Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


By Kevin W. Fogg, Aug 8 2018 11:40AM

As everyone interested in Indonesian politics (including me) waits on pins and needles for the announcement of presidential running-mates and the determination of whether there will be a third national ticket in the 2019 elections (see my previous post on vice-presidents here), I was thinking about the history of horse-trading to build coalitions in Indonesia. For years, there was not much of this involved in the presidency. Sukarno was chosen as president by parliamentary acclamation, and he theoretically stood above parties. Although Suharto had an unambiguous affiliation to Golkar—which was technically not billed as a party but as a “non-party vehicle”—by the 1992 round of national elections, it was PPP, not Golkar, that formally put him up for president in the national parliament. It was not until 1999, or maybe even 2004 or 2009, that Indonesia saw a president scramble to win parties over through choice patronage positions, as we are seeing in the current vice-presidential candidate scrum.

The longer historical precedent for this, I would say, was the assembling of Prime Ministerial cabinets in the 1950s. These heads of government did not have the chance to run against each other in the popular vote, but they did have to carefully weigh how to give out positions (the choicest ministries were Defense, Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs, and Information, although Muslim groups were always set on running the Ministry of Religion) so as to win enough parliamentary votes to hold a mandate. That strikes me as rather similar to the two leading candidates this week, Jokowi and Prabowo, trying to hold together a coalition big enough to win them the presidency (both for passing the high threshold of parliamentary seats to field a ticket, as set by the General Election Commission, and for getting the popular vote in the presidential election next year).

In the 1950s, as today, the Islamic parties were often split, inside and outside the cabinet. After PSII broke away from Masjumi in 1947 to join the first cabinet of Amir Sjarifuddin, and even more so after NU split from Masjumi in 1952 (the immediate trigger was also a cabinet seat, although there were bountiful structural issues, too), it was almost impossible to keep all the Islamic parties on the same side. The 1950s also had a number of coalitions that came down to the last minute. Sometimes the president’s designated formateurs were unable to assemble a cabinet within the period of their mandate, and had to go into a second attempt with a new team of formateurs. In the case of Natsir in 1950, he was determined to assemble his cabinet on time, but that meant leaving out PNI which was playing hardball to win big posts, driving a wedge in between two parties that had by-and-large gotten along well during the Revolution.

Are there still similarities of political culture between the 1950s cabinet negotiations and this week’s vice-presidential horse-trading? It’s hard to say. In both instances, most of the work is happening behind closed doors, so most observers have little idea of how the conversations or considerations go in the room where it happens. The leaks that come out suggest that key Islamic parties are deferring to their senior clerics to determine alignment, which would echo NU in the 1950s. It is unclear how much other parties have faith in their elected party leaders and are willing to defer to the negotiations of that one person; that was consistently a problem for parties in the 1950s. The biggest differences in political culture are probably the lack of an outside head of state to urge different players to the table, as Sukarno and Hatta were able to do in the 1950s and the presence of a theoretically-neutral bureaucracy (the General Election Commission) to regulate the process. It remains unclear whether either feature functioned to the benefit or detriment of a smooth selection for the next government.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Aug 6 2018 03:31PM

Many readers will know about my sabbatical research a year ago, looking into the history of mass Islamic organizations based outside of Java. I was particularly focused on three groups: Nahdlatul Wathan on Lombok; Alkhairaat based in Palu; and Jamiyatul Washliyah, founded in Medan.

This week, as the Indonesian presidential candidates are set to finalize their running mates for next year's national elections, I am struck that all three organizations I was studying have a man still in the race (and yes, all the candidates on all the tickets look to be men) for the vice-presidency.

From Nahdlatul Wathan, Muhammad Zainul Majdi (more commonly known as TGB, short for Tuan Guru Bajang) is a grandson of the founder and current head of (one of the rival factions of) the organization, who simultaneously serves as governor of West Nusa Tenggara Province. He quit his political party, the Democrat Party, to become a free agent as the race for vice-president began to heat up, and now he's touted as a leading candidate to run with incumbent president Jokowi. (It is unclear how the tragic earthquakes that have rocked Lombok in the last eight days are playing into the race--many different sides are already on Facebook politicizing the catastrophes as divine retribution for TGB's affiliation with Jokowi, or condemning the politicization of the tragedy.)

Another grandson of an organization founder is also in the race, but running largely from Jakarta. Salim Segaf Al-Jufri is the grandson of the founder of Alkhairaat (Sayyid Idrus bin Salim Al-Jufri), but from a branch of the family that did not continue in the organization's leadership, and the chairman of the party board for PKS, arguably Indonesia's most conservative Islamic party at the moment. He was formerly Minister of Social Affairs under the last president, and is now in the final four to run with challenger presidential candidate Prabowo. The PKS is also threatening not to support Prabowo's coalition, presumably if he does not choose a running mate to the party's liking, which increases the possibility of a third candidate team.

A dark horse in the candidate to be Prabowo's vice-presidential candidate is an Islamic scholar from Sumatra, Abdul Somad Batubara. In light of his activism connected to hardline support for the Indonesian Ulama Council and opposition to former (non-Muslim) governor of Jakarta, his name has been put forward by conservative Islamic groups, and was also listed in Prabowo's top four. Abdul Somad is prominent for his Islamic teaching over social media and in the public eye. His roots, though, go back to the Islamic organization Jamiyatul Washliyah; both his elementary and middle school degrees were from Al-Washliyah schools in North Sumatra (before he moved down to Riau), and that's also the time when he memorized the Qur'an.

Given that the pool of potential vice-presidential candidates in popular discussion is down to about ten people, the fact that three of them are grounded in major Islamic organizations outside Java is striking. (Granted, the loosely followed tradition in Indonesia is to have a Java-based presidential candidate and a non-Javanese vice-president, so that helps the odds.) I have long advocated for more attention to these groups, and maybe a successful national political candidate will start to bring more of a spotlight.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Jun 28 2018 06:31PM

In yesterday's Indonesian regional elections, there was a major landmark for Indonesian women, but it seems to have been largely unnoticed in the press (both foreign and domestic). Khofifah Indar Parawansa, who resigned as Minister of Social Affairs in January 2018 to make her third run at the East Java governor's mansion, was the first woman to come to power as an Indonesian governor by election.

As you can see, I have chosen my words rather carefully there. Khofifah will not be the first female governor in Indonesian history; that honor goes to Ratu Atut Chosiyah, who was first elected Vice-Governor in Banten in 2002, then became governor three years later when her father arranged for the governor to be taken down on corruption charges. Ratu Atut had her own spectacular fall from grace starting in 2013 around a much larger corruption scandal, although this was admittedly after winning re-election in 2006. And, of course, Ratu Atut is not the only woman to have been elected Vice-Governor in Indonesia; there was even a new woman (and a particular research interest of mine) who seems to have been elected yesterday in West Nusa Tenggara.

The difference for Khofifah is that she went straight at the governorship and won it by election. This landmark comes surprisingly late in Indonesian history. Women have been cabinet members since 1946 (Mr Maria Ulfah Santoso), and of course Indonesia had a woman as president (also, notably, because of the resignation of the president and the elevation of the vice-president) starting in 2001 (Megawati Soekarnoputri). Why then has it taken so very long to have a woman elected as governor? Further thoughts at a later time.

Khofifah herself had a very strong run for the governorship of East Java in 2008, in an election lost by the narrowest of margins after multiple rounds of voting and marred by vote tampering allegations. She ran again unsuccessfully in 2013. It seems the third time was the charm.

Her story is also interesting because of the role of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Islamic organization in Indonesia (and perhaps the world). Khofifah is the current head of NU's women's auxiliary, Muslimat NU, although her career since 1992 has been mostly political (first as a member of parliament, then serving as various ministers in national cabinets). As a friend pointed out to me today, her rise to executive leadership in secular politics is a departure for NU, whose kyais had previously been skeptical of women as leaders.

I am struck, though, that the Indonesian press is not at all focused on the major accomplishment for women in politics that Khofifah represents. Instead, all of the focus seems to be on her announced support for Jokowi in next year's presidential election. This is a weakness of the Indonesian press, and I wish that more had an eye on this historic moment for its implications for gender participation in politics.

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, 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.

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.