No, Neo-Colonialism is Never the Answer

Farish A. Noor

Posted Nov 5, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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No, Neo-Colonialism is Never the Answer

By Farish A. Noor

I recently had a conversation with an Indonesian political analyst in Singapore, where I am currently based. In the course of our discussion about the state of Indonesian politics, he let slip a statement that I felt terribly uncomfortable with. While lamenting the state of Indonesia’s convoluted politics, he opined thus: “I wonder if Indonesia’s problems could be solved if we allowed a foreign government to run our country?”

Now, talk like this usually sends shivers up my spine. We will recall that up to the late 1990s, it even became fashionable to talk about the necessity for the re-colonisation of Africa. This sort of nonsense was all the rage in some American political magazines and journals, and of course this neo-colonial bile was dressed up in the discourse of altruism and universal humanism, as if the colonisation of any country was an altruistic act between fellow human concerned about the fate of others. Never mind the fact that the ones doing the colonising would be the same Western powers and the ones being colonised would be the same hapless denizens of the Third World.

It is true that Indonesia’s political situation at present is a mess to say the least. With the next elections almost half a year away, the political parties – and there are more than 35 of them, at the last count – are already campaigning in earnest. Vast amounts of money are being spent (or rather wasted) on publicity campaigns and electoral drives that are designed to puff up the already inflated egos of political aspirants than to do any real good to the people. On top of that the political discourse of parties like Hanura and Gerindra seem full of fluff and froth as the leaders have little to say on how they will actually set about changing things for the better.

But in the case of Indonesia, as it is with the other countries of Southeast Asia, the perennial problem is the same: Aspiring elites want to speak for the people and represent them, but they don’t even know what the people want. The political disconnect between the elites of Jakarta and the masses across the archipelago is mirrored in the disconnect we see among the elites of Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Manila and Bangkok too. Why?

Answering this question may also lead us to the answer to the earlier comment about the need for Indonesia to be re-colonised for its own good.

The bottom line is that the governmental structures of Indonesia – as it is for Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and many other post-colonial societies remains rooted in the structures of colonial rule. Now colonial rule was unique in the sense that the colonial governments could govern with scant attention paid to the colonial subjects themselves, hence the ‘success’ of British colonial rule in Burma, Malaya and Singapore and Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia. The British, French, Dutch, Spanish and American colonisers who governed Southeast Asia were not answerable to their colonial societies, but rather the metropolitan capitals of London, Hague, Paris and Washington. Thus British Malaya, Burma and Singapore were governed at a long-distance, with orders from London being enacted and executed in Malaya. Likewise orders from the Hague were put to work in Indonesia. At no point was this metropole-colony relationship an equal or reciprocal one.

Today the structures of colonial rule persist with colonial laws such as Malaysia’s Internal Security Act still in place; and the ruling elite of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and other countries are likewise distanced from their own people. Like the colonial masters of the past, they view their own fellow citizens with incredulity, and fail to understand how plural and complex their societies really are. The ‘success’ of colonial rule – if you could call it that – was that it blanketed the real pluralism and differences in these colonised societies and made them look homogenous.

Today, Southeast Asia’s internal pluralism and difference are coming to the forefront in no uncertain terms. Indonesia’s complex political landscape merely mirrors the complexity of Indonesia’s plural society, a fact that was thinly disguised during the three decades of Suharto’s centralised authoritarian rule. But we need to remember that the manifold forms and modes of socio-political activity we see in Indonesia today, that includes also the new ‘radical’ groups like the Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia, the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and even mainstream Islamist parties like the PKS are the genuine expressions of Indonesian pluralism too. The MMI, HTI and PKS are not from Mars or Sweden: they are part and parcel of Indonesian society and the products of the same political processes that created the political elite in Jakarta who do not understand them.

It is imperative therefore that we recognise two things: That postcolonial societies have yet to jettison the colonial mindset of colonial governmentality; and that we need to develop a new mode of representative politics that reflects the complexity of the societies we reside in. Indonesia’s new political elites may be jockeying for position and running for the biggest prize of all – the Presidential seat – next year. But they need to remember that to be President of Indonesia today means being President of one of the most complex, confounding, plural and interally-differentiated societies in the world. The sooner the political elites of Indonesia (and Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines) realise this, and the sooner they behave like democratic representatives rather than colonial bureaucrats, the better it will be for everyone.