By Farish A. Noor
If you believe what you read in the news, then you will know by now that Malaysia is about to be invaded by an army of Indonesian Ninjas and Samurais. The news that a home-made pseudo-militia unit comprising of a group of self-proclaimed Indonesian ‘patriots’ are gathering names of volunteers to unilaterally invade Malaysia armed with samurai swords and ninja-throwing stars is alarming to say the least; not merely for the brazenness of the threat but more so for its lunacy and irrationality. If anyone has been insulted by this claim, it is the people of Indonesia themselves, who have been made to look foolish by a bunch of thuggish preman gangsters who have sullied the name of Indonesia. And as a Malaysian of Javanese descent, I am likewise offended that a group of hoodlums can besmirch the name of the country which I regard as my second home.
In the midst of this din and anger, we need to ask what the governments of both countries are doing and why there has been little evident effort on their part to inject a degree of reason and rational debate into what has been going on. Already we have read of reports of demonstrations in Jakarta and several other cities in Indonesia; as well as stories of vigilante groups ‘sweeping’ parts of Jakarta in search of Malaysians to be kicked out of the country. Coming at a time when Indonesia is once again attracting global attention for all the right reasons, news such as this can be of little help in the effort to place Indonesia in a positive light.
To be sure, mass protests and demonstrations are neither new nor unique to Southeast Asia. We have witnessed massive acts of protest that brought down governments in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia in the past. However the ASEAN region has also been the venue of many pogroms, race riots and orchestrated campaigns that were designed to isolate and vilify minority groups and the more vulnerable sectors of society.
In 1998 the world was not spared the painful and harrowing images of Jakarta and other cities like Surakarta set aflame by mobs of angry protesters who were later deployed against the minority groups of the country, the Indonesian Chinese. In the years that followed similar unilateral actions on the part of self-proclaimed ‘defenders of the faith’ let to foreign tourists being ‘sweeped’ from hotels and warnings sent out to all foreigners that they were not welcomed in the country: An irony, to say the least, when Indonesia is so dependent on foreign currency earnings based on tourism. And today it seems that Malaysian students and tourists are being targeted by a new wave of patriotic zealots.
But how many of these so-called ‘patriots’ even realise that in Malaysia there are hundreds of thousands of Malaysian citizens like myself who are of Indonesian origin, and who love Indonesia and regard Indonesia as our ancestral homeland too? How many of these patriots realise that when Malaysians buy Indonesian products like batik it is not because we wish to ‘steal’ Indonesia’s cultural heritage and patrimony, but rather because as Malaysians of Javanese, Sumatran, Balinese and Bugis descent we regard things like batik as part of our past and our cultural connection with Indonesia as well?
It is this lack of knowledge, fueled by arrogant and irresponsible political leaders and soap-box orators, that is mobilising the youth of Indonesia in this irrational campaign against Malaysia, which happens to be Indonesia’s oldest and closest civilisational neighbour. What is more the lack of rational discourse and reasoned debate has merely helped to galvanise the culture of Indonesia’s premans – the rent-a-mob service that has been around too long – which threatens to damage Indonesia’s standing and reputation just when the country is making an impact on the international scene.
It is therefore crucial that the incumbent politicians, intellectuals and cultural activists of both Malaysia and Indonesia to play their part now, and spill water on the overheated tempers on both sides of the political divide. Now is the time for the respective Ministers for Foreign Affairs of both countries to be traveling to each other’s countries, explaining the situation, deepening the context of the debate and seeking out rational partners in a sustained and intelligent dialogue about culture and identity. Arresting or suppressing the vigilantes and militias we see on the streets of Jakarta today will not solve the problem, but merely glorify them who wish to be seen and cast as martyrs instead. Rather, what is needed is the laying of strong and solid socio-cultural foundations so that the peoples of ASEAN are not dragged down the path of this sort of divisive culturally-exclusive politics time and again in the future.
Above all, what is at stake here is the image and reputation of Indonesia, which is a key country in ASEAN and whose fate and standing in the world is of concern to the rest of the region. Indonesia has to break this fatal association between its politics and the culture of irrational violence once and for all.
Failure to do so would mean that Indonesia will be better known for silly stories and amusing news reports about Ninjas and Samurais who go declaring war against neighbouring countries at the drop of a hat. That would be insulting to Indonesia and Indonesians, and to Malaysians of Indonesian descent like myself as well.
Dr Farish A. Noor is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and an Affiliated Professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta, Indonesia.