Why Indonesia Matters

Farish A. Noor

Posted Mar 24, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Why Indonesia Matters

By Farish A. Noor

It has become very trendy these days for analysts and academics to sit in
their air-conditioned offices and look at the map, pick on countries they
fancy (or dont) and dismiss them as failed states or basket cases. As a
researcher working on comparative international studies, I am dumfounded and
disappointed to see so many fellow researchers who work on Africa being
forced to beg and borrow grant money to continue their work on that vital
continent, for the simple reason that Africa is ‘out’ these days and the
international community seems to have given up on the continent as a whole.
Woe to any academic or researcher with an interest in Africa these days:
unless they are prepared to compromise their values and standards and turn
to trendy issues like terrorism, they are less than likely to get any
funding to continue their research in that area.

Asia is likewise a mixed bag of sorts: Over the past five years I have seen
how China and India have been moved up the ranking of important states
worthy of research. Undoubtedly the prospect of a resurgent China and India
- two of the most influential economic powerhouses in Asia in the near
future - has been the cause of this renewed interest.

But close by we see countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Indonesia
summarily dismissed as failed states where nothing good can emerge.
Indonesia, since the Bali bombings of 2002-2004 has been doubly cursed as a
country that is seen as the host to radical religious groups and militant
organisations, despite the fact that investigations into the workings of
radical groups like Jamaah Islamiyah are still going on and that there is
too little known about them for us to jump to conclusions.

Nevertheless we are told, repeatedly, that Indonesia is a weak state and
that is may soon be overrun by radical Jihadis on the warpath. Such negative
prognosis flies against the face of common sense, when any Indonesian expert
can tell you that the mammoth mainstream Islamic groups like Muhammadiyah
(25 million members) and Nahdatul Ulama (40 million members) still hold sway
and determine the temper of Islam in the country.

Furthermore it should be noted that Islamic militancy is not new to
Indonesia. The Darul Islam movement fought out a bloody civil war in the
1950s and 1960s; and radical groups have committed terrorist acts - such as
the bombing of the famous Buddhist temple of Borobudur in the mid-1980s -
long before the Jamaah Islamiyah came into the picture. Even then, Indonesia
was achieveing a staggering 10-12 per cent annual growth rate, and was one
of the ‘Asian Tiger’ economies of the Far East.

So why the skepticism today? Two factors seem to account for the downturn in
Indonesia’s image abroad.

Domestically it cannot be denied that Indonesia today is still paying the
price for three decades of dictatorial rule under the Western-backed
President Suharto. After thoroughly emasculating the country’s civil society
and state institutions, it has been hard for a new leader to lead the
country effectively. This lack of leadership has been commented upon by
Jusuf Wanandi, head of the country’s Centre for Strategic and International
Studies (CSIS) based in Jakarta. As Wanandi has noted: “The Indonesian
public has become almost hysterical thanks to the lack of leadership on the
Indonesian side”. President Bambang Yudhoyono has been singularly absent at
some key meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),
precisely at a time when Indonesia can and should play a key role as
spokesman for ASEAN and mediator for some of the internal conflicts in the
region, such as the lingering crisis in Southern Philippines.

Yet Indonesia is beset by domestic problems that have forced the President
(like his predecessors) to look inwards. The lacklustre economy and the
problem of growing religious, ethnic and communal sectarianism have
distracted a series of leaders, from B J Habiebie to Megawati Sukarnoputri
to Abdurrahman Wahid, and now Yudhoyono as well.

Sadly and ironically, this preoccupation lends weight to the claim that
Indonesia is a basket case because its leadership is unable to act and lead
decisively, hence the lack of investor confidence and the stream of negative
reports about the country’s future prospects. The skepticism of the
international community therefore compounds Indonesia’s problems, rather
than helping it get back on its feet.

But Indonesia is not some tiny insignificant backwater state that we can
wish away or neglect: As the biggest country in ASEAN and the biggest
country in the Muslim world, Indonesia has weight and gravity, and this
should be reflected in our perspective of it. One cannot dismiss Indonesia’s
problems as ‘local ones’, for the sheer size of this country of 14,000
islands and 240 million people means that if Indonesia coughs, the whole of
ASEAN (and Asia by extension) will catch the flu.

Following the disastrous structural policies imposed by the IMF during the
economic crisis of 1997-98, Indonesia is in need of serious assistance that
will help the state strengthen itself. It needs the financial stability that
will restore confidence in the value of the Rupiah, which in turn will
inject stability into the daily lives and living costs of millions of
Indonesians, which in turn will help reduce the political temperature of the
country which has been raised in part by growing competition between the
religious, ethnic and racial communities. What Indonesia doesnt need is any
more patronising nonsense about ‘failed leadership’ or Cassandra-like
warnings about its imminent implosion or collapse. This is the time for the
international community to show if they really care about Indonesia and the
fate of East Asia. And what is more, Indonesia is not a country that can be
dismissed with a slight of the hand.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist based at the Zentrum
Moderner Orient, and one of the founders of the http://www.othermalaysia.org
research site.