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,
Suharto era forces do well enough to frustrate
the reforms which society at large seems to believe
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
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
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.