. All major decisions are made by the prime minister and implemented through a hybrid organisation within the Prime Minister’s Department.

Despite Najib’s active pursuit of policies that are detrimental to Malaysian foundations, his economic track record appears to be sound. Malaysia could become a high income country by 2020. Yet Malaysians remain unimpressed by Najib Razak.

Institutions are not built in a day and the impact of Najib’s measures on Malaysia’s longer term growth prospects remain to be seen. For now, other countries caught in the middle-income trap should closely observe the developments in Malaysia.

Greg Lopez is a lecturer with Murdoch University Executive Education Centre, Western Australia. His research interests are in the interaction between states, societies and markets in the ASEAN region.


Malaysia’s Troubled Religious Ties

October 13, 2016

Malaysia’s Troubled Religious Ties: A Case of Muslim Hindu Relations

by Dr. Syed Farid Alatas

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Although Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country, the understanding of many Malaysians since independence in 1957 was that the minority religions and races ought not to be made to feel threatened that they would not be able to maintain their respective identities and promote their cultures. This understanding was based on the belief that there was sufficient political and cultural space for all religions and cultures to thrive while Islam continued to be the state religion.

The belief in the possibility of harmonious co-existence between the different communities in the country has recently been shaken due to the assertion of a more exclusivist Muslim identity among the religious and political elite. This has affected Malaysians’ perceptions of the state of ethnic and religious harmony in the country. A case in point is the relations between Hindus and Muslims in the country. Recent incidents involving Hindus and Muslims serve to heighten fears that Malaysian harmony is gradually being eroded.

The decades of peaceful co-existence between Hindus and Muslims are slowly giving way to a more intolerant stance taken by some Malays in which a Malay-Muslim identity is stressed at the expense of non-Muslims, sometimes resulting in the denigration of their ethnicity and religions. For example, in June this year, Malaysians were shocked to learn that in the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s (UTM) Islamic and Asian Civilisations module, derogatory remarks were made about both Hinduism and the Sikh faith.

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What was so insulting about the content of the module was that the lecturer claimed that Islam had introduced civility to the lives of Hindus in India. It was also said that Hindus preferred to be “dirty”, and that it was only Islam that had taught Hindu converts to Islam the importance of cleanliness. Although UTM conducted a probe and subsequently terminated the service of the offending lecturer, it was astonishing to many that such content could be taught at a university. The UTM fiasco was not the only example of bigotry against Hindus. There were five cases of Hindu temples being vandalised in recent months in Perak and Penang. While these are all isolated incidents, they have led many to wonder if this is the beginning of the onset of mistrust and intolerance between Malaysia’s different racial and religious communities.

Muslims in Malaysia should think more about who their Hindu countrymen are. One way to do so is to acquaint themselves with the writings of Abu al-Rayhan Al-Biruni, a Muslim scholar who was an authority on the religions of India. Born in 973 in Khwarazm in what is present-day Uzbekistan, Al-Biruni was in the court of Mahmud Ghaznavi (979-1030), the ruler of an empire that included parts of what is now known as Afghanistan, Iran and northern India. Al-Biruni travelled to India with the troops of Mahmud and lived there for years, during which time he mastered Sanskrit, translated a number of Indian religious texts to Arabic, studied Indian religious doctrines and wrote several books and treatises, including the Kitab Fi Tahqiq Ma li-l-Hind (The Book of What Constitutes India).

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He refrained from making value judgments about other religions from an Islamic perspective. He was very conscious of the need to present India as understood by Indians themselves. In order to do so, he quoted extensively from Sanskrit texts. His objective was to study the religions of India in order to bring the two communities closer together. He states that the reason for embarking on his research on India was to provide Muslims the essential facts they would need when they encountered Indians and wished to discuss with them aspects of Indian religion and culture.

Al-Biruni considered such dialogue with Indians as crucial as it would create more understanding on issues about which Muslims remained very vague, as far as their understanding of Indian religions was concerned.

It was also his view that the Indians believed in a single god, by which he meant the same god that is worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims.He was the first scholar, in the Muslim world as well as the West, who approached the study of Indian religions objectively and avoided treating the Indians as mere heretics.

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Malaysia is generally speaking a harmonious society. But, the political developments of recent years, which have seen an unhealthy development of identity politics in the form of, among other things, reckless statements made by politicians, religious leaders and educators, threaten to upset the current harmony that informs our society. This will potentially affect Hindu-Muslim relations.

The worrying trend in Hindu-Muslim relations suggests that there is clearly a need for dialogue between the Hindu and Muslim communities of Malaysia. The purpose of this dialogue would be to examine the commonalities in values, beliefs and culture that exist between Hinduism and Islam and to reaffirm the commitment that the two communities have to peaceful co-existence.

It is vital, for the sake of maintaining mutual respect and tranquillity in this country, that the political and religious leaders continuously speak out against bigotry and violence in the name of religion. Muslim leaders have a particularly greater responsibility in view of the fact that Islam is the religion of state in Malaysia. This means that the Muslim political and religious elite should not merely tolerate the presence of non-Muslim minorities but actively protect their rights and property.

The writer is an associate professor in the departments of sociology and Malay studies at the National University of Singapore.

S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2016, with the headline ‘Malaysia’s troubled Muslim-Hindu ties’. Print Edition |


On the Last Honest Man in UMNO

October 4, 2016

Thayaparan on The Last Honest Man in UMNO

What this really means is the success and failure of this country depends on how the Malays decide to play the game. The terrible truth is that it is not the non-Malays who are playing a rigged game but the Malays. The sooner the majority of Malays figure this out, the better for the country.–Thayaparan

by Cmdr. (rtd) S. Thayaparan

Sometimes a man wants to be stupid if it lets him do a thing his cleverness forbids.”

– John Steinbeck, ‘East of Eden’

I have no idea why political analysts have jumped on Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s response to a question by Sinar Harian. Did anyone actually bother reading the two articles where the UMNO veteran held forth on a variety of issues?

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Both articles were interesting because it gave a brief glimpse into the political reality of this country and the agitation in the Malay polity concerning the two major parties that supposedly represent their so-called interest.

Of Razaleigh I have earlier said, “Razaleigh, of course, always nurtured the perception that he was the last honest man in UMNO, a prince who reluctantly found himself consorting with thieves.

“Ku Li, as he is fondly known as, has the remarkable ability to engender goodwill from certain sections of the general public by disassociating himself from the excesses of UMNO even though he contributed to the very culture he claims to despise.”

The Sinar Harian articles are littered with his distinctive pose of being ultimate insider and reluctant outsider.

To recap, the answer that got some analysts all a tither was in response to this question, “Ramai tak puas hati dengan Umno dan PAS. Dikatakan sekarang ini bangsa Melayu ini tidak berada di tempat yang sepatutnya dan usaha menyatukan dua parti Melayu perlu dilakukan?” (Many are dissatisfied with UMNO and PAS. It is said today the Malay race is no longer in a place that it should be, and efforts to unite the two Malay parties need to happen?)

Razaleigh’s response begun with an acknowledgement of the dissatisfaction on the part UMNO and PAS supporters – “Rasa tidak puas hati tu memang ada dalam kalangan sesetengah orang yang jadi ahli fikir atau yang fikir keadaan masa depan orang Melayu dan Islam. Banyak tidak puas hati dengan cara PAS memimpin sekarang ini. Banyak tidak puas hati dengan cara UMNO dipimpin sekarang. Itu memang jelas. Itu sebabnya wujud pelbagai puak parti serpihan, kata orang, daripada UMNO ataupun PAS” – and then a dismissal and acknowledgment of the propaganda that a divided Malay community would mean the ascension of the DAP as a political hegemon, which was spun as a question of its own.

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The Game these UMNO Brats Play

However, the reality is that Razaleigh knows that the game is rigged. When questioned about the chances of the opposition winning in the next election, he conceded that it was a possibility if there was a common platform but without the support of PAS, the chances were slim. Indeed, he acknowledges that solely partnering with DAP will not mean the keys to Putrajaya but what is needed is a coalescing of Malay power structures to vanquish the UMNO hegemon.

However, the more we peel away the rhetoric, we come to understand that voting and democracy are merely parlour tricks in the Malaysian context. Forget about the gerrymandering or redelineation exercise, this idea that the game is not rigged that we are in democracy is ludicrous.

Read what Razaleigh says about not underestimating the establishment – “(Bagaimanapun) jangan memandang rendah kepada kerajaan kerana mereka ada kuasa, ada televisyen, radio, duit dan media. Mereka juga ada alat-alat risikan dan sebagainya. Media dia lebih tahu pada kita. Dia tahu kita belum tahu lagi. Sama ada dengan kekuasaan itu, parti yang berkuasa akan kalah saya tidak tahu.”

Here is an establishment politician admitting that the state controls nearly every avenue of expression and uses its intelligence services as a means of securing political victory. In any functional democracy, this would be verboten but here in Malaysia and perhaps South-East Asia, this normalizing of authoritarian measures as a means of political victory and a tool of economic and social stability is considered par for the course.

Devoid of any principled politics

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Playing the Race and Religion Card for Regime Survival

And while I did not find the so-called “question” troubling, I do think that Razaleigh’s spin on money politics is indicative of why the political terrain is devoid of any sort of principled politics.

When he says, “Dalam isu wang, pilihan raya perlukan (wang). Suka atau tidak suka, itu tidak menjadi masalah curah duit banyak macam mana. Semua orang nak menang pilihan raya. Tidak ada nak bertanding hendak kalah,” I would say that nearly every politician I have met – establishment and opposition – has sublimated this idea and justified it as a means of achieving a greater good.

While UMNO practices money politics in its own crude and blatant way, increasingly the opposition is resorting to this to achieve their political goals. Indeed, jailed political leader Anwar Ibrahim warned of this in his letter from prison – “…the idealism which once fired PKR appears to have been doused by the lustre of power and funds”.

Indeed, when commenting on the letter I wrote, “Rich men with money are always hedging their bets. The average opposition supporter would be shocked by who funds whom. Plutocrats who are routinely mocked on in the comment sections of Malaysiakini and the other ‘alternative’ news (sic) sources, have always been amenable to funding potentially powerful power structures. Money politics isn’t just an UMNO thing.”

The real theme of the Razaleigh interview – ignoring the spin about how governance has only a small impact on the economy or how so-called security bills are there to protect us from foreign interference – is how politicians like him can never truly abandon UMNO because to do so would mean jumping off the gravy train.

This is not to say that politicians who have abandoned UMNO have the country’s best interest at heart. It merely means that they at least have the courage to stand up to the UMNO hegemon. Ultimately, standing up to the UMNO hegemon is the first step is acknowledging that the Malay community is evolving.

(I want to qualify this statement with this caveat from another article – “chasing the Malay vote using the dogma of UMNO is amplifying mistakes instead of rectifying them and ultimately a progressive Malaysia is better than one merely led by a political party using the same old UMNO dogma.”)

The great irony is that the “Malays”, because of how the game is rigged and how the opposition operates, are truly the masters of this land. As the ever-reliable political observer Dr. James Chin said, “It is not possible for a non-Malay victory, under any circumstances.”

What this really means is the success and failure of this country depends on how the Malays decide to play the game. The terrible truth is that it is not the non-Malays who are playing a rigged game but the Malays. The sooner the majority of Malays figure this out, the better for the country.

From Karpal Singh to Haron Din

September 24, 2016

A Generous Tribute to the Late PAS Spiritual Leader Dr. Haron Din

COMMENT: I thank Tay Tian Yan for this tribute to Dato’ Dr. Haron Din. It appeared in Sin Chew Jit Poh. In my ranking, the Spiritual Leader joins the ranks of respected and admired PAS leaders like Burhanuddin Helmy, Zulkifli Muhammad, Ustaz Fadzil Noor and Tok Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat.

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In contrast, we now have a political Jonah like Hadi Awang leading the party to extinction with the formation of Amanah, a splinter party of moderate Islamists.

I find Tay’s statement  helpful and constructive and I quote:

Venting your frustration on the deceased in an attempt to gain some additional political support is never the noblest thing to do. It will only trigger deeper confrontation among the people and cause further splits in our vulnerable society.

It is time our leaders in UMNO and PAS and other ultras stop playing the Islam and Malay nationalism (in extremis) card. Moderation and mutual understanding should be the way forward. That takes enlightened and self-confident leadership that Malaysia desperately needs.–Din Merican

From Karpal Singh to Haron Din

by Tay Tian Yan


The death of PAS spiritual leader Haron Din has sparked some controversy for days now. The tweet by DAP’s Jeff Ooi and some of the negative comments that followed, have seen even the Police stepping in to probe for religious insensitivity while triggering very polarised reactions from the general public.

I’m not here to discuss whether Ooi’s tweet has been ironical, belittling or disrespectful, and he has himself explained he had no evil intention when posting the tweet.The language a person uses is actually something abstract and very subjective.

“Adios Haron Din, let there be peace” could be both a positive and negative message, depending on which side you are on and which way you look at it.

Since the Police have stepped in to probe, I guess we can only wait for the outcome. Going further, the incident is not just a matter that involves Jeff Ooi and a handful of web users. It reflects the vast disparity how different sectors of Malaysian society look at seemingly innocent and non-suggestive things, as well as one’s outlook on life.

Non-Muslims concerned about Malaysian politics might have some sparse impression of Haron Din. He is PAS’ spiritual leader, a very powerful man indeed, second probably only to the late Nik Aziz and incumbent party President Hadi Awang. Where religious influences are concerned, he is in no way inferior to the other two.

We can safely say that Haron Din was one of the most dominant figures in shaping the party’s religious and ideological roadmap. And he was extremely devout in his religious belief with his conservative and fundamentalist stand. For such a personality, Haron Din was never as ambiguous and wavering as some other politicians we know today.

Where this is concerned, Nik Aziz was actually a whole lot more versatile than him.

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Due to his unbending commitment to religion, Haron Din won the utmost respect of many Muslims in the country. That said, he simply lacked the necessary versatility that gave the non-Muslim community a general impression of him being hardline conservative or even extreme.

The collapse of Pakatan Rakyat has been largely blamed – in particular by DAP supporters – on the conservatives within PAS, resulting in the widening rift between the two parties while crushing the prospect of a change in the Federal administration.

Perhaps this is also how many non-Muslims perceive Haron Din and subsequently the very polarised reactions to his death.

The same thing also happened soon after the death of DAP’s Karpal Singh who famously said, “Islamic state over my dead body,” a quote which won him thumbs-up from supporters of a secular Malaysia, and at the same time infuriating the Muslims who saw him as being anti-Islam.

Similarly, there were tweets and FB posts that celebrated his death. But please, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say that since Karpal could be vilified, Haron Din should not be spared from the same disparaging treatment too.

Just the opposite. I firmly believe that any form of attack or belittling should not have happened to both Karpal Singh and Haron Din.

A humble expression of respect for the deceased constitutes a universal understanding in our civilized world. While differing political and religious views are inevitable, any form of disrespect for the deceased should never be manifested at such an untimely moment.

Venting your frustration on the deceased in an attempt to gain some additional political support is never the noblest thing to do. It will only trigger deeper confrontation among the people and cause further splits in our vulnerable society.

Even if I don’t buy Haron Din’s political ideas, for the simple reason of humanity and esteem, I will still pay my respects.

Tay Tian Yan writes for Sin Chew Daily.

Malaysia’s culture of tolerance is under threat

September 23, 2016

Religious freedom in Malaysia

Taking the rap

Malaysia’s culture of tolerance is under threat

Indonesian Islam: Neither White Knight nor Damsel in Distress

September 22, 2016

Asia Pacific Bulletin

Number 354 | September 22, 2016


Indonesian Islam: Neither White Knight nor Damsel in Distress

by Benjamin Nathan

In the fifteen years since 9/11, the attitude of the American media and foreign policy community towards Indonesian Islam has followed two parallel paths. The first is that Muslims in Indonesia have the potential to influence the thoughts and actions of Islamic extremists in the Middle East. The reasoning behind this viewpoint is easy to see: Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population, an overwhelming majorityof whom reject acts of religious violence. American policymakers from both parties naturally see this state of affairs as a useful diplomatic tool for combating extremism in the Middle East.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Paul Wolfowitz echoed this theme in 2009, writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “Indonesia Is a Model Muslim Democracy” that “if [Indonesia] continues to make progress on religious tolerance, it can point the way for other majority Muslim countries.” In November 2015, The New York Times described a recent anti-ISIS media campaign led by the Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) as a “welcome antidote to jihadism” and as a solution to the problem that “Western leaders often lack credibility with those most susceptible to jihad’s allure.”

The second path of American thinking about Indonesian Islam is that Islamic extremists in the Middle East have the potential to influence the thoughts and actions of Muslims in Indonesia. This is an idea of Indonesia as a teetering domino, a fortress of religious moderation under internal siege from a worldwide pox of Islamic fundamentalism. In this view, the fact that 90% of Indonesians are Muslims makes the country vulnerable to radicalization, moderate as Indonesia’s mainstream form of Islam may be. In its 2016 budget, the State Department listed Indonesia as a “focus country” for its Antiterrorism Assistance and Countering Violent Extremism programs. The United States provides financial and technical support for Detachment 88, Indonesia’s most prominent antiterror group, and also funds organizations deemed capable of “grass-roots counter-messaging” against extremism.

These twin perspectives assume the potential for widespread, persuasive communication between Indonesian Muslims and their coreligionists around the world. This assumption is largely off base. Chief among its flaws is that cultural and religious disparities between Indonesia and the Middle East, while impossible to measure precisely, are stark.Indonesians speak not Arabic but Malay, an Austronesian language whose resemblance to Arabic consists only of a scattershot of shared vocabulary. Indonesian Muslims generally make a point of distinguishing themselves from inhabitants of the Arab world. The Indonesian term kearab-araban, roughly equivalent to “over-Arabness,” is not a term of respect.

Even if they could easily communicate with other Muslims around the world, Indonesians would have few opportunities to do so. Indonesians are simply not well-placed around the globe to influence the ideological tide of worldwide Islam. Indonesia’s diaspora, aside from those who live in neighboring Malaysia, is small relative to population size. Of the Indonesians who travel to the Middle East, most are female domestic workers. The Saudi government caps the number of Indonesians allowed to attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage at 168,800 per year –just .08% of the country’s Muslim population.

And even if it were conceivable that Indonesian anti-extremist rhetoric could dissuade Muslims around the world from joining groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, it would still be misleading to claim that organized Islam in Indonesia is an outstanding example of peace and tolerance that transcends historically-bound political conditions. The New York Timesarticle that called attention to Nahdlatul Ulama’s anti-ISIS efforts made no mention of the fact that the group played a central role in the murder of hundreds of thousands of suspected communists from 1965 to 1966. Its popular reputation as a moderate organization that “stresses nonviolence, inclusiveness and acceptance of other religions” is the result of an astonishingly narrow focus on the present day.

The reason why Nahdlatul Ulama and similar organizations no longer coordinate mass violence is that their institutional legitimacy is now secure-they face no challenge to their influence that compares to the threat they once faced from organized communism. Their professed tolerance is a result of political stability, not a cause. The historical record on this point is clear: when immersed in the power struggle of the 1960s, NU proved just as susceptible to the temptations of political violence as the extremist groups its leaders denounce today. It is therefore hard to imagine how Indonesia’s present-day brand of tolerance could take hold in such politically unstable regions as Syria and Nigeria.

The same factors that limit the usefulness of Indonesian Islam as a counterweight to extremist groups in the Middle East apply with equal strength to attempts by extremist groups in the Middle East to make inroads in Indonesia. The wide political and cultural reach of groups like NU and Muhammadiyah have provided resistance against the ideological incursions of Salafi proselytizers and the recruitment efforts of the Islamic State. Even as mainstream Indonesian Islam grows more conservative in areas like LGBT rights and inter-religious tolerance, its institutions constrain foreign radicalization.

ISIS, for its part, seems both unable and unwilling to carry out major terrorist attacks in Indonesia. In a January 2016 report for USAID, political scientist Greg Fealy estimated that only 250 to 300 Indonesian citizens-roughly one for every million-have traveled to join ISIS. Neighboring Australia’s per capita rate is five times as high. While the attacks that killed four people in Jakarta on January 14 were widely interpreted as a sign that ISIS had expanded its focus to Indonesia, evidence suggests that central ISIS leadership in Iraq and Syria did not have a planning role. The attack was an amateurish and homegrown operation with no proven connection to ISIS beyond hazy funding links and an impossible-to-disprove link of ‘inspiration.”

Indonesia today faces issues that dwarf the threat of terrorism in their scope and significance, such as the economy and institutional political weaknesses. According to the Global Terrorism Index, Indonesia would not match Nigeria’s 2014 casualty count from terrorism if an equivalent to January’s Jakarta attack occurred five times a day for an entire year. The US foreign policy community should not let the strategic priority of preventing the spread of terrorism distort their view of Indonesia’s own pressing needs. A strong Indonesia, after all, fits well within the policy interests of the United States. The world’s fourth-most populous country is an important economic and strategic partner, not least because of China’s increasing ambitions to establish its influence in Southeast Asia.

There is a risk, moreover, that funding local counter-terrorism efforts will incur more than just an opportunity cost. The Indonesian military, sidelined since Suharto’s downfall in 1998, views access to counter-terrorism funding as a potential wedge for reestablishing its influence in national politics. A remilitarization of Indonesian society would surely damage the country’s young democratic institutions. It could also thwart key American policy goals like the protection of religious freedom and human rights. The military has recently been involved in programs like bela negara (“defend the nation”), a training program for lay citizens that aims to target such social ills as latent communism and homosexuality. If American policymakers insist on enlisting Indonesia in the fight against terrorism, they must take care to avoid treatments that cause more harm than the targeted disease.

About the Author

Benjamin Nathan is a former researcher at the East-West Center in Washington. He graduated from Williams College in 2015 and is an alumnus of the Critical Language Scholarship program in Malang, Indonesia. He can be contacted at
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