Political climate change and rising tides, part 1

I knew about it from the newspaper at breakfast. The trial of cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir on terrorism-related charges was scheduled for Thursday (10 Feb 2011) at a South Jakarta courthouse. His supporters were expected to turn out in force. Having no plans to be anywhere near South Jakarta, I put it out of my mind.

A couple of hours later, while walking down Jalan M H Thamrin in Jakarta’s business district, three minibuses came to a stop no more than 20 metres from where I was. It seemed a little curious because there was nothing to indicate that it was a bus stop. I wondered if they were municipal public buses, so I paid attention to what might happen next, in the hope it might answer the question in my head: Was this a bus stop and how do people know?

Then the funniest thing happened, which made my attention well worth the while. From the rear door of each of the three minibuses, a barker leaned out shouting something in Indonesian to whoever happened to be on the sidewalk. By itself, this was not unusual; in many Third World countries, buses have barkers who shout out their routes and destinations to potential commuters and who double as fare-collectors. However, each of the three was also waving a green flag, roughly double the size of a pillow case.

I looked more closely. On each green flag was a crescent moon, and the letters “FPI”. I knew what they stood for: Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front).

From around the sidewalk, people came up and boarded the buses till the three vehicles were almost full. They then drove off.

Later that afternoon, I asked someone I was meeting — he was Indonesian, so he might know — if he read the incident the same way I did. Indeed, my hunch was right. On top of that, my contact provided one more nugget of information: the going rate was 50,000 rupiahs (approx S$7 or US$5.50)  per day. Apparently, it’s an open secret.

* * * * *

Two days later, the neighbourhood where my hotel was had taken on a different character. Almost overnight, flags had been affixed on every available lamp post or any other post. I even saw a man stringing up more flags not more than 200 metres from my hotel. He was barefoot and looked unwashed like he was homeless. But he had a wheelbarrow of flags and was slowly making his way down a side lane, the main streets having been well festooned.

I took a picture of one such flag. You can see the words quite clearly.

The flags were so numerous, you could not miss them. Their sheer numbers changed the complexion of the locality. I could feel in my bones that so long as I was on these streets, it would be risky to say anything critical of the FPI.

* * * * *

The Jakarta Post carried a story in its 11 February 2011 edition headlined “Judges concerned over mob pressure”.

The Supreme Court is concerned about the rising number of incidents where angry mobs have intimidated judges and prosecutors during court hearings, and called the government to ensure security in courts.


Supreme Court spokesman Djoko Sarwoko said such incidents, including demonstrations during trials, had surely affected the judges at the benches. “They try to intimidate the judges; I’d say many of the groups are actually being used by certain actors do direct the trial for their benefits,” he told The Jakarta Post on Thursday.

— Jakarta Post, 11 Feb 2011, Judges concerned over mob pressure

Among the many incidents that have occurred recently was that in Temanggung on Tuesday, 8 February 2011. Temanggung, a town in the province of Central Java, was where Christian pastor Antonius Richmond Bawengan stood trial for blasphemy against Islam. He was arrested for distributing books and articles in October 2010. That February day, the District Court having found him guilty, prosecutors recommended to the court a sentence of five years’ imprisonment. Trial spectators became upset that a death sentence was not being demanded and promptly attacked the prosecutors, defendant and judges. The police had their hands full protecting and evacuating these key persons; they could do nothing to help the town outside.

The crowd went on a rampage, setting two Protestant churches on fire — Bethel Church and Pantekosta Church — and stoning the Santo Petrus & Santo Paulus Church, the last belonging to the Catholic diocese. Several cars and motorcycles were also burnt.

Fortunately, no one was hurt.

The point to consider is this: While the police might have been able to protect the prosecutors and judges this one time, would they be able to protect them all the time? Can these officers of the state feel safe while at home or attending to other duties? More generally, can we reasonably expect officers of the state discharge their responsibilities to justice without being influenced by such threats? This applies to all judicial officers in Indonesia since the mob was not local to Temanggung. They were bussed in. If they can be bussed into one town, they can be bussed into any other.

That morning, Temanggung’s local businessmen had shuttered their shops, anticipating trouble when they saw the huge group coming into town. The town itself had been a peaceful mix of Muslims and Christians for generations. Even after the incident, local Muslims came forward to help clean up the damaged churches. According to the website tempointeraktif.com (a website of Tempo magazine), dozens of members of Banser, the youth wing of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) helped out at the ruins of Santo Petrus and Santo Paulus Church. NU is Indonesia’s largest Muslim political and social group.

* * * * *

What about the state? What about its response?

“If there are groups of organizations continuing to perform acts of violence, law enforcers should seek legal ways, if necessary, to disband [them],” President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said as quoted by Antara in a speech at the commeMoration of the 2011 National Press Day in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, on Wednesday.


Home Minister Gamawan Fauzi said that thus far there had been no mass organizations found to have disturbed public order that would need to be disbanded.


Law and Human Rights Minister Patrialis Akbar said disbanding the organizations would not be an easy task, because not all of them were officially registered.

— Jakarta Post, 10 Feb 2011, SBY seeks action against extremists

You see in the above statements confusion, ambivalence and caution even at the highest levels of the Indonesian state. And there are more such statements, which I will cite in subsequent posts, when I will address the issue of how pressure groups can so modify the political climate in a country, they neuter the ability of the state to counteract them. I do not know if the Islamic Defenders Front is an officially registered organisation, but regardless, they are more than able to make their presence felt, either by way of demonstrations or by flooding a district with flags.

The most obvious question must be: Where do they get the money to hire the thousands they can muster or make the flags and banners that stamp their name on neighbourhoods? How much of that is foreign money? I asked some other Indonesians. No one could tell me.

* * * * *

Now let me turn to Singapore. And for this Part 1, my ‘thought for the day’ is this: Is it wrong in principle for the state to proscribe foreign funding for political groups?

In the last few months, the Singapore government gazetted human rights group Maruah and The Online Citizen, a website, as “political associations” within the meaning of the Political Donations Act. By doing so, it forbade them from receiving foreign donations. It also forbade them from receiving local anonymous donations beyond a  limit of S$5,000 in total per annum.

Most netizens would have taken the view that here again were more examples of the Singapore government trying to restrict and silence dissent. Indeed, such a  motivation might have gone into the government’s calculations. But the question I now put out here is this: Is it wrong in principle to restrict foreign funding for political causes? Should there be no limits on foreign funding? If you agree there should be some limits, where should we draw the line? At the same time, what measures do you propose to prevent the abuse of this power by a government out to protect its own political incumbency?

3 Responses to “Political climate change and rising tides, part 1”

  1. 1 liew kai khiun 14 February 2011 at 17:43

    I would hope that a post-suharto democratic indonesia would go the way of South Korea and Taiwan rather than that of Nazi Germany. I guess it is difficult to gauge at present the outcome of the struggle between progressive secular forces against the reactionaries in Indonesia.

    As for Singapore, i like your idea of psychological lynching. But, this has only been legitimised by the state who has chosen to position itself as a guardian of so call traditional conservative family values (ironic isn’t it for a system that has created unusually low birth rates?)At the sametime, because of this moral positioning, the singapore authorities have found it difficult to take on fundamentalist islam as seen in how the PM backtracks into political correctness of his old man’s “hard truths”.

  2. 2 Dan 15 February 2011 at 00:33

    All foreign donations from legal sources should be allowed. The safeguard is a strict adherence to the constitution of a secular state, with free, fair and open elections, that all parties and candidates declare their assets, funding etc.

  3. 3 Robox 15 February 2011 at 09:14

    “Should there be no limits on foreign funding? If you agree there should be some limits, where should we draw the line? At the same time, what measures do you propose to prevent the abuse of this power by a government out to protect its own political incumbency?”

    I don’t know if I am able to reply to the second and third questions but I will to the first one.

    In general, I would like to see no restrictions on foreign funding because locals would know if any local or domestic organizations that receive foreign funding don’t exist to serve local interests, the fear – or is it the bogeyman? – that the PAP government has expressed in the past.

    However, on reading the specific example of the Indonesian organizations who might be in receipt of foreign funding, and then proceeding to foment societal discord emboldened by it, I am beginning to have reservations.

    Ideally, the same rule of thumb should apply: locals would eventually find out if those organizations do in fact serve the interests of Indonesian Muslims and Indonesia in general. But this doesn’t appear to be occurring. And there doesn’t appear to be anything in place to ensure that it does happen.

    Should there instead be foreign funding for liberal, and I might add, more holistic, interpretations of Islam to counter the effects of the Islamists?

    I am still undecided on this matter.

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