Indonesia can lead the way with campaign of tolerance and peace to counter extremism

Nicholas Fang and Cheryl Tan say there is a risk of Indonesia becoming a hotbed of terrorism in Southeast Asia but this is also a chance to show how a moderate Muslim democracy can lead a global movement against radicalism

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 February, 2016, 5:32pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 February, 2016, 5:32pm

The year has not got off to an auspicious start for Indonesia. The country and its new president weathered multiple headwinds in 2015, and the turn of the new year brought some promise of a fresh start for the economy. But the recent attack involving bomb blasts and shootings that struck at the heart of Jakarta has brought renewed uncertainty about the already weakened Indonesian market and unnerved investors, weakening the rupiah further.

The impact of the terror attacks have economic implications for the region as well. First, they bring sharply into focus a possible future for Southeast Asia where the “war on terror” that used to take place further away, in places such as the Middle East, will make its effects felt much closer to home and with increasing frequency. Investors unused to such security risks in Southeast Asia may need to get used to them.

The challenge for governments is to reassure investors that such risks will not dim the region’s prospects of becoming a growth engine for the world.

So far, President Joko Widodo’s approach has been to take a measured and less dramatic approach in responding to radicalism and extremist groups in his country. Instead of calling for a war on terrorism, as the West and Middle Eastern states have done, Widodo denounced the attacks and sought to reassure his people and the rest of the world that his government and security forces have the situation under control.

Its vast archipelago and porous maritime borders represent favourable conditions for terrorist cells to thrive

While it may not have been the intended effect, the central bank’s announcement that it would cut interest rates to boost growth on the back of the bomb blasts also served as an important signal to investors that, despite the tragedy and ongoing manhunt, it was business as usual in Indonesia.

Indonesia holds much promise for investors keen to take advantage of the huge consumption potential of the populous nation. But even as it continues to be one of Southeast Asia’s brightest sparks, with the potential to draw foreign investors from all over the world, the country could also be the region’s weakest link. Its vast archipelago and porous maritime borders represent favourable conditions and a suitable environment for terrorist cells to breed and thrive, as well as to recruit from not only within Indonesia, but also its Asean neighbours.

As a president overseeing a country with the world’s largest Muslim population, Widodo’s preference has been for softer and more preventive methods to balance the harder efforts of law enforcement and anti-terror forces. Since his days as mayor of Solo, he has advocated creating and working with moderate interfaith dialogue groups and encouraging public education to curb the spread of Islamic extremist propaganda, as well as addressing socio-economic inequality to deal with radicalism and extremism.

Widodo has advocated creating and working with moderate interfaith dialogue groups

But with terrorist activity picking up not only in Indonesia but in the region, Widodo will need to move forward with more urgency on plans to control the spread of Islamic extremism in his country. Going by his preference to tackle the root cause of extremism, this will include a multipronged approach to address development gaps and the country’s widening socio-economic inequality and the lack of quality jobs, especially for the younger generation.

To do this, he needs to start by getting Indonesia’s economy back on track in terms of growth. It is even more critical now for him to move ahead resolutely with several economic policy packages that his administration rolled out in the last two quarters of 2015.

They call for quality foreign investment that would not only help existing primary industries move up the value chain, but also spark the development of new industries such as e-commerce, pharmaceuticals and the information and communications technology sector. These are targeted at creating new jobs and boosting domestic consumption.

Funnelling investment towards developing and modernising the many island provinces and regions outside Jakarta has also been a key priority for the Widodo administration. Ensuring the equitable development of Indonesia will be important to ensure that its people, especially the young, have less impetus to give in to the allure of radical Islamist terrorist groups in the medium to long term.

A population that is largely poorly educated is also at higher risk of succumbing to terrorist recruitment

Efforts to develop the country’s software – its people – should not be ignored either. Compared to its Asean neighbours, Indonesia lacks a strong professional labour force that is proficient in English. This is a key stumbling block in Indonesia’s economic progress and the country’s Achilles’ heel if it wants to be a front-runner in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. A population that is largely poorly educated is also at higher risk of succumbing to terrorist recruitment.

There are risks that Indonesia might become the capital of terrorism in Southeast Asia. But there is also potential for the country to show how a moderate Muslim majority and democracy can lead the way in a counter-extremist global movement that embraces inclusiveness, tolerance and peace.

Indonesia must also show conviction and leadership in setting up an intensive and effective deradicalisation programme that seeks to rehabilitate deportees and also addresses the hundreds of convicted terrorists who will be released from prison once their jail terms are up as early as this year. Laws on anti-terrorism also need to be strengthened and enforced so that Indonesian police are able to act quickly to stop attacks from being planned or taking place.

READ MORE: Anti-radicalisation programmes focus on Indonesian prisons to combat growing influence of Islamic State

Whether Widodo’s approach is the best one remains to be seen. But it does present an alternative way, one different from those adopted in the West, to tackle terrorism. As a region poised to be the world’s next economic growth engine, alarmist and aggressive methods are unlikely to work, and could divide the region. Instead, a united effort among governments in Southeast Asia to cooperate against terrorism could be more effective, and go a long way to reassure investors that each country’s government is committed towards building a stable and safe environment for business and investment in the region.

Nicholas Fang and Cheryl Tan are, respectively, executive director and deputy director for Asean at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs