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Widodo is putting Indonesia’s business-friendly future on the line

Steven Keithley says Malaysia’s destroyed reputation as a progressive pluralistic society is a cautionary tale on the folly of backing religious hardliners and the likely dire fallout for Indonesia’s goal of modernisation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2017, 10:33am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 July, 2017, 10:08pm

Although far from perfect, 2016 was a productive year for Indonesian President Joko Widodo. His most notable reform, a tax amnesty plan, was a major success, surpassing its year-end collection target 3½ months early.

More significantly, however, the leader who some commentators derided as being too naive to effectively navigate a highly factional government, expanded his coalition to include nearly 70 per cent of parliament.

Indonesia’s hard-won pluralism under threat

With the new support of the second- and fifth-largest political parties, Widodo’s “Great Indonesia Coalition” begins 2017 with a legislative majority more than capable of passing a comprehensive slate of economic reforms. Ironically, the only impediment to that goal is the president himself, who seems to have forgotten his region’s history.

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While Widodo has built his coalition, his old ally and successor as governor of Jakarta – Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as “Ahok” – has found himself embroiled in religious controversy. Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent, currently faces blasphemy charges over comments regarding the Koran made during a September campaign stop.

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Although he has apologised for poor context, and denied any intention to insult the Islamic holy book, two judicial panels have ruled that the case shall proceed, and the court of public opinion has viciously turned against him. On several occasions, hundreds of thousands of Muslims gathered throughout Jakarta to demand that the one-time wunderkind be impeached, convicted, deported, or worse.

Perhaps still caught up in the appeasement involved in coalition-building in a Muslim-majority country, Widodo has distanced himself from Purnama, and inched closer to the conservative factions calling for his conviction. On December 2, the president took to the stage in Jakarta’s Central Park in front of half a million protesters – alongside hardline clerics that he had up to then strenuously avoided – to join in prayer.

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Widodo has also explicitly clarified that he “will not protect Ahok”, in speeches before major Islamic organisations. In openly siding with the Islamists, Widodo risks sacrificing Indonesia’s long-term growth for his own short-term political gains, and jeopardising the unique legislative opportunity to finally recast his nation in a business-friendly light. He need only look to his northern neighbour to see the folly of his actions, and the misfortune that could result.

In Malaysia, a similar narrative has been the political story of the past decade. In 2015, Malaysia’s leader of the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, was convicted of sodomy, and sentenced to five years in prison. Although not from a minority group himself, Ibrahim represented minority communities, particularly Chinese Malays, and thus his actions and platform irked the establishment. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak readily sided against Ibrahim in public, openly stoking the flames of those who wanted to see the opposition leader imprisoned.

As a result of that debacle, Malaysia’s reputation as a progressive pluralistic society evaporated. Prominent political leaders, from the US to the European Union and Australia, condemned Ibrahim’s prosecution and the broader political, economic and social atmosphere it represented. More significantly, it put an end to Razak’s reform bent, as his vocalism revealed major divisions within his party and forced him to pander to conservative, anti-business factions to ensure his survival. Coupled with an ongoing corruption scandal, Malaysia now faces a potentially lost decade.

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Indonesia could suffer the same fate if Widodo continues or deepens his ties to the groups demanding Purnama’s conviction.

The rise of political Islam requires a balancing act from Indonesian President Joko Widodo

Thus, while Widodo may not be able to do anything about the underlying law, and whether Purnama will be convicted for blasphemy, he would be wise to exercise caution and avoid participating in further rallies or making more comments.

Indonesia stands on the brink of modernisation. All the pieces are in place, and the president can finally deliver on his promises. But that will only be possible if he can avoid the temptation of an easy political gain and take note of the fate of his neighbour.

Steven Keithley is the executive editor of the Virginia Journal of International Law