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Bundle of Contradictions #3
Jokowi needs a strategy, History repeating in Southeast Asia, and Why Hong Kong will fight on
Welcome to the third edition of Bundle of Contradictions. I hope everyone is keeping well and controlling the number of open tabs on their internet browser more effectively than me.
There are few better feelings than receiving the first copies of a new book. Seeing my football team, Brentford, get promoted to the English Premier League would have surpassed that. But, sadly and predictably, we lost in the playoff final to Fulham. Brentford are a bit like ASEAN summit statements: you know they’re going to disappoint but you can’t help but get carried away with hope in the run-up to the big day. At least ASEAN can keep its best talent and try again next year. Brentford will invariably have to sell off our best players to better and wealthier teams…
After Brentford lost the richest game in football, I was left with the consolation of seeing the first copies of Man of Contradictions, which is the culmination of nearly 20 years of travelling to, studying and living in Indonesia. I would say this but I love the cover image, which is the work of our very smart designer at the Lowy Institute: it’s part Jokowi, part Savage Garden.
The first review of the book also came out in the Sydney Morning Herald, which called Man of Contradictions a “landmark new book” and “required reading for anyone seeking to understand the leader of Australia's giant northern neighbour”. And it’s already hit the top ten for new releases in Asian Politics at Amazon, two weeks before it’s released. If that doesn’t cheer you up, what will?
Jokowi needs a COVID-19 strategy
In his annual state of the union address on August 14, Jokowi said he would take advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to “reboot” the ailing Indonesia economy. I dislike the idea that “crises are opportunities”. They rarely are. Usually they are just crises. Rather than presaging a new round of reform or a different approach to governing, the speech was classic Jokowi:
ethnic garb ✔️ (from East Nusa Tenggara this time)
cute analogy ✔️ (he said the economy was like a computer that was "hanging", and needed a "reboot")
protectionism ✔️ ( he said "we must buy Indonesian products" and that Indonesia must not “trade lofty national values for economic progress")
the prefix "e-" ✔️ (In his city hall days, “e-budgeting” and “e-government” were his buzzwords. In this speech it was "e-court & "e-litigasi")
The pandemic has ruthlessly exposed the flaws and tensions in all of our political systems. Some, of course, have fared better than others, as my Lowy Institute colleagues will be exploring in some upcoming comparative research. Indonesia has not (yet) been hit as badly as some feared back in March. But the official data leave much to be desired (and measured). The deepening health and economic crisis has exposed some key shortcomings in Indonesia's leadership, as I argued in an op-ed for Singapore’s Straits Times:
Jokowi has become increasingly reliant on personal instincts over technical expertise.
He seems driven by day-to-day tactics rather than long-term strategy.
His government has shown growing distrust towards civil society.
I am lucky enough to have met Jokowi first when he was mayor of Solo and have spoken with or interviewed him a dozen times since then. One thing that struck me in these conversations was how he always argued that his hands-on approach to governance (“go to the ground and check, check, check” as he put it) could be scaled up to the national level. But, as I wrote for the Straits Times, “running a sprawling, diverse and democratic country of 270 million people is a very different challenge from city government”.
With more than four years left in office, Jokowi still has time. Thanks to his talent for retail politics, he retains the goodwill of many Indonesians and external partners from Singapore to Australia and Japan to the United States.
Having accumulated political capital for the last six years, he needs to start spending it by pursuing tough bureaucratic and economic reforms that some in his coalition will resist.
Only then will he be able to build on the progress of his first term and turn his ambitious vision for Indonesia into an achievable goal rather than a distant dream.
There’s been some very good analysis recently on how Jokowi has turned to the Indonesian military to help guide the response to COVID-19, as opposed to the epidemiologists and public health experts you might expect to see out front.
Jun Honna, a professor at Japan’s Ritsumeikan University, argues that the army has “skillfully exploited the Covid-19 crisis to reverse some key post-Suharto military reforms”.
In the Talking Indonesia podcast, my friend Evan Laksmana of CSIS Indonesia suggests it’s less a case of the military seeking to advance its agenda and more a case of Jokowi and the civilian government leaning on the TNI. But he argues that the impact is still concerning, both in terms of the effectiveness of Indonesia’s pandemic response and the broader state of civil-military relations, 22 years after the fall of Suharto.
Historical tensions and contemporary governance challenges in Southeast Asia
With Indonesia celebrating the 75th anniversary of its independence this week, it’s a good time to think about how far this nation forged from the arbitrary limits of Dutch imperial expansion has come. As Ariel Heryanto, emeritus professor at Monash University, has written, creating a new Indonesian nation was “fundamentally distinct from liberating the separate colonised communities of Java, Sunda, Madura, Bali, Aceh, and so on from the colonial power”.
In Man of Contradictions, I argue that “it is incredible that this diverse nation of thousands of islands and hundreds of languages and cultures has survived as a unitary state, through civil wars, coup attempts, genocidal violence, insurgencies, and outside meddling”. But, despite this progress, Indonesia remains a nation in the making. In a new paper for the Brookings Institution, I suggest that the biggest contemporary governance challenges for Indonesia stem from three unresolved tensions that date back to the nation’s founding:
Between democracy and authoritarianism
Between pluralism and majoritarianism
Between economic nationalism and the need for foreign investment
Re-reading the speeches and writings of Sukarno, Mohammad Hatta and other pioneers of Indonesian independence has been very instructive for me. Analysts tend to talk about “democratic backsliding” as if Indonesia is being buffeted by a global trend rather than reflecting a long-running debate about the suitability of liberal democratic norms. Similarly the never-ending talk of “rising Islamism” is often framed ahistorically, without reference to the founders’ debates about the place of Islam in the constitution (and the soul) of Indonesia. Lastly, on the economic front, the endless narrative of “reform” from the financial media, Wall Street and the World Bank completely overlooks the depth of Indonesia’s protectionist and anti-liberal roots.
Why does this matter for policy makers? I wrote in the Brookings paper:
As the United States, Australia, and other Western governments look to deepen their engagement with Southeast Asian nations, it is more important than ever that they grasp the drivers of their domestic politics, which typically steer their foreign policy. Rather than framing their partnerships through the lens of competition with China, Western governments need to work with Indonesia and its neighbors on their own terms. To do so successfully, they need to develop a much better understanding of the long-running (and ongoing) challenges of nation-building in Indonesia and the wider region.
Some of Indonesia’s key Southeast Asian neighbours are also struggling with similarly profound questions of nation building:
In Malaysia, the reformist Pakatan Harapan coalition fell apart because it could not overcome personality disputes and the fraught, interlinked problems of race, religion, and economic inequality. (For more on this, check out the writings of former PH deputy defence minister Liew Chin Tong, who is a fellow history geek.)
In Thailand, the decades-long battle between the monarchy, the military, and those who want democracy is no closer to resolution, as the recent outbreak of student protests shows. (For more on this, read this powerful op-ed by two Thai students on why they are “prepared to risk everything” to fight for change.)
In Myanmar, an election is due in November 2020 but it is unlikely to offer any clear path forward on the fundamental questions of how the military shares power with civilians and how to forge a united, peaceful nation from the country’s disparate ethnic groups and myriad conflicts. (Thant Myint-U’s new book is required reading here.)
Don’t forget that Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia are all still combatting long-running insurgencies or separatist conflicts, both peaceful & violent. Their internal security is not yet secured.
Lastly, it’s worth remembering just how young the post-colonial nations of Southeast Asia are. Here is when they declared independence (not necessarily when the fighting for that independence ceased):
1945: Indonesia and Vietnam
Why Hong Kong (& Beijing) will fight on
Sadly, I couldn’t complete this newsletter without reflecting on the latest efforts by Beijing and the Hong Kong authorities to crush the city’s democracy movement and curtail Hong Kongers’ freedoms and rights. The detention under the national security law of tycoon Jimmy Lai, who founded the pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, rightly attracted a host of headlines and condemnations.
I was personally more taken aback by the arrest of Agnes Chow, a mild-mannered democracy activist who I interviewed many times for the Financial Times and profiled in my first book, Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow. I was always impressed with her calm defiance in the face of growing danger. Agnes even gave up her British citizenship to run for the Legislative Council before the government banned her from standing for election. While people keep talking about the “death of Hong Kong”, I argued in the Sydney Morning Herald that such commitment cannot easily be killed off by repression:
That is because activists like Chow are not just fighting for abstract ideas such as human rights and democracy. They are fighting to defend their home and their identity. As she told me a few years ago, the challenge for Hong Kongers is not just to secure political autonomy from Beijing but to secure “autonomy in our own lives”.
As a journalist, writer and now a researcher, I am fortunate enough to be able to talk to people from all sides. While I understand where Agnes and the democracy activists are coming from, it’s also important to understand the perspective of Chinese and Hong Kong officials. In The Guardian, I argued that while Western governments have (until very recently) been hoping for the best in Hong Kong, there was an inevitability about the unwinding of the inherent contradictions in One Country, Two Systems.
The Chinese Communist Party, and by extension its functionaries in Hong Kong (for that is what they are), simply cannot allow liberal democratic values and norms to flourish within its territory, even in little Hong Kong. The CCP, like its peers in Vietnam, has long argued that creeping democratisation is a fundamental threat to its legitimacy. “Peaceful evolution” sounds like a good thing to you or I but it is the enemy of the Party.
So ignore the “death of Hong Kong” op-eds. This struggle is very much alive on all sides. But the stakes are rising.
On that happy note, that’s all for this edition. Thanks for reading to the end. If you enjoyed Bundle of Contradictions, do forward it to others who might enjoy it too. And get in touch with any feedback.
In the meantime, there’s less than two weeks until the launch of Man of Contradictions and my book is on pre-sale now, with free global delivery at Book Depository, and with the Kindle and paperback versions available on the respective US, UK and Australia Amazon sites. Otherwise, ask your favourite bookshop to order it.