Indonesia and Malaysia have many similarities. Each has a predominantly Muslim population. Indonesia has been under a dominant political party Golkar for 32 years, while Malaysia’s UMNO has been ruling the country for the past 42 years. Both have seen the emergence of long-serving leaders Suharto in Indonesia and Mahathir, who has been the prime minister since 1981, in Malaysia.
Last year, the Indonesian movement for political reforms, and Suharto’s removal inspired a band within UMNO, led by its deputy president (and Malaysia’s deputy prime minister) Anwar Ibrahim, to come out against corruption, cronyism and nepotism. Mahathir met the challenge head-on, and in September 1998 Anwar was sacked amid a series of vile allegations of sodomy, murder and treason. Anwar’s dismissal and the beating he suffered in police custody unleashed Malaysia’s own brand of ‘reformasi’. After Suharto’s removal, the Reformasi euphoria quickly found its way into Malaysia’s UMNO.
But unlike previous turbulence within UMNO, the Anwar revolt ignored the chiefs and went to the Malay grassroots for support, and hence became more serious. The importance of the Anwar revolt is that it struck right to the centre of UMNO by getting the Muslim heartland to revolt.
On June 20, Mahathir’s regime again revealed its nervousness when Mahathir delivered his presidential address at the UMNO annual assembly, attacking everything from the ulama to Anwar, who is now behind bars. The politics of sycophancy has taken a turn for the worse within Mahathir’s embattled government.
Mahathir is finding it hard to regain the Malay-Muslim ground after the treatment meted out to his former deputy. His continued vilification of Anwar and the Islamic Party (PAS) suggests that both have eaten into its traditional Malay-Muslim heartland. Mahathir’s predicament stems from a widely-held view within the Malay-Muslim community that his days as feudal lord are numbered. It is no longer what Anwar did or did not do that is at stake. Mahathir tries hard to paint Anwar as the man who should be excoriated, but this falls on deaf ears.
In the meantime, Indonesia’s election results, have given Malaysia’s alternative parties confidence that change is possible. Golkar, a relic of former president Suharto, may yet be unseated and be forced to concede power to a coalition of opposition-parties. Analysts say the fall from power of Indonesia’s long-time ruling party could well sway the Malaysian Muslims.
Immediately after his dismissal last September, Anwar told a gathering that the most frightened man in the country following the departure of Suharto in Indonesia was Mahathir. Now that Suharto is gone, the Malaysian regime’s only hope is that Indonesians will decide to keep the status quo. But it is not altogether fair to say that Golkar and UMNO are the same. Since taking over from Suharto in May 1998, Habibie has lauched a series of reforms, including freeing the press, lifting restrictions on the freedom to organise, releasing many political prisoners, and holding the first multi-party elections in more than 40 years. And unlike Mahathir, Habibie has given assurances that elections will be conducted fairly. This is in stark contrast to Mahathir’s assertion that Malaysia’s approaching elections will be the dirtiest in history.
That the Indonesian elections have passed off peacefully is also worrying Mahathir. A week before the elections, Mahathir said elections in Indonesia would destabilise the country and that he expected lives to be lost. This did not happen.
But even with such reforms, Indonesians are convinced that anything to do with Suharto must go. This must be making the Mahathir regime furious, and such fears are clearly manifested in Mahathir’s petty taunting of opposition leaders.
But despite the many similarities between the two countries, there are crucial differences. None of the main Indonesian opposition-parties is advocating an Islamic state, unlike Malaysia’s Islamic Party (PAS). Indonesia’s so-called Islamic leaders are known for their opportunistic politics. They have now failed to make any impact on the Muslim voters.
Muslim leaders in Indonesia also have themselves to blame for being close to Suharto’s Golkar party when the former dictator was unleashing his 32-year-long terror. Now, perhaps, Muslims in Indonesia have begun to realise that even ‘free and fair’ elections are an exercise in futility.
Many are now convinced that elections alone will not bring stability back to Indonesia - in fact, far from it. Indonesian Muslims have found themselves between the devil and the deep sea. Rejecting the so-called Muslim moderates, their choice of Megawati’s party is not making things any better either. Most of the parliamentary candidates fielded by Megawati for the upcoming legislature were not Muslims.
That Megawati has also declared that she will recognise Israel adds to the suspicion that she is being used for a certain agenda. This was confirmed when, during the initial vote-counting, she dashed ‘for medical treatment’ to Singapore - the only state in the region to have direct links with the Zionists - at a time when her presence as a party leader was most crucial.
Unlike Indonesia, Malaysia still has a few honest Islamic leaders with some credibility who can make an impact in the political scene. While Malaysia’s PAS continues to be led by ulama who have not abandoned the concept of an Islamic state, and remain committed to their principles, even if some of their political understanding and methodology may yet require fine-tuning, Indonesia still lacks credible and reputable Islamic political leadership. The various Muslim-based parties still do not pose a serious challenge to the paganistic Pancasila ideology, and opportunistic leaders such as Abdurrahman Wahid and Amien Rais are far from the principled leaders that Muslims need to bring about change.
Muslimedia: July 16-31, 1999