Jakarta: The 30th anniversary of the May 13 riots in Malaysia has some lessons for pre-election Indonesia, but differences are many. [IHT May 21]

by Philip Bowring

Jakarta: The 30th anniversary of the May 13 1969 riots which rocked Malaysia came as Indonesia was set to begin the official campaign for its June 7 elections. It was thus areminder of the dangers of communal politics, and of the remedies that can be applied to communal grievances. It was also a reminder of how 1969 events propelled the politicalcareer of prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Those riots were the direct outcome of elections in a race-based party system which saw the ruling coalition lose seatsto Chinese on the left and Muslims on the right. As a result,the Malay majority felt that its hold on political power was weakening, and its leaders not doing enough to edvance Malay economic interests. The result: resort to street violence.

Many in Indonesia today fear dissatisfaction with the outcome of the ballot box could lead similar riots, particularly if Suharto era forces do well enough to frustrate the reforms which society at large seems to believe are needed. But comparisons between the two should not be taken too far.

Whatever the dangers of post-election riots here, they do not have the communal element of May 1969 in Kuala Lumpur, if only because the Chinese are not numerous enough to be a political force. Communal politics in Indonesia is largely confined toperipheral localities. In most of Indonesia, the election is a fierce but non-communal battle between indigenous, national political parties. This is about Islam, secularism, nationalism, the army, wealth distribution and regionalism. Religion and wealth issues touch on ethnicity, but ethnic issues are not at the centre of Indonesian politics.

That however is not necessarily the impression one would get from reading much foreign media coverage which has tended tofocus on the problems of Timor, Aceh and Ambon rather than on the election itself. Some regional newspapers which at home are required to play down domestic and communal issues are being accused by Indonesians of exaggerating turmoil here, and in particular the danger to Chinese. Western embassies have not helped by implying that foreigners too could be in danger.

Fifty thousand Indonesian Chinese are said to be sitting out the elections in the comfort of Singapore, Hongkong or California. Playing it safe may seem wise to some, but it is doubtful if it does much for the communal well being of the 99% of Indonesia's 5 million Chinese who cannot afford to leave. Indeed, failure of Chinese to take an active (but non-communal) part in the political process now that the opportunity exists could set back the integration process.

May 13 is also a reminder that riots, which left more than 200 dead, led to affirmative action to promote the economic and social position of the Malay majority. After 30 years, the policy may have outlived its usefulness, inducing, like most long run welfare schemes, Malay dependency. It has also contributed to cronyism via the links between affirmative action, political patronage and government decision-making. However, Malaysia's economic progress since 1969 owes much to the social stability it engendered.

Indonesia cannot and should not follow the Malaysian example.Its society is more diverse, its Malay/Chinese divide much less stark, its government machinery insufficiently competent. It lacks the sudden oil wealth that financed much of Malaysia's wealth equalisation program. Indonesia anyway even bigger issues, including regionalism and religious tensions, to worry about. Nonetheless the Indonesian election is a reminder that the future government must at once meet popular aspirations for a wider sharing of wealth and keep the confidence of Indonesian Chinese capital.

The political process can help or hinder. In Malaysia it is not forgotten how close to the abyss the nation went in 1969. Since then the promise of stability, at the cost of some liberties, has been a successful electoral formula for the ruling party. So far the omens are promising  that Indonesians remember both their 1965 massacres and their May 1998 disturbances, and use the election to forge compromises. In turn that would help reduce resentment over Chinese commercialdominance. But either way, unlike Malaysia 1969, ethnic politics is not the main problem.



E-mail me 
IHT Articles 
Other Articles