Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


By Kevin W. Fogg, May 28 2018 08:00AM

As everyone has now seen, Malaysia made history this month by breaking the hold of the United Malay Nationalist Organization over parliament for the first time since independence. Of course, the new coalition that has come to power is led by a 92-year-old man (fellow blogger) who led UMNO (indeed, his name was almost synonymous with UMNO) for several decades.

Rather than spend this blog post rejoicing with the Malaysian people over the exercise of democracy or digging through the full and fascinating history of Dr. M leading Malaysia, I thought it might be more interesting to look to Malaysia’s future by using an example from Indonesia’s past and present. Somewhat like UMNO, the Indonesian political party (or, initially, non-party / party alternative) Golkar emerged as an elite vehicle that ran the country for decades. From when it joined elections in 1971 to the fall of Soeharto in 1998, Golkar never lost a national election, and kept a pretty good stranglehold of most provinces, too. Since the fall of Soeharto, though, Golkar has consistently sought to join governing coalitions in Indonesia’s national politics. Although it supported losing presidential candidates in 2004, 2009, and 2014, each time it has switched over to join the winning candidate’s coalition (in December 2004, October 2009, and May 2016, the latter after much leadership infighting).

The reason for Golkar repeatedly abandoning its previous position to then join ruling coalitions is not just the absence of real party difference in Indonesian politics—although that certainly plays a role. I join the academic consensus in identifying as the greater issue the fact that Golkar only knows (and only knew) how to function as a funnel for channelling patronage down the party apparatus. When a group of people (or, in this case, muckity-mucks) comes together to organize, but has no principled issues and only organizes around self-enrichment, it is really hard to justify the organization without continued avenues for self-enrichment. This explains both why Golkar keeps jumping into governing coalitions where patronage is much more available, and why Golkar keeps spawning new parties when potential leaders find themselves foiled in attempts to become party head. (Among current parties, NasDem, Gerindra, and Hanura were founded by unambiguous breakaways from Golkar.)

A strong argument can be made, especially in recent years, that UMNO has come to represent the same kind of self-enriching clique of political leadership. So, the question becomes, will it follow the Golkar path to try and crawl back into someone governments led by other parties so as to gain fresh spoils for party functionaries?

The first thing to note is that several UMNO functionaries as individuals (and smaller parties of the old UMNO coalition, Barisan Nasional) have already jumped ship. Notably, this includes several state legislators in Perak and Sabah whose switch to join new coalitions has cemented those coalitions’ power at the state level. This suggests that the model of following the gravy train wherever it goes is a reasonable premise for studying UMNO (and a very strong premise for its minor coalition partners in East Malaysia). However, plenty of party leaders have stayed committed to the party so far (even while more and more are willing to throw former-leader Najib Razak under the bus), so one cannot take this premise too far.

Another caution is that UMNO does actually hold to some principles in Malaysian politics. The most notable of these, of course, is the idea of special privileges for ethnic Malays. Could this be enough to hold the party together and to keep it out of a new government containing so many parties that question Malays’ special privileges? I do not think UMNO has enough of a platform to keep it in principled opposition consistently, and I also do not think its platform positions are sufficiently unique to set it apart from the new parties that have come to power. Note that the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (a break-away from UMNO in much the same way that NasDem broke from Golkar) is not substantially different from UMNO on any issue besides holding Najib Razak somewhat accountable. Even Anwar Ibrahim, the long-time opposition leader from Partai Keadilan Rakyat who is down to be the next Deputy Prime Minister, was assuring the press that Malay privileges would be protected.

Given that the current ruling coalition was created as the anti-UMNO and so would be unlikely to let UMNO as a party back in, what is the likely fate of Malaysia’s classic ruling party? One spectre that must have its leaders worried is the pattern of several of the parties that were junior partners in UMNO coalitions: the Malaysian Indian Congress, Malaysian Chinese Association, and Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia. In the good old days of coalition, these three were perennially given cabinet posts and used as a bulwark against increasing racial tension by the successive UMNO-led governments. But, as the minority ethnic vote on the peninsula consolidated in opposition to UMNO, these smaller parties lost the Chinese and Indian voters that had previously kept them relevant. In General Elections 12 and 13, they lost most of their seats, and this year Gerakan was wiped out of national politics while the leaders of MCA and MIC also failed to win reelection. Now some are saying that these parties will or should disband. Is it possible that an UMNO without dispensable patronage could go the same way?

UMNO is not dead yet. It still has 47 seats in the federal parliament and key roles in several states. However, the road back to government will likely be arduous. Unlike Golkar, UMNO probably cannot crawl back in just for the spoils (the most optimistic interpretation is that ill-gotten spoils as a feature of Malaysian politics will also go down under the new/old leadership), and the party will have to find a fresh way to actually win.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Dec 10 2016 11:29AM

On 10 December, the United Nations celebrates Human Rights Day, in honor of the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. Granted, the UN General Assembly at that time was not so representative as it is today, although it did include the majority of countries in the Middle East and Latin America, even when Asia and Africa were still pushing for broader decolonization. Still, there is a good argument to be made that these rights are universal.

In Malaysia, there has been a lot of push-back against the idea of "human rights" as a foreign construct, inappropriate for Malaysia as a Muslim society. (There is a great article about this by Goh Beng Lan in the edited volume Questioning Modernity in Indonesia and Malaysia; check it out if you are really interested in this stuff.) This seems to forget the fact that the Muslim countries of the Middle East, some of which are held up as models by conservative Muslims in Malaysia, supported the passage of the Declaration in 1948-- Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Turkey all voted in favor. (The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia abstained, but did not oppose the document.)

In Indonesia, the history of support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is even stronger. Indonesia's first constitution was written and promulgated before the Universal Declaration, but in 1950 the country's leaders sat down to write a fresh (albeit temporary) constitution once independence was consolidated, and it explicitly drew from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As Supomo, one of the drafters, makes clear in his exegesis of the Temporary Constitution of 1950, elements like freedom of religion and others were specifically crafted based on the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The late Adnan Buyung Nasution has taken this further, showing how the draft constitution formulated by the Konstituante (Indonesia's Constitutional Assembly, meeting from 1956 until Sukarno unilaterally disbanded it in 1959) also integrated strong human rights protection based on the Universal Declaration. These points were not controversial in early Indonesian politics-- they were a strong consensus across different parties and among all the players involved.

Human Rights still have a long way to go in these two countries today. Even when human rights receive lip service, they are not always upheld in practice (part of the general gap between the letter of the law and its implementation in Southeast Asia.) The point of this post, though, is that opposition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Southeast Asia's Muslims is ignorant of the document's history and its acceptance by the generations of Muslim leaders before them.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Oct 25 2015 09:55AM

Yesterday marked 10 Muharram in the Hijri (Islamic) calendar, called Ashura, a day especially sacred to the Shi'a for the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) at Karbala.

Even some non-Shi'a Muslims have events for Ashura. In West Sumatra, they have a major cultural event on the beach in Pariaman, called Tabuik. It starts at the beginning of Muharram with a few little events, and then culminates with a ceremony carrying a large model of a winged horse-woman (bouraq) into the sea. Paul H. Mason has described the whole thing well in an article for Inside Indonesia, but I'm told similar ceremonies also happen in Bengkulu province at the same time.

This year, there is less to celebrate. Shi'i Muslims across Southeast Asia (and around the world) are coming under increasing pressure in Sunni majority contexts. In Malaysia, the Islamic Religious Department has announced 'stern measures' against any Shi'i Muslims who practice their faith this year. West Java, Indonesia, has had some infortunate incidents, too. The mayor of the city of Bogor has banned any celebrations of Ashura. In Bandung, the police are caving to protestors who claim that the Shi'is are not only blaspheming the majority Sunni faith but are also threatening the integrity of the country. The pitiful response of the police is especially flagrant when a reported 120 protestors apparently so threatened the 1000 police officers that they forced the Shi'a community to immediately stop the event and evacuate the stadium. Literally, they had over eight police for each protestor, and yet the Bandung police still felt "too threatened" to let Ashura commemorations continue? It seems clear to me that they were looking for an excuse to call them off. The Indonesian threats (and violence) against Shi'is this year have even internationalized, with rioters outside Yogyakarta attacking a community of immigrants from Afghanistan because they were Shi'a.

Of course, this uptick in Southeast Asia reflects increasing tensions around the world between Sunni and Shi'i Muslims. Plenty of people have pointed out the Sunni-Shi'a divide lurking behind some of the international machinations in Syria, and experts debate whether the war in Yemen is basically a confessional one. Attacks in Iraq continue (not a new story, since the American-led invasion), but this increased antagonism is happening internally in other Middle Eastern countries, too. Saudi Arabia has already seen gunmen attack Shi'i mosques where believers were celebrating Ashura this year. Tension seems to be spreading through other states, too. We shouldn't forget South Asia, either, where Pakistani officials and society have not been able to stop attacks on Shi'i worshippers. To me, the ultimate sign of Sunni-Shi'a conflict (which may actually be fundamentally political between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but is certainly talked about in sectarian terms) becoming paramount this year was not Iran's screaming over the pilgrims killed at Mina, but rather when Saudi Arabia lined up with Israel to argue against the international treaty with Iran.

Hopefully the more intense violence of South Asia and the Middle East will not spread to Southeast Asia, where the numbers of Shi'i Muslims are also fairly small. Still, this is something that I hope both watchers of the region and policymakers will educate themselves on before it spills over into more trouble. The question of Shi'ism in Southeast Asia has been tackled most comprehensively, I think, in the recent edited volume by Chiara Formichi and Michael Feener (both friends and colleagues). Getting under the skin of this particular type of religious intolerance, though, we might do very well to look at the work of Jeremy Menchik, who has explained the limits of Indonesian Islamic tolerance in a way that deserves attention.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Oct 16 2015 10:42AM

Everyone seems to agree that politics in Malaysia have changed / are changing. The old leaders of the strong UMNO-led regime-- including long-time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, but also some others-- have now come out saying they support greater transparancy, democracy, and accountability for the regime (and, often more explicitly, that they oppose the current PM). Many Malaysians are hailing these figures as responsible leaders and worthy to lead the opposition cause. That, in turn, is raising eyebrows from some folks long outside the regime; why are Malaysians so willing to accept these voices now for the democratic cause, when for so long they were seen as authoritarian and anti-democratic? (I should note that even voices loyal to the Najib administration are now talking about how much Malaysia has changed, as a method to say that the old leaders should keep their mouths shut.)

In fact, outside Malaysia this change of heart of old UMNO (/Barisan Nasional) leaders has been fascinating to watch, but generally hard for the international community to accept. It seems that we outsiders are not great at moving someone from the category of "shady character" to "good guy." (Perhaps currently imprisoned opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim stands out here as the Malaysian exception that proves the rule; long seen as Mahathir's heir apparent, when he was kicked out of the government and then spearheaded the opposition, democratic voices around the world and at home have gotten behind him.) Other examples of figures who were seen as shady and have tried to transform into democrats include Indonesian former general Wiranto, Indonesian former general (and Suharto son-in-law) Prabowo Subianto, (contrast with former general then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono-- granted his record as a general was not so grim), and Myanmar's general-turned-president Thein Sein, or more so the ousted chairman of Myanmar's USDP, Shwe Mann. (I would add the Thai military-led regime to this list, except its leaders do not even want to pretend to be democratic on most days.)

Contrast this with Southeast Asian figures who were long seen as brave, honorable, democratic opposition figures, but fell from grace--among foreign observers-- once they got closer to (or attained) positions of power. Indonesia has Megawati Soekarnoputri and Amien Rais, who are certainly no longer seen as leaders for transparant democracy. (One could add, in a different way, Abdurrahman Wahid, who was certainly a failed president but still a decent voice for human rights.) The example par excellence (and particularly timely) is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, who was the world's democratic darling three years ago and is now not looking so hot as she compromises with the regime, stays silent on the Rohingya, and rules her party with an iron fist. It seems very easy for pro-democratic figures to come into question for their democratic commitment (especially in international eyes, if less so at home).

This raises two lines of questioning, both of which I'm afraid will have to go unanswered in this post. First, there seems to be a significant difference in levels to accept a change of political stripes between constituencies at home and observers abroad-- why is this, and is it justified? Second, what would the old "shady characters" have to do to become accepted as "good guys"? In times of great political change (as we are currently seeing in Malaysia and Myanmar), these issues will loom above many of the leading actors in the system.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Oct 13 2015 01:50PM

Tan Sri Dato' Sri Dr. Zeti Akhtar Aziz, the governor of Bank Negara Malaysia, has one of the toughest jobs in Southeast Asia at the moment. She is not only overseeing, but in some ways holding up the Malaysian economy, buffetted as it is by the slowdown in China's economy and the on-going political crisis at home. She is also navigating how the central bank-- as a regulator-- can and/or should weigh in on the economic and banking issues at the core of this political crisis. We recently learned that she turned over results of an investigation to the Attorney General's Office, calling for chargest against 1MDB (the Malaysian national investment fund, now mired in scandal) and then asking the AGO to review its decision when it let 1MDB off the hook. Last week, she made a particularly bold move to demand that 1MDB bring home some $1.83 billion to Malaysia, a decision she has had to defend, but one that once again shows her integrity and independence-- both things that Malaysia desperately needs right now. (Apparently the Perlis mufti is with me on this one.)

This post will cover some of her background and accomplishments in the area of Islamic finance during her tenure, before looking at Dr. Zeti in a wider Malaysian and regional context.

Governor Zeti's father, Ungku Abdul Aziz, is also a prominent economist, as a professor, then Vice-Chancellor, then Regius Professor at the University of Malaya (in fact, the first Malaysian to head that institution). He also had a prominent role in Islamic finance, by helping to set up Tabung Haji, the collective savings fund that Malaysia runs to help its Muslim citizens put away money to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Dr. Zeti studied economics at the University of Malaya and at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania before coming home as an economist and regulator. By 1998, when Malaysia was in the throes of the Asian Financial Crisis, she was one of the deputies in Bank Negara, and was nominated as Acting Governor when Ahmad Mohd Don announced pegging the ringgit to the dollar and his resignation. Since 2000, she has been the Governor of Bank Negara Malaysia, making her the first woman in the post, and the second-longest-serving governor to date.

Islamic finance is one of the major sectors that has flourished under Governor Zeti, with Islamic finance assets growing at a rate above 14% per annum from the 1990s through 2009. Of course, Malaysia already had a strong basis in Islamic finance, both through the Tabung Haji and Islamic Bank that had been established decades earlier, and with the first tradeable sukuk (Islamic bonds) that had come out from Shell Malaysia in 1990. However, from 2000 Malaysia has been at the forefront of Islamic finance development, and the sector has done very well. One theory about the boom in Malaysia's Islamic finance sector is that assets of wealthy Arabs fled into Malaysian Islamic finance market from the US after 2001, when many individuals were afraid of their assets being frozen (or had seen assets frozen). One has to pair this explanation with great management, though. 2001 is also the year that Malaysia established the Islamic Banking and Finance Institute of Malaysia (IBFIM), which bills itself as "one-stop finance reference centre for industry and for academia." In 2002 the Islamic Financial Services Board (IFSB)was established in Malaysia, to coordinate standards for Islamic financial institutions around the world. In 2006, Malaysia established the International Centre for Education in Islamic Finance (INCEIF), which is now an institutional home to great scholars (like Oxford's recent visiting fellow Adam Ng) but primarily trains students to work in this sector. This was complemented in 2008 by the International Shariah Research Academy for Islamic Finance (ISRA). There is also an idea that Islamic finance as a sector weathered the 2008 global financial crisis very well, in part because it was based on real assets and so was less vulnerable to derivative volatility; Governor Zeti has espoused this idea many times in international fora. Certainly no one can deny that the market has grown in Malaysia; from 2001-2010 "The Islamic banking industry has expanded from 6% to 22% of the overall banking sector" (p. 33); the dominance of Islamic bonds (sukuk) in the debt securities market was even more stunning. The 2009 Central Bank Act helped to solidify in law some of the ways in which Malaysia has prospered, including centralizing shari'a questions about Islamic finance instruments under the auspices of its central bank, which has made it a little easier to navigate than haphazard systems that arose in Gulf countries. (This had begun in 1997 with the Shariah Advisory Council.) In the 2011 Malaysian Financial Sector Blueprint for the coming decade, the big emphasis on Islamic finance was in harmonization between different countries' Islamic systems. To this end, Malaysia passed an Islamic Financial Services Act in 2013. By all reports, Governor Zeti's fingerprints are all over these developments, overseeing a stable market in Malaysia, but also trying (with her colleagues) to stay ahead of the regulatory curve so as to pave the way for growth in Islamic finance.

Her position as a female central banker has also been an interesting aspect of her career, although not one that she dwells on. She came up in the New York Times coverage of Janet Yellen's confirmation hearing for head of the Fed (the US central bank), and she has sat atop Forbes lists of women to watch in Asia and lists of Malaysia's most inspiring women (and lists of the best central bank governors, naturally, but there she had to compete with the boys). There are even rumors that she was short-listed for the head of the IMF several years ago (when the institution had a bit of a gender problem). It is worth noting that she is not alone among the female financial heavyweights of Malaysia; for a while she served concurrently with my sometime colleague here in Oxford, Tan Sri Zarinah Anwar, who was chairwoman of the Securities Commission of Malaysia (and, come to think of it, also the daughter of a prominent national family and a mover-and-shaker in Islamic Finance).

Nor has Governor Zeti been alone as a woman among economic policymakers in the region. Indonesia considered appointing Miranda Goeltom as central banker in 2003, and she became acting governor in 2009 when the former governor (Boediono) was elevated to Vice-President; sadly, she was later found guilty of corruption for offering bribes connected with her appointment at Bank Indonesia, so we clearly should not see her on par with her Malaysian sometime couterpart. Much more successful, respected, and all-around-awesome is the former Indonesian Minister of Finance, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, now the Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer at the World Bank (the most senior woman ever in the institution). (For the record, I agree with this blog that Sri Mulyani is a rockstar.) And, of course, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines (x2) have all had female heads of state. The thing that stands out about Governor Zeti, to me, is her staying power. She has not only earned such an influential place in Malaysian society, she has also secured her independence in this role, pushing for the passage of the Central Bank Act of 2009, which ensures that only the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (the rotating head of Malaysia's various royal families) has the power to demand a governor's resignation. (That provision is looking especially handy these days, one expects.) Contrast this with the incredibly competent, honest, and effective Sri Mulyani Indrawati, who was basically forced out of office for trying to keep the Finance Ministry (and other branches of government) clean.

Tan Sri Dato' Sri Dr. Zeti Akhtar Aziz's challenges are not over, by any stretch of the imagination, but she has survived enough already that she looks like a very steady hand at the helm. One does hope that this will continue to serve Malaysia well through the current troubles.

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.