A quick glance at Indonesia-Malaysia

By Johan Galtung

Johan Galtung

Muhammadiyah University – Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Coming from Malaysia, the two neighbors are incredibly different. Indonesia, richer in ancient cultures, larger in territory, an archipelago of thousands of islands, has GDP/capita 3,500 and Malaysia 11,500; three times+ more. Products of brutal Western colonialism, Dutch for Indonesia, English for Malaya, which became Malaysia. Exploited, robbed, impoverished. Both hoped that World War II, fought for democracy-human rights, would end that in 1945, but got wars to keep colonialism instead–till 1949 and 1957, respectively.

Both had been occupied for 3 1/2 years by Japan going south to beat the US-imposed boycott, heading for oil resources in Indonesia (Malaysian oil not yet discovered). There was a difference: Indonesia’s future leader, Soekarno and his no. 2 Mohammad Hatta had lived in Japan, made friends and met the Dutch returning to “their” colony fighting as a free country – no such freedom in Malaya.

So, why the difference? It is almost like a social experiment.

The key is the local Chinese minority, in Malaysia used by the English against the Malay majority, as exploited workers in the tin mines, and as capitalists with their gangs in Penang and Singapore; in Indonesia also in the army and in the PKI, Indonesian Communist Party, the largest outside the Soviet bloc. Hard working, well organized, clever with money, they attracted much of the same hatred and violence as Jews in Germany and Armenians in Turkey – both ending with genocides.

So also in Indonesia, the massacre of 1965-66; planned by US think tanks and the CIA with the Indonesian government. Standard CIA tactic: rumors of imminent coup from the left, perhaps organizing some–the coup against Gorbachev 1991–and then a massive, well prepared, coup from the right. Half a million or so killed, General Suharto in power for three decades, giving USA the free access to the economy they wanted. Pillaging started and lasted; like under Yeltsin in Russia.

Riots came in 1969 to Malaysia, but the reaction was totally different: the New Economic Policy. Forty percent of Muslim Malays lived in misery, 35 percent of the economy was in English, and 20 percent in local Chinese hands. Majority Chinese from Singapore had left in 1965 and now Malaysia has a GDP/cap 55,200 by far no. 1 in ASEAN – some are still in the 1,000s.

The Malaysian government did not turn on the Chinese but lifted the bottom Malays up by positive discrimination – like across race and gender faultlines elsewhere.

They bought out much of foreign and local Chinese capital, brought misery down to 4% and below, invested new capital in education, health, industry, and infrastructure. Lifting the bottom up meant more participation in the economy, which started blooming (and still does). The Chinese were furious, many left (eg. for Australia), but most stayed, still a major force in the economy. The government then overdid it, with Malay monopoly on government power and Islamization – both highly counter-productive; but that is another story.

Indonesia massacred a key entrepreneurial force that also favored better distribution, and got military dictatorship and US imperialism. True, with the glory of a dilapidated palace of a still active kingdom inside the republic in Yogyakarta, as against nine Malay Muslim Sultans in the nine provinces in Malaysia, with governors. Both have periodic elections; Malaysia never changes ruling party but Indonesia does.

Malaysia is now no. 3 in the world in cars/inhabitants, well above the magic 600/1000. The result is a glittering parade of partly homemade cars, endless jams, accidents, pollution. Indonesia still has carts, and shacks rather than skyscrapers. And also Islamization, the more rigid, rigorous variety, paid generously from Saudi Arabia.

Human Rights is another popular movement emphasized by Thomas Meaney and Saskia Schäfer in a fine article on Indonesia[i]; with a National Commission. Mediating in many of the conflicts I saw its strength, a secular counter-point to religious fundamentalisms.

Let us open Jakarta Post, the leading paper in English:

December 4:
“Spending to be sped up for growth”. Not so good. Add “and to eliminate misery” for less suffering and more growth. That would even be more Islamic, less secular-economistic-neoliberal.

December 4: “Law on local polls faces uncertain future”.
Very bad. Like most countries, Indonesia has three internal power levels: local authorities–municipalities and parts of them, districts and the republic itself. Numerous and complex in a complex country. But there is a rule: practice democracy at all levels, with local polls at the municipal and district levels. Yes, it may lead to some complex diversity, less standardization, but then why not?

Much more important is that people feel at home, that their rights are taken seriously for a country beaming with positive initiatives. And another rule: true federalism–Indonesia has some distance to go–is not afraid of ethnic diversity and giving autonomy to the numerous ethnicities. And: try to solve problems at the lowest level, with polls and votes.

December 5:
“Jokowi orders executions. Five to be executed this month, 20 more to follow next year. Opinion divided among human rights activists, lawmakers and legal experts on effectiveness of death penalty”.
Very, very bad. There were 162 on death row in 2000-2014. 27 were executed – 17 for murder, 7 for narcotics, 3 for terrorism – now to be followed by 27 more. But more important than “effectiveness” is sacredness, more deeply rooted in Islam than retaliation. Tell the convicts and the world: “you took and destroyed lives, we do not”.

Sample the incredible foods in Indonesia, also very good in Malaysia; easily competing with Europe and China, more diverse. Sample Bali, soft Hindu. But a really new economic policy is needed, not to compete with Malaysia but maybe learning from the neighbor’s successes and failures. One of them is all trampling on the Tamils.

Next step, in some generations: ASEAN citizenship for all.


[i]. “Jokowi’s Way”, The Nation, 22-09-2014. “Jokowi” is the standard shortening of the name of the present president, Joko Widodo, a former exporter of complex carpentry products.

Originally published at Transcend Media Service here.

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