Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


By Kevin W. Fogg, Nov 14 2016 11:01AM

This blog entry has the potential to confuse lots of people and alienate lots more, so I wanted to separate it from the previous one, but it’s one worth writing to spur real conversation.

There is another key characteristic of Donald Trump that sets him apart from all his predecessors in the Oval Office: he is the first president elected in the US with no previous history in elected office, appointed political office, or military command for the United States. Basically, he’s never been in government before, at all, on any level. That is a big deal, and a major departure in our political history. Even President Obama was criticized in 2008 for having “only” two years in the Senate, plus some time as a state legislator—his opponents said this was not enough preparation to lead the whole government. Of course, Trump has made the case that his years as a business executive (often working directly under his father) not only fulfill the leadership prerequisite but also are indeed better than the corrupting experience of working in government (especially in Washington, a.k.a. “the Swamp”). Coming from entirely outside the government made him the big “change” candidate this year.

There is an obvious analogy to this in Indonesian history: a president whose (indirect) election surprised everyone, who had no experience in government but did have other leadership experience (following the footsteps of his father), and who was the ultimate “change” candidate. That man was Abdurrahman Wahid, affectionately called “Gus Dur” (“gus” being the title for the son of a religious scholar, “Dur” being an abbreviation of Abdurrahman), elected in 1999.

This will be radical and probably offensive to some. I do not want to draw a moral equivalency between Gus Dur and Donald Trump. Gus Dur was a good man and a pious man (although quite quirky). he respected human rights (unlike Donald Trump), respected women, and respected democracy (again, it seems, unlike Donald Trump). Many of the great moral teachings of Gus Dur are still relevant in Indonesian society. (Remember “Tuhan tak perlu dibela”—was anyone saying that on 4 November?) I support the effort by PKB to name Gus Dur as a national hero. However, I think there are structural comparisons to be made, and they might even be informative when thinking about some of the weaknesses of a Trump presidency (or any future Trump wannabes in Indonesia).

Gus Dur had plenty of leadership experience in society, having been the chairman of the mass Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama for decades (like his father and grandfather before him) and a moral leader of the anti-Suharto movement. That experience, however, did not translate into a smooth or successful administration, though. I think it is fair to say that Gus Dur was great at being a moral leader, and pretty bad at being president. Of course, one could put forward other reasons for this: the bureaucracy probably opposed him, the tasks were so great as Indonesia transitioned to democracy, and Gus Dur was too reliant on a few advisors (Greg Barton’s biography links this to his diabetic blindness, which meant others had to read out documents and reports to him). Still, without a proper understanding of how the government worked, he failed to run it effectively. This is something I can easily imagine happening in a Trump administration.

Secondly, Gus Dur was pretty unpredictable. That meant even his allies never knew where they were going to be dragged next, which is a difficult position for allies to be in. This alienated quite a few of the people who had supported Gus Dur in the indirect election (in the Indonesian parliament) which made him president, and eventually led to his impeachment by that same house. (He was removed as president in 2001, and went on to a choppy term as leader of the Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, as recently outlined by my colleague Firman Noor.) I don’t think anyone will deny that Donald Trump is also unpredictable as a political figure, and that he has a penchant for offending even leaders of his own party. (During the Vice-Presidential Debate, Trump’s own running-mate did not seem to know many of the man’s positions, and Donald Trump soon publically repudiated a statement that Mike Pence had put forward on behalf of the ticket.) This may very well have negative consequences in the US, as it did in Indonesia.

Again, I do not want to make a point of moral equivalency; I explicitly reject any moral equivalency between Abdurrahman Wahid and Donald Trump. However, structurally, there is a good argument to be made about the ways that lack of governmental experience, “change,” quixotic character, and electoral surprise make Gus Dur the closest analogue to Donald Trump in recent Southeast Asia.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Nov 14 2016 08:34AM

While I've been out in the field on research, it has been very hard to post on the blog; many apologies for those hoping for more updates. I hope to add a few things this week to make up for lost time.

I, like so many of my countrymen (including the majority of those who voted), was surprised and perhaps even mildly disappointed about the unexpected win by Donald Trump in the American presidential elections. International commentary has largely focused on related trends in Europe. Many folks have connected the triumph of populism in the US to the triumph of nativism in the UK’s recent EU membership referendum. Former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi has happily welcomed comparisons between his political profile and Donald Trump.

Of course while living in Southeast Asia, I have been thinking about leaders in this region who might be seen as analogous to Donald Trump. Here I put forward three possible points of comparison (in inverse order to their leap to national elections).

Over the last year, many commentators have looked at the occasionally foul-mouthed President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, as analogous to Trump’s insult-filled campaign. Duterte (somewhat like the American president-elect) enjoys insulting incumbent American president Barack Obama, American diplomatic staff, American foreign policy, and lots of other things. Both Trump and Duterte have had troubles staying on the Pope’s good side. Both men are fairly populist; both have encouraged violence in society to tackle perceived problems; and both have said problematic things about women. Recently, Duterte had a calling from God to tone down his language; it is as yet unclear if president-elect Trump will undergo a similar transformation. Another key difference: Duterte had decades of experience in government, by being the mayor of his hometown, Davao City. (Fun fact: Duterte has been open to the comparison, even while he feels he is just a “small molecule” compared to Trump.)

In the lead-up to election day, as Trump was threatening to reject the election results as rigged (if he lost), I was thinking quite a bit about Indonesian former general, party leader, and losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Both Prabowo and Trump have authoritarian tendencies, of course, and I think the term “Oligarchic Populism” could be applied to both. But Prabowo’s intransigent denial of the election results that saw him lose the presidency in 2014 looked to me like a model for the kind of court case and contentious public conflict that could have appeared if Trump followed through on threats to reject any losing outcome. There are also some interesting arguments to be made here about their tortured relationship with the press: certainly both know how to work the media, but Prabowo was supported in the end only by TVOne (owned by another Indonesian oligarch to whom he was politically allied) and called all other media horrendously biased, while Trump seemed to reject the whole media establishment except his personal buddies (most notably Sean Hannity). The comparison really ended on election day, though; Indonesia chose (by a narrower than expected margin) to embrace a different kind of populism in President Joko Widodo, while the American electoral college fell to Trump. There were other differences, too, though. Prabowo was famously good at controlling him temper on the political stage (although not behind the scenes, apparently)—I remember how he had even encouraged Megawati Soekarnoputri to play nice on TV when he was her running mate in 2009. Prabowo’s background in public life and military service, also, was markedly different from Trump’s media and business profile. (Another fun connection: two of Prabowo’s close political allies, Fadli Zon and Setya Novanto, claimed at a political rally in the lobby of Trump Tower in 2015 that the Indonesian people like Trump “very much.”)

The most surprising connection, for me, was made by a friend in Thailand several weeks ago, who compared Donald Trump to former prime minister and now famed persona-non-grata Thaksin Shinawatra. (Apparently colleagues at New Mandala had already made this comparisonand more in Thai politics.) In terms of personal résumé, I was struck by the similarities: big-city billionaires who appealed to rural, working-class constituencies to the consternation of other national elites and liberal urban centers. Thaksin was involved in politics longer, certainly, and was unrivalled within his popular Thai Rak Thai Party, but their rise to power was still a bit of a surprise. As many people are fearing from a Trump presidency, when in power he was accused of playing favorites, being capricious, and most dangerously using the state apparatus to benefit his own business empire. His political movement has been so strong and so controversial in Thailand that it has prompted two army coups: both the one against him in 2006 (since which time he has not come back to the country to face pending charges) and the second against his sister (and political heir) in 2014. Let us hope that a Trump presidency in America does not become so very polarizing.

So, is Donald Trump the Thaksin of America? The Prabowo of the United States? Or New York’s own Duterte? I look forward to input from others, either here or on Facebook.

By Kevin W. Fogg, May 13 2016 03:31PM

In my BBC news feed today, the Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is insisting that all media outlets in the country refer to him as 'Lord Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander'. Sounds like a pretty good gig to me.

This is not so different, though, from how titles grew exponentially towards the end of Soekarno's time as president of Indonesia. In 1950, as the country settled into independence, the Prime Minister and Cabinet circulated a memorandum in the government that all use of titles should be simplified and made egalitarian in line with the idea of independence. The instructions said (Indonesian first, translation after):

a. Bahwa baik dalam surat menjurat, maupun dalam pertjakapan sebutan 'Paduka Jang Mulia', 'Jang Mulia', atau 'Paduka Tuan' harus diganti dengan 'Saudara'.

b. Bahwa dalam pertjakapan seorang jang didalam masjarakat pantas dihormati karena kedudukan atau umurnja, dapat djuga dipergunakan sebutan 'Bapak' (Pak) 'Ibu' (Bu).

[ a. Both in correspondence and in addressing someone, the styles 'Your Excellency', 'Your Honour' and 'the Honourable' must be replaced with 'Brother'.

b. In everyday speech, someone who in society should be respected for their position or their age can also be addressed as 'Father' 'Mother'.]

[Source: Arsip Propinsi Naggroe Aceh Darussalam, Koleksi Lhok'nga 1934-1952, file #127, Salinan Surat Kementerian Dalam Negeri no. UP/34/I/4 tentang penghapusan sebutan]

By 1960, this instruction had been forgotten, and everyone was scrambling to pile new titles on Soekarno. Of course, he coined many for himself as well, including Penyambung Lidah Rakyat (Extension of the Tongue of the People), Panglima Tertinggi (Highest Commander), and Pimimpin Besar Revolusi (Great Leader of the Revolution). Others could get rather sour about these. For example, Sjafruddin Prawiranegara, in his oral history with the National Archives, complains that Soekarno should not have been the Great Leader of the Revolution, because he did not spend a single week fighting in the jungle-- he was either comfortably in a city or captured by the Dutch and in regulated detention.

Other groups also scrambled to throw titles on Soekarno, though. The most notable debate over this was betwen mass Islamic organizations who fiercely debated whether to confer upon him various coveted religious titles. In the 1960s, several branches of Muhammadiyah that wanted to curry the President's favour proposed bestowing him with the title Muballigh Agung (Great Proselytizer of Faith), although the Muhammadiyah leadership tamped down on this as best they could. [Source: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, Koleksi RA34 Muhammadiyah, file #3443, Surat mengenai penyelesaian peristiwa yang melibatkan orang-orang Muhammadiyah, tahun 1963] The greater debates, though, had been in the 1950s, when Islamic preachers debated annointing Soekarno as Wali al-Amri (Holder of Power, or Ruler). The debate hinged on the question of whether he had been properly chosen by the people (Soekarno was never directly elected), but also whether the state was a sufficiently Islamic state to designate its secular head in such a position. In the end, he was given the title Wali al Amri adh-Dhaluri bi ash-Shaukah (Holder of Power under Emergency/Temporary Circumstances), but even this was highly controversial. The Darul Islam rebellion had followers write in to the government and criticize the use of this title, given by Muslim leaders who did not represent their beliefs. Major Islamic parties like Masjumi and Perti waffled on whether or not to use this title for Soekarno. (NU did not waffle-- it was all in for giving Soekarno religious titles, in part out of recognition of his contributions to national life and in part to curry favour.) [Sources: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, Koleksi RA7 Kabinet President, file #1717; Deliar Noer, Partai Islam di Pentas Nasional; Alaiddin Koto, Pemikiran Politik PERTI].

In case Hun Sen is a reader of the blog and is looking for insights on this new policy, I should note that none of the titles listed for Soekarno above have lasted into the history books of today. Take this as you will.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Apr 29 2016 02:32PM

Last night our esteemed colleagues at the Blavatnik School of Government welcomed back an old Oxford alum, former Prime Minister of Thailand Abhisit Vejjajiva (St John's [PPE], and later Nuffield [MSc Econ]). He gave a wide-ranging and surprisingly open talk, considering he and his country live under a rather unsavory military junta, and I was very glad to attend. No surprise: his poise was really excellent, and he was clearly very charming. Perhaps this is why my Indonesian niece has been known to fawn over him (or more likely it's because he ranked highly on "hottest head of government" lists during his leadership period).

The evening generally steered clear of critiques of the military, or of his administration, or of fierce debate at all. I am afraid that I asked the most intemperate question, and this was calling out the former Prime Minister for claiming that all 10 countries of Southeast Asia have united in the ASEAN Community. (Obviously he left out Timor Leste, which was particularly ironic because the kind of political culture that he claims to want to build in the region-- liberal democratic thought, broadly speaking-- is alive and well in the country with far-and-away the highest female representation in parliament, among other good markers.) I was surprised, but not shocked, that no one brought up the critiques of Thailand's Democrat Party (or their allies in the military) being heavy-handed on protesters, when he spent so much of his time disparaging the way that his political opponents targeted his party and his person. One of the most striking statements of the whole night, and one that would make a fascinating debating proposition, was when former PM Abhisit said, "Regardless of what you think of the coup, both my colleagues in the Democrat Party and my political opponents are safer now because of it." His argument is that there are no longer fights on the street, no longer attackers hurling grenades at his house, no longer shootings at previously peaceful rallies. Interesting.

Another provocative statement was when the former PM started comparing the Thai experience to other countries abroad. He was prompted by an audience member, who noted how liberal democrats also have trouble winning at the ballot box in Israel, and how their right-wing opponents use electoral mandates to justify all kinds of excesses. (I am not quite as sure that the categories of left and right apply so cleanly in Thai politics of the last 15 years, but it is an interesting comparison.) PM Abhisit then reminded us all of the current situation in Brazil, where they seem to be setting up the kind of intractable, polar-opposite camps within the political system that Thailand has become stuck in. The lengthiest parallel was made with Egypt, where PM Abhisit saw a very similar right-wing government engaging in corruption and excesses because of an electoral mandate, a very similar coup, but where foreign powers (most notably the US) did not condemn military takeover. He contrasted this sharply with the strong American condemnations of the military junta in Thailand today.

The points above are rather controversial, but much of the night was fairly safe fare. The best line of the night was a joke he apparently stole from my former colleague Surin Pitsuwan. A young man comes into a library and asks for a copy of the constitution of Thailand. The librarian replies, "I'm sorry; we don't carry periodicals."

By Kevin W. Fogg, Apr 19 2016 05:02PM

A friend on Facebook who is based in Yogyakarta has recently been noting (complaining?) that the whole country watches and even takes sides in the forthcoming Jakarta elections. He calls this Jakarta-centrism, I think along the same lines that British people complain about the South of England or Americans decry a Northern, East Coast elite. (Perhaps on an international level we could also complain of America-centrism, with much of the world bound up watching our presidential train-wreck, despite not being part of the electorate?)

Rather than blame a bias in favor of Jakarta as a region, I would like to propose a different interpretation. I believe the governorship of Jakarta, at least in the last ten years, should be seen as a national post, rather than as a regional post.

Exhibit A: The candidates for it can come from across the country and need not have been long resident in the city. (Jokowi came straight out of Solo, Ridwan Kamil is very much Bandung-based but was bandied about as a realistic candidate.) That kind of carpet-bagging would be unthinkable in other cities or provinces (in Indonesia as abroad-- can you imagine someone who hasn't been living in New York running for mayor of New York City?).

Additionally, the governorship of Jakarta can function as a viable springboard for a national campaign, in a way that (other) regional posts cannot. This might take more explaining. In the United States, it is perfectly common for a governor without experience in Washington DC's national politics to become a presidential candidate. They are sometimes unsuccessful (Mitt Romney, Scott Walker, Rick Perry), but have also seen some pretty good success in the last few decades (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush). In Indonesia, that kind of jump is not done. No one can imagine some governor of West Sumatra or East Java or South Sulawesi (just to name a few prominent provinces that can translate into good cabinet posts) as a viable presidential candidate if he (or hopefully in the future she) has not spent time subsequently in national politics. In fact, I would argue this is why current president Jokowi had to run for the Jakarta governorship, rather than wait for the governorship of his home province Central Java, because only Jakarta would be an elected administrative post that was still national, short of the president or vice-president.

So, rather than complaining about coverage of the Jakarta gubernatorial election as being some kind of negative Jakarta-centrism, I posit we should just accept that the governorship of Jakarta is a national, rather than regional post.

The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent any institutions or other organization with which I am affiliated.  They are mine and mine alone, and should not be copied or reprinted (beyond fair use) without my written permission.  My hope is that these entries will help to further discussion about Southeast Asia, Islamic history, academia in a time of technological change, and other subjects worthy of attention.

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The image above comes from a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat, probably copied in West Sumatra in the first half of the twentieth century and now in the collection of Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence.