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Vol. 8, No 2, Trissia WIJAYA


Contents>> Vol. 8, No. 2

Chinese Business in Indonesia and Capital Conversion: Breaking the Chain of Patronage

Trissia Wijaya*

* Asia Research Center, Murdoch University, 90 South Street, Murdoch, Western Australia 6150, Australia
e-mail: trissiawijaya92[at]; trissia.wijaya[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.8.2_295

Taking issues from mainstream research, which has overly coalesced the discussion around patronage-ridden relationships and money politics, this paper argues that democracy has restructured the pattern of state-ethnic Chinese business relationships into a dispersed network, due to the dynamics of capital convertibility within varying scales of power and interests. Offering a unique perspective on capital conversion, this paper aims to debunk the orthodox view of Chinese capital as being merely money that accommodates politics. The revival of Chinese conglomerates in the political-economic life of Indonesia in the aftermath of crises was subject to capital in various forms: economic capital, socio-political capital, ideas, and knowledge. At the time of capital restructuring, an ever-increasing dispersed network of Chinese businesses demonstrated that their position was neither higher than politics nor independent of it, yet the arrangement allowed them to dovetail well with various forces and power holders in a pattern of horizontal connection.

Keywords: political economy, Southeast Asian studies, state-business relationships, patronage, capitalism, Indonesian Chinese, democracy

I Introduction

From petty traders to emigrant workers in the first half of the twentieth century, who struggled over the Japanese occupation and the rise of economic nationalism in Old Order Indonesia, ethnic Chinese and their business firms have long maintained a presence in the trajectory of Indonesia’s development (Robison 1986; Thee 2006). The New Order regime under Soeharto made overtures to Chinese capital acumen to back the regime’s development policy, and a small group of Indonesian Chinese capitalists were co-opted as business clients of the New Order power holders from 1966 onward (Coppel 1983). This patronage-ridden state-business relationship—egregiously dubbed “Cukong and Mr. Ten Percent”1)—paved the way for Chinese capitalists to be more active in the economic sector at the expense of their political rights and cultural freedom. Being patronized by Soeharto, they did extraordinarily well in wielding resources (Vatikiotis 1993). For instance, the cukong’s coalition (comprising many ethnic-Chinese businessmen) was endowed with a $6 billion timber industry, along with cheap access to forest resources and virtual immunity from forestry regulations for decades (Barr et al. 2010). Among the capitalists in the coalition, Prajogo Pangestu, the head of the Barito Pacific Group, controlled 5.5 million hectares of the world’s tropical rainforests and became the largest borrower of state funds: his loans amounted to more than $1 billion (Dauvergne 2005). Soeharto’s longtime business associate Liem Sioe Liong became the undisputed king of Indonesian agricultural commodities, banking, and cement, while his company, the Salim Group—with a market capitalization of $8 billion in 1990—accounted for roughly 5 percent of Indonesia’s GDP (Schwarz 1994).

At the beginning of the new millennium the Asian Financial Crisis, followed by a full-blown political crisis, had severe consequences in Indonesia—for the capitalist group in particular. On the one hand, they suffered from high debt; some of them were even left technically bankrupt or without working capital (Purdey 2005). On the other hand, the consolidation of democracy gave rise to a list of reformasi mandates in which the capitalists sought to reposition themselves in a new mode of conducting political business. The former Foreign Investment Law 1967 and Domestic Investment Law 1967—which had been astutely manipulated by power holders for allocating concessions, business licenses, and other material benefits for cukong—were revised into Law No. 5/1999 Stipulating the Ban on Monopolistic Practices and Unfair Business Competition (Thee 2006; Chua 2008). In tandem with the IMF liberalization package and increasing need for foreign investment, many skeptical pundits predicted that Indonesian Chinese capitalists, with their over-reliance on patronage ties, would not be able to withstand the onslaught of competition on a global scale (Suryadinata 2006).

Despite the sweeping political, economic, and social changes, the Indonesian capitalists continued to do well in business and even achieved record profits during the post-authoritarian regime. On the 2017 Forbes Indonesia Rich List, only 8 of the 50 people were non-Chinese. The remainder were all Indonesian Chinese businessmen—both new players and politically connected Chinese capitalists from the Soeharto era. Clearly, this illustrates how ethnic-Chinese-controlled conglomerates have grown and become an integral part of the democratic regime. How can these contradictory outcomes be explained, since democracy and economic restructuring would be expected to lessen the Chinese businesses’ competitive advantage? Does the patronage network remain relevant in the post-Soeharto era, or is there a new pattern in the state-Chinese business relationship?

Drawing upon both primary and secondary research materials, this paper unpacks those questions by reintroducing Chinese business into the notion of capital and, with it, accumulation and all its effects on state-business relations. This paper argues that the “fall of capital” embedded in the patronage network led to the rise of a new form of social and economic capital that enhanced Chinese capitalists’ bargaining power and simultaneously restructured state-business relations. The decentralization and economic restructuring due to reformasi generated economic and social capital that was vital for the expansion of Chinese economic capital. Chinese capitalists had greater opportunities to tap into the lucrative sectors from which they had been restricted during the New Order (see Dieleman and Sachs 2008; Dieleman 2011). In a nutshell, restored civil rights are often viewed simply as social capital, yet they have been used as a powerful tool for political leverage and for pursuing economic interests.

As a result, the greater flexibility in converting capital (adapting the function of a particular form of capital to make it serve a given purpose) amidst political changes has ultimately restructured patronage into a dispersed network. The dispersed network assumes that Chinese capitalists’ position is neither above the government’s nor independent of politics, and the government’s position is neither above the capitalists’ nor independent of economics. Such a network has enabled Chinese capitalists to dovetail well with any (economic, social, and political) forces or groups/interests and power holders in a pattern of horizontal connection. Any Chinese capitalists, whether new or old, embedded in the dispersal arrangement can play a dual role—both as patron and as agent—depending on the forms of capital they possess and the political circumstances. This new arrangement demonstrates not only shifts in power configurations but also changes in the sociopolitical characteristics of orthodox patronage relationships tailored in the New Order era.

The following section identifies gaps in knowledge, particularly the tendency to over(focus) on the literal meaning of Chinese capitalism in the Indonesian political arena. It introduces a critical context by inserting the concept of capital convertibility into the picture and putting forth a conceptual framework to better analyze how the dynamic of capital convertibility has restructured state-business ties. The third section elaborates on the nexus of the state and Chinese business during the New Order era. The fourth section discusses the new political arena resulting from democracy through which capital conversion takes place. For purposes of analysis, the section is thematically divided into three subsections: (1) the politics of unity in diversity, (2) diversification of political power, and (3) the politics of globalization and nationalism. The last section discusses the trajectory of capital conversion in state-Chinese business relationships and concludes with a summary of the main findings.

This article makes two primary contributions. First, it provides a fresh perspective on the political-economic debate over Indonesian Chinese business through an analysis of capital conversion. By delving into the dynamics of the sociopolitical and economic capital of Chinese business, this paper offers a nuanced, contextual understanding of how Chinese capital has revived in the aftermath of reformasi and since then been converted according to its content, spaces, and viability within various forces in Indonesia. Second, it contributes empirical evidence of the actual dynamic of capital conversion in restructuring the state-Chinese business relationship and reshaping the politics of development in Indonesia. Without neglecting the fact that democracy has given rise to new Chinese business elites at the local level, the term “Chinese business” in this paper refers to top-listed ethnic-Chinese-controlled conglomerates. The argument presented here depicts an overview of Indonesia’s past and contemporary economic development trajectory, in which Chinese conglomerates (cukong and new big players) have become an important, if not decisive, component of development.

II Critique and Analytical Framework

This section aims to establish an analytical framework that underpins the revival of Indonesian Chinese capitalism and identifies changes in the state-Chinese business relationship in the scheme of capital conversion. Mainstream camps tend to underpin Chinese capitalism with pragmatism or unlimited flexibility in political business dealings (Cragg 1995; Hui 1995; Ong and Nonini 1997; Hamilton-Hart 2005) in a bid to ensure survival in the midst of political changes. This is also aligned with the term “ersatz capitalist” coined by K. Yoshihara (1988), projecting the “flexibility” of Chinese businesses in running roughshod over their counterparts. Yoshihara describes Southeast Asia’s Chinese businessmen in a pejorative way. Insofar as the businessmen perceive life as a matter of adaptation, they cultivate informal networks of “ersatz” protection, including collusion with ruling elites, when the legal system fails to provide adequate protection.

Accordingly, regarding the political transformation in Indonesia, a vast amount of literature laments the institutional deficits and inadequacies in the face of competing coalitions of interest and power (McLeod 2000; 2010; Schwarz 2004; Aspinall and Klinken 2010). The new commercial and competition laws designed in haste after the fall of Soeharto proved to be much easier to manipulate than the previous versions because regulations were skewed in favor of entrenched commercial interests in the less predictable environment of democratic Indonesia (Rosser 2002; Hadiz 2003; Aspinall 2005; Fukuoka 2012; Mietzner 2013). Another camp identifies significant changes in the patronage-ridden relationship after the political transformation in Indonesia, where Chinese businesses insinuated their position into the political machinery surrounding prevailing oligarchs (Winters 2013) as well as non-oligarchic forces (Mietzner 2014). In one instance, Indonesia’s new era of democracy was dominated by oligarchic elements, including the circle of political-business families operating from the New Order regime that leveraged power relations of wealth and authority (Hadiz and Robison 2004). In another instance, there was a significant influx of non-oligarchic forces in contemporary Indonesia that became active in the national and local political domains and challenged the oligarchy (Ford and Pepinsky 2014; Mietzner 2014). C. Chua (2008) pinpoints a twofold approach most Chinese capitalists adopted to accommodate such political dynamics. First, they continued with business as usual, taking advantage of their capital and skills. Second, they sought multiple patrons (unlike during the previous era, when Soeharto was the sole patron) in order to withstand political instability. This approach helped to tailor a new pattern of state-business relations that was often associated with “money politics.” The latter to a great extent resonated with the new pattern of state-business relations that W. L. Chong (2015) identifies at the local level. So far as Chinese capitalists remain oriented to their habitus in which the predatory political-business system has been nurtured, they continue to reshape the system in a bid to safeguard their capital and position (Chong 2015).

Although scholarly literature largely depicts current conditions in the Indonesian political economy, it is by no means static. The majority of literature situates the state and Chinese capitalists in a framework of syllogism—in which money is always the vehicle for Chinese capitalists to cope with sudden shifts in the political system, while the state is the predator that seeks legitimacy and power by capitalizing on Chinese money. Simply put, the literature tends to generalize the symbiotic relationship between power holders and Chinese business in the context of conventional features of Chinese capital and consequently can lead researchers down the wrong analytic path. Such a generalization also hinders scholars from acknowledging the interplay of various forms of capital—economic capital, socio-political capital, ideas, and knowledge—that have affected Indonesian Chinese capitalists’ endeavors and their relationship with the state. In hindsight, we need a proper concept to analytically link capital dynamics with changes in the state-business relationship.

Drawing inspiration from P. Bourdieu’s “The Forms of Capital” (1986), I am keen to take his reasoning of capital conversion into account. Bourdieu does not neglect the fundamental existence of economic capital, but he laments scholars who reduce every type of capital to economic capital. For Bourdieu, the notion of capital extends beyond its economic constraints and takes into account a wide variety of resources, such as political, social, and cultural. Economic capital refers to material resources that can be turned into money or property rights. Social capital stands for networks of contracts that can be utilized to leverage one’s social position. Cultural capital consists of non-material goods such as knowledge and ideas, skills, and expertise that can be converted into economic capital (Bourdieu 1986, 243). Political capital refers to a subtype of social capital that has the capacity to mobilize social support (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, 119). In essence, the convertibility of different types of capital is the actual basis of social-power relations that reshape the dynamic of power struggles, as Bourdieu (1993, 73) argues:

The field of power is the space of power relations among agents and institutions who own enough capital to share leading positions in the different fields (especially the economic and cultural fields). It is the site of struggles among the holders of different kinds of capital or power. . . . The stakes in these struggles are the rules of transformation or conservation of the different kinds of capital, their comparative values, which themselves rule, at any moment, the forces which can be invested in these struggles.

In other words, differing combinations of capital serve to constitute the resources necessary for the production of other types of capital. For example, social capital such as personal ties with power holders can be converted into economic capital in the form of land or money, either directly or via gathering economic capital for a political purpose such as a campaign fund, in exchange for officials’ discretionary favors to expand the business (Bourdieu 1991; Swartz 2013). Relatedly, convertibility hinges upon the varying degrees of accumulation and the value of different elements of capital. Regardless of its form—be it cultural, social, political, or economic—capital can be materially effective only if it is appropriated by a given agent and the agent has a network of connections where he can effectively mobilize the capital he possesses (Bourdieu 1991). In Bourdieu’s words (1986, 252), forms of capital other than social capital

can be obtained only by virtue of a social capital of relationships (or social obligations) which cannot act instantaneously, at the appropriate moment, unless they have been established and maintained for a long time, as if for their own sake and therefore outside their period of use.

How Bourdieu’s capital conversion relates to the state-Chinese business relationship is the way in which varying combinations of capital embedded in any given state-business relationship, such as a long-standing patronage-ridden relationship, have been maintained as well as simultaneously transformed. If neoliberal pundits see the patronage network in terms of institutional flaws, I instead interpret it as a site of struggle among the holders of different kinds of capital during the New Order. Chinese political vulnerability itself appeared to be a form of social capital that was less harmful for Soeharto’s leadership, and thus it gave leeway for Chinese businessmen to expand their economic capital and nurture solid dyadic politico-business ties. However, such relations are not static, as there are always sites of struggle. State transformations, specifically due to democracy, led to the reconfiguration of power and interests; thus, the value of each form of capital was redefined in varying scales of social-power relations. The renewed capital conversion would finally reinforce the inclusion and exclusion of particular actors in state-Chinese business relationships and subsequently create new patterns of relationship.

To better understand how capital conversion has restructured the patronage system in Indonesia, it is worth using the features of patron-client ties developed by J. C. Scott (1972) as a basis for comparatively assessing shifts in state-Chinese business relations. There are three additional distinguishing features of patron-client ties: (1) their basis in inequality, (2) their face-to-face character, and (3) their diffuse flexibility. The basis in inequality refers to an imbalance in exchange between the two partners that reflects the disparity in their relative wealth, power, and status. In this context, the most embedded characteristic of reciprocity is that the patron unilaterally supplies goods and services that a potential client needs for their survival and well-being while simultaneously demanding compliance from the client who has been enjoying those scarce commodities (Scott 1972; 1977). The balance of reciprocity depends mostly on the competitiveness among patrons and the value of services the client brings. If the client has highly valued services to reciprocate with, or if he can choose among competing patrons, or if he can theoretically manage without the patron’s help, the balance will be close to equal. On the contrary, if the client has weak bargaining power or has a few exchange resources to spoon a monopolist-patron, the patron-client ties tends to be coercive (Scott 1972; 1977; Scott and Kerkvliet 1977; Wolters 1983).

The second feature of this dyadic tie, its face-to-face character, relies on the quality of the relationship. Reciprocity that takes shape over the long term eventually nurtures a solid patron-client bond with trust, voluntarism, and affection between the partners. The roots of reciprocity are not simply limited to mutual advantage but are associated with a mutual devotion and values that thrive among both sides because of the endurance of the patron-client framework (Scott 1972; Roniger 1994). The third salient reflection of patronage relationships is that they are “multiplex.” They are diffuse, “whole-person” relationships rather than explicit, impersonal-contract bonds (Scott 1972). The needs and resources of the patron, as well as the nature of the exchange, may vary widely over time, so the language of flexibility is paramount (Gamson 1968). Table 1 presents a tentative framework to analyze how the interplay of different forms of capital has affected the characteristics of the above-mentioned features and resulted in a centrifugal network of state-Chinese business relationships.


Table 1 Fundamental Features of State-Business Relationship in Indonesia


III The New Order: A Long-Lasting Patronage and Indestructible Economic Capital

While a democratically elected politician knows how long he will face the challenge and leave the oath, authoritarian leaders like Soeharto were fundamentally insecure because they could face a challenge at any time. Political legitimacy based on pembangunan, or the “development” mandate, thus became the nerve center of Soeharto’s vision. To build the economy from scratch, Soeharto acknowledged that the regime had to avoid risky decisions by distributing resources—such as licenses to invest and additional credits—to reliable partners (Vatikiotis 1993; Chua 2008). Clearly, a small group of ethnic Chinese businessmen with whom Soeharto had developed the nucleus of a military financial base prior to the New Order was the right choice (Australia, DFAT 1995). The group included Liem Sioe Liong, Bob Hasan, Prajogo Pangestu, and Eka Tjipta Widjaja, whose economic capital could be put to good use for accomplishing pembangunan without posing any threat to Soeharto’s political power. Consequently, the government’s policies resulted in a heavy concentration of wealth in the hands of a few trusted cukong and indeed became an enabling factor in the rise of Chinese capitalists (Robison 1986; Schwarz 2000).

R. Robison and Vedi Hadiz (1993) labeled this convenient relationship between Soeharto and Chinese capital as dirigisme (dirigisme), a relationship in which the economy was led by one man and a bunch of cronies, which eventually fostered the great leap forward of well-connected cukong to big conglomerates. To a greater extent, such a dirigiste economy nurtured the much-touted patronage network, which was originally tailored by politico-bureaucrats and Chinese capitalists from the Old Order. The patronage-ridden relationship allowed policy formulation and resource distribution to be concentrated in the hands of certain political elites and economic actors, including well-connected cukong.

Yet the relationship was by no means static. Over a period of time, the political dynamics of development and resistance during the New Order reshaped the composition and role of actors embedded in the patronage network. What did not change was that Soeharto remained the sole locus of political power who managed the network. During the oil boom period, the nature of the state-business relationship was much simpler. If Japan’s recipe for pursuing its remarkable development was strongly related to the much-touted robust iron triangle established between the bureaucracy, business groups (keidanren), and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (Johnson 1995), Indonesia under Soeharto also unwittingly had an informal institution like the iron triangle interlinking Soeharto, the military, and cukong. Those three stakeholders simply took the lead as the “pilot ministry” in directing development. At certain levels of policy making, technocrats or the “Berkeley Mafia”2) were also involved, but they had no greater influence than Indonesia’s iron triangle. In short, the source of patronage was not concentrated on the Istana Merdeka (presidential palace), because the process of establishing long-running patron-client relations rested outside the official layers and instead centered on Rumah Cendana (Soeharto’s residence) (Rosser 2002; Borsuk and Chng 2014).

Interestingly, the “cooperation” between the military and cukong made the state more coherent in its policies and autonomous from social interest groups. The military, represented by “Soeharto men” worth their salt, would get the green light from Soeharto to engage in income-generating activities while Soeharto remained the principal patron (Rieffel and Pramodhawardani 2007, 32). Thus, they were among the most powerful figures in controlling capital, as they could either take the lead as stakeholders of a project or function as “security guards” for cukong (Crouch 2007; McLeod 2010). Having provided the Chinese with the usual litany of favors—such as tax breaks, state bank funding, trading licenses, and introductions to foreign investors—the military displayed its political avarice as it also gradually became the capitalist and coalesced around cukong businesses (Crouch 2007). Powerful generals, such as the “finance generals” Alamsjah Ratu Prawiranegara, Sudjono Humardani, Suryo Wiryohadiputro, and Sofjar, and the “money spinner” Ibnu Sutowo would have at least one cukong to partner with (Borsuk and Chng 2014).

Sudjono Humardani, one of Soeharto’s top fix-it men in the early New Order period, reportedly arranged a series of joint ventures between leading cukong and major Japanese investors, for example, bringing together Toyota and William Soeryadjaya (Tjia Kian Long) and Matsushita and Tjaheb Gobel (Schwarz 2000; Abbott 2003). Sofjar, who controlled Yayasan Dharma Putra Kostrad and Yayasan Trikora, established Bank Windhu Kencana, Seulawah, and Mandala Airlines utilizing a capital injection from Liem Sioe Liong (Crouch 2007). Obviously, the four finance generals held the top positions in the bank management: Sofjar was president director; Alamsjah was director; and Suryo and Sudjono were the chairman and vice chairman respectively (Borsuk and Chng 2014). Suryo also served as president director of the government-owned Hotel Indonesia and was given permission to build the Mandarin Hotel in Jakarta, in which Liem Sioe Liong became the main shareholder (ibid.). The money spinner, Sutowo, also had shares in PT Sarana Buana Handana, a logging company partnering with Bob Hasan, and in PT Atlas, a large paper milling venture that also had Bob Hasan as well as Sutowo’s son Ponco and Japanese companies as stakeholders (Ismantoro 2014).

Such solid ties between the military and cukong, which were supported by Soeharto, underwent changes particularly after the oil boom. There are two turning points worth emphasizing here. First, Soeharto’s favored treatment of Chinese economic capital evoked popular discontent with the New Order and led to widespread protests. In response to the threat of growing opposition from the economic nationalist and Muslim groups, Soeharto apparently decided to modify his policy on Chinese capital and promote a pribumi-favoring policy so as to maintain political stability. The Presidential Decree (“Kepres”) No. 14 of 1979, which was amended and reissued as Kepres 14A and Kepres 10 in 1980, gave the “weak economic group,” a code phrase for indigenous businessmen, priority in obtaining certain government contracts (Robison 1986; Schwarz 2000). A new team, known as Team 10, was set up to decide on project allocations. Headed by Sudharmono, the powerful state secretary, and Ginanjar Kartasasmita, the team gave great leeway for prominent pribumi businessmen to get government-related contracts; these businessmen included Aburizal Bakrie, Fadel Muhammad, Iman Taufik, Jusuf Kalla, Fahmi Idris, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, and Subagio Wiryoatmodjo (Winters 1996; Schwarz 2000). The second turning point was the emergence of “Soeharto Inc.,” the business empire linked to the Soeharto family. The growing economy provided opportunities for Soeharto’s family to create monopolies and toll-gate enterprises (Smith 2001). As of 1998, Soeharto Inc.’s wealth concentration consisted of 417 listed and unlisted companies, particularly state-controlled ones (Claessens et al. 1999).

The affirmative-sounding policy and the increasing share of the Soeharto family in the Indonesian development trajectory did not necessarily impede the accumulation of Chinese capital or erode the long-running patronage network. The two turning points discussed above neither broke down the Soeharto-Chinese network nor diminished Soeharto’s position as an indispensable source of support to Chinese capital. This was possibly due to two underlying reasons. First, in the beginning of the 1980s, technocrats urged Soeharto to issue deregulations in some industries, including banking, transport, trade, and manufacturing, so as to parlay non-oil exports (Sato 1994). While the technocrats’ objective was purely to liberalize the economy, the deregulation package in turn allowed cukong to amass capital, particularly after the lifting of restrictions on the Jakarta Stock Exchange. As a result, almost every Chinese business group founded one or more private banks, and thus their dependence on funds from state banks also decreased slightly (Chua 2008). Accordingly, soon after the world price of Indonesian oil plunged—from $32 per barrel at its peak in 1982 to a low of $9 per barrel in 1986—Soeharto set forth an export-oriented policy that encouraged the private sector, including his cukong, to inject more capital into non-oil products so as to allow the economy to rebound (Habir 1999). When it came to pushing exports, Chinese gained the upper hand as they controlled the economic resources that everyone wanted at the time, namely, sources of credit in the banking and leasing sectors (Borsuk and Chng 2014). In other words, Chinese capital became an integral part of state capital, which was required for advancing pribumi businesses. The established wealth of the Chinese, and their importance, further strengthened their utility in Soeharto’s eyes. On the one hand, considering their political vulnerability, Chinese businessmen simply dovetailed their economic capital into the new political arena that was swayed by pribumi entrepreneurs and Soeharto’s family (Shin 1991). To a greater extent, they even committed to reinvigorate Soeharto Inc. and rolled out what Robison and Hadiz (2004) termed “capitalist oligarchy.” For example, in 1984 President Soeharto’s youngest son, Tommy Soeharto, established the Humpuss Group, which was notorious for its favoritism and patronage rather than talent or professionalism. One of Humpuss’s business dealings was the acquisition of Sempati Air. Established by PT Tri Usaha Bhakti (a military-controlled business group subsidized by prominent Chinese businessmen), it was the first private airline allowed to operate jet aircraft in Indonesia. In 1989 two companies obtained shares in the airline: PT Nusamba, a group controlled by Bob Hasan, got 35 percent; and Humpuss obtained 25 percent (Liddle 1999; Schwarz 2004). Meanwhile, besides Bank Central Asia, Liem also maintained links with Siti Hardiyati Hastuti Rukmana (Tutut) through a stake in Indocement and Citra Marga Nusaphala Persada (CMNP), her toll-road company that operated the Jakarta inner city roads (Davidson 2010). In short, the presence of Chinese capital was too big to ignore, and it nurtured the network through which Soeharto patronized Chinese business in order to prioritize the overriding development focus on non-oil sectors.

The growth in trust between Soeharto and cukong has become invaluable social capital for both parties to pursue their respective interests. The value of this dyadic relationship should not be overlooked. Three decades of an indestructible patronage relationship that has weathered various political and economic headwinds has transformed the quality of the relationship from a material-oriented one into an interpersonal-based one. For example, in October 1990 Soeharto ordered Ginanjar Kartasasmita to dissolve a consortium of pribumi-owned companies led by the CNT group (which Kusumo Martoredjo, Agus Kartasasmita, Ponco Sutomo, and Wiwoho Basuki were part of) to build a joint petrochemical project with Mitsui and Toyo Engineering of Japan in Cilacap, Central Java (Schwarz 2000). Soeharto ordered Ginanjar to make Liem Sioe Liong and Prajogo Pangestu the principal domestic partners in big ticket projects. That decision was their payoff for having bailed out Bank Duta the month before (the bank was owned largely by charitable foundations headed by Soeharto). Between late 1988 and September 1990, it had reportedly lost $420 million in high-risk foreign exchange speculation (Kingsbury 2005; Matsumoto 2007). The two tycoons were believed to have put up ready cash to compensate for the foreign exchange losses of the bank, whose major owners were three foundations connected to the president. Pangestu was also believed to have paid for a monorail at the Taman Mini theme park, a pet project of Tien Soeharto (Ascher 1999; Borsuk and Chng 2014). The cukong had raised the expense of winning the president’s patronage by lavishing the first family with favors. Despite Ginanjar’s reluctance to obey the order, the deal was done, Liem and Pangestu became the domestic partners for Japanese companies, and the pribumi business lobby inevitably was devastated.

The nature of Soeharto-cukong ties has been somewhat upgraded to a more voluntary one. Chinese capitalists frequently helped Soeharto accomplish some of his national development goals, for example, by investing in sectors that private enterprise inherently avoided. For instance, the Salim Group invested in the Krakatau steel-making facility, which eventually went bankrupt (Lim and Stern 2003). This was viewed as Liem’s attempt to return Soeharto’s favor. Following the 1980s post-oil boom there was a recession in Indonesia, which slashed cement consumption; this affected Liem’s cement plants. To cover the severe losses, the government came to the rescue by merging Liem’s fie cement plants into a holding company, Indocement Tunggal Prakarsa. The government paid $325 million for a 35 percent share of the company, which accounted for 44 percent of the country’s cement capacity (Dieleman and Sachs 2008).

In sum, despite the growing inclusion of new actors such as pribumi entrepreneurs, the state-business relationship during the New Order was largely mundane. The patronage network centered on Soeharto, who held supreme authority to terminate deals, ink new concessions, as well as weaken opposition. No matter how large and powerful cukong became, they represented no political threat to Soeharto and thus were tacitly embedded into a “long-established social contract” with the leader. Economically powerful pribumi businessmen, on the other hand, could represent a threat and become a potent political faction. As Salim Said (2016, 21) argued: “Soeharto is like Stalin. First he eliminated the left, and then moved on to the rest of the political spectrum. Then he divided the Muslims and finally he turned on the minorities.” Nonetheless, the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis threw Soeharto a curveball and consequently created desperation among his protegees. For some in the optimist camp, the reform brought about a fair environment for the Indonesian political economy. For the critics, however, the aforementioned social contract was renewed and it restructured the state-business relationship amidst the extension of various forms of capital, as will be elucidated in the following section.

IV Democracy: A Political Arena Riven by Struggles over Capital Convertibility

The 1998 Asian Financial Crisis caused a paradigm shift in the well-connected Chinese business portfolio. Not only did the dramatic effects of the crisis enforce a restructuring of Chinese business, but even populist forces in the country demanded structural reform, such as liberalization and a reduction of the government’s role in the economy, since there was a growing perception that the crisis was the result of political failures, including overly close business-government relations (Suryadinata 2008). As such, one of the reform products, namely, democracy, was expected to establish a more arms-length relationship between business and government and reduce opportunities for favoritism and corruption (McLeod 2000; 2010). While democracy could have limited Chinese business’s flexibility in exerting the art of political dealing with ruling elites, what we got on the ground was divergent political and economic approaches with varying outcomes that did not point back to the initial mandate of democracy.

The nexus between business and politics, established within networks of patronage, has been showing signs of moving beyond its origins. The post-Soeharto political constellation has paved the way for diverse institutional structures that are complex and fragmented, if not contradictory (Heryanto and Hadiz 2005). It embodies diverse groups of newly incorporated politico-bureaucrats, subnational business groups and elites, and counter-elites, while reaffirming the position of old political elites (Robison and Hadiz 2004; Ford and Pepinsky 2014). Given the growing vested political interests of various actors, cukong’s economic capital cannot immediately be converted into wealth accumulation solely by virtue of the cukong’s relationship with certain power holders, as happened in the Soeharto era. Democracy instead opened up a new political arena where Chinese businesses came to mesh with various socio-political forces. This encouraged them to diversify their political opportunities beyond the patronage-ridden relationship as well as to convert their social, cultural, and economic capital based on scales and scopes of interest. That kind of political arena appeared to be less “discriminatory” than the one during Soeharto’s period. It gave various economic actors—new and old—greater flexibility to skillfully convert their capital and ultimately envisage a nuanced version of the state-business relationship. This section is divided into three parts that aim to examine three features of the new political arena through which old and new Chinese big business leveraged various forms of capital and restructured the state-business relationship.

(1) Restored Civil Rights and Politics of “Unity in Diversity”

While discussions about SARA3) were forbidden under Soeharto, during Gus Dur’s administration the nascent pluralism gained a distinct place in society, and civil rights for Indonesians of Chinese descent were restored (including the rights to use the Chinese language and establish political parties) (Lindsey 2005; Suryadinata 2008). It created a trickle-down effect, as the change in minority policies had a tremendous effect on all people categorized as Chinese—either mediocre Chinese or big players in business (Chua 2008). Political protections for the rights of ethnic Chinese simultaneously created social benefits for tycoons to leverage economic resources.

Chinese businesses—which were previously admitted as part of the elite within the crony system—have positioned themselves as rakyat4) who are socially responsible for the consolidation of democracy. For example, given that the issue of race and religion must have been discussed openly after reformasi, businesses have been extensively using the media to promote “unity in diversity.” Such a move was intended to prevent opposition forces from using ethnic clashes for political ends. When the Tempo journalist Harymurti was found guilty of naming the businessman Tomy Winata in a story that suggested Winata—who had strong ties to the military and Soeharto’s family—stood to benefit from a fire that destroyed a Jakarta textile market in 2003, not only did Winata’s supporters attack the Tempo offices, but Winata’s lawyers also filed a series of civil and criminal complaints against the magazine (Woodier 2009). In this way, Chinese businesses tended to see court trials as a legitimate weapon to curb the press as well as set back the opposition, instead of merely refusing to comment or relying on their patron to solve the problem as happened during the New Order era.

Under fire for having exploited Indonesian resources and created uneven development, Chinese businesses now attempt to position themselves with a more independent, open, and benign image. Starkly different from their previously demonized image of siphoning off funds to Soeharto’s yayasan (foundation), most Chinese businesses now set up their own foundation as part of CSR (corporate social responsibility) programs, acting as key stakeholders of Indonesia’s developmental trajectory with strong responsibilities toward the broader community. A myriad of activities and services, including scholarships, green economies, technical assistance, emergency relief, and so forth, can be publicly accessed. For example, the Sinarmas Foundation of Eka Tjipta Widjaja’s Sinarmas Group, Tanoto Foundation of Sukanto Tanoto’s Raja Emas Group, Arta Graha Peduli Foundation of Tomy Winata’s Artha Graha Group, and Bakti Barito Foundation of Prajogo Pangestu’s Barito Pacific are instrumental in showcasing the companies’ good business ethics to the people rather than their image of colluding with power holders.

Another unintended consequence is the establishment of non-party organizations. Ethnic-based parties and sociopolitical organizations were banned at the time Soeharto officially assumed power in 1966. Yet the 1998 riots and the effects of reformasi generated a greater ethnic and political consciousness among Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese. One significant turning point in the state-Chinese business relationship was the establishment of non-party organizations that are considered less contentious for Chinese capitalists to exercise their civil rights and gain a collective political position. These include Perhimpunan Indonesia Tionghoa (Chinese Indonesian Association), Panguyuban Sosial Marga Tionghua Indonesia (Indonesian Chinese Clan Social Association), and Perkumpulan Pengusaha Indonesia Tionghoa (Indonesian Chinese Entrepreneurs Association, Perpit), whose board of supervisors and members are mostly prominent tycoons (Soebagjo 2008; Suryadinata 2008; Setijadi 2016).

In fact, the organizations actively defended the enforcement of Indonesian civil rights (social capital) to parlay the affiliated companies’ economic capital, rather than engaging in purely cultural and philanthropic activities. The organizations’ practices brought more benefits to big business rather than pursuing the pure commitment of the country to guarantee civil rights to all levels of Chinese society. The organizations’ extensive activities included maintaining close relationships with different levels of government on behalf of the “non-party organization” and hosting many Chinese trade delegations that visited Indonesia, as well as conducting visits to cities and provincial areas in China (Setijadi 2016). More important, these organizations have become key instruments for Chinese businesses to expand their social capital by building networks with businessmen, regional government officials, and local chambers of commerce in China (ibid.; Suryadinata 2017). This also strengthens the organizations’ collective political position during decision-making processes.

Thus, unlike the informal “iron triangle” during the Soeharto era, the post-reformasi Kadin (Indonesian Chamber of Commerce) enabled Chinese business to ostensibly be involved in a legal institutional framework. Kadin has a close partnership with the government and has become influential in policy formulation. Chinese business’s authority is reflected through the organization’s structure. Based on an interview I conducted with a former Kadin staff member, the most defining policy is not issued by the chairperson (this position always goes to an indigenous businessman); instead, it is issued by vice chairpersons (WKU) who are divided into different specializations. Indeed, most strategic sectors are managed by prominent big businessmen who wield extensive know-how and capital. Kadin’s management structure in 2016 included five prominent cukong (mostly second-generation Chinese businessmen), among others: (1) James Riady (second generation of the Lippo Group) served as WKU Education and Health; (2) the agribusiness and forestry sectors were led by Franky O. Widjaja (second generation of Sinarmas); (3) the industry sector was led by John Darmawan (Astra); (4) Riady’s son-in-law, Dato Sri Tahir (founder, Mayapada Group), served as WKU Investment; and (5) Hendro Gondokusumo (Intiland Group, previously the Dharmala Group) held a position in the most lucrative sector: property. Meanwhile, the old players and some media-shy tycoons such as Anthony Salim and Prajogo Pangestu occupied the supervisory board (Muhammad Idris 2015). The board is the highest division from where financial support comes, given that Kadin is not subsidized by the state. The cukong’s active participation in Kadin projects a more benign public image. Compared to the informal discussions carried out at Cendana House in the past, the cukong’s presence in Kadin demonstrates transparency in the way the institutions they belong to work under democracy.

Not least important, in their pursuit of “unity in diversity,” Chinese businesses have also been engaging with Islamic groups, the new extra-political forces growing stronger since democracy. James Riady and Sofjan Wanandi repeatedly called for the business sector to engage with Muslim organizations in order to create a conducive atmosphere in Indonesia while fostering economic development. Speaking at the 2016 National Coordinating Meeting of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Sunni Islam movement in Indonesia, Riady also acknowledged Lippo’s contribution in the development of the NU head office in Jakarta (Berita Satu, November 19, 2016). More interestingly, the Lippo group recently joined with NU to build Syubbhanul Waton Hospital in Magelang Regency, Central Java (Berita Satu, March 21, 2018). The spirit of pluralism is certainly welcome as it promotes inclusive and participatory development in advancing the health sector in Indonesia. Yet, politically speaking, the way the private sector engages with extra-political forces in this way somewhat illustrates a killing-two-birds-with-one-stone approach. On the one hand, the strategy is driven purely by economics to extend the hospital network into a Muslim-dominated region; on the other hand, it is aimed at accommodating the vested interests of emerging social forces that have considerable leverage in reshaping the Indonesian political economy.

Furthermore, Ahok’s blasphemy case during the re-election of the Jakarta governor in 2016 led business groups to indirectly forge further alliances with the influential Muslim group. The rise of Islam as part of “identity politics” is a double-edged sword for Chinese business (Williams 2017). Islam is a social force that on the one hand could push Indonesia toward a more pluralistic society and encourage civic engagement, but on the other hand it has the potential to be engineered as a political tool to promulgate a counter-hegemonic force against restored civil rights for ethnic Chinese. As has frequently been mentioned in recent political discussions, the verdict in Ahok’s case showed that there are invariably opportunistic politicians who continue to use religion to achieve their political goals and up the ante with the sensitive issue of ethnic Chinese.5) In hindsight, this kind of political dynamic has additional implications upon the Chinese business approach, in which Chinese capitalists skillfully capitalize on unity in diversity and put a great effort into dovetailing their social capital with the interests of emerging forces in a bid to keep their business operations separate from the public face of the pure-ethnic-Chinese business empire.

(2) Diversification of Political Power: Who’s the Horse, and Who’s the Jockey?

In an interview for a book about property developers, Ciputra, one of Indonesia’s top Chinese property developers, implicitly vindicated the symbiotic relationship between him and Jakarta’s then governor, Ali Sadikin, during the New Order period: “I have the philosophy that I am a horse and the jockey is the Jakarta governor. If I want to be used, I have to be a horse that’s good . . . A good horse will be used by any master” (cited in Harefa and Siadari 2006, 106). The entrenched privileges received by Chinese capitalists under the New Order are gone for good. The end of the monopoly of unlimited authoritarian power upended the well-established symbiotic arrangements between big business and the state. State power was much too fragmented, and thus it became impossible to have a single committee with all business, political, and bureaucratic interests in one basket (Chua 2008). In retrospect, the politically patronized Chinese business group are no longer dependent on Golkar, Soeharto, and powerful military groups.6) Who is the horse and who the jockey has become a blur.

Owing to decentralization, the forging of new alliances involving politico-bureaucratic elements has extended to the local level. Consequently, Indonesia’s political economy remains appropriated by state institutions and resources that are rife with political avarice and business interests. The system has unveiled a new trend of political ambitions. For example, small- and medium-scale businessmen who were either forcibly or voluntarily involved in graft to facilitate their business are now developing more lofty ambitions, such as expanding their business opportunities by seeking political office (Mietzner 2009). Likewise, some middle-level civil servants have been chasing after more than mere administrative power and are seeking to wield direct political power by contesting local elections. Bearing in mind how power has been reorganized and how more diverse players are involved in the game, most ethnic Chinese business representatives whom I talked to admitted that both old Chinese businesses and new Chinese businesses born after reformasi now must maintain many jockeys in various ways instead of acting only as a strong horse. Even they have in some way become jockeys for a specific horse.

By and large, varied approaches to playing the horse-and-jockey game are enmeshed in different scales of power and interest. Firstly, more inclusive and participatory political parties and parliaments (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat) have become the main locus of political power and state institutions—in stark contrast to the pre-Soeharto era, when elites other than Golkar and Soeharto’s men were mainly ornamental (Hadiz 2003). While that kind of political constellation posed challenges to Chinese conglomerates, particularly those that were adept at relying on the central government, democracy has to some extent given business groups more options to accommodate powerful vested interests and their associated political parties. Some Chinese businessmen have even become visible parts of the interests. They have a broader political base and thus quickly convert their wealth power into political capital or vice versa.

Borrowing party dichotomies developed by T. Reuter (2015), the direct involvement of Chinese businesses in political parties can be categorized into two patterns. The first is partai milik pribadi, a party created for the purpose of serving as a political tool for a private individual who wants to gain power within the DPR or as president, or both. Examples are Gerindra, founded by Prabowo Subianto and his billionaire younger brother Hasyim; the National Democrat Party, founded by Metro Group media tycoon Surya Paloh; and the Hanura Party of the wealthy former General Wiranto and his media tycoon friend Hary Tanoesoedibjo. Hary has even established his own party, named Perindo, whose branch representatives are spreading across 80,000 villages in Indonesia (Baker and Salna 2018). Hary, the new Indonesian Chinese conglomerate that emerged after the financial crisis, has been rolling out a non-mainstream political approach that the low-profile Soeharto cukong would never undertake. Having his own political party, Hary has been flexibly accommodating political dynamics and widening the scope for political maneuvering to curry favor with proper coalition partners and stiffen his spine, particularly in the legislature. While he joined the Prabowo camp in the previous election in 2014 and provided the latter with powerful media forces to compete against Jokowi, he surprisingly threw his support behind Jokowi’s bid for re-election in 2019.

Another pattern of involvement in political parties is through sewa kendaraan or “renting vehicles.” In Indonesia, electoral campaigns are expensive as state subsidies for political parties have been reduced since 2009 by almost 90 percent (Mietzner 2009; 2013). Meanwhile, parties have to conduct expensive opinion surveys in order to identify their nominees for the elections, shelling out hundreds of billions of rupiah for consultants, opinion polls, and media advertisements (Rinakit 2005). One egregious example is that of the PDI-P campaign costs, which reportedly reached Rp 376.3 billion in 2009 while the party received only around Rp 1.5 billion in state subsidies at the national level (Mietzner 2015). Consequently, political parties have become highly “transactional” and rely upon donations from individuals or corporations. Based on the 2011 party law, parties can receive Rp 1 billion ($91,000) from individuals and up to Rp 7.5 billion from corporations every year (Mietzner 2007; Ufen 2008).

Against this background, in tandem with restored civil rights, some Indonesian Chinese business groups have openly “rented” an established party to accumulate both political and economic capital. For example, the National Awakening Party (PKB) appointed the prominent Chinese businessman Rusdi Kirana as its new deputy even though he was an outsider. Since then, the party’s political advertisements have regularly appeared on national TV with, of course, Rusdi’s face all over them. PKB Chairman Muhaimin Iskandar admitted: “Many Islamic parties, including the PKB, had been unable to compete with larger parties as they had no money to run massive political advertising campaigns ahead of this year’s elections” (Khoirul 2014). Meanwhile, taking advantage of the official recognition of civil rights for Chinese, Rusdi claimed that he had decided to enter politics because he wanted to preserve equal business opportunities (for all Indonesian people) as he had enjoyed during the post-reform era (Saragih 2014). Like Rusdi, a number of other businesspeople have claimed that their involvement in politics is driven primarily by social rather than economic motives (Christine Franciska 2014). Among them is Indonesia’s current trade minister, Enggartiasto Lukita. Enggartiasto, a well-known Chinese property developer as well as the commissioner general of PT Unicora Agung, jumped ship in 2013 from Golkar to the NasDem party, one of Jokowi’s coalition parties, and has been the head of foreign relations for NasDem since. He claimed that his objective in joining NasDem was not to seek a legislative seat but rather to implement a transformation of the Indonesian economy through the party (Aditya 2014). Indeed, his ultimate position as Indonesian trade minister, instead of a mere lawmaker of the party, carries a warning against creating sharp dichotomies between business and politics.

Another approach in horse-and-jockey games is splitting political loyalties to accommodate diverse pairs of political-bureaucratic relationships emerging outside the national realm. Decentralization has undoubtedly changed the structure of the national political economy as a result of constant power struggles among local elites and levels of government over control of natural resources and policy making (Hadiz 2003; Aspinall and Klinken 2010). Actors with different backgrounds and interests are vying for political leverage, but no one knows who will ultimately win given the spirit of democracy. Relatedly, business groups—regardless of whether they are Chinese or pribumiowned—particularly those that do not rent or own political parties, like Rusdi and Hary, tend to divide their political loyalties into all-encompassing political blocs. For example, Chua (2008) vividly elaborates the “political network sharing” between the family and relatives of “old players.” In the case of the Wanandi family (Gemala Group), Sofjan favored Golkar and Jusuf Kalla, while his brother, Jusuf Wanandi—the founder of CSIS—tended to secure relationships with Megawati. In the case of the Riady family (Lippo Group), James Riady courted the actual power holders while his father, Mochtar, sided with the opposition leaders (Chua 2008, 126). In another example, it is an open secret that Tomy Winata is close to Megawati through his business connections with her late husband, Taufik Kiemas (Wessel 2005, 81), while he maintains strong ties with former President Yudhoyono through T. B. Silalahi, one of Yudhoyono’s closest associates, his key adviser, and former president commissioner of his Bank Artha Graha (Chua 2008, 126). Prior to the upcoming presidential election, the tycoon’s outmaneuvering of political loyalties has been too dynamic to capture. Speculation was rife that Tony endorsed the Jokowi-Ma’ruf pair after a photograph of the tycoon, holding a white shirt that read “Jokowi Amin 01 Indonesia Forward,” went viral on November 25, 2018 (Jakarta Post, November 27, 2018). Nevertheless, it is useful to remember an offensive point raised by Winata in an interview with Chua (2008, 76):

Up to now businessmen don’t want to be seen as supporting just one party . . . It will be the end for many businessmen who supported the wrong person. You cannot put all money on one horse, because the uncertainty of winning is too high. Beside this the president now changes at least every 10 years.

Amidst the growing number of political parties in Indonesia, many Chinese businesses hold tight to long-standing parties such as PDI-P and Golkar while simultaneously engaging with relatively young parties. Thanks to the legacy of the New Order, despite Soeharto’s fall, Golkar and its affiliates have not yet been left in the dust and are still significantly represented in the legislature. PDI-P, which has strong elements of a mass-based party and Megawati Soekarnoputri as a major drawcard for voters, has been dominating internal decision-making processes (Tomsa 2013, 33). Both parties have strong political bases in peripheral regions, especially in East and West Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and the central belt of Sumatra, where extractive industry projects are mainly located (ibid.; Simanjuntak 2014).

Rich businessmen do not have an issue with the growing necessity to donate money for elections (Mietzner 2015). Even though the bulk of campaign funds are referred to as donations, in fact they are investments of social capital aimed at yielding a bigger slice of the economic pie in the future. An ethnic Chinese businessman once told me in an interview that when funds are granted, tycoons normally expect that the politicians or elites with whom they co-allied will reward them with big projects should they win the election and have a hand in resource distribution. However, an electoral loss of a tycoon-backed candidate is not a zero-sum game. Given the unpredictability of politics, the candidate might win in other regional elections and thereby give the tycoon a return on his investment. In addition, having employed a diverse network of political support, Chinese businesses have political backup at different levels of government and interests.

The important role of Chinese in the development of the Indonesian real estate sector is a case in point. Benefiting from the rise of the Indonesian urban upper middle class, Chinese conglomerates have had property as one of their core businesses over the past decade. Among others, Tomy Winata’s Artha Graha Group, which pioneered Sudirman Central Business District development in Jakarta through its subsidiary PT Danayasa Arhatama, recently listed an additional 19 subsidiaries focusing on property and infrastructure (Indonesia Investment 2015). Chinese businessmen have acquired not only economic capital but also political connections at the local level. As local governments have greater discretion in matters of urban development, the tycoons have rapidly expanded their real estate business into both niche markets and residential markets in smaller provincial cities (Dieleman 2011; Arai 2015). Along the way, this has led to bribes in exchange for permits or for bypassing regulations. As M. Dieleman (2011, 77) wrote, based on her interviews with a former minister, “Developers bankroll the local elections by sponsoring candidates . . . If you are a rich developer, you can buy all the candidates, so that you are sure whoever wins is your man.” The arrest of Lippo Group executive Billy Sindoro, along with a government official from Bekasi Regency, in connection with the development of the Meikarta project in October 2018 illustrates the intensified political support Chinese businesses have built and maintained on an ongoing basis. Sindoro, consultants, and an employee allegedly bribed West Java’s Bekasi Regent, Neneng Hasanah Yasin, a total of Rp 13 billion ($855,613) in exchange for property and other permits for the planned Rp 278 trillion Meikarta project7)—the largest undertaking in Lippo’s 68-year history (Tani 2018).

Aside from positioning their capital in political fragmentation, Chinese businesses also took different approaches to accommodate diverse pairs of political-bureaucratic interests. To some extent, this replicated the practice of amakudari in Japan8)—the way business groups recruited former politico-bureaucrats based on their specialization and vital knowledge of the rules of the game and put the latter in the highest levels of management. During the mid-2000s, the upper management of the Lippo Group consisted of former Minister of Domestic Affairs Suryadi Sudirja, former Minister of State-Owned Enterprises Tanri Abeng, and former IBRA Deputy Farid Haryanto, who were co-opted as directors. Ginanjar Kartasasmita serves as deputy chairman of the Lippo Group, and Theo L. Sambuaga, the parliament member and former minister of public works and public housing, is the president commissioner of Lippo Karawaci Tbk—one of Lippo’s key real estate subsidiaries (Berita Satu, December 14, 2015). Indofood, the mainstay of the Salim Group’s business in Indonesia, has Bambang Subianto, the former minister of finance, as an independent commissioner (Reuters Finance 2018a). Obviously, Tomy Winata, who had strong connections with the military, appointed Kiki Syahnakri, the former vice head of the Indonesian Army, as the president commissioner rather than himself (Reuters Finance 2018b). In sum, the relations between horses and jockeys can be like playing chess at different tables. Each table represents a different set of elements with varying political arrangements, and the businessmen are required to deal with those different arrangements by converting their capital. They are aware of the consequences that the various arrangements might generate and are keen to skillfully capitalize on them.

(3) Privatizing Globalization, Socializing Nationalism

Democratization and globalization have contributed to the transformation of the national state as well as capital acting through it, whether Chinese or pribumi. The conflicting nature of those two events is apparent. On the one hand, the traditional principle of public interest in a globalizing market is that economic policy should protect and preserve competition as the most appropriate means of ensuring the efficient allocation of resources and protection of local industries. State technocrats and political elites, needing to maintain legitimacy in a democratic system, therefore tend to adopt national rhetoric and locally geared policies (Warburton 2017). On the other hand, the liberalization of state policies along with the global flow of capital has, to some extent, led to increasingly globalized circuits of capital accumulation that extend beyond the state’s control (Burnham 2006). Globalized circuits of capital accumulation tend to oppose protectionism and favor a regime of global free trade and investment. As such, what tends to happen is that outward-oriented, pro-globalization coalitions between businesses, politico-bureaucrats, and political parties become pitted against inward-oriented groups devoted to maintaining the status quo. An integral job of Chinese business is to accommodate both outward- and inward-oriented forces, which yield a myriad of opportunities as well as challenges.

Facing new challenges under popular mobilization and electoral politics, the government introduced a range of nationalist policies in the extractive sector—ranging from export bans to forced foreign divestments—in a bid to attract voters. For example, the enactment of Law No. 4/2009 under the Yudhoyono presidency fundamentally restructured the industry and reinstated the state’s authority to force companies to pay more tax, increase loyalty rate, and require foreign companies to divest their shares.9) More tellingly, in 2013 the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources introduced a new regulation that compelled oil and gas companies to use more local providers of goods and services. The following year, Yudhoyono went ahead and put a large number of oil and gas service sectors, including onshore drilling and piping and construction services, on the Negative Investment List so as to limit foreign shareholdings (Negara 2015; Warburton 2017).

Unlike Soeharto’s risk-averse policies regarding the mineral, coal, and energy industries, which gave priority to foreign investors, this wave of economic nationalism gave opportunities to Chinese tycoons to diversify their business portfolio. The early 2000s was also a time of low global coal prices, which allowed local businesses—including Chinese businesses—to acquire assets from foreign miners. For example, the Adaro Group, which is considered an “Astra reunion,” gained prominence as Indonesia’s largest coal company through acquisitions and foreign divestment deals (Erwide Maulia 2017). Among other divestment decisions, in 2016 BHP Billiton sold its 75 percent stake in the IndoMet project in East and Central Kalimantan to Adaro, as Indonesia’s regulatory framework was difficult for international companies to negotiate. Adaro, which previously acted as BHP Billiton’s joint venture partner and owned a 25 percent stake from 2010, now fully owned the coal-mining project (Reuters, June 7, 2016). One of Soeharto’s cukong, Prajogo Pangestu, also diversified his company into the mining sector. In 2012 Prajogo’s Barito Pacific signed $393 million to PT Thiess Contractors to develop coal mining in Central Kalimantan, Muara Teweh (Thiess website 2012). Eka Tjipta Widjaja gained a foothold in 38,165 hectares of coal mines in Jambi, South Kalimantan, and Central Kalimantan through Sinar Mas’s subsidiary Golden Energy Mines. The subsidiary also acquired shares of the British-owned coal investment company Asia Resource Minerals, which ultimately made it the major owner of Berau Coal Energy in East Kalimantan (Neil 2015; Warden 2015). While scrupulously focusing on its mainstream business, the Salim Group mobilized its subsidiary PT Adidaya Tangguh to manage coal and tin mining in Maluku. In March 2016 the Djarum Group, collaborating with the Wilmar Group of Martua Sitorus—a prominent Chinese Indonesian businessman—took over 95 percent of shares in PT Agincourt Resources, a gold-mining company in Martabe, North Sumatra, that was previously owned by G-Resources of Hong Kong (Kompas, December 7, 2015). A new player, the MNC Group belonging to Hary Tanosoedibyo—who seamlessly diversified his media empire—also acquired PT Nuansacipta Coal Investment, which focused mainly on coal mining (Didik Purwanto 2013). Economic nationalism yielded important resources necessary to back up Chinese economic capital, particularly in the extractive sectors that were restricted during the Soeharto era.

Despite the buoyant economic capital of Chinese business gaining traction on lucrative extractive projects, practices on the ground often reflect a varying pace and nature of capital convertibility. As mentioned in the previous section, by figuratively riding many horses, wealthy businessmen were able to have more diversified entry points to access the state actors, and hence to access licenses and contracts, which enabled them to expand their business empires (Warburton 2017). However, as the state became fragmented, the interests of business and different levels of government were not always easily aligned. As decentralization led to the substantially expanded power of local business and political elites, the line between business and politics at the local level became increasingly hazy. The social capital possessed by Chinese conglomerates has its limits, and there was thus somewhat of an impasse when it came to dealing with the increasingly chaotic power relations at the local level. It was not uncommon for local companies, owned by either pribumi or ethnic Chinese, to cash in on the rise of economic nationalism and convert their strong connections with local elites into economic capital (Choi 2012; Chong 2015). This recent development trend led to the rise of local capture, a condition under which local business elites capture or influence local economic and/or political institutions that constrain Jakarta-based Chinese conglomerates’ business expansion (Schulze and Sjahrir 2014).

For example, in the mining sector the IUP, a general license to conduct mining business activities in a designated area, is not issued by the central government; instead, the issuing authority depends upon the location of the mine infrastructure. If the mine infrastructure is located across more than one province, the IUP is issued by ministers. If a project is based in a regency or city, the mayor holds the authority to issue a license (PWC Indonesia 2016). No one knows for sure whether licenses inked at the national level will be honored by provincial or district authorities. In other words, city mayors—many of whom rise to power through money politics—have the power to issue and expunge licenses over hugely lucrative concessions. What follows is local capture. Many local political candidates who have personal connections with local businessmen or established politicians need support from local businesses. Once elected as local leaders, they repay the business elites in the form of contracts, projects, and even local policies. The most recent case involving the Salim Group vividly epitomizes the dynamics as well as the limits of Salim’s social capital in a particular area. The SILO Group, which is reportedly affiliated with the Salim Group and Agung Sedayu Group through its CEO, Effendy Tios, has held coal concessions on Laut Island in South Kalimantan since 2010. However, according to a report published by Tempo magazine (2018), the operation was circumscribed as the South Kalimantan governor, Shabirin Noor, revoked the license with the intention of handing it to his closest ally, Andi Syamsuddin Arsyad (known as Haji Isam), who ran oil-palm estates in the region. Reportedly, the mining licenses were sold to Haji before the regional head election was held. The ownership dispute has become complex as Haji is an important figure who has control over bureaucratic politics in South Kalimantan and enjoys the support of police officers. While the Salim Group, through its subsidiary Aetra Air, recently returned to the Jakarta water concession scene after almost 20 years (Jakarta Post, August 31, 2017), it seems that its capital convertibility in South Kalimantan is out of kilter.

Despite struggles over capital conversion in the mining sector, Chinese businesses have been forging the internationalization of their economic capital in a more innovative way. Their activities are no longer tied to centralized political power. Instead, new business trends they promote entail a rearticulation of economy and polity that supersedes cross-border mobility of capital. Old players, such as the Salim and Sinar Mas Groups, while often demonized as using “shadow companies” to hide their links to deforestation and unfair methods of concession (see AidEnvironment 2018), do a complete about-face publicly when it comes to the recent trend of industrialization, namely, the digital revolution. The big conglomerates portray themselves simply as entrepreneurs who have attained affluence and therefore have a responsibility to help others march toward the promotion of liberalization and globalization. Many of Soeharto’s cukong have become active in funnelling their capital toward digital services and venture capital to fund start-ups and early-stage companies that are believed to have long-term growth potential. The Lippo Group has made a noteworthy move through its sponsorship of Venturra Capital, which has $150 million to invest in start-ups in Indonesia, and Southeast Asia in general (Dion Bisara 2015). In a similar vein, Sinar Mas has been a key investor in Ardent Capital, a venture capital firm that has built e-commerce companies worth over $350 million throughout Southeast Asia and globally (Horwitz 2014). The richest conglomerate in Indonesia, the Djarum Group, also has its tentacles in tech investments through Global Digital Prima. Global Digital Prima has put money into many notable tech start-ups, ranging from digital communities, media, and commerce to solution companies such as, Gojek, Kaskus, Kumparan, and Merah Putih (Aruna Harjani 2012). This trend does not merely imply that Chinese businesses have staked a claim in the development of digital services. Rather, it demonstrates how they have been able to simultaneously shelter the expansion of their economic capital under the guise of economic nationalism and liberalization.

In sum, despite local constraints, democracy has led to the rolling out of economic and political ventures through which Chinese businesses have carved out varying degrees of capital conversion to suit their interests. Under such a complex, contradictory, and antagonistic interaction of capital and interests in the country, these businesses have skillfully appropriated political dynamics driven by both market and non-market discourses and practices and ultimately restructured the state-business relationship.

V Summary: Toward a Dispersed Network

An important point, as mentioned earlier, is that the state-Chinese business relationship is not static; it is driven by the varying pace and nature of capital conversion at the regional, national, and even international levels. The form of capital itself is varied—ranging from economic resources to social and cultural capital—and has waxed and waned over the years to eventually create a unique pattern of state-business ties. As such, democracy is not an end in itself but rather a new political space in which capital values are restructured and subsequently converted by various actors to suit their interests. Consequently, changes in the composition of interests and bargaining power of actors with varying degrees of capital at their disposal have redefined the state-business relationship.

As summarized in Table 2, it is clear that three features of the state-business relationship have undergone a fundamental transformation. First, regarding the basis of equality, unlike during Soeharto’s administration, when Chinese businesses were more vulnerable than patronage-minded generals and politicians, democracy has strengthened the former’s bargaining power due to dramatic political shifts that have led to the dominance of the political sphere by business interests. A series of reforms, such as foreign divestment and restored civil rights, in turn, have created opportunities for Chinese business to harness an increased inflow of resources. Equally important, in terms of degree of reciprocity and value of services, the story is no more restricted only to monopolist patrons (prominent generals, Soeharto, and the Cendana family) that pledged monopoly rights and granted licenses to their well-connected cukong in return for favors in the form of company shares, funding for yayasan, or the bailing out of state-owned companies and helping Soeharto to accomplish certain unrealistic development plans. Democracy with the fragmentation of power has demonstrated that the president and military are not the nerve center of the state-business relationship; a wide range of “services” have been offered by mixed actors, including political parties, parliament members, and local authorities with bargaining power. To a greater extent, Chinese businesses even now can establish and manage their own political party.


Table 2 Mapping the State-Business Relationship


Second, in the realm of face-to-face character, it is apparent that the old patronage system has “higher qualities” of dependencies and loyalties than the recent one. Beyond the symbiotic relationship, somehow patronage brought a certain degree of volunteerism to the fore. The unbridled strong bond between Soeharto and his cukong showed that the roots of reciprocity were not simply limited to mutual advantage but were genuinely associated with a mutual devotion stemming from the enduring patron-client framework and shared values between both sides. In contrast, democracy downgraded the “qualities” of state-business ties. A series of unintended consequences deriving from democratic consolidation, such as liberalization, restored civil rights, and economic nationalism, have continuously created opportunities for cukong to gain a foothold in the political sphere. Thus, the bonds between Chinese business and the state seem more pragmatic and moderate. Additionally, given the capricious political environment, where nobody can predict who will be the next leader, the relationship lacks intensity as it is presumed to be short-term, dependent on how long the politician will be in office or how long a project will take.

The last feature of the relationship that has changed is flexibility. While a democratized Indonesia has witnessed a diversification of power, a decrease of military affiliations with politics, as well as the emergence of groups such as Islamic political parties and radical movements, Chinese businesses have skillfully managed to remain at the center of the diverse political constellation and minimize their political vulnerability. They wield influence in lucrative sectors of the economy and have significant shares in the media industry, which is a form of political capital required by politico-bureaucrats during their campaigns. As a result, they have greater space to maneuver in situations of either unpredictable political clout or contentious political choices.

As a corollary to the varying pace and nature of capital conversion, the orthodox formation of patronage has been broken up into a centrifugal network. As shown by the diagram in Table 2, the hierarchical patronage with Soeharto at the top has been diminished. The new pattern of state-Chinese business relations demonstrates chaotic horizontal connections among forces and interests, including Chinese business. Neither the Chinese position nor the state’s is higher, as neither of them has absolute bargaining power. What remained unchanged was the flexibility in converting capital in accordance with political dynamics.

The arguments posed in this research can be a never-ending discussion on the arc of economic development in Southeast Asia. Paradoxically, despite creating economic growth, the relationship between politics and business is not rule-based; rather, it is a concession-based relationship that has enabled actors to survive in all political weather. On the surface, as nations develop further and their politics and business become more stable, we tend to lose sight of the details of the nation’s development path. It is largely due to the common perception that has been developed to the point that the state-business relations should have been somewhat professionalized. We might have been thinking about how politics in the democracy era and Chinese business might interact in systems that are relatively depoliticized. Taking a different approach, this research has broken the myth and contributed to knowledge on the political spectrum of Asian economic development amidst the ebb and flow of capital.

Accepted: April 12, 2019


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1) “Cukong” refers to the politically well-connected ethnic Chinese businessmen whom Soeharto granted access to state resources, contracts, and other material benefits in exchange for their support of the regime, including 10 percent of business commission to Soeharto’s family and relatives.

2) “Berkeley Mafia” is the term given to a group of US-educated Indonesian economists whose policy recommendations brought Indonesia back from poor economic conditions and the brink of poverty in the mid-1960s.

3) SARA stands for issues regarding ethnicity, religion, and race in Indonesia.

4) Rakyat in this context refers to people, yet it has connotations of nationalism.

5) Prior to running for the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, the incumbent governor at that time, Basuki Tjahja Purnama (Ahok), an ethnic Chinese and staunch Christian believer, was accused of conducting blasphemy by certain Islamic groups, including Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front) and Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Indonesian Ulema Council). A video of Ahok’s speech on Pramuka Island in the Thousand Islands District went viral via a variety of social media platforms. In the speech, on the topic of his own tenure, Ahok told his audience that they should not vote for him in the upcoming election if they felt that their Islamic faith prohibited them from doing so. He cautioned people that if they voted for him and neglected the mandate of Surah Al-Maida 51, the resulting guilt they felt may even cause them to have a stroke. Regardless of the manipulative action of the opposition in making the video, Ahok was ultimately punished for insulting the Qur’an for political gain and sentenced to two years’ jail.

6) Golongan Karya (Golkar) was the ruling party from 1973 to 1999 under Soeharto’s New Order regime. Soeharto, as chairman of the executive board, had the highest authority in the party.

7) Meikarta, dubbed the “Shenzhen of Indonesia,” is the Lippo Group’s flagship project. It involves 10 global institutions developing 273,000 square meters of land in the satellite town with an investment value of $550 million. Collaborating with the China State Construction Energetic Corporation, Lippo envisioned Meikarta in Cikarang, Bekasi, to be one of the largest manufacturing hubs in Indonesia and a modern city with complete infrastructure.

8) Amakudari refers to ties binding the bureaucracy and private corporations whereby government officials retire into top positions in Japanese companies. T. J. Pempel (1998) sees amakudari as the development and maintenance of ties between private interests and certain ministries of the central government.

9) On January 12, 2009, Indonesia under Yudhoyono passed Law No. 4 of 2009 Regarding Mineral and Coal Mining, putting an end to the Mining Law 1967. It is a cornerstone in the management of mineral- and coal-mining areas in Indonesia. Under the new law, mining rights are regulated under a licensing system and take the form of Mining Business Permits, or IUP (Izin Usaha Pertambangan). In accordance with the mandate of Law No. 4 of 2009, a mining area is an area that has the potential for minerals and is not bound by the limits of government administration or part of national spatial planning. It also can be an area that has potential licensing by local authorities in coordination with ministries and the House of Representatives.


Vol. 7, No. 3, Azmi SHAROM


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

Law and the Judiciary: Divides and Dissent in Malaysia

Azmi Sharom*

*Faculty of Law, University of Malaya, 50603 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
e-mail: azmi.sharom[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.7.3_391

Malaysia is a common law country, and as such the decisions of its courts have a binding and law-making force. This means that the Malaysian judiciary is highly influential in setting the tenor of governance. In this article I examine and analyze some key decisions that had an influence on divisiveness and dissent in the country. I point out that the courts have been poor in ensuring that the legal system protects the nation from divisive elements, and the legal system does not do enough to guarantee the fundamental rights and democratic principles that were envisioned by the founding fathers for the citizenry. The article closes with an attempt to understand why this is the case.

Keywords: judiciary, equality, freedom of religion, race relations, freedom of expression, democracy, constitutionalism


The history of the modern Malaysian judiciary1) begins with the purchase of Penang Island from the Sultan of Kedah by Captain Francis Light in 1786. The initial years of British rule over the island saw a rather ad hoc method of settling conflicts, with each of the numerous communities having a head known as a kapitan appointed by Light to settle disputes. The island prospered, and the population as well as commercial activities grew to the point that a more formal legal system was required. In 1807 a Royal Charter was decreed and Penang had its first Supreme Court, which fundamentally enforced British law.2)

At this time there was no such thing as a single Malaysian nation-state. What we now know as Malaysia was a collection of sultanates and British-governed territories. The sultanates were Perlis, Kedah, Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Johor, Pahang, Terengganu, and Kelantan. The British territories were Penang and Melaka on Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah (North Borneo) and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

From Penang the British judicial system gradually spread across the peninsula, starting with the other area directly under British control, Melaka. Eventually the various sultanates also acquired British courts and British law. Through a system of Residents and Advisers the British spread their influence into the sultanates, taking over the system of justice from the traditional rulers and leaving only the governance of religion (Islam) and Malay customs in the hands of the Sultans. Sabah (then North Borneo) and Sarawak became British protectorates in 1888, respectively under the administration of the North Borneo Company and the “White Rajah” James Brooke and his family.

By the time independence was achieved for Malaya (the peninsula) in 1957, and later when Sabah and Sarawak merged with the nine peninsular states to form Malaysia in 1963, the British system was firmly entrenched. The nation has two sources of civil law. The first is legislation passed by the Federal Parliament and in the various state legislatures, depending on their own legislative jurisdictions as determined by the Federal Constitution. Another source of law is the common law—laws made by judges by deriving principles of law from the reasoning of their cases.3) This being the case, the Malaysian judiciary practices stare decicis. This means the decisions of the higher courts are binding upon the lower courts.4) The entire legal system is based on the Federal Constitution.5) According to Article 4 of the constitution, the constitution is the highest law in the land: all legislation has to be in line with its provisions. Any law that contradicts the constitution is deemed invalid.

The Malaysian courts are divided generally into two: the lower courts and the high courts. The lower courts are the magistrates’ courts and the sessions courts. Most cases begin at either of these, and the jurisdictions of these courts depend on the severity of the subject matter and the size of the claim (depending on whether the issue is a criminal or civil one). The high courts consist of the High Courts of Malaya and the High Courts of Borneo.6) Above them is the Court of Appeal, and finally the highest court in the country is called the Federal Court.

Since Malaysia is a common law country, the decisions of the courts have a profound effect. Legal decisions and interpretations of statutes—and especially the Federal Constitution—have repercussions on the way laws are enforced and ultimately on the way the country is governed. In this way the courts play an important role in how dissent and potentially divisive actions are handled in Malaysia.

This paper proposes that the main causes of divisiveness in Malaysian society are ethnicity and religion. In this matter the courts can play a role by ensuring a degree of equity when faced with cases dealing with such issues. Decision making based on equality as determined by the constitution is effective in ensuring that there is no question of racial or religious superiority seeping into the ethos of the nation’s governance. Conversely, if decisions are made without such an aspiration, then the possibility arises where a judicial decision can create greater divisiveness by placing a particular community and faith above others, creating a sense that the country is divided into separate classes of citizens.

Dissent can occur freely only if there is freedom of expression. And peaceful dissent can occur only if there is a strong democratic system that the people have faith in. The role of the judiciary is in how far they protect the freedom of expression when used for dissent and how far they protect the principles that hold a democracy together. These three themes will be explored in this paper.

The Federal Constitution

At the outset, it would be prudent to briefly discuss the Federal Constitution. As mentioned above, it is the highest law in the land. It was drafted by the Reid Commission, a group of men appointed by the British, and is based on an earlier document called the Federation of Malaya Agreement 1948. The Federal Constitution is a detailed document consisting of 15 parts, 183 articles, and 13 schedules. Reading it, one gets the impression that it is a pragmatic constitution without the usual preamble to establish some sort of national aspiration. This can be problematic as there is no clear overarching principle or principles that the courts can rely on when making decisions regarding the constitution and its interpretation.

Therefore, it is possible to get different reasonings by the courts on certain provisions. One example is Article 3, which states that Islam is the religion of the federation but all other religions are allowed to be practiced freely. In the case of Che Omar Che Soh v Public Prosecutor (1988)7) it was held by the Supreme Court (as the highest court was called at the time) that the provision simply meant that where official functions and the like were concerned, Islamic traditions were to be followed. Islamic laws are limited by the constitution in Schedule 9 to matters dealing fundamentally with family, inheritance, and some property issues. This provision, however, was given vastly different interpretations in later cases, which moves the very nature of the country away from a secular nation to one that appears to float on the fringes of what may be described as an Islamic state. This shall be discussed below.

The constitution places a degree of importance on human rights, although that term is not used. Instead, what we have is Part 2, titled “Fundamental Liberties.” This covers the liberty of the person (commonly known as the right to life); the banning of slavery; protection from retrospective laws; freedom of movement; freedom of speech, assembly, and association; freedom of religion; rights in respect to education (although not a blanket right to education); and the right to property.

Unlike the First Amendment to the US Constitution, Malaysia’s “Fundamental Liberties” comes with detailed legal provisos. For example, freedom of religion may be restricted on the grounds of public order, health, and morality. There is also the potential for laws to be passed restricting proselytization to Muslims.

Article 10(1) on the freedom of expression has heavy provisos in the constitution allowing for parliament to make laws restricting those rights on the general grounds of national security, the maintenance of good international relations, public order, the protection of parliamentary privileges, contempt of court, and defamation and to prevent incitement to commit any offense.8) Specifically, parliament can also pass laws restricting expression on matters concerning the sovereignty of Sultans, citizenship, the national language, and the special position of Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak.

This brings us to an interesting point regarding the constitution. It specifically allows for affirmative action to conserve the “special position” of Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak. Even though Article 8 guarantees the equality of citizens, there is a proviso that allows for specific laws to be passed that may breach equality. Article 153 is one of those. What Article 153 basically does is allow for quotas to be set in education (placements and scholarships), posts in government service, as well as business permits for Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak. In other words, it provides for the possibility of affirmative action.

Article 153 was included in the constitution because at the time of independence these communities were deemed so far behind other ethnic groups economically and educationally that such measures were necessary in order to achieve some sort of societal equilibrium. It does not take much imagination to see that it could also be a cause of divisiveness.

One final point regarding the constitution is Part 8, which deals with elections. It is clear that this country is meant to be a democratic one. Part 8 is a technical section that deals with the conduct of elections, the role of the Election Commission, and the drawing of constituencies. What it does not deal with is the meaning of democracy and what being a democratic system truly entails. It is these sorts of philosophical questions that the courts ought to take heed of as they would color their decision making. Without such considerations the constitution can be interpreted in such a manner that the protections, values, and ideals it is supposed to provide become meaningless.

Division by Way of Ethnicity and Religion

As mentioned above, the constitution allows for affirmative action primarily by virtue of Article 153. This provision has led to many governmental policies favoring Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak (collectively known as Bumiputera, a political term not found in the constitution). Although Article 153 has existed since 1957, it was used in earnest only from 1970. In 1969 there were racial riots that led to many deaths. These riots were deemed to have been fueled by a feeling of insecurity on the part of Malays that their position in the nation was precarious. The general election of 1969 saw the opposition parties take away the two-thirds majority of parliamentary seats from the ruling party. Since many of the opposition parties were de facto non-Malay, this created an unstable situation. Already far behind in economic terms, Malays felt that their political power was being eroded too, which led to the riots.9)

In order to speed up economic equity, the government devised the New Economic Plan, which was ostensibly intended to reduce poverty in general but ended up being a method to provide affirmative action almost exclusively for Malays. Places in universities had quotas set aside for Bumiputera. At its highest, the ratio was 9:1 places in favor of Bumiputera (Harding 1996). Some educational establishments, such as the MARA Junior Colleges and the MARA Institute of Technology, later to become the MARA University of Technology, were open only to Bumiputera.

Economically, too, Bumiputera received tremendous help. Loans were made easily available to them for businesses, and government policy was such that government projects favored Bumiputera contractors. Special trust funds were created by the government that were open only to Bumiputera. Government service saw the shrinking of non-Malay staff to the point that today government servants are overwhelmingly Malay. It is not the place of this paper to provide a detailed list of the pro-Bumiputera policies and actions taken by the government of Malaysia. Needless to say, despite the seemingly good intentions of such policies, this skewed state of affairs led to resentment amongst non-Bumiputera.

The feeling was made worse by the attitude of politicians and Malay nationalist groups who took the privileges provided for by the constitution as a right and as an indication that they were somehow a different, higher class of citizen from non-Malays. Concepts such as “ketuanan Melayu,” a term coined by the late politician Abdullah Ahmad, suggested that Malay leadership of the nation was something that was unchallengeable. All this led to a particularly strange sort of racism in the country, where a sign of weakness (the need for special governmental help) was deemed to be a right and a source of pride that had to be protected.

Any criticism of the situation was made difficult by the Sedition Act 1948,10) which was amended to make it seditious to question any matter, right, status, position, privilege, sovereignty, or prerogative established by Article 153. It has been suggested that this means Article 153 cannot be discussed, although theoretically this ought not to be the case. The Sedition Act, it can be argued, prevents questioning the existence of Article 153; it does not forbid the criticism of its implementation.

The first legal question is whether Article 153 is a right, equivalent, say, to the right to property. I do not believe this is so. The constitution does not have a preamble; however, one can examine the travaux préparatoires of the constitution, which is the Report of the Federation of Malaya Constitutional Commission,11) commonly known as the Reid Commission Report. The Reid Commission Report is the document prepared by the Reid Commission discussing the nascent constitution and its provisions. In it there are comments on the draft constitution by the key stakeholders at the time, including the main political coalition consisting of United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), and Malayan Indian Congress (MIC), collectively known as the Alliance; and the rulers. The Alliance made this comment on the report: “. . . in an independent Malaya all nationals should be accorded equal rights, privileges and opportunities and there must not be discrimination on grounds of race and creed . . . .” Therefore, the advantages given to Malays (Borneo natives were included only in 1963, when Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore created Malaysia) were meant to be a stopgap measure to aid the economically disadvantaged Malays. This was further confirmed by the rulers themselves, who said that they “look forward to a time not too remote when it will become possible to eliminate Communalism as a force in the political and economic life of the country.”

In addition, Ooi Kee Beng asserts that Tun Dr. Ismail, one of the nation’s founding fathers, in his journals likened the special privileges of Malays to a golf handicap, to be used only until such time as a crutch was no longer needed (Ooi 2006). It is clear, therefore, that the political elites and the traditional rulers of the country did not envision “special privileges” to be permanent, nor did they envision them to be some sort of special right. In this light, to treat special privileges as though they are an inalienable right is utterly wrong.

The aspiration of the founders of the country, that is, their wish to see a nation where all were treated equally, is reflected in Article 8 of the constitution. The basic premise is one of equality; the only exceptions are those specifically provided for by the constitution. Therefore, Article 153 is in fact merely one of those express situations where the constitution provides the government permission to take action that treats people in a way that is not equal. It is not a right.

Furthermore, Article 153 makes clear that any such affirmative action must be reasonable in nature. Reasonableness is a factor that requires open discussion and data upon which to base a judgment. It is also a principle that can be adjudicated upon by the judiciary. What all this points to is that it is indeed possible for the implementation of Article 153 to be challenged in court. This would give the court the opportunity to determine definitively the nature of Article 153, as to whether it is a right or not, as well as to determine whether the government’s actions in implementing affirmative action have gone beyond the boundaries of reasonableness.

Unfortunately, this has never occurred; and the judiciary has not been able to play a role in helping to define and refine a constitutional provision that has contributed to interethnic divisiveness in the country. Yet, when examining how the courts have dealt with another divisive matter, religion, it is perhaps just as well that they have not been given the opportunity to judge on Article 153.

There has been a growing Islamization of Malaysia, which impinges on the freedoms guaranteed in the constitution and leads to decisions by the court that are fundamentally unjust. One of the problems is the assertion that Malaysia is an Islamic state. There is no clarity as to what exactly an “Islamic state” means, but what has happened is that so-called Islamic values have been imposed on the reasoning, or lack thereof, behind legal judgments. Before we discuss some of those judgments, it would be prudent to briefly discuss the nature of Malaysia: Is it an Islamic state or a secular one?

The root of the issue is Article 3 of the constitution, which reads: “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.” Does this phrase mean that Malaysia is an Islamic state? The answer is clearly in the negative, for two main reasons. First, the Reid Commission Report states that the Alliance, upon examining the draft constitution, had this to say about Article 3: “The observance of this principle . . . shall not imply that the State is not a secular state.”12)

It is very clear, therefore, that Malaya was not to be an Islamic state. This is not an assertion made by the Reid Commission; it is an assertion made by the very people who were to become the government of the newly independent nation. This statement combined with Article 4, which places all laws in the country under the overarching principles of the constitution, means that to claim Malaya was meant to be theocratic in any way is disingenuous. The contention that Malaysia is a secular country is further strengthened by the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Che Omar Che Soh v Public Prosecutor (1988), where it was held that secular law governed the nation and Islamic law was confined only to the personal law of Muslims. Article 3 was taken to mean that as far as official ceremonial matters were concerned, Islamic form and rituals were to be used.

What about the freedom of religion? Article 11 is explicit: “Every person has the right to profess and practice his religion and subject to clause 4 to propagate it.” Clause 4 allows the state governments (and the federal government in the case of the federal territories) to control proselytization to Muslims. This is not limited to non-Muslims proselytizing to Muslims; it includes Muslim-to-Muslim proselytization as well.

A. J. Harding (1996) suggests that “. . . the restriction of proselytism has more to do with the preservation of public order than with religious priority.” He argues that even states like Penang, which do not have Islam as their official religion, have laws regarding proselytization to Muslims. Therefore, it cannot be assumed that Islam is deemed superior in some way. If we were to work on this premise, then it would appear that this limitation, as restrictive as it is, does not actually stop individuals of any faith from choosing their religion.

This can be seen in the Supreme Court decision of Minister of Home Affairs v Jamaluddin Othman (1989).13) In this case a Muslim convert to Christianity was detained under the Internal Security Act 1960.14) It was held that such a detention had to be made for the purpose of national security. The conversion of this individual did not breach national security, and his detention was in breach of his freedom to choose his religion as enshrined in Article 11. Thus, although proselytizing to Muslims is restricted, Muslims’ freedom to choose their religion would appear not to be.

In recent years, however, the courts have moved away from the decisions of Che Omar and Jamaluddin and have made decisions that appear to be contradictory to the constitution. The controversy involving the Catholic Church and the Malaysian government is an example of this. The Catholic Church in Malaysia publishes a newsletter titled The Herald. In compliance with the law regarding proselytizing, it is clearly printed on each copy that the publication is meant for non-Muslims only. This newsletter is bilingual, in English and Malay. In the Malay section of the Herald the word for God is “tuhan” while the word for Lord is “Allah.”

Like all publications, the Herald requires a license according to the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984. This license was withdrawn by the government on the grounds that it was an offense for the Herald to use the word “Allah.” The government contended that the word could be used only by Muslims. This caused great consternation in the Catholic community as they had used “Allah” to mean “Lord” for a long time, probably since the nineteenth century. Furthermore, until this point there had been no untoward incidents or complaints. In the high court the Church won.15) The judge held that Article 3 guaranteed that everyone had a right to practice their religion peacefully. Furthermore, the only specific restriction on this right was the limitation placed on proselytizing to Muslims; there was no evidence of the Catholic Church doing this via the newsletter.

This decision was overturned in the Court of Appeal.16) Apandi Ali, the lead judge in the Court of Appeal, held that Article 3 had greater meaning than any ordinary understanding of the words. He said:

It is my judgment that the purpose of and intention of the insertion of the words: ‘in peace and harmony’ in Article 3(1) is to protect the sanctity of Islam as the religion of the country and also to insulate against any threat faced or any possible and probable threat to Islam, in the context of this country, in the propagation of other religion to the followers of Islam.17)

He went on to say that the Herald’s use of the word “Allah” was a threat to public order, reasoning

that based on the facts and circumstances of the case, the use of the word “Allah” particularly in the Malay version of the Herald without doubt do [sic] have the potential to disrupt the even tempo of the life of the Malaysian community. Such publication will surely have an adverse effect upon the sanctity as envisaged under Article 3(1) . . .18)

When the Catholic Church tried to appeal the decision in the Federal Court, its application was disallowed.

If we examine the reasoning of the judge in the Court of Appeal, it appears to be disturbing. The judge ascribed greater meaning to Article 3 without having any evidence. As stated earlier, in the Reid Commission Report the comments made regarding Article 3 were pithy and made clear that despite this provision, the constitution was a secular one. Nowhere is it stated that Article 3 was intended to protect the sanctity of Islam. This is an interpretation without any foundation. Furthermore, the use of the public order argument is unsatisfactory. It is true that there were protests against the Herald, but there were no untoward incidents regarding this publication until the government made it an issue. In other words, the Herald captured the public imagination due to government action rather than any Church activity.

Article 3 had been interpreted in such a way as to go beyond its ordinary meaning, and the right of a community to peacefully practice their religion had been taken away on the unjustifiable pretext of “protecting the sanctity of Islam.” Furthermore, a group that had done no wrong according to the law (in the sense that there was no proof that they were proselytizing to Muslims) were deprived of their rights using the angry protests of a few as an excuse. It would appear that if Muslims do not like something, and if they were to make an issue of the matter, the rights of other people can be taken away. This judgment is an example of disrespecting the freedom of religion, and it is also the type of judgment that normalizes and justifies divisive behavior.

Whereas this case was about an entire community, there have also been cases regarding individuals that serve to strengthen the impression that in matters involving Islam, the protections of the constitution can be disregarded. In the Lina Joy case19) a woman who was born into a Muslim family converted to Catholicism. Her attempts to change her religious status on her identity card were rejected by the National Registration Department. Her case went all the way to the Federal Court, where in a majority decision it was held that the power to declare whether a Muslim was no longer a Muslim rested with the sharia courts. Her application was therefore rejected. In effect, what the Federal Court did was to abdicate its responsibility and instead transfer it to the sharia court. What the majority judgment did not decide on was the fundamental issue that Lina Joy had a right to choose whatever religion she wanted according to Article 11, which is clear and unambiguous.

If one goes through the sharia system to convert out of Islam, there can be repercussions. In some states it is a crime. For example, Kelantan makes apostasy an offense punishable with two years’ imprisonment. In other states those converting out of Islam can be sent to a “rehabilitation camp,” which is what occurred with M. Revathi, a woman of Indian descent (see Sharom 2009, 133–134). Her parents were Hindu, but they converted to Islam. Revathi, however, did not grow up with her parents and was instead raised by her Hindu grandmother. Revathi was raised as a Hindu and believed herself to be one.

In 2004 she was married to a Hindu man in a Hindu customary ceremony, and the couple subsequently had a daughter. The marriage, however, was not registered, as she was legally deemed a Muslim and in Malaysia a Muslim cannot marry a non-Muslim. When Revathi tried to change her religious status in the Melaka Sharia Court she was detained and sent to a rehabilitation camp, where she was held for six months. During this time she was not allowed to see her husband, and her daughter was seized from her husband and sent to live with Revathi’s Muslim parents. Upon her release Revathi was ordered by the court to live with her parents. If she attempted to live with her husband she could be charged in the sharia court with the offense of khalwat, or close proximity,20) for she would be living with a man who was not legally recognized as her husband.

The courts failed in their responsibility to enforce Article 11. In cases such as Lina Joy’s, they chose not to confront the issue head on even when given the opportunity. Any law that is in contradiction to the constitution is void per Article 4. Yet there are various Islamic laws that clearly contradict the constitution but continue to operate. The argument of those who support such laws is that under the constitution it is permissible for Islamic laws to be made in order to create offenses that go against the “precepts of Islam.” Just what these precepts are is not defined. And surely such offenses cannot be those that are in contradiction to the constitution.

Another case with disturbing implications is that of Subashini Rajasingam. In 2001 Subashini married Saravanam Thangatoray in a civil ceremony. They were both Hindus at the time of their marriage, and they had two sons. In 2006, without informing his wife, Saravanan converted himself and his sons to Islam. He then began divorce proceedings in the sharia court. Subashini objected because the sharia court was accessible only to Muslims, and thus she would have no standing in the proceedings. She brought her case to the civil court requesting an order that any divorce proceedings should be in the civil court as well as objecting to the conversion of her sons.

The case went all the way to the Federal Court,21) where it was decided that indeed both the sharia court and the civil court had jurisdiction and that Saravanan as a parent had the right to convert his children. This decision is unsatisfactory on many levels. First, it is confusing to state that two courts have jurisdiction over the same case. This is bound to lead to an unnecessary conflict of jurisdiction. Furthermore, it is illogical to state that the sharia court has jurisdiction when it is clear that it does not have jurisdiction over one of the parties. It is akin to saying that a military court can hear cases involving civilians. Subashini was married under the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976,22) and if her case had been heard in the sharia court, which could not apply that law, whatever protection she may have had under the Act would be unavailable. As it happened, the case did not go to the sharia court and the civil case is over, leaving things in limbo.

The decision regarding the conversion of the children also leaves much to be desired. The court made the decision based on Article 12(4) of the constitution, which states: “. . . the religion of a person under the age of eighteen years shall be decided by his parent or guardian.” Because the term “parent or guardian” is in the singular, the court took this to mean that any one parent could convert a child. This is irrational because if it is taken to its logical conclusion a child’s religion could change on the whim of either parent, leading to a strange situation. The court also did not take into account Schedule 11 of the constitution, which says that in the construction of singular or plural, words in the singular include the plural and vice versa. Therefore, Article 12(4) was wrongly interpreted.

All these cases are extremely divisive in nature. They disregard legal reasoning as well as constitutional provisions in what appears to be a bias toward Islamic authorities and Muslim individuals. Malaysia’s multireligious demographic requires a court that is able to fairly balance the rights of all people of all faiths. When there is seeming prejudice even in the highest court of the country, the idea that the court is impartial becomes illusory and can only lead to dissatisfaction and greater societal divisions.

The Freedom to Dissent

When discussing dissent, the key question is whether people have the right to dissent, which is best reflected in their right to expression. In the section above we saw how the courts have moved away from ensuring the secular status of the nation and the freedom of religion, toward giving Islam more influence than was intended in the constitution as well as showing an unwillingness to protect religious freedom. This paper contends that this movement is a negative one and is a cause of divisiveness. With regard to freedom of expression there has not been such a backward slide, but then neither has there been much forward movement.

In Malaysia publications are administered by the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984.23) According to this law, periodicals—such as newspapers—require a license to operate. Although the law was amended to remove the requirement of an annual license renewal, the minister still has the power to revoke a newspaper’s license at any time. Apart from this power the minister may also ban books deemed “undesirable.” Past cases—such as the Aliran Monthly case (1990)—have shown the court to be reluctant to declare the minister’s action as unlawful.24) The bilingual English and Malay publication Aliran Monthly was not granted a license to publish. Although the minister’s decision was deemed unreasonable by the high court, the Supreme Court reversed that decision and upheld the minister’s decision.

More recent cases have seen the court upholding ban orders on books by the minister. In the case of Arumugam a/l Kalimuthu v Menteri Keselamatan Dalam Negeri & Ors (2010),25) a book named Mac 8—about racial riots in Kampung Medan—was deemed to be a threat to public order by the minister and banned. This may have been because the book portrayed the Indian community as victims of the riots and Malays as the perpetrators. In the Court of Appeal it was held that the test to determine the validity of a ban was whether the decision was reasonable or not. In this case “reasonableness” was based on whether the minister, based on facts available to him, could conclude that there was indeed a threat to public order. There need not be an actual threat; the minister merely needs to think that there could be one. The court said, “. . . this court should not supplant the Minister’s subjective satisfaction with its own unless the bounds of legality, in the sense explained above, are clearly transgressed.”

In the case of Yong They Chong @ Kim Quek & Oriengroup Sdn Bhd v Menteri Dalam Negeri & Ors (2014)26) a book critical of the ruling party was banned, this time on the grounds of upholding the reputation of the people criticized in the book. Once again the ban was upheld by the Court of Appeal, which held that the “high octane” language of the book would be an “impetus to further fuel” those who were opposed to the government. This is an odd value judgment. It is subjective whether language is “high octane” or not, and a book written by someone who is with the opposition political party would naturally be written in order to fuel opposition to the government.

These cases contrast with the case of Sepakat Efektif Sdn Bhd v Menteri Dalam Negeri & Timbalan Menteri Dalam Negeri (2014),27) where the court overturned a ban on two books of cartoons. However, the judgment makes clear that the decision was based partly on the fact that the books contained cartoons and thus were by their nature meant to be satirical and mocking; but no ratio decidendi can be found supporting the freedom of expression generally, and so any future case can easily be distinguishable by a court based on a difference of facts. Neither can such a ratio be found in another encouraging case where the high court quashed the minister’s order revoking the license of the newspaper The Edge on the grounds that the show cause letter delivered to the paper was vague and unclear, making it difficult for the paper to respond properly and thus creating a breach of natural justice.

It is evident that the courts are pragmatic in their approach toward the banning of books and publications, with each case being dealt with on an individual basis. There is a lack of underlying support for an aspiration to freedom and its importance. To have a healthy system that provides the necessary democratic space for dissent, such an ideological slant is necessary. Yet it does not exist. This can be seen also in the manner with which the courts deal with cases of sedition.

One of the tools that the government has been using to quell dissent is the Sedition Act 1948. According to Amnesty International, the period 2013–16 saw 170 people being investigated for, charged with, or tried on sedition in Malaysia. In 2015 alone there were 90 such cases (Amnesty International 2016). This is in stark contrast with the period 1948–98, when there were approximately 20 sedition cases.

In the case of Public Prosecutor v Azmi Sharom (2015)28) the Federal Court had an opportunity to declare the entire constitution void. The argument for this was based on the fact that Article 10 of the constitution states that only parliament can make laws restricting freedom of expression. The Sedition Act, which makes it a crime to raise discontent against the government, the rulers, or the administration of justice, is a law restricting freedom of expression, yet it was not made by parliament. It was passed during the time of the British, and therefore, Azmi Sharom’s lawyers argued, it ought to be void. In response, the government argued that the Sedition Act was existing law. Existing laws are laws that existed at the time of independence, and these laws, according to Article 162 of the constitution, are valid even if they contradict the constitution.

A literal reading of the constitution says that this is so, and that was the line the Federal Court took. However, surely existing laws were not meant to continue in contradiction to the constitution ad infinitum. The reason why it is only parliament that can make laws restricting speech is that such an important right should be in the hands of the highest legislative body in the land. Unfortunately, this line of thinking was not followed by the court in this case or the case of ZI Publications Sdn Bhd v Kerajaan Negeri Selangor, Kerajaan Malaysia and Anor (2015).29)

In this case, the Malay translation of Irshad Manji’s book Allah, Liberty and Love was banned by the Selangor Islamic Religion Department using the state’s Islamic criminal law. This was clearly against the constitution, because the law that was used was made by the state legislature and not parliament. The Federal Court held that the law was not about freedom of expression but had been made on the premise that Islamic laws could be made to punish offenses that went against the precepts of Islam, and that the contents of the book went against the precepts of Islam. This argument is weak because the English version of the book was available without any problems. Furthermore, the provision in Article 10 of the constitution is unambiguous: only parliament can restrict freedom of expression. The law used to ban the book—regardless of what its intention may have been—was in fact restricting freedom of expression.

Surely one of the reasons for making sure that only parliament can restrict freedom of expression is because the fundamental liberties of the citizens of Malaysia ought to be uniform throughout the nation and not differ from state to state. It is this kind of deeper thought that seems to evade the Malaysian judiciary, and instead what we have is a literalist interpretation of legislation that may be correct according to the letter of the law but hardly the spirit; and thus the protection that is supposed to be provided by the constitution is lost.

Supporting and Protecting Democracy

In a democracy the will of the people has to be treated with care and respect. One way of doing this is by respecting their choice of government. Because Malaysia practices the British Westminster style of government, the party or coalition with the most seats gets to choose the head of government. Therefore, according to Article 43(2)(a) of the Federal Constitution and the various state constitutions, the head of state (the King for parliament and the various Sultans and governors for the state legislative assemblies) has to select the person they believe has the confidence of the house to be prime minister or chief minister. What happens if that person loses the support of the house? The court’s approach when dealing with this issue has changed over the years, and it has not been an improvement.

Stephen Kalong Ningkan was the first chief minister of Sarawak after the creation of Malaysia in 1963. There was no single ruling party in Sarawak; instead, Ningkan headed a coalition of several parties, and they were all allies with the federal government. However, it was not a solid coalition, with infighting and power struggles among the different parties.

Despite these problems, Ningkan ruled as chief minister for a relatively stable three years with the support of the federal government. However, as time went on he started to alienate Kuala Lumpur as well as his own allies in Sarawak. It is reported that he had a penchant for working largely with expatriates in his civil service (Lee 2007, 79). This galled the federal government, which thought it was done dealing with the British. Ningkan was also sympathetic with Singapore, which despite being a party to the Malaysia Agreement had left the Federation in 1965 and was now a sovereign nation in its own right. This sympathy hinted at a similar desire for Sarawak and did not sit well with the central government.

The above complaints were given the added color of Ningkan’s own behavior, which became progressively more and more embarrassing. He publicly threatened Sarawak parliamentary MPs as well as state legislative assemblypersons whom he did not like. The threats included bodily harm, expulsion from Sarawak, and secession—peppered with references to his own strength and virility (Ross-Larson 1976).

The dissatisfaction with Ningkan reached a point where 21 (of the 42) state legislative assemblypersons signed a letter stating that they no longer had any confidence in Ningkan to be chief minister. This letter was handed to the governor of Sarawak with the assertion that since Ningkan had lost the confidence of the state legislative assembly he should resign, along with his entire cabinet. The governor, being the head of state, should then prepare to appoint a new chief minister.

The governor wrote a letter to Ningkan stating that he had received this complaint and requested Ningkan to appear before him. Ningkan refused, saying that he was indisposed. Instead, he requested that a sitting of the state legislative assembly be called and the question as to whether he had the confidence of the house be put to the test by a vote in the house. The governor did not do this. He dismissed Ningkan and the members of his executive. Ningkan challenged this decision in court and in so doing started a series of cases with serious implications for constitutional law in Malaysia.

Ningkan’s dismissal was dealt with in the case of Stephen Kalong Ningkan v Tun Abang Haji Openg (1966).30) The key issues were Articles 6(3) and 7(1) of the Sarawak Constitution, which respectively state that the governor is to appoint a person who has the confidence of the majority of the state legislative assembly and that if the chief minister loses that confidence then he should resign unless he requests the governor to dissolve the assembly in order to have fresh elections.

Ningkan asked for a dissolution of the assembly, a request that was denied. Could the governor then dismiss him? It was held by the Supreme Court that the wording of the Sarawak Constitution did not give the governor that power. Furthermore, the “confidence” of the house was a term of art and could be determined only by a specific vote of no confidence in the house or a vote on some other crucial matter, which went against the desires of the chief minister. Therefore, Ningkan’s firing was deemed void and he was reinstated as chief minister.

Contrast this case with what occurred in Perak in 2009. The 2008 Malaysian general election produced some incredible results. Barisan Nasional (BN), the ruling coalition, lost its two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat (the elected lower house of parliament) and at the state level; and four states fell to the opposition alliance (Kelantan remained with the Malaysian Islamic Party [PAS], the brief period of BN rule in the east coast state having long been over). The four states were Kedah, Penang, Perak, and Selangor.

Of these four states, the Perak state legislative assembly was in the most tenuous situation. A government was formed with Nizar Jamaluddin from PAS chosen as the Menteri Besar (chief minister). The opposition won 31 of the state seats, and BN won 28. The majority was only three seats, and it would soon prove to be too narrow. In January and February 2009 three state legislative assemblypersons from the opposition alliance (two from the People’s Justice Party and one from the Democratic Action Party) left their respective parties and declared themselves independent.

There is some controversy as to whether they actually resigned from their seats in the legislative assembly, but ultimately they declared that they did not. All three wrote to the Sultan of Perak stating that they no longer supported the Menteri Besar. On February 4, Nizar requested that the Sultan dissolve the state legislative assembly in order for fresh elections to be held. The Sultan did not accede to this request, reportedly needing some time to think about the matter.31)

On February 5, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak had an audience with the Sultan in which he stated that the BN had the majority support in the house. Later that day Najib brought the 29 BN legislative assemblypersons plus the newly independent trio for an audience with the Sultan to say that they no longer supported Nizar and wanted Zambry Abdul Kadir (from BN) to be the new Menteri Besar. The Sultan appointed Zambry and thus effectively dismissed Nizar.

Nizar challenged the decision, and in the high court he won.32) The court held that his dismissal was unlawful.33) One of the issues that decided the judge was that whether Nizar had the support of the house or not had to be determined by a vote of no confidence in the house itself, as laid down in the Ningkan case. This clearly did not occur. It is this point that is going to be examined here.

The Court of Appeal reversed the high court decision,34) based on a few reasons. First, the Sultan had absolute discretion on whether he wanted to dissolve the assembly or not. Second, the court held that a vote of no confidence was not necessary to determine whether the Menteri Besar had the support of the house. Therefore, the Sultan was acting within his powers to appoint someone who he thought had the confidence of the house through other means: in this case the meeting with the 31 state assemblypersons.

It was disappointing that the Court of Appeal (which was later supported by the highest court in Malaysia, the Federal Court)35) chose not to follow the Ningkan case. Instead it followed Datuk Amir Kahar bin Tun Dato’ Haji Mustapha v Tun Mohd Said bin Keruak Yang Di-Pertua Sabah & Ors (1995),36) which on the face of it was similar but was actually significantly different. In the Amir Kahar case the chief minister of Sabah had resigned, having lost the confidence of the state legislative assembly—although in a manner that was not through a vote of no confidence, which the judge held as acceptable. This is different from the Perak situation because the Sabah chief minister resigned voluntarily while Nizar did not. The opinion of the judge in Amir Kahar regarding the manner in which no confidence could be expressed was therefore merely obiter dicta. In the Ningkan case the issue was fundamental, and thus the judge’s decision was clearly ratio decidendi.

The Court of Appeal also supported its decision by pointing out that the Perak Constitution did not specifically spell out the manner in which confidence was to be determined. Therefore, any method would do. Once again we see a literalist approach in reading a constitution. This may be factually correct, but it is seriously flawed because by taking this approach the Court of Appeal (and later the Federal Court) did not take into consideration the principle behind the importance of a vote of no confidence in the house.

In a parliamentary democracy the executive is created from and by the legislature. The will of the citizens is reflected in that legislature, and therefore any changes in the executive ought to be made through the legislature. This is especially true when considering the situation in Perak. The people of the state voted in favor of the opposition. The balance of power shifted not through any democratic means but through the defection of three state assemblypersons. This can be said to be contrary to what the electorate wanted. It would seem that ideally fresh elections should have been called, but failing that at the very least there should have been an open debate in the house with a vote of no confidence as its climax. The people have a right to see how their elected representatives argue and act in a transparent forum. In the words of Harding:

It is of course usual in Westminster type constitutions to judge a chief minister’s own assessment of his political viability by his willingness to test it on the floor of the legislature. There is indeed no reason to suppose that he should not have the right to do so. There was in this case no obstacle, such as a threat of violence, to prevent the assembly meeting. Clearly in a confused political environment the only definitive opinion is that of the assembly. Members have the right to express their views, consider whether they are persuaded by anything they hear in the debate which would follow a motion of no confidence, and finally to cast their vote on the motion. Anything else is surely a denial of democratic process. (Harding 2009)

The Perak crisis ultimately resulted in the will of the people being overlooked via a literalist court that had overlooked underlying principles of democracy that the state and federal constitutions support.


In any country it is important for divisiveness as a result of partial and imbalanced decision making to be minimized, in order to prevent conflict. In a democratic country one would hope that there is enough space for dissent to be heard. In a common law system like Malaysia’s, the judiciary has an important role to play in this. Yet from this paper we can see that the judiciary, especially in recent times, has failed to minimize division and to allow democratic space for dissent.

With regard to religious divisiveness, the courts have made decisions that have exacerbated the problem. They have done this by ignoring clear constitutional provisions such as the freedom of religion or by interpreting the constitution in a manner that was disingenuous in its lack of sound legal reasoning or historical foundation. Dissent is treated with suspicion, and the laws that exist to quell dissent are not rigorously tested against the principles of democracy. Indeed, democracy itself is given short shrift with the court passing judgments that undermine the importance of the elected legislature and the need for transparency in decision making.

The reason for the court’s behavior may be partly that the constitution of Malaysia lacks any overarching principle or ethos, for example in the form of a preamble. However, there are sufficient historical documents to suggest what the ethos might be. Equality, for example, was clearly an aspiration for the founders of the nation. Yet, time and again the courts have made decisions that are literalist in their interpretation of the constitution without taking heed of the reasoning and the purpose of the provisions that they use in coming to their decisions. It would appear that they have not had the will or the capacity to tread into the realm of philosophy to examine the law in the light of some sort of higher ideal and ethos.

A more disturbing possibility for this lack of will may be linked to the question of the impartiality and independence of the Malaysian judiciary. In 1988 the Lord President (as the head of the judiciary was then called) was sacked. The grounds for his sacking were tenuous, and the panel appointed to conduct the investigation into his alleged misconduct was headed by a man who would replace him as Lord President if he was found guilty.37) The result of this sacking was a strong perception that the executive was interfering with the judiciary and thus diminishing its independence. This perception was due to the fact that the creation of the panel was at the behest of the prime minister at the time.

As it is, the executive has tremendous powers in the appointment of the head of the judiciary. It used to be that the sole prerogative was in the hands of the prime minister. Today there is the Judicial Appointments Commission Act 2009, although the prime minister still has the final say.38) The Judicial Appointments Commission, however, does not put to rest any concerns about executive influence. The commission consists of the heads of the Federal Court, the Court of Appeal, and the two high courts along with five other persons appointed by the prime minister. And although the commission now provides suggestions for the appointment of the head of the judiciary, the prime minister still has the final say.

Ultimately the prime minister has the power to hire and fire the top judge of the country. And the head of the judiciary naturally has an influence on the tenor of the judiciary as a whole. This sense that the executive has too much influence over the judiciary has been given credence by some recent developments. The “Lingam Tapes” scandal of 2011 hinges on a secretly recorded video showing a senior lawyer apparently brokering the promotion of a judge. Federal ministers were implicated in the tape. A royal commission was convened, and it found that indeed a serious wrong had occurred. And yet the attorney general’s chambers did not see fit to take action (see Sharom 2011).

More recently, the current chief justice was involved in a scandal regarding appointments. He was due for retirement, but through an unorthodox use of an appointment procedure he was appointed as an “additional judge” and his tenure was extended. This appointment was made by the chief justice previous to the current one. It was unusual because conventionally appointments are made on an ad hoc basis for recalling a retired judge in order to fill a needed quorum or to exploit his or her expertise in a particular case (Star 2017). The strange manner in which the chief justice has managed to hold on to his post, along with his record of giving judgments in favor of the government, raises questions as to the real reasons for his unorthodox appointment.

There is no hard evidence of the executive giving orders to the judiciary. Yet it cannot be denied that the separation of powers appears to be very fragile. Furthermore, in all the cases analyzed above the government was the initiator. One could hypothesize that since Malaysia is a “pseudo-democracy” (Case 2001) it serves its government to keep the citizenry divided, dissent repressed, and democratic principles to a minimum. It is also helpful if the judiciary is pliable to such demands.

Whatever the real reasons behind the decisions of the courts, it is clear that these decisions have had a negative consequence on the country by adding to an atmosphere of divisiveness and at the same time undermining the right to dissent via either the freedom of expression or the most basic of democratic manifestations, respecting the electoral choice of the people. The irony is that in a nation that has schisms based on ethnicity and religion, there is an even greater need to have a method with which to counter such divisions in a meaningful and intelligent manner by proffering alternative viewpoints. The ability to give alternative viewpoints in turn needs a safe democratic space, and it also needs a sound democratic system that citizens can believe in so as to enable the peaceful transition of power which may be necessary to elicit change. Although it has the potential to be an agent to protect such spaces and to limit ideas and policies that are supremacist in nature, the Malaysian judiciary has failed to do so.

Accepted: June 29, 2018


Abas S.; and Das, K. 1989. May Day for Justice. Kuala Lumpur: Magnus Books.

Amnesty International. 2016. Malaysia: End Unprecedented Crackdown on Hundreds of Critics., accessed March 29, 2017.

Case, W. 2001. Malaysia’s Resilient Pseudodemocracy. Journal of Democracy 12: 43–57.

Foong, J. 1994. The Malaysian Judiciary: A Record from 1786 to 1993. Kuala Lumpur: Malayan Law Journal.

Harding, A. J. 2009. Crisis of Confidence and Perak’s Constitutional Impasse. Malaysian Bar. June 8., accessed January 1, 2016.

―. 1996. Law, Government and the Constitution in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Malayan Law Journal.

Kua K. S. 2007. May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969. Petaling Jaya: Suaram.

Lee H. P. 2007. The Ningkan Saga: A Chief Minister in the Eye of a Storm. In Constitutional Landmarks in Malaysia: The First 50 Years, edited by Andrew Harding and H. P. Lee, pp. 77–87. Kuala Lumpur: LexisNexis.

Ooi K. B. 2006. The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time. Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Report of the Federation of Malaya Constitutional Commission. 1957. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Ross-Larson, B. 1976. The Politics of Federalism: Syed Kechik in East Malaysia. Singapore: Bruce Ross-Larson.

Sharom, A. 2011. Malaysia Report. In Rule of Law for Human Rights in the ASEAN Region: A Base-line Study, edited by D. Cohen, K. Y. L. Tan, and M. Mohan, pp. 134–152. Jakarta: Human Rights Resource Centre.

―. 2009. The Pontius Pilate Syndrome: How the Abdication of Constitutional Responsibility Leads to Broken Families. In Impact of Law on Family Institutions, edited by Jal Zabdi Mohd Yusof et al., pp. 131–140. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press.

Sinnadurai, V. 2007. The 1988 Judiciary Crisis and Its Aftermath. In Constitutional Landmarks in Malaysia: The First 50 Years, edited by Andrew Harding and H. P. Lee, pp. 173–195. Kuala Lumpur: LexisNexis.

Star. 2017. Uneasy over Additional Judges. July 19., accessed October 12, 2017.

Wu M. A. 1999. The Malaysian Judiciary: Erosion of Confidence. Australian Journal of Asian Law 1(2): 124–153.

1) The Malaysian judiciary is divided into two: the civil court and the sharia court. In this paper I shall only examine the civil court.

2) For an interesting history of the development of the Malaysian judiciary, see Foong (1994).

3) Civil Law Act 1956, Laws of Malaysia Act 67.

4) British court decisions before independence are binding, whereas court decisions made after independence are influential.

5) FGN (NS) 885/1957.

6) A slight clarification ought to be made here. The two high courts are the same in terms of their powers; it is simply that cases originating in either Sabah or Sarawak have to go up the hierarchy via their own high court. This was a provision made in the Federal Constitution in order to provide a degree of legal autonomy to the Borneo states when they merged with Malaya to create Malaysia. At the time there was a concern on the parts of Sabah and Sarawak that because the peninsular states had a head start in terms of independence from the British, their more advanced state may lead them to overwhelm the civil and legal service in East Malaysia. Therefore, today there are separate high courts, and only lawyers called to the Borneo Bar are able to practice there.

7) 2 MLJ 12.

8) Articles 10(2) and 10(3).

9) There are many theories regarding these riots, known as the May 13 Riots. What I have described are merely broad brushstrokes. For the latest analysis of the racial riots, see Kua (2007).

10) Laws of Malaysia Act 15.

11) Report of the Federation of Malaya Constitutional Commission, 1957.

12) See Reed Commission Report, p. 73n13.

13) 1 MLJ 369.

14) Laws of Malaysia Act 82.

15) Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur v Menteri Dalam Negeri & Ors (2010) 2 MLJ 78.

16) Menteri Dalam Negeri & Ors v Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur (2013) 6 MLJ 468.

17) Menteri Dalam Negeri & Ors v Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur (2013) 6 MLJ 468.

18) Menteri Dalam Negeri & Ors v Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur (2013) 6 MLJ 468.

19) Lina Joy v The Federal Territory Islamic Council & Ors (2007) 3 AMR 693.

20) It is an offense under Malaysian sharia law to be alone in a private place with a person of the opposite gender who is nether a spouse nor a close relative.

21) Subashini Rajasingam v Saravanan Thangatoray (2007) 3 CLJ 209.

22) Laws of Malaysia Act 164.

23) Laws of Malaysia Act 58.

24) 1 MLJ 351.

25) 3 MLJ 412.

26) 1 LNS 1459.

27) Civil Appeals No: W-01-500-2011 & W-01-501-2011.

28) 6 MLJ 751.

29) 8 CLJ 621.

30) 2 MLJ 197.

31) As stated in the Court of Appeal case Dato’ Dr Zambry bin Abd Kadir v Dato’ Seri Ir Hj Mohammad Nizar bin Jamaluddin (2009) 5 MLJ 464.

32) Judicial Review No R6(R3)-25-25 of 2009 (High Court, Kuala Lumpur).

33) For an analysis of this decision, see Harding (2009).

34) For a critique of the Court of Appeal’s decision, see A. J. Harding, Gobbledegook and Regurgitation Galore in the Two Written Judgments of the Court of Appeal in Zambry v Nizar, parts 1 and 2, Malaysian Bar,
respectively, accessed January 1, 2017.

35) Dato’Seri Ir Hj Mohammad Nizar bi Jamaluddin v Dato’ Seri Dr Zambry bin Abdul Kadir (2010) 2 MLJ 285.

36) 1 MLJ 169.

37) Analysis of this episode can be found in Abas and Das (1989), Wu (1999), and V. Sinnadurai (2007).

38) Laws of Malaysia, Act 695.


Vol. 5, No. 2, WAWAN SOBARI

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 

Anut Grubyuk in the Voting Process: The Neglected Explanation of Javanese Voters (Preliminary Findings)

Wawan Sobari*

* Department of Political Science, Brawijaya University, Jl. Veteran Malang 65145, East Java, Indonesia

e-mail: wawansobari[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.5.2_239

The “Javanese factor” is a strategic consideration in Indonesian electoral politics, as the Javanese are Indonesia’s most numerous inhabitants. However, seminal masterpieces such as those by Geertz (1960) and Gaffar (1992) apply only a limited and individual-based voting approach in their efforts to explain Javanese voting behavior. Recent qualitative case studies explore anut grubyuk (fitting in) as a unique form of grouped rural Javanese voting behavior, rooted in the Javanese communal philosophy of life and hierarchical values. A study in four selected villages in Blitar and Trenggalek Regencies in East Java argues that individual Javanese voters adjust their voting decisions based on the major preference in their neighborhood, in keeping with the communal spirit of living in harmony as well as to avoid conflict and respect neighborly relationships. This article presents a preliminary assessment of anut grubyuk as group-oriented voting among the Javanese, a topic that has been relatively absent in academic discussion. Beyond cultural explanations, recent illiberal democratic practices have made anut grubyuk vulnerable to manipulation, since certain community leaders or brokers exploit Javanese communality in return for both individual and communal short-term benefits from candidates. Instead of helping with the growth of liberal democracy, anut grubyuk potentially supports patronage-driven democracy, in which small numbers of elites use patronage for influential control over electoral processes.

Keywords: Javanese, group-oriented voting, democracy, Indonesia


The Javanese are ranked as the most numerous ethnic group in Indonesia. The 2010 national census reported that they amounted to 40.22 percent of the national population (92,217,022 people), with 48.72 percent of them living in rural areas (Na’im and Syaputra 2011, 28). This numerical majority is one of the reasons for scholarly studies to examine the Javanese as a political entity.1)

However, the number of published scholarly works on Javanese voters is not commensurate with the dominance of this population. Clifford Geertz (1960), in his pioneering masterpiece The Religion of Java, introduced the aliran (streams) approach that attempted to map Javanese electoral orientations. The approach is founded on Javanese socio-religious norms that contribute to the Javanese people’s worldview (religious beliefs, ethical preference, and political ideologies) and yields three main cultural types: abangan, santri, and priyayi (ibid., 4–5). Geertz explains this well-known trichotomic nature of Javanese society as follows:

Abangan, representing a stress on the animistic aspects of the overall Javanese syncretism and broadly related to the peasant element in the population; santri, representing a stress on the Islamic aspects of syncretism and generally related to the trading element (and to certain elements in the peasantry as well); and priyayi, stressing the Hinduist aspects and related to the bureaucratic element. (ibid., 6)

In the postcolonial period, these socio-religious groups changed their positions from religious to political (ibid., 363).

Afan Gaffar (1992) deployed Geertz’s Javanese cultural types to study Javanese voting behavior for a political party. This quantitative research succeeded in revealing some explanatory variables of Javanese voters, especially in rural Java. The general conclusion was that norms and values, which were transferred via political socialization, contributed to the creation of partisan choices among Javanese villagers. Gaffar concluded that voters’ preferences are shaped by their interaction with leaders. Voters attached to formal leaders (village officials and their assistants and the heads of hamlets) vote for the government party (Golongan Karya, Golkar). In contrast, voters affiliated with informal leaders, especially religious leaders, vote for the Islamic party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, PPP).2) Consequently, the influence of socio-religious orientation shows a clear pattern of abangan voters attached to formal leaders voting for Golkar and santri affiliated with religious leaders voting for PPP (ibid., 193–194).

It is important to note that Gaffar’s research was conducted in the context of a hegemonic party system and authoritarian government. It is fair to say that contemporary Indonesian politics is very different. Indonesia has implemented open political competition or regular and fair elections since 1999. Freedom House classified Indonesia as a free country in terms of electoral democracy (Puddington 2013, 15).3)

Some scholars working in the Javanese or Indonesian context are involved in academic debate over Geertz’s crucial work. Kahn expands Geertz’s argument that aliran does not merely inform citizens’ political affiliations with parties. In the Indonesian context, aliran is an ideological element, along with ethnicity and patron-clientage (Kahn 1978, 120). Meanwhile, R. William Liddle observes that Indonesia is very diverse in political values, beliefs, and attitudes. The uniform dynamic of Islam between 1960 and 90 and abanganism’s existence indicate the continuing diversity (Liddle 1996, 631).

However, Robert Hefner (1987, 550) reveals that the politics of the New Order had oppressed political Islam but Islam as a religion expanded in Java due to state facilities and policy support for education. Similarly, Bambang Pranowo argues over the santri-abangan dichotomy, indicating that the New Order “floating mass” policy at the village level meant people were not segregated by political affiliation. Consequently, the Javanese villagers’ preference for following Islam replaced the santri-abangan segregation among them (Bambang Pranowo 1994, 18). Through an intensive study in rural Banyuwangi, East Java, A. Beatty revises Geertz’s aliran by making the opposite argument that political and social tensions are able to shape, stimulate, and mute religious expression. In other words, relations of power affect religious expression (Beatty 2004, 6, 239).

In the post-Soeharto era, the debates are likely to refute this aliran approach. Anies Baswedan (2004) states that political Islam remains relevant to explain voters’ alignment. The emergence of Islam-friendly parties that have evolved out of Islamist aspirations has attracted electoral support in both legislative and presidential elections (ibid., 689–690). Nevertheless, changes in formal institutional arrangements and the outcomes of socio-economic change have reduced the significance of aliran and resulted in a modified aliran or dealignment of political parties (Ufen 2008, 20–34). Furthermore, R. William Liddle and Saiful Mujani (2007) refute aliran with academic evidence of national opinion surveys following parliamentary elections in 1999 and 2004 and the two-round presidential election in 2004. Religious orientation is no longer as influential on voting behavior as leadership and party identification (ibid., 851). The scholars echo similar findings following parliamentary and presidential elections in 2009 (Mujani and Liddle 2010, 39).

Meanwhile, contemporary political facts demonstrate that the era of authoritarian government in Indonesia ended in 1998, when people power forced President Soeharto, who had run the country for 32 years, to resign from office. Soon after entering the new era, the country ran a more competitive election in 1999 in which 48 political parties contested. Five years later, Indonesia ran the first direct presidential election. It was followed by the first year of direct elections for local government heads (regent/mayor/governor) (pilkada) ever in 201 regions and seven provinces throughout 2005. Of the 201 regions, 36 are located in Central and East Java Provinces and the Special Region of Yogyakarta, where Javanese have lived for centuries.

These growing democratic contests have encouraged the interest of many academics and NGOs, which have established pollsters for both academic and commercial interests (Mietzner 2009, 117). However, this mushrooming of pollsters has not been followed by sufficient studies on Javanese voters. Pollsters merely capture Indonesian voters’ preferences, mainly approaching the legislative and presidential elections of 2004, 2009, and 2014. Some more academic and seminal studies in the post-Soeharto period have dealt specifically with Indonesian voters, such as those by D. King (2003), Baswedan (2004), the Asia Foundation (2003), Liddle and Mujani (2007), and Mujani and Liddle (2010).

Published studies on pilkada in Java are, in fact, specifically non-voter oriented. They are mostly focused on pilkada dynamics and the political survival of local leaders. Three articles in M. Erb and P. Sulistiyanto’s Deepening Democracy in Indonesia? Direct Election for Local Leaders (Pilkada) (2009) by Priyambudi Sulistiyanto, J. Schiller, and Tri Ratnawati are based on fieldwork conducted in the regencies of Bantul, Jepara, and Kebumen, where Javanese culture is very influential.4) Also, the current and well-respected literature on pilkada discovers factors behind the victories of three Muslim women bupati (regents) in Java. The women deployed Islam, gender, and social networks to gain office in three regions. In particular, Islamic ideas provided a strong religious foundation for their campaigns in pilkada (Dewi 2015). Although these studies on pilkada in Java are worth mentioning, they do not give any insight into voters’ logic.

In addition to the lack of concern for Javanese voting studies, Indonesian and non-Indonesian scholars have approached Javanese voters through a limited perspective, which is based mainly on an individual voting behavior model. Both Geertz (1960) and Gaffar (1992) apply the social cleavage structure as an analytical base for individual Javanese voting behavior. Some contemporary studies on Javanese voting behavior in the post-Soeharto era, specifically during pilkada, focus on similar voting concerns, such as the study by Susilo Utomo (2008) on the victory of Bibit Waluyo and Rustriningsih in Central Java’s gubernatorial election in 2008. Wawan Sobari and M. Faishal Aminuddin (2010) studied personal image and popularity as determining factors in the 2010 pilkada in Malang Regency, East Java. Lastly, a quantitative survey in Semarang Municipality examined the influence of the candidates’ image, party identification level, and campaign effectiveness on the Javanese in voting for governor and deputy governor in the 2008 East Java gubernatorial pilkada (Wicaksono 2009, 129–130). These studies’ contradictory results fail to provide a conclusive explanation for Javanese voter behavior. This raises the question: What other original explanation is there that can enrich studies on Javanese voters, particularly with regard to their group-oriented voting behavior rooted in Javanese culture and current electoral politics?

This study seeks to enrich the literature on Javanese voters. With respect to Geertz’s aliran, this study sees the importance of Javanese communal norms, rather than religion, in explaining voting orientation. Also, it presents a preliminary assessment of anut grubyuk (fitting in) as a group-oriented voting preference among the Javanese, a topic that has been relatively absent in academic discussion. Moreover, it extends the explanation that anut grubyuk is part of electoral manipulation by local and neighborhood elites.

The last concern should not be ignored, since several studies reveal that Indonesian liberal democracy is susceptible to unfair practices in competitive elections. Violence, money politics, and alleged political kidnappings are not appropriate for the country’s infant liberal democracy (Robison and Hadiz 2004, 256). These practices subsequently lead to illiberal forms of democracy (Hadiz and Robison 2005, 231).

In the 2014 legislative election, blatant patronage—mainly extensive vote buying among candidates, brokers, and voters—was an embarrassment to Indonesia’s democracy. Patronage has worsened the party system in Indonesia, which has become less programmatic and more fragile (Aspinall 2014, 109). Anut grubyuk is allegedly an electoral manipulation that can be indirectly related with these illiberal practices of democracy. This article, thus, contributes by providing a non-cultural explanation of this group-oriented voting phenomenon among the Javanese.

As its main focus, this study proposes a group-oriented explanation of voting behavior revealed in the 2010 pilkada in two rural regions in East Java. It provides a distinctive explanation of Javanese voting behavior by asserting the practice of anut grubyuk among rural Javanese. The analysis sheds light on a logical link between anut grubyuk in voting and the Javanese philosophy of life, and between socio-political dynamics pertaining to pilkada and their effect on the country’s democracy. The arguments in this paper do not interpret anut grubyuk as an exclusively cultural Javanese reality, as the study evaluates the involvement of group leaders or brokers who are on a political drive as well.

Political scientists have analyzed this group-oriented voting. Carole Uhlaner (1989) proposes the importance of groups for a rational turnout. She argues that “individuals do not behave atomistically within the political sphere but rather are joined with others in groups with shared interests.” Group leaders transact policy positions or options with candidates, and voters under the coordination of group leaders are rewarded for voting or penalized for abstaining (ibid., 419). In other words, individuals intelligently adjust their ballot to conform with those of their neighbors to gain certain communal benefits. Using similar language, A. Glazer, B. Grofman, and G. Owen (1998, 29) reveal that racial backlash and support for candidates representing the median voter can shape grouped voting. In a similar vein, Timothy Feddersen (2004, 100) views voters as ethical agents, in a group-based ethical voter model, who are directed by their beliefs to be ethically obliged to behave in accordance with the group’s interest after reviewing the possible outcomes that would occur and the positive payoff that would be received. Nonetheless, voters do not blindly follow the norms of the group; they also consider the centrality of the issue to the group (Smith et al. 2005, 167).

To clearly explicate the preceding arguments, the next section briefly describes the case study design to analyze anut grubyuk among rural Javanese voters. The following section explores the practice of anut grubyuk and develops arguments beyond this grouped voting practice, from the point of view of both the dominant Javanese culture and the rational motives of voters and group leaders. Finally, the availability of some recent studies on Indonesian electoral politics and democracy, including pilkada, provides a basis for serious concern that this Javanese grouped voting can be captured in patronage-driven political realities.

The Case Study

This study is centered on the incumbents’ political survival and failure in the new and emerging local democracy in Indonesia, mainly in pilkada at the regional level. The study was conducted in four rural and urban regions: Blitar and Trenggalek Regencies (rural regions) and Probolinggo and Madiun Municipalities (urban regions). However, the analysis focuses only on the two rural regions, where the practice of anut grubyuk in voting took place in the 2010 pilkada: Blitar and Trenggalek Regencies.

This study applies qualitative research principles with interpretivism as its paradigm (Creswell 2009, 18). It utilizes the case study as a research method, involving “an exploration of event, activity and process of one or more individuals” (Stake, in Creswell 2009, 13). To gather qualitative data, the study utilized semi-structured interviews with voters who cast their vote in the pilkada. The analysis is focused on 8 of 31 selected participants in three villages (Tempur, Kerjo, and Laksono) who argued for anut grubyuk in voting.

Several criteria were identified before selecting Blitar and Trenggalek Regencies as the research sites. First, the regions had to have incumbents running for re-election. Next, the incumbents had to have occupied the post for five years. Finally, the degree of the incumbents’ success or failure had to reach a minimum of winning or losing by 50 percent. This figure represents absolute winning or failure on the part of incumbents as well as challengers. Also, it indicates the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of incumbency. There were 18 regions conducting pilkada in 2010 in East Java, of which 15 were in rural regions. There were only five incumbents in the rural regions running for the second pilkada in 2010. Three of the five failed to maintain their post in the 2010 pilkada.

Blitar Regency, one of the most populous regions in East Java, is located in the southern part of the province. According to the 2010 population census, the regency had 1,116,010 people living in an area of 1,588.79 km2. The population density was 702 per km2, and the regency contributed 2.98 percent of the province’s population. Blitar is categorized as a Mataraman area since the major and indigenous population is Javanese (Rozuli 2011, 96).5) Meanwhile, Trenggalek is one of the regencies located in the southern coastal area of East Java. It covers an area of 1,261.40 km2, two-thirds of which is mountainous land. According to the 2010 national population census, Trenggalek’s inhabitants amounted to 674,521: 334,769 males and 339,752 females (Indonesia, Badan Pusat Statistik Kabupaten Trenggalek 2010, 6). The population lives in 14 districts and 157 villages. The majority of the population is Muslim, accounting for 99.25 percent of the regency’s inhabitants (Indonesia, Badan Pusat Statistik Jawa Timur 2010, 22). Overall, according to the 2010 national population census, Javanese comprised 81.1 percent of the 37,476,757 inhabitants in East Java (Na’im and Syaputra 2011, 38).

Both Blitar’s and Trenggalek’s cultural features are categorized as Java Mataraman in the East Java Regional Division of Culture (Sutarto and Sudikan 2008). In other words, in the regional division of Javanese culture, these regencies are included in Mancanagari or “outer region.” Mancanagari’s culture is similar to the central Javanese court culture of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, with syncretism in religious life, unifying elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. The folk culture and art of Blitar and Trenggalek are also similar to those of the two centers of Javanese culture (Koentjaraningrat 1985, 21–22).

The first pilkada in Blitar Regency took place in 2005. The official ballots counted on December 4, 2005 showed that the duo of Herry Noegroho and Arif Fuadi had won the pilkada by 42.18 percent of votes. Five years later, the two ran separately in the pilkada. Herry urged a former senior bureaucrat, Rijanto, to run with him. In turn, Arif urged a local legislator, Heri Romadhon, to challenge the incumbent. In the 2010 race, held on November 9, the incumbent Herry Noegroho survived in office with 59.7 percent of votes.

The pilkada in Trenggalek Regency turned out to be a unique race for democratic contenders, as it was a battle between two incumbents. In the first pilkada in 2005, the incumbent Soeharto6) (2005–10) defeated the former incumbent Mulyadi WR (2000–05). In the second pilkada in 2010, the incumbent Soeharto was defeated by the former incumbent Mulyadi WR. In the pilkada held on June 2, 2010, Soeharto faced Mulyadi WR and the deputy regent as well as his running mate in the 2005 pilkada, Mahsun Ismail. Soeharto garnered the fewest votes, only 22.4 percent (71,818). Mulyadi WR won the race by gaining 174,656 ballots (54.4 percent) (Indonesia, Komisi Pemilihan Umum Kabupaten Trenggalek 2010, 79).

Trenggalek Regency was selected to represent a rural region with a failed incumbent. It met all the criteria: the incumbent running for the second pilkada, the incumbent having occupied office for five years prior to the 2010 pilkada, and the degree of the challenger’s victory being above 50 percent. Blitar and Jember Regencies met all the criteria for a district with a successful incumbent. Finally, Blitar was preferred as a case study site because of the incumbent’s more impressive victory compared to the one in Jember.

To interview voters, two districts were selected based on the criterion of their distance to the center of government of Blitar and Trenggalek Regencies. In Blitar Regency, Srengat District was selected as it met the criterion of a district that was close to the center. The other one was Wonotirto District, representing the opposite criterion to the former. In Trenggalek Regency, Trenggalek District was selected to represent a district situated close to the center. Meanwhile, Watulimo District denoted the opposite district to Trenggalek District. Due to the limitations of this study in gaining official data of the 2010 pilkada results, one village in each district was chosen, based on a limited assessment through a brief discussion with local government officers.7) The assessment was based on an assumption of villages where the incumbent gained votes that exceeded or fell short of the district’s average vote. Then, the study selected one village in each district: Tempur (pseudonym) in Srengat District, Kerjo (pseudonym) in Wonotirto District, Joyo (pseudonym) in Trenggalek District, and Laksono (pseudonym) in Watulimo District.

According to the voter list issued by the Blitar Election Commission, Tempur village had 4,957 eligible voters: 2,472 male and 2,485 female. These voters were distributed among nine polling stations (Tempat Pemungutan Suara). On Election Day (November 9, 2010), voting participation in this village reached 58.2 percent—that is, only 2,885 voters exercised their right to vote in the pilkada. Of the nine polling stations, the station where the incumbent gained the highest number of votes compared to the rival was identified. Polling station number 7 was then chosen as the location for the interviews. The incumbent in that station gained 75.3 percent of the 352 votes. In-depth interviews were conducted with six female and five male voters from various social backgrounds.

In the 2010 pilkada, Kerjo village had 3,340 eligible voters: 1,651 male and 1,689 female. According to the pilkada results issued by the Blitar Election Commission, 39 percent of voters were absent. In contrast with Tempur village, in Kerjo village the incumbent Herry Noegroho ran a tough race with the challenger. At the final count, the incumbent gained 51.13 percent of votes. Among the seven polling stations in the village, polling station number 4 was chosen—this was where Herry had gained the most votes (98.4 percent)—to conduct in-depth interviews. Interviews were conducted with five female and five male voters. The interviewees included farmers, traders, the head of the hamlet, and the leader of a farmer group.

In Trenggalek District, Joyo village was chosen as the location to conduct in-depth interviews. The village had 5,449 eligible voters: 2,612 male and 2,837 female. The number of absentees in the pilkada amounted to 1,559 (28.6 percent). Nevertheless, the incumbent gained the highest number of votes in the village, 1,557. Mahsun Ismail (the challenger) gained 915 votes and Mulyadi (the winning challenger) 1,288. In this location, six male and four female voters were interviewed on September 12–13, 2012. In Watulimo District, one of the 12 villages, Laksono, was chosen for conducting in-depth interviews with voters. According to the 2010 pilkada results issued by the Trenggalek Election Commission, Laksono was ranked third among the villages in Watulimo District where the incumbent experienced a crushing defeat in the pilkada. Laksono village had 5,601 eligible voters: 2,774 male and 2,827 female. The incumbent obtained 29.46 percent of votes (1,089), whereas Mulyadi won the poll in the village by gaining 59.3 percent of votes (2,192). The number of absentees was 32.4 percent (1,815). In-depth interviews were conducted in the area of polling station number 8, where the incumbent experienced the most crushing defeat among the 20 polling stations. In this polling station the incumbent gained 39 votes (13.2 percent), Mahsun Ismail obtained 41 votes (13.9 percent), and Mulyadi won the race by obtaining 215 votes (72.9 percent). The number of absentees in this polling station was 190 (38.15 percent). In this area, seven male and three female voters were interviewed.

Anut Grubyuk: Communal Spirit or Rational Pragmatism in Voting?

To facilitate the best description of Javanese communal life, the discussion begins with the valuable Javanese advice of rukun agawe santosa (harmonious living in peace and security). It reflects an ideal Javanese type of neighborhood life, where people live in harmony with their neighbors. Javanese people believe that their neighbors are more valuable than relatives living far away. Close neighbors are always available to help, unlike faraway relatives. Accordingly, Javanese feel a need to live in harmony with their neighbors and avoid arrogance. From a Javanese communal perspective, a person’s worth can be judged through others’ esteem for them in the three vital events of the life cycle: birth, death, and marriage. Neighbors come to a respected Javanese person to congratulate or deliver condolences on these three important occasions (Hardjowirogo 1984, 5). This old Javanese belief reflects one of the main pillars of Javanese communal life, living in harmony (rukun).

This communal value exists also in political life, particularly in direct elections of local leaders (pilkada). The case study in Blitar and Trenggalek revealed communal-driven voting behavior among rural Javanese, whether to vote or not vote for incumbents in their re-election bid. The Javanese phrase “anut grubyuk” was mentioned by voters as one of the reasons for voting the way they did. The literal meaning of the phrase is “fitting in” or using the neighborhood’s preference as a basis for individual preference. In the context of pilkada, anut grubyuk is an individual decision and action that adjusts to the major preference in the neighborhood, whether to vote or not for certain candidates.

The argument of anut grubyuk in voting is revealed in voters’ explanations for their preferences. Three participants in two rural neighborhoods in Blitar did not take individual stands in voting for the incumbent; in other words, they just followed the major preference in their neighborhood.

In Tempur village in Blitar, a female farmer delivered a simple answer for why she voted for the incumbent in the 2010 pilkada. She said:

Katanya orang-orang banyak yang milih nomor dua. Ikut-ikut sama teman-teman (I hear that many people voted for candidate number two [Herry-Rijanto]. I just followed my friends [neighbors]).8)

A housewife-cum-chicken farmer gave similar reasons for voting for the incumbent in the pilkada:

Semuanya tidak kenal, cuma ikut-ikutan warga yang lain. Asal milih saja karena tidak tahu (I do not know all [the candidates]; I just follow the others. I just vote because I do not know).9)

In Kerjo village in southern Blitar, another female farmer reiterated that she just followed the communal preference in her neighborhood. She said clearly in polite Javanese:

Namung Nyoblos nomer kalih, soale katah sing nyoblos sing niku. Nggih kirangan, nyoblos, nggih nyoblos (I voted for number two [candidate] as many others were voting for him. I don’t know, voted, yes I voted).10)

In Trenggalek, the case study discovered that voters performed anut grubyuk by not voting for the incumbent in the 2010 pilkada. A trader-cum-farmer in Laksono village conveyed a simple reason for not voting for the incumbent. He said in polite Javanese:

Nggih mboten nopo-nopo sedoyo sae, sami sedoyo, sae dadhos milih niki mawon, nggih ngoten (Well, there is not any reason, they all are good, all [the candidates] are similar. It is good to vote for him [Mulyadi], that is it).

He continued that he had voted for the winning challenger (Mulyadi):

Insya Allah Pak Mul, namung manut grubyuk, namung manut konco-konco. Dukho ketokne, nopo himbauan (God willing [I voted for] Mr. Mul [Mulyadi], just fitting in, just following friends. I am not sure, it seems like an appeal).11)

Two other voters gave similar reasons. They based their decision to not vote for the incumbent on the majority opinion in the neighborhood. A female voter admitted that she had voted for the winning challenger because Mulyadi’s victory team had distributed free yasinan uniforms for all yasinan group members in her hamlet. She argued that there was no mobilization of support for the winning challenger.12) In fact, she adjusted her ballot based on the majority of her fellow neighbors’ votes.

Interestingly, “fitting in” was also given as a reason for voting for the incumbent. Two female participants said that they voted for the incumbent in order to follow their friends in the neighborhood. In Javanese, they said the reason was “manut wong-wong.” The literal meaning of these words is “following people or matching other people’s decisions.” A female participant added in Indonesian:

Ya, saya ini cuma orang kecil, cuma ikut-ikut. Saya tidak tahu cuma ikut-ikut saja (Yes, I am only a little person, just following. I do not know, just following [others]).13)

In a focus group interview conducted on September 29, 2012 in Trenggalek, one participant—an NGO activist and former local legislator—confirmed the phenomenon of fitting in. The participant used the Javanese term “anut grubyuk.” The literal meaning of this term is “following the majority or going anywhere others go.” From the interview, anut grubyuk was understood as the practice of fitting in. Individuals’ voting decisions for the incumbent were not the result of their own assessments of the candidates. Rather, individuals based their decisions on the mainstream opinion of their neighborhood.

Another explanation for the practice of anut grubyuk in voting can be found in cultural aspects of the Javanese philosophy of life. These include assumptions, ideas, and mental attitudes and form a foundation as well as give meaning to every single Javanese person’s attitude to life (Gauthama 2003, 11). Javanese culture has two principal dimensions that influence everyday life: communality and hierarchy (Mulder 1978, 58). Relevant to the research findings is the nature of human relationships in the Javanese philosophy of life, namely, rukun (harmony). This represents the predominant value of communality. Javanese require the principles of rukun in human relationships at the household and community levels. They are taught to prioritize harmony rather than conflict. Javanese society demands the avoidance of behavior that can lead to conflict (ibid., 57–59; Handayani and Novianto 2004, 67–68). The spirit of togetherness, leading to similar preferences between individual voters and the majority of voters in Tempur and Kerjo villages in Blitar and Laksono village in Trenggalek, may be explained by the principle of rukun. Individual voters adjusted their preferences to the majority preference in order to achieve harmony.

However, the implementation of rukun does not tolerate coercion. Javanese culture allows individuality, as it accepts that every individual has different problems, rights, and interests. To support individual freedom in voting, a hamlet head in Kerjo village clearly explained, “I did not direct my people [in the hamlet]. They also think by themselves, vote individually.”14) Still, individuality must align with the principle of rukun. The adjustment of individual preference to the majority preference in the neighborhood is understood as an individual voter’s effort to achieve harmony in society as well as to gain collective benefits from local government policies credited to the incumbent.15)

Another possible explanation for voting adjustments by individuals is their limitations in gathering adequate information to support their voting decisions. Adjustment is an efficient manner or a short cut to support decisions. Indeed, the application of the rukun principle to explain the practice of individual voting adjustment is also reasonable. The individual voter considers the benefits that can be gained from communal facilities promised by the incumbent. Hence, adjusting individual voting preferences to the majority preference is a contribution to collective choice. Voter adjustment is understandable in both possible explanations. First, an individual voter expects to gain benefits from collective voting decisions, as promised by the incumbent. Second, an individual voter can overcome their limitations in gaining adequate information to support their individual voting decision.

The other principal value is hormat or aji (respect), representing the value of hierarchy. The traditional Javanese view is that “all social relationships are hierarchically ordered, and on the moral imperative to maintain and express this mode of social order as a good in itself” (Geertz 1961). In any social behavior, respect is manifested in many different contexts: toward government officials, in school, in relationships among neighbors, among others (ibid., 147).

In order to better understand anut grubyuk, one needs to refer to the Javanese conception of the relationship between the individual and society at the neighborhood level. Because the phenomenon of anut grubyuk appears particularly at the neighborhood level, it is useful to refer to the Javanese philosophy guiding relationships among people in a neighborhood. In addition to the Javanese advice of “rukun agawe santosa,” there is a proverb stating “sing sapa ora seneng tetanggan kalebu wong kang ora becik” (whoever is not a lot like his or her neighbor is not a good person) (Rachmatullah 2011, 80). Javanese live under concomitant or coexistent norms in relating to their neighbors. Individuals as well as families strive to live in harmony with their neighbors. In the wider context of relationships between the individual and society, N. Mulder (1992) refers to a Javanese perspective on the relationship between man, world, and cosmos emphasized as one of the core ideas of communal relationships among the Javanese, namely, the concept of the unity of existence. In terms of individual and societal relationships, the appropriate explanation of this concept is that people should accept and respect order and inevitability; adapt themselves to its requirements; and fulfill the obligations required of the place where they live so as to achieve good order in communal relationships (rukun). In order to maintain a rukun relationship, a person should suppress his or her individual will, emotions, and self-interest (ibid., 143–145).

This ideal of living in harmony elucidates the Javanese cultural context in which anut grubyuk is situated. As a member of a community, an individual intentionally respects communal opinion when voting for a candidate in a pilkada. The means of showing respect is adjusting individual ballots in accordance with the majority opinion in the neighborhood. Consequently, the practice of anut grubyuk among participants in Laksono village makes sense. By displaying similarity in voting decisions, voters achieve two aims: communal peace and the exercise of individual rights as voters.

Nevertheless, voters in Laksono village in Trenggalek held different perceptions concerning the incumbent Soeharto’s performance. They identified positive and beneficial programs credited to the incumbent, for instance, accessible health and education services; the development of dams, irrigation, and neighborhood and village roads; free uniforms for village officers; and the provision of subsidized fertilizer and free seeds. The incumbent was also perceived as a generous and religious person. A dissenting opinion pertains to the incumbent’s failure to meet all the promises made when he campaigned in the 2005 pilkada. A community leader involved in supporting the incumbent felt disappointed as the latter did not keep his promises. The incumbent experienced the most crushing defeat in polling station number 8, where voters were interviewed. The incumbent’s better performance did not automatically encourage voters to vote for him; voters decided not to vote for the incumbent because they matched their preference with the majority opinion in their neighborhood.

From the findings in Laksono village, three important points emerge. First, participants had different perceptions of the incumbent’s performance during his time in office, compared to those of participants interviewed in Joyo village. A more positive perception of the incumbent’s performance did not automatically persuade voters to elect him. The cultural phenomenon of anut grubyuk can both disfavor and favor the incumbent. Second, party attachment and personal connection with the contenders can encourage voters to disfavor the incumbent. Third, the support of an informal leader in Laksono village was important, as he could also act as an opinion leader who probably provided guidance for voters to disfavor or favor the incumbent. This could be a possible explanation for the phenomenon of anut grubyuk among voters in the village; voters matched their decision with the majority opinion in the neighborhood, which was probably under the influence of an informal leader. Voters in Laksono village also demonstrated a differing acceptance of local government policies and programs credited to the incumbent. This acceptance was unlike the non-government and government elites’ opinions in the regency, which were inclined to disfavor the incumbent. These opinions did not express negative perceptions or gossip about the incumbent, as propagated by the local mass media.

Lastly, the practice of anut grubyuk in voting decisions and voters’ ignorance of evidence-based local government performance and pilkada-related issues can explain the disconnection between the incumbent’s performance during his time in office and the pilkada results. The practice of anut grubyuk among rural voters in Blitar and Trenggalek could lead voters to ignore their individual choices as they adjusted their voting decision to the majority opinion in the neighborhood. Furthermore, anut grubyuk could negate positive or negative campaigns about the incumbents’ performance. Voters made their decisions based on communal judgment without considering the costs or benefits of the incumbent’s leadership in terms of long-term social, economic, or environmental outlook. It was such behavior (anut grubyuk) that disfavored the incumbent in Trenggalek and supported the incumbent in Blitar.

Other Motives in Voting

In addition to the practice of anut grubyuk, the case studies in these two rural regions found four other categories of motives that shaped voters’ preferences at the polls. First, voters referred to the tangible policy output credited to the incumbent. Better infrastructure (roads) at the neighborhood level was recognized by voters in the regions. In Trenggalek, voters also considered rural infrastructure constructed during the incumbent’s time in office, such as irrigation for rice fields, as a reason to vote for the incumbent. Nevertheless, the incumbent in Trenggalek was regarded as having failed to improve the regency’s roads during his incumbency. This opinion was widely held among voters, though official data showed that under the incumbent’s administration there was better development of the regency’s roads compared to the previous administration’s performance.

Second, complementary to the tangible and direct policy outputs are the populist images of the incumbents. The incumbent’s so-called blusukan (impromptu community visits) was clearly remembered by voters. Voters frequently mentioned them as extraordinary activities performed by a person who held the most honorable and prominent position in the region. This admiration persuaded voters to vote for the incumbent. The incumbent’s frequent visits to villages in Blitar Regency were appreciated by voters. Moreover, voters considered tangible aspects of the incumbent’s populist activities, namely, donations and appearances. However, some voters in Trenggalek Regency perceived that the incumbent was not really a local person like the winning challenger was. Although the incumbent was known to be a religious person, some voters felt that his half-hearted local identity would discourage him from working for the regency’s interests if he regained control of the regent post.

Third, voters compared the incumbent and the challenger before making their decision. Their basis of comparison was the competitive advantage between the candidates. This comparison was made mainly by voters who held leadership positions in the community, such as hamlet heads, neighborhood unit (Rukun Tetangga) heads, community unit (Rukun Warga) heads, and village heads. Voters voted for the incumbents in Blitar Regency because they perceived that the incumbents were more experienced and better grounded than the challengers. Many of the incumbents’ programs had not yet been completed in the first term, but voters felt that the development programs should be continued in the second term. By voting for the incumbents, these elite voters sought to minimize the risk of uncertainty. The case study in Blitar found a Javanese proverb to express this consideration: “tinimbang golek wong nambal or tinimbang bakal aluwung nambal” (it is better not to take a risk with a new leader). Voters are assumed to play safe or to avoid risky choices. In other words, voting for the incumbent was better than voting for a challenger who had not yet proven his worth. Voters wanted to continue to gain policy benefits equal to those they had received in the incumbent’s first term. There is an Indonesian proverb expressing this idea: “ibarat membeli kucing dalam karung” (to buy a pig in a poke), or to avoid a mistake by not voting for a candidate who has no previous record. In other words, voters do not want to take a gamble as they do not have adequate information about the challenger’s prior performance. In Trenggalek, voters decided to vote for the winning challenger as he had been the former regent (Mulyadi, defeated by the incumbent in the 2005 pilkada). Voters felt that the winning challenger showed better leadership compared to the incumbent. This could be called the “Mulyadi effect.”

Finally, some voters considered party loyalty when deciding whether or not to vote for an incumbent. Voters’ alignment with the party that nominated the candidate shaped their preference. Sometimes voters obeyed the party’s decision and voted for the nominated candidate. One voter voted for the winning challenger in Laksono village in Trenggalek, since the party he was loyal to (PDI-P) had nominated the challenger.

Beyond a Cultural Explanation

Voters’ social profiles probably shed more light on the external factors that shape anut grubyuk (see Table 1). Voters who practiced anut grubyuk had similar social profiles of inadequate involvement in organizational life, mainly at the neighborhood or village level. They did not join mass organizations, political organizations, professional organizations, or semi-government organizations. All participants stated that they regularly attended the weekly yasinan meeting conducted by yasinan groups.16)


Table 1 Social Profile of Voters


In Java, yasinan is popular for both Javanese performing Javanism or Javanese rituals (kejawen) in their lives and traditional Javanese santri. Yasin epistle recitation is part of Muslim funeral rites practiced several days after death and as collective veneration of a teacher or respected person (Woodward 2011, 40, 119).17)

In connection with pilkada, yasinan weekly meetings are also a campaign medium for candidates. In Tempur village in Blitar, an incumbent’s campaign team member distributed free uniforms to the male yasinan group. In addition, the challenger’s campaign team attended the weekly yasinan meeting in Kerjo village. In Laksono village in Trenggalek, participants said that the challenger’s victory team distributed free yasinan uniforms for all yasinan group members in the hamlets where fieldwork was conducted. This profile shows less varied involvement of participants in organizational life. It can limit voters from having wider views and better arguments in voting.

Other social profiles of participants who practiced anut grubyuk in voting show that they mainly did domestic work or informal sector jobs for a living. Furthermore, the majority of voters had only completed their education up to elementary and junior high school. Also, anut grubyuk in voting was practiced by both sexes. Thus, the study cannot claim that anut grubyuk refers only to male or female voting behavior in rural Java.

Compared to voters who have individual stands on their preferences (non-anut grubyuk), this case study found different degrees of “engagement” based on the reasons given by the voters interviewed. Engagement is a degree of contact between voters and local political issues as well as policy implementation and organizational life prior to pilkada that can shape voters’ choices. There are two categories of engagement to cover all contacts between voters and local political issues and policy implementation: simple engagement and intensive engagement.

Simple engagement is a typology covering voters who pay less attention to pilkada issues, irrespective of the experience they have in gaining the benefits of local government policies. The majority of these voters belongs to the masses and has a less educated background. A male brick maker (50 years old, elementary school graduate) who has lived in Tempur village since 1980 said that shortly before the 2010 pilkada he heard that the incumbent had donated several sacks of cement for constructing a bridge in the village. To the best of his knowledge, education and health services were not totally free. He stated his reason for voting for the incumbent in the 2010 pilkada in plain Indonesian:

Hanya ikut-ikut, aslinya tidak tahu. Ikut-ikutan kawan, pedoman utama (untuk memilih) tidak ada (Just fitting in, I actually do not know. Just blindly followed my neighborhood mates, [there is no] particular guidance [on whom to vote for]).18)

A micro-businesswoman (55 years old, junior high school graduate) who has lived in Laksono village since she was born recalled that she had benefited from a revolving fund program for women under the national program for community empowerment (simpan pinjam perempuan program nasional pemberdayaan masyarakat). Her children had also benefited from the national program of school operational aid (bantuan operasional sekolah). She gave a short answer for her reason for practicing anut grubyuk in voting for the incumbent: “Alasannya, manut wong-wong, gitu aja” (My reason is just following my neighborhood mates, nothing else).19)

In contrast, voters who pay attention to pilkada issues—mainly village leaders and other officeholders—can argue about the reasons for their choices. They show an intensive engagement with the issues as well as gaining the benefits of policy implementation. The leader of a farmers group in Kerjo village conveyed a clear answer about his reason for voting for the incumbent:

Saya nyoblos nomor dua karena kita menginginkan sarana transportasi lancar. Setelah kita bertanya ke teman-teman di daerah lain, janji-janjinya terbukti. Pak Herry itu orangnya enak, setiap diundang mau datang. Bantuan ke kelompok tani juga sudah ada sebelum pilkada (I voted for [candidate] number two [the incumbent] because we want a good infrastructure for better transportation. After asking for many fellows [farmers groups] in other villages, [the incumbent] kept his promises. Mr. Herry is a humble person; he wanted to come when we invited him [to the village]. [I also saw that] Aid for farmers groups was provided prior to the pilkada).20)

An interesting reason for voting for the challenger was given by a village officer in Laksono who was responsible for managing the village’s irrigation. He recognized that he had received an official uniform from the regional government during the incumbent’s stay in office. He added that the incumbent had paid proper attention to infrastructure development at the village level, such as roads, dams, and irrigation. In fact, he voted for the challenger in the pilkada for a simple reason: “Pak Mulyadi dulu pernah menjabat jadi Bupati, dulu ya baik . . .” (Mr. Mulyadi was the former regent; he [performed] well . . .).21)

In rural regions, voters who are categorized as being intensively engaged are those who have official or cultural positions in the village, such as village heads, hamlet heads, the heads of farmers and religious groups, and those who have enjoyed a better education (are at least senior high school graduates). These voters are able to argue about their rationale for whether or not they vote for the incumbents. In urban regions, the case study found that all participants or voters were categorized as showing intensive engagement. They could explain the incumbent’s popular policies and the benefits of these policies. As a consequence, they had clear arguments for their reasons to vote for either the incumbents or the challengers.

Related to anut grubyuk in voting, the degree of “engagement” can explain why rural Javanese voters practice anut grubyuk in pilkada. Inadequate engagement with pilkada-related issues can encourage voters not to take individual stands in pilkada. Engagement provides a complementary explanation of communal Javanese values that connect individuals to the life of their society in a rural neighborhood.

Beyond these cultural aspects, the profile of villages can also shed light on the nature of anut grubyuk. Tempur village in Srengat District is located 10 km southeast of the district capital and 8 km west of the Blitar Regency capital. The village is composed of four hamlets. About 40 percent of Tempur’s territory consists of rice fields, 20 percent is residential, 35 percent is dry fields, and 15 percent is used for other purposes. Residents in this village mostly work as farmers, with some being traders, stock farmers, clerks, and factory workers. Kerjo village in Wonotirto District is located in southern Blitar, at a distance of 25 km from the central government of Blitar Regency. In 2011 the population was 3,962 people: 51 percent female and 49 percent male. The composition of the educational background in the village is dominated by elementary school graduates (68 percent) and those who did not graduate from elementary school (12 percent). The majority of the population is farmers (58.1 percent). Chili or red pepper is a prominent agricultural product of the village. This village is also known to be one of Blitar’s migrant worker contributors. According to the Blitar Regency branch of the Indonesian migrant workers union (Serikat Buruh Migran Indonesia), the village had 257 migrant workers in 2013 (Rahayu 2013, 2). During fieldwork, the prominent role of the farmer-based group (kelompok tani) in the neighborhood where the interviews took place was apparent.

Joyo village in Trenggalek District is located exactly in the center of the regency of Trenggalek, as the regency office is located there. Many local government offices are also located in the village. Interestingly, the village is also where both Soeharto and Mulyadi were born. They still have their childhood homes in the village, in different hamlets. The majority of the population in the village consists of Javanese Muslims. Since this is an urban village, most people are occupied as civil servants, traders, entrepreneurs, and clerks. Observations in the village showed that most of the neighborhood infrastructure was well developed. The distance between houses was very short, and almost all the houses had vehicles.

Laksono in Watulimo District is a rural village in the southern coastal area of Trenggalek Regency, about 53 km from the center of the regency. In addition to fishing, the majority of the population in the village relies on the forest-based agricultural sector for their livelihoods. According to data from the Forest Village Community Institute (Lembaga Masyarakat Desa Hutan, LMDH), the village has 6,269 members. The LMDH working area of the village covers 4,271 hectares. In cooperation with the state-owned forestry company (Perhutani), LMDH manages forest areas in the village through Community-Based Forest Management (Pengelolaan Hutan Bersama Masyarakat). As a village-based association with a large membership, LMDH has a strong bargaining position in the village. Moreover, several key persons in LMDH at Laksono also hold important positions in the LMDH association in Watulimo District.

The above brief profiles can provide additional explanations for anut grubyuk in voting, beyond Javanese cultural aspects, by showing the rural and urban character of villages and the variety of villagers’ occupations. The majority of the population in Joyo village is engaged in non-agricultural occupations, such as teachers, civil servants, street vendors, and entrepreneurs. In the village, the study did not find any explanation from voters concerning anut grubyuk in either voting for or not voting for the incumbent. Voters had their own arguments in this respect, based on their individually oriented preferences, and did not follow others in the neighborhood. In three other villages where anut grubyuk was found, the occupations of the population were homogenous, such as farming or fishing.

Another important non-cultural feature of villages and neighborhoods is the presence of farmer organizations. LMDH is the most popular farmer-based organization in Laksono village in Trenggalek. With its huge membership and wide networking, LMDH is a potential political force in the pilkada.22) The incumbent was supported as well as challenged by LMDH in both pilkada. In 2005, LMDH’s networks helped Soeharto to gain victory in the pilkada. There was an informal agreement between the incumbent and LMDH’s leaders prior to the 2005 pilkada. LMDH supported Soeharto with the expectation of gaining direct benefits during his term in power, namely, infrastructure (roads), fertilizer donations, and seeds. However, the incumbent did not keep his promises during his term in office.

In the 2010 pilkada, LMDH’s networks diverted their support to Mulyadi WR. A chairman of an LMDH forum at the district level as well as chairman of LMDH in Laksono village remarked:

When finally Mr. Harto [Soeharto] was elected [as the regent], the promise was not fulfilled. When he came here [to visit the village] he never greeted us or [LMDH] administrators. Finally, the LMDH board was not needed anymore by Mr. Harto. So, the promise was violated. He gave assistance to fishermen, but we farmers were not taken care of. We [LMDH] decided not to support Mr. Harto.23)

Like Soeharto, prior to the pilkada Mulyadi and his running mate Kholiq met with LMDH networks in Nglongsor village. LMDH’s decision to support Mulyadi in 2010 was influenced also by an informal agreement to support LMDH members. Mulyadi promised to subsidize fertilizer and farming tools for LMDH. Mulyadi’s first attempt to fulfill his promise was the inauguration of the LMDH Association of Trenggalek on March 23, 2011. In the inauguration, Mulyadi also conducted a dialogue with LMDH’s representatives to hear their aspirations.24)

The effort to divert LMDH’s support from Soeharto to Mulyadi prior to the pilkada was planned. An actor who encouraged LMDH to withdraw its support from the incumbent was Mr. K (pseudonym), a timber businessman who had close connections with LMDH networks. In 2005, he supported Soeharto’s run in the pilkada. In the 2010 pilkada, Mr. K had registered to be the candidate for the regent through the National Awakening Party (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa). Finally, he shifted his support to Mulyadi in the 2010 pilkada by directing LMDH networks’ support to Mulyadi.25) In the LMDH association of Trenggalek, Mr. K was the adviser.

Meanwhile, Tunas Makmur, a farmer-based group, is the only organization in the area of polling station number 4 where interviews were conducted in Kerjo village in Blitar. The incumbent paid special attention to this group. Prior to the pilkada, the local agriculture office built a pond for farming in the village. The office also gave tractors and goats as aid for the farmers group and free bean and corn seeds for farmers. Moreover, the incumbent visited the village twice. A farmer and wood trader talked about the incumbent’s visit: “Mr. Herry came when the farmers group conducted a chili harvest festival and inaugurated the operation of the pond in 2010.”26)

During the campaign, or one month prior to the pilkada, the chairman of Herry’s campaign team (Mr. Z) met with villagers in the hamlet’s hall. During this meeting, the chairman promised to build the hamlet’s roads if Herry won in the pilkada.27) After the pilkada, Herry’s people kept their promise to the villagers. The head of the hamlet testified that after the pilkada, one of Herry’s victory team members visited the hamlet and donated a goat as well as Rp.1 million in cash to support the hamlet’s activities.28) Mr. Z also kept his promise to the villagers. The leader of the farmers group testified that the local government had carried out development of the hamlet’s roads. It was predicted that all roads would be built by 2014. In addition, Mr. Z wanted to donate materials to the farmers group when it built the group’s hut. Mr. Z also helped to support the group’s proposal to gain agribusiness development funds (Pengembangan Usaha Agribisnis Perdesaan) from the local government. In fact, before gaining Mr. Z’s support, the group found it difficult to access funds. After gaining Mr. Z’s support, the group regularly obtained funds of Rp.100 million per year from 2010 to 2012.29)

These narratives show the power of farmer-based group leaders to shape voters’ preferences by practicing anut grubyuk in voting. Anut grubyuk is probably a form of mobilization of voters to vote or not to vote for incumbents in return for benefits for the farmers groups as well as their leaders. However, the case study cannot judge the importance of the role of village heads and hamlet heads in shaping voters’ preferences as they provided relatively formal answers during the interview by admitting that they had to be neutral in the pilkada.

The next question, then, among theories of voting behavior is how anut grubyuk can make a scientific contribution. The analysis of voting behavior is closely related to the discussion of factors that can shape voters’ preferences in voting, in terms of rationale for both voting and not voting. The two main theoretical streams of voting behavior explain how external factors and internal evaluation by voters can shape voting preferences. The former is known as the social cleavage theory, and the latter is the rational choice theory.

Seymour Lipset and S. Rokkan (1967, 13) stress that locality and its dominant culture, class, and interest can shape voters’ decisive criterion for alignment to parties or candidates. On the one hand, voters—without taking into consideration their economic position—vote for parties or candidates due to their commitment to locality and its dominant culture. On the other hand, due to the commitment to class and its collective interest, voters vote for parties or candidates that have or represent the same position irrespective of their localities. The importance of the social cleavage structure is not merely about class interest but a wider understanding of social influence. In addition to class, the criterion of alignment can be shaped by religion, gender, and other social aspects.

Another mainstream political scientist has criticized those who analyze voting without taking into account that citizens are rational people who respond rationally (efficiently) to political realities, particularly in the situation of imperfect information. A. Downs (1957a, 149) has suggested adoption of the economics of political action in analyzing the political behavior of citizens in a democracy. Rationality in political realities is not a simple cost-benefit analysis in which every rational action is justified by the result of a surplus equation between benefits and costs of action (benefits exceed costs). In an imperfect information situation in a large democracy, an intelligent citizen does not always use logical thinking in taking action, because “the marginal return from thinking logically is smaller than its marginal costs.” Consequently, rather than spending much to gain perfect information to support rational action, the citizen sometimes acts rationally (efficiently) to act irrationally, by intentionally avoiding devoting much time and cost for an uncertain outcome. In voting, voters act rationally in being apathetic toward elections or ignore the issues when they know that there is a very low probability that their ballots will make a difference in the election outcome. Furthermore, A. Downs (1957b, 49–50) concludes that voting behavior could be shaped by current party differentials, chance of winning, and the possibility of voter abstention.

Anut grubyuk in voting covers both theoretical streams. Javanese voters who practice anut grubyuk link their decision to a locality and Javanese as the dominant culture that encourages voters to live in harmony. Individual voters voluntarily align with a major decision in the neighborhood in order to respect communal values and integration. Anut grubyuk can also be interpreted as a rational behavior. A voter intentionally does not engage in pilkada issues to overcome the cost of perfect voting. Fitting individual voting decisions to communal guided preferences is a result of logical thinking that shapes Javanese voters.

A more relevant logic views anut grubyuk as group-oriented voting, that is, the awareness of Javanese voters as being parts of groups in a society. The voters act rationally as a group of voters who demand that individual Javanese act with a communal logic. The case study in Blitar and Trenggalek found that individual voters matched their ballots to the preference of neighborhood voters that aimed to meet communal benefits promised by candidates as well as the ethical obligation of group interest.

As a result, understanding Javanese voters in a group perspective provides a different explanation for a previously existing framework (individual voting), which is predominantly viewed from the perspective of social cleavage, mainly locality and its dominant culture or Javanese socio-religious norms. This study interprets anut grubyuk through four possible explanations. First, anut grubyuk is a personal expression of Javanese voters to avoid conflict with neighbors by implementing the principle of rukun. By following anut grubyuk, Javanese also show respect for both community leaders and neighbors and apply the principle of aji. Second, anut grubyuk is probably a form of Javanese pragmatism in voting due to the situation of imperfect knowledge and irrationality in gaining adequate information to support the ballot. Third, anut grubyuk refers to mobilized group voting that is coordinated by a group leader or broker in return for specific rewards from candidates. Finally, anut grubyuk in voting is directed by an obligation to comply with group norms that share group interests, based on the positive result of evaluation of outcomes and payoffs.

Furthermore, regarding group-oriented voting, anut grubyuk echoes the works of Uhlaner (1989) on the possible voting mobilization for transactional benefit of elites in the neighborhood or in the region. This non-cultural logic enriches an explanation that relies on cultural factors, which remain influential among rural Javanese.

Arguably, the non-cultural explanations of anut grubyuk emphasize the need to assess its impact on running genuine democracy in Indonesia. In contrast to liberal democracy, anut grubyuk raises the issue of independence in voting. This group-oriented voting is contrasted to voting as an individual right ensured by the constitution. In terms of democratic process, this remains a critical question in the ongoing democratization of the country, as equal power relationships in democracy are challenged by communality. Moreover, anut grubyuk can potentially be distorted to become a hegemonic instrument of certain parties or elites to gain or retain office in national or regional elections.

Finally, beyond the cultural factors identified in the case studies, farmer-based organizations as well as leaders are influential in neighborhoods, including in mobilizing voters to practice anut grubyuk in pilkada. The leaders form a major opinion in neighborhoods, referred to by voters, by providing options to vote or not to vote for the incumbent. Not surprisingly, the regional leaders who survive in pilkada are consummate strategists who strengthen patronage-driven democracy. The regular succession of a leader who demands the major support of the people is, in fact, determined by much fewer numbers of vital backers. These backers attach themselves to the incumbent leaders who control the dynamics of support and opposition.30)

Therefore, anut grubyuk is susceptible to becoming trapped in patronage-driven democracy practices when community leaders trade benefits in return for the support of candidates. These practices potentially threaten voters who have inadequate engagement in election issues and community organizational life. Additionally, anut grubyuk as a local form of Javanese wisdom can be permanently converted to transactional political practices; and it can consistently support this inconsistent practice of democracy.


There have been repeated attempts to explain the behavior of Javanese voters in the Indonesian democratic framework, in both the Soeharto and the post-Soeharto eras. Unfortunately, these works have neglected the social reality of Javanese communal and hierarchical culture as well as its potential patronage in democracy.

This study reveals that Javanese voters do not base their decisions solely on individual preferences. Among rural Javanese, voters are familiar with the idea of applying anut grubyuk to voting. Individual voters adjust their preferences to the majority preference in their neighborhoods. Anut grubyuk is firmly rooted in the Javanese communal philosophy of life, namely rukun and the hierarchical value of aji. To live in harmony as well as avoid conflict, individuals in rural Java tend to follow the majority voice in the neighborhood, and this applies to voting as well. Individually, Javanese also apply the value of respect—not merely in relationships with people who have informal or formal positions, but also in relationships among neighbors.

Nonetheless, relying solely on the explanation of Javanese dominant culture would be misleading in comprehending Javanese voting behavior in the recently democratic Indonesia. Beyond cultural explanations, Javanese individuals who cast their votes in accordance with communal preferences in the neighborhood aim at gaining collective benefits from local government policies credited to certain candidates who run in the electoral race. In recently democratic Indonesia, anut grubyuk is vulnerable to manipulation (via mobilization), because certain community leaders or brokers exploit Javanese communality in return for both individual and communal short-term benefits from candidates. Instead of helping liberal democracy to grow, anut grubyuk potentially supports patronage-driven democracy, in which democracy ends up in the hands of certain elites who are able to play the politics of particularism.

As a preliminary finding that relies on only a small number of participants, this study needs further exploration. Future research might need more in-depth fieldwork in other rural regions where Javanese culture can be found. In addition, a further comparative study is urgent, to find out whether non-Javanese voters are more independent in voting than Javanese ones. Finally, both cultural differences and non-cultural explanations are relevant to discern voting patterns among Javanese and non-Javanese in the outer Java regions where Javanese also live, such as Lampung and North Sumatra.

Accepted: December 8, 2015


I would like to express my sincere gratitude to my academic supervisors, Associate Professor Janet McIntyre and Craig Matheson, and to the Directorate General of Higher Education of the Republic of Indonesia (DIKTI) and Brawijaya University for my doctoral scholarship. Fieldwork was supported by a Flinders University Overseas Field Trip Grant (project number 5595.3251). I also wish to thank my three anonymous reviewers for their critical and encouraging comments. The content of the article is entirely my responsibility, and the views and opinions contained do not represent DIKTI or Brawijaya University in any way.


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1) Even though Javanese are large in number, scholarly works on them rarely consider their significance in Indonesian electoral politics. Exceptions are Hill and Shiraishi (2007), who mention Javanese domination of the state (that is, the domination of mainly Javanese army officers), and Woodward (2011), who holds the view that Javanese occupy a position of “first among equals” with two visible attributes—being the largest ethnic community and having always been politically dominant. Meanwhile, Liddle and Mujani (2007) found that in the 2004 legislative election, ethnicity had little impact on voting. In the 2004 presidential election also, ethnicity had no impact. The strength of Javanese as an ethnic identity can only explain the lower probability of votes for Partai Golkar (Functional Group) relative to other parties; in other words, Golkar is a non-Javanese party. Recent explanations by pollsters found that in the 2014 presidential election the ethnic background of presidential and vice-presidential candidates was not a dominant consideration. Poltrack Institute’s polling of Indonesian voters found that only 27 percent of voters voted for the Javanese presidential candidate and 23 percent for the Javanese vice presidential candidate (December 2013). In January 2014, Poltrack found slight changes—21.18 percent and 25.10 percent respectively. In contrast, the Indonesia Survey Circle (LSI) found that among the two most numerous ethnic groups (Javanese and Sundanese) the presidential pair of Joko Widodo-Jusuf Kalla were preferred by Javanese voters (47.6 percent in June 2014 and 52.18 percent in July 2014) and the presidential pair of Prabowo Subianto-Hatta Rajasa were preferred by the Sundanese (51.6 percent in June 2014 and 61.4 percent in July 2014). In particular, LSI revealed that Joko Widodo-Jusuf Kalla were more influential among voters in Central and East Java, where the Javanese formed the majority. These data minimally show the relevance of Javanese as an object of electoral studies in the country.

2) Golkar is an acronym for Golongan Karya, or Functional Group. PPP is an acronym for Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, or the United Development Party.

3) However, Freedom House downgraded the country’s freedom status from “free” in 2013 to “partly free” in 2014. The house considered that the adoption of the new social organization law (UU Ormas) had undermined Indonesia’s civil liberties.

4) In the pilkada, the significance of ethnicity varies in different regions. LSI (2008) found that the ethnic background of candidates and the proportion of dominant ethnic groups in the provincial population resulted in different pilkada results in the three provinces. In the 2007 gubernatorial pilkada in West Kalimantan, voters tended to vote for candidates with a similar ethnic identity. However, in the 2007 gubernatorial pilkada in South Sulawesi and Bangka Belitung, voters accepted candidates with a different ethnic identity. Although ethnicity is not a dominant factor referred to by voters, it is relevant to explain the pilkada result.

5) A survey conducted by the Blitar Development Planning Board in cooperation with Airlangga University in 2009 presented the ethnic distribution of respondents, chosen randomly: 99.8 percent of the 1,000 identified themselves as being Javanese. Based on this survey, one could say that almost the entire Blitar population is Javanese.

6) The incumbent bears exactly the same name as the former Indonesian President Soeharto. The name Soeharto in this article refers primarily to the former regent of Trenggalek (2005–10).

7) I obtained the data on pilkada results from the Blitar and Trenggalek Election Commissions after gaining a research permit from the regencies. Consequently, I did not use these data for selecting villages where I would conduct interviews with voters; but I did use the data for selecting the specific location in each village (neighborhood) for the interviews.

8) Interview conducted on July 4, 2012.

9) Interview conducted on July 4, 2012.

10) Interview conducted on July 5, 2012.

11) Interview conducted on September 18, 2012.

12) Interview conducted on September 18, 2012. The yasinan group is a communal male or female religious group at the neighborhood level. The main activity of this group is attending weekly meetings and reciting the yasin epistle in the Koran. This group does not perform religious activities only; it also acts as a social medium or meeting point for male or female villagers to discuss issues and developments that are considered important for the community. In Blitar and Trenggalek Regencies, yasinan activity is usually conducted every Thursday evening for males and on other days for females.

13) Interview conducted on September 18, 2012.

14) Interview conducted on July 5, 2012.

15) This assumption is based on fieldwork in Kerjo village. The incumbent has a close connection with the neighborhood and has disbursed many development benefits, particularly the construction of roads and ponds for farming, the disbursement of a micro revolving fund program (simpan pinjam), and seed distribution to farmers groups.

16) See footnote 12 for an explanation of yasinan.

17) In East Java, yasinan is an identical religious expression of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) followers (Shelia 2012, 4; Lukman 2014, 38). Therefore, yasinan can tell us about the presence of NU tradition in expressing Islam in three villages. Moreover, the existence of NU is very visible via the presence of NU branches (pengurus ranting) in Tempur and Kerjo villages. In Tempur, Ansor (Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, Ansor Youth Movement), a youth wing of NU, also exists. In Laksono village in Trenggalek, two schools under Maarif NU’s supervision—a madrasah ibtidaiah (elementary school) and raudlatul athfal (kindergarten)—have served the village for the last two decades.

18) Interview conducted on July 4, 2012.

19) Interview conducted on September 18, 2012.

20) Interview conducted on July 5, 2012.

21) Interview conducted on September 18, 2012.

22) Of the 157 villages in Trenggalek, 75 percent are categorized as forest villages with the total number of members (LMDH) amounting to approximately 104,000, both youths and adults ( Libatkan_LMDH_untuk_optimalkan_potensi_ekonomi_hutan.html, accessed December 10, 2013;, accessed December 10, 2013).

23) Interview conducted on September 18, 2012. The interviewee lives in Laksono, where he was the former village head.

24) Interview conducted with a chairman of the LMDH forum at the district level on September 18, 2012. See also the inauguration news in, accessed November 27, 2013.

25) Interviews with a local journalist on September 21, 2012; a local activist affiliated with the winning challenger on September 21, 2012; a local academic as well as a lawyer on September 19, 2012; a young party activist affiliated to the winning challenger on September 17, 2012.

26) Interview conducted on July 5, 2012.

27) Interview with a leader of a farmers group in the village on July 5, 2012.

28) Interview conducted on July 5, 2012.

29) Interview conducted on July 5, 2012.

30) The word “patronage” in this article has two meanings: defender and protector (from the Latin word patronus). Political patronage means “distributing favors to the supporters in return for votes” (McMillan, in McLean 2003, 400).


Vol. 3, No. 2, The Editors

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 2

Technocracy and Economic Decision-Making in Southeast Asia: An Overview

The Editors
(Khoo Boo Teik,* Teresa S. Encarnacion Tadem,** and Shiraishi Takashi***)

* 邱武德, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), 7-22-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-8677, Japan

Corresponding author’s e-mail address: khoo-bt[at]

** Department of Political Science, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City 1101 Philippines

*** 白石 隆, Institute of Developing Economies Japan External Trade Organization (IDE-JETRO), 3-2-2 Wakaba, Mihamaku, Chiba, Chiba Prefecture, 261-8545, Japan; National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), 7-22-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-8677, Japan

This article provides an overview of issues important to studying technocracy and economic decision-making in Southeast Asia. Historically the subject extends from the incorporation of non-communist states of the region into the US-molded post-World War II international order to the East Asian financial crisis of 1997. To Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, advisory and expert missions of the United States, World Bank, and other international agencies bore “state-of-the-art” economic policy-making and development planning that reserved a special, politically immunized role for technocrats. Yet, technocrats occupied a contentious position because of conflicting interests in changing conditions of underdevelopment, late industrialization, trade and investment liberalization, and financial global­ization. As such, the assessment of the relationship between technocracy and economic decision-making in Southeast Asia should consider such opposed expectations as: the claims of technocratic efficacy against claims on social equity; demands of professional efficiency against demands of public accountability; appeals to state priorities against appeals to democracy; advances of national interests against defense of vested interests; promotion of economic targets against the attainment of social objectives; and the autonomy of technocrats against their captivity to patronage.

Keywords: technocracy, economic decision-making, Southeast Asia, technocratic efficacy, social equity, public accountability, democracy, patronage

There has been a sustained academic interest in technocracy in Southeast Asia even if the volume of academic work directed specifically at technocracies and technocrats has not been immense. Compared with the enormous and still growing academic literature on technocracy in Latin America, say, the academic literature on Southeast Asian technocracy may seem to be slight, if not inadequate. Even so, various studies in political economy and politics assessed the contributions of technocracy to economic development and growth of the Southeast Asian region (Milne 1982; Shiraishi and Abinales 2005), or in specific countries. Although, arguably, the region’s best publicized technocrats were the so-called “Berkeley Mafia” of Indonesia while its most admired was the technocratic elite of Singapore, studies have covered different aspects of the roles and impacts of technocrats in Indonesia (MacDougall 1976; Robison 1986; 1990); Malaysia (Montgomery and Esman 1966; Hamilton-Hart 2008); the Philippines (Bello et al. 1982); Singapore (Rodan 2004; Barr 2006); and Thailand (Stifel 1976; Anek 1992; Pasuk 1992).

Much of the early academic work on technocracy in Southeast Asia which went beyond making scattered comments on technocrats focused on their deployment by particular regimes for the task of leading economic and development planning. For ­studies typically conducted from the perspective of modernization theory, the technocrats’ roles and contributions were largely conceived as an important factor or “input” in development. Such studies assumed that the technocrat’s role was politically neutral and the technocratic input was economically positive (MacDougall 1976; Stifel 1976). To that extent, a benign technocracy served as a professional counterpart to an entrepreneurial vanguard. Later studies in political economy were more critical of the technocratic record in economic policy-making. They rejected any assumed neutrality on the part of technocrats, and instead targeted technocratic “complicity” in the construction of authoritarian regimes, the imposition of socially inequitable programs, and the eventual consolidation of neoliberal governance (Bello et al. 1982; Robison 1986; 1990).

Behind those two opposed perspectives stand several issues which have not been systematically discussed with reference to Southeast Asian technocracy, economic decision-­making, and politics. Some of those issues might usefully be explored here as a general guide to the concerns of the research project that has culminated in the present volume of articles.

Technocracy and Politics

Technical decision-making, applied to industrial production and management in the west, notably the United States, prompted some early twentieth-century visions of organizing government according to the merits of technocracy, the latter understood as “a system of governance in which technically trained experts rule by virtue of their specialized knowledge and position in dominant political and economic institutions” (Glassman et al. 1993). Partly due to the growing importance of technocracy and bureaucracy in capitalism after World War II, and partly due to a “general waning of authority of all large institutions and effectiveness of governments” burdened with fiscal problems and “overcomplexity” (Peters 1979, 342), technocracy held an attractive promise of de-politicized rational alternatives to the problems of society. To that degree, a major point of contention in discussions of technocracy in Western countries was the loss of accountability in decision-making that diluted public debate in favor of technocratic inputs and procedures.

One striking example of that trend towards a greater reliance on technocracy was the highly visible entry, among others, of corporate lawyers, bankers, and professors—America’s “best and brightest”—into the United States’ high-level policy-making, not least in the conduct of war.1) What was preferred at home was soon exported, and American technocratic thought and practice entered the newly-independent non-­communist countries of Southeast Asia, an important region that was being integrated into the United States’ sphere of influence in the United States’ strategic remaking of the post-World War II international order. To these countries, what seemed like international “state-of-the-art” ideas and practices of technocratic decision-making were conveyed by official or advisory missions of the World Bank and other international agencies, and by a range of American experts—from political advisers to technical consultants, and from academics to Peace Corps volunteers. Indeed, US influence over if not intervention in Southeast Asian affairs was accompanied by an important assumption that “modern development administration” (a forerunner of technocracy in changing “traditional” societies technically and behaviorally) included “innovation, experimentation, active intervention in the economy, major involvement with clients, building new capacities, and conflict-management activities,” that is, functions that were supposedly beyond “the norms of classical Western models of administration” (Esman 1974, 16). Not coincidentally, then, there was a steady replacement in high-level bureaucratic positions of the old-style colonial civil servants by social scientists (and especially economists) who were increasingly trained in American universities or influenced by their current theories and models of modernization and development.

In newly independent underdeveloped countries generally, technocracy’s potential was differently valued. Usually equipped with “applied modernization theory,” technocracy appealed to postcolonial regimes striving to shed a “techno-economic backwardness” that produced an “unholy trinity of ignorance, poverty and disease” (Mkandawire 2005, 13). Not only were technocrats a scarce “sub-group of bureaucrats that possesse[d] specialized knowledge” (Centeno 1993, 310), they were presumed by training, expertise and professionalism to bear the progressive values, rational attitudes, and specialist ­methods needed to modernize their societies. In Southeast Asia, for example, amidst debates over which developmental paths were economically ideal, politically feasible, or socially desirable, many regimes reserved, or were advised to reserve, in economic policy-­making and development planning a special role for “professional and sub-­professional classes,” or technocrats, as an international consultancy report on improving development administration reasoned:

Modern government depends increasingly upon modern technology for national security, for the conduct of its own developmental and recurrent operations, and for the performance of its regulatory and control functions. The proficiency and knowledge of its professional and sub-professional classes therefore define the ultimate limits of its technical capabilities. . . . Because of the rapid obsolescence of professional and technical knowledge in certain fields, in fact, it may be necessary to devote disproportionate emphasis to those services where the rate of change is greatest. ­(Montgomery and Esman 1966, 14)

It was not just hopes of development that made technocracy appealing. Where development had failed, “the permanence, the technical skills, and the anonymity of [technocrats] ma[d]e them appear the possible receivers for otherwise bankrupt regimes” (Peters 1979, 342).2) As often happened under economic crisis, regimes would be urged by international institutions to induct technocrats into high-level policy-making. Rulers and technocrats hoped, thereby, that “technocracy’s apparent emphasis on order, ration­ality and apolitical criteria” would be reassuring in a moment of “general societal crisis” (Centeno 1993, 324).

Whatever the circumstances that occasion it, the deployment of technocrats as a force in policy-making basically signals a shift in power to “a set of actors and institutions [that would] make decisions . . . implement those decisions in the society and economy, and . . . do so with a minimum of opposition” (Peters 1979, 340–342). Hence, although non-partisanship is held to be a technocratic virtue, an apolitical technocracy does not obtain. In practice, politics and technocracy are interlocked. Politics in the shape of regimes and leaders needs technocracy’s expert knowledge, methodical applications, and reasoned expectations for complex and credible decision-making. Conversely, technocracy, signifying the use of technocrats rather than the more precise but rarely encountered rule by technocrats, needs politics, that is, the sanction of power, if it is to be heeded, let alone used productively. Politics would ideally harness technocracy to clear objectives while insulating technocrats from interference so that they can function “without fear or favor,” as the cliché goes. The reality is more complex: there is latent conflict between politics and technocracy. The conflict is apparent enough in certain forms. For example, seemingly technical recommendations may be rejected and the technocrats associated with them ejected from their positions for running afoul of the powers that are supposed to insulate them from political interference. Or else popular resentment against “ration­al” policies which result in differential socio-economic impacts may erupt into anti-regime protests or must be put down by repressive measures. For that matter, particular (teams of) technocrats may find themselves opposed by institutional rivals with different ideas of planning and development. Or private non-state quarters may defend their vested interests by circumventing or sabotaging technocratic forms of governance. In each instance, the technocrat may be as much a scapegoat as a disinterested expert.

Yet the politics-technocracy conflict lies deeper. Politics looks to technocracy for expert inputs and calculated outcomes but does so to embed the exercise of state power in diverse economic and developmental agendas, policies, decisions, and programs. An actually functioning technocracy, therefore, operates as an appendage of politically shaped structures, institutions, and configurations of power. At certain levels of work in circumscribed situations, some socio-economic problems may require no less, but no more, than technical solutions.3) Beyond that, it is illusory to conceive of highly placed technocrats as backroom experts whose task is to prepare disinterested rational-technical solutions to the problems of economic planning, resource allocation, and social distribution, each of which is inherently a political matter.

Understanding Technocracy in Southeast Asia

The potential for politics-technocracy conflict in economic decision-making is especially large in times of rapid transformation, severe restructuring, or actual collapse when policies and outcomes, no matter how technocratic they are made out to be, are unavoidably political. Under contentious conditions, readily pitted against one another will be different sets of expectations and interests, including the following:

• claims of technocratic efficacy against claims on social equity

• demands of professional efficiency against demands of public accountability

• appeals to state priorities against appeals to democracy

• advances of national interests against defense of vested interests

• promotion of economic targets against the attainment of social objectives

• the autonomy of technocrats against their captivity to patronage

Technocrats are bound to be assessed in partisan ways in such times. In judging their performances, their supporters and detractors alike will make much of supposed technocratic ideals and disposition—faith in techniques and models, professional aloofness, ideological conservatism, and pro-establishment proclivities, as well as affinities with non-democratic institutions, centralized decision-making, and statist priorities. But these are not the only important aspects of technocracy. In fact, how far technocrats perform to expectations crucially depends on other matters, including their assigned roles, their scope of authority, and their institutional milieu.

It was a concern with these kinds of issues, pertaining to the separate and comparative records of Southeast Asian technocracies that inspired the research conducted for this volume of articles. The focus of the volume is the relationship between technocracy and economic decision-making in Southeast Asia. Its principal approach is to explain and assess the roles and performances of technocracies in Southeast Asian countries whose economies had had significant moments of economic and political crises while showing comparable experiences of underdevelopment, late industrialization, trade and investment liberalization, and financial globalization. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand were selected for this study because their experiences more fully extend from the post-World War II period when technocracy emerged to the present when technocracy’s positive or negative impacts on the management of the 1997 financial crisis in East Asia generated economic and political effects which continue to reverberate.

Each of the case studies of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand grapples with the record of technocracy in its selected country, weaving together economic and technical issues with social concerns and political pressures. Neither elevating nor maligning a technocratic role in economic decision-making, particularly in times of ­economic stress, the volume seeks collectively to provide detailed investigations and assessments of the relationship between technocrats and economic decision-making as experienced within Southeast Asia’s socio-economic development in the postcolonial era. The relationship has been a relatively long, complex, and fascinating one given the pathways of Southeast Asian development, the roles of technocrats in charting them, and the conditions under which development occurred. Over half a century, as is too well known to be rehearsed at length here, Southeast Asia’s economic development has covered modernization, structural transformation, late industrialization, debt and crisis management, economic stabilization and structural adjustment, trade and investment liberalization, and closer integration with a global economy. Compelled to respond to these multi-­dimensioned twists and turns in development, Southeast Asian technocrats have performed a multiplicity of roles and borne a wide range of responsibilities as economic planners, program implementers, fiscal managers, power brokers, and institutional intermediaries. At the same time, many high-level technocrats have had to tread fine lines between domestic and foreign parties, especially in times of economic distress when the intervention of international financial institutions crucially shaped post-crisis policy options.

In all this, different technocrats operated under the patronage or the protection of leaders and regimes that differed as well in their personal capabilities and influence over economic decision-making. Domestic and global conditions often changed rapidly and sharply, too, creating a need for technocratic deployment but also imposing constraints on its courses and outcomes. Domestic political conditions were critical: in three out of the four countries studied, authoritarian regimes or military dictatorships ruled for long periods, defining the political and institutional frameworks within which technocrats worked. Transitions to democratic regimes—reversed more than once in Thailand—brought their own conditions, not always favorable to technocrats. Between the 1970s and 1990s, technocrats had to manage the ramifications of global economic changes or instabilities which included: the dismantlement of the Bretton Woods fixed foreign exchange mechanisms; oil shocks; the collapse of commodity prices; trade and investment liberalization; the integration of the global capitalist economy after the implosion of the Soviet bloc; the huge expansion of the “paper economy”; and the wild gyrations of the money markets.

Indeed, one way to understand the differences between Southeast Asian technocracies “then and now” is to note the considerably altered circumstances of their deployment. “Then,” as in the era of decolonization and the Cold War, the circumstances of economic planning were dominated by a need to resolve pressing domestic problems. “Now,” as in the post-Cold War age of “globalization,” the conditions of economic manage­ment demand stable interfaces with volatile external markets. In this context, probably the most far-reaching moment of change came with the financial crisis of 1997. If the so-called “East Asian miracle” marked the height of Southeast Asian economic advance, the so-called “East Asian financial crisis” signaled its reversal. To approach technocracy in Southeast Asia, therefore, is to understand why, how, and to what consequence technocrats were used to build up a “miracle” and subsequently to manage its “meltdown.” Only then, as envisaged by the research project, can the technocrats’ roles, influences, and impacts—positive and negative—be properly assessed. Hence, the research project set out to establish how technocracy, utilizing different teams of technocrats, helped to lay the foundations of policy- and decision-making, chart the directions of transformation, manage crises, and make or unmake selected Southeast Asian economies at different times.

Structure of the Special Issue

Many of the issues bound up with technocracy in Southeast Asia are closely examined in Takashi Shiraishi’s study of technocracy in Indonesia from its origins in the 1960s to its present post-New Order transitional state. The original corps of Indonesian technocrats had an uninterrupted involvement in economic policy-making over four decades of growth, crises, and reforms. In Shiraishi’s assessment, the pioneer technocrats performed well in macro-economic policy-making, namely, in maintaining a balanced budget, an open capital account, and a pegged exchange rate system. As the details of their qualifications and appointments show, they were a small and tightly-knit elite believing in free trade, comparative advantage, limited state intervention, and reliance on the private sector. The natural allies of the international financial institutions, the technocrats—virtually pre-Washington Consensus neoliberals—had serious rivals in a domestic group of “engineers” committed to industrial policy and state intervention. Moreover, the technocrats’ macro-economic reforms were constrained by resource and revenue fluctuations. In difficult times, Soeharto relied on the technocrats, partly to still international concern. In good times, Soeharto gave the “engineers” ambitious state projects. But the technocrats’ influence could not extend beyond fixing macro-economic policies: they were unable to check cronyism and corruption in implementation. When push came to shove in 1997–98, and their proposed financial reforms made them side with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) against Soeharto’s family and cronies, the technocrats’ utility to Soeharto ended. The technocrats saw their work, mission, and influence in technical terms. Still, Shiraishi concludes, their operational milieu was highly politicized and they were only effective within certain political parameters: the New Order’s centralized decision-making process, their immunization against dissent by the political demobilization of society, and Soeharto’s personal trust. When Soeharto fell, and his repressive “politics of stability” yielded to democratization, decentralization, and electoral demands for a “politics of economic growth,” the technocrats’ scope was truncated by new political conditions. Now, their influence was challenged by emerging parties and politicians operating at national, provincial, and local levels. In this likewise politicized but multipolar order, not even a President who wants to entrust policy-making to proven technocrats can shield some of the latter from powerful figures who are not less predatory for being allies and partners.

Compared to its Indonesian counterpart, Thai technocracy, examined by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, and Akira Suehiro, experienced more swings in status and influence from its post-World War II genesis to the administrations of Thaksin ­Shinawatra before he was deposed in the September 2006 military coup d’etat. Pasuk and Baker chart the Thai technocracy’s “rise and fall” through three generations of technocrats. Their considerably different perspectives, duties, and conditions of work reflected domestic and global changes that had transformed the Thai economy from an agricultural into a newly industrializing economy by the mid-1990s before plunging it into its direst condition in 1997. The few and cohesive pioneering technocrats laid the foundation for macro-economic management. Much valued for their skills, they could even wring some scope of autonomous planning from the generals. The political upheavals of 1973–76, though, cast uncertainty over the position of the technocracy as they did everything else in Thai society. (Shockingly, threats against his personal safety drove Puey Ungphakorn, the dean of the pioneer technocrats, into exile, never to return to Thailand.) The second technocrat generation was divided between those who eschewed long-term planning for pro-market quantitative modeling and short-term management of market instabilities, and others who wanted to follow the East Asian developmental state’s path to industrialization. In short, the technocrats were apt to serve as advocates of competing ideological positions within a context of mounting trade and investment liberalization. The third generation, active after the Plaza Accord-induced, foreign investment-led growth, was tasked with carrying out full-scale financial liberalization as Thailand emerged as a foreign investment-led newly industrializing economy. By this stage, however, the technocrats’ scope of action had been reduced by new politicians, big businesses, and party-sponsored think-tanks. From these turns, Pasuk and Baker show that the pervasive influence of neoliberal ideology undermined the efficacy of technocratic management while competing agendas and cross-cutting political pressures damaged the technocrats’ cohesion. Consequently, a technocratic record commended for competence, autonomy, and insulation in its heyday was discredited for a lack of understanding of the global economy, lack of anticipation of risks, and lack of independence from political intimidation when the Thai currency collapsed in 1997!

After his Thai Rak Thai party won its first general election in 2001, Thaksin attempted ambitious reforms of the Thai economic and financial systems, as Suehiro’s detailed analysis of the Thai civil service shows. Thaksin reduced the status and effectiveness of the technocrats associated with three core planning, budgeting, and fiscal management agencies, and the central bank. He accomplished this partly by substituting formerly fragmented decision-making, which favored ministry-based technocrats, with centralized decision-making (over economic strategies, budgetary allocations, and transmission of funds) that was more closely controlled by the Prime Minister, his political deputies, and his special advisers. In fact, Thaksin reorganized the bureaucracy to prioritize his agendas, reformed personnel management to place meritocracy ahead of senior­ity, and compelled state agencies to improve public service delivery. Whatever their actual impact on post-crisis recovery, Thaksin’s public service reforms undermined an established and stable if conservative bureaucracy. The power shifts that necessarily accompanied the reforms threatened to emasculate technocrats and bureaucrats alike. Yet, reducing technocratic control over budgetary allocations and procedures of expendi­ture simultaneously left some sectors with lowered funding. Critically, these sectors included the military when Thaksin decided that the post-Cold War security position required less not more defense spending. In a sense, Thaksin’s downgrading of technocracy which was a pillar of the political system indirectly destabilized the system. If the reforms left the technocrats helpless against the most popular Prime Minister and political party ever elected, Thaksin’s other moves—which are beyond the scope of this volume—led to his overthrow in September 2006. And, then, ironically, the post-coup Cabinet had 18 retired and serving public officials, and only one politician. Whether such a Cabinet composition reflected the military’s disdain for the other political parties that could not compete with Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai, Suehiro wonders if Thai politics was perhaps returning to its mold of a “bureaucratic polity.”

Teresa S. Encarnacion Tadem assesses and contrasts the scope of technocratic influence in pre- and post-martial law Philippines. She notes that the elite Filipino technocrats had first become prominent under the Macapagal Administration (1961–64) for their role in opening the economy to foreign investments and loans, the latter mainly from the IMF. Under martial law (1972–86), insulated from opposition to their economic schemes, the technocrats became one of the Marcos regime’s “three pillars.” They supplied him with a credible development program endorsed by the international financial institutions while the latter’s support conferred credibility on the technocrats themselves. Under technocratic oversight, trade barriers were removed and the economy made export-oriented and dependent on an influx foreign capital. Yet, the martial law technocrats’ failure to alleviate poverty contributed to Marcos’s ouster and their own decline. Their technocratic successors retained an economic strategy of liberalization now implemented via globalization, privatization, and deregulation. To some degree, the post-martial law technocracy has been shielded from public criticism because of the prevalence of neoliberal ideology among influential policy-makers and the prevailing transnational character of economic policy-making. Even so technocracy under democracy is vulnerable to criticisms by political interest groups, non-governmental organizations, and the business community. The technocratic scope of decision-making is now constrained, partly due to strong rivalry within the ranks of technocracy and bureaucracy. Above all, the democratic system has left an ironic impact on technocracy that underscores the latter’s loss of insulation: the expediency of electoral politics and the calculations of patronage politics are liable to cause the political leadership to sacrifice unpopular economic policies and, sometimes, their technocratic proponents.

Khadijah Khalid and Mahani Zainal Abidin relate the changing influence of Malaysian technocracy to several factors that framed the technocrats’ position in economic management, namely, the fundamental orientations of the economy; national socio-economic objectives; the relationship of the political leadership to the technocrats; and pressures from the global economy. From 1957 to 1981, the technocrats enjoyed a close relationship with the first three Prime Ministers, each a former member of the civil service elite. Whether the orientation of the national economy was roughly laissez-faire (1957–69) or state interventionist with social objectives (1970–81), senior technocrats in development planning, financial management, and state enterprises were well insulated from political pressure. Policies devised by them were rarely debated even in Parliament. For a quarter century, then, the technocrats directed export-oriented industrialization, high-growth strategies, petroleum development policies, and socio-economic restructuring. However, when Mahathir Mohamad was Prime Minister, from July 1981 to October 2003, he emulated the East Asian developmental state, dominated economic decision-making, and favored private-sector initiatives. The technocrats were still insulated from public pressures but technocracy was no longer a privileged source of ideas and policies. For those, Mahathir relied on himself and a circle of political and business advisers. Faced with the volatility of 1997–98, the central bank and the Ministry of Finance offered the counsel of caution and accord with market sentiment and the IMF. Mahathir instead confronted the money markets with limited capital controls and a fixed foreign exchange rate. Thus a tradition of technocratic autonomy ended: now the technocrats would only implement the policies determined by Mahathir and his crisis-management council. Khadijah and Mahani argue that sidelining the technocracy had created major problems of macro- and micro-economic and financial management before the 1997 crisis. When he became Prime Minister in November 2003, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, an ex-bureaucrat, restored some of the technocracy’s lost prestige. But socio-political conditions have changed, and economic policy-making has become the shared but contested terrain of bureaucrats, young professionals, and politicians with technocratic backgrounds.

Finally, Khoo Boo Teik locates Southeast Asian technocracies within a depiction of an international trajectory of technocracy that covers the issues raised by this volume. Khoo suggests that the technocratic trajectory has been long but troubled. Developing countries embarked on many projects of economic advance and transformation only to lurch from development to debt and crisis management to structural adjustment, and the neoliberal reconfiguration of the global economy. In each project, technocrats emerged as an identifiable decision-making force under unavoidably politicized circumstances. Technocrats assumed different roles as planners, implementers, managers, brokers, and intermediaries. Yet, with few exceptions in the developing world, despite technocratic inputs, visions of postcolonial progress collapsed under structural adjustment while state intervention was reduced to neoliberal good governance. What began as a basic need to deploy technocracy for its skills and to insulate its workings from political pressures and interference led to a complex trend of “technocratization”—or a fusion of technocracy and politics—to overcome the latent conflicts between technocracy and politics. Politics could no longer depend on technocratic solutions while technocracy could not resolve its political problems. Thus, technocrats played a central role in modernization, economic transformation, or crisis management, all extraordinarily politicized situations, but they could scarcely live down their reputations as the expert collaborators of authoritarian regimes, the designers and implementers of harsh economic programs, or the allies of international institutions bent on reducing social spending via deflationary policies. Moreover, neoliberal globalization has whittled the path of relatively autonomous state-led, technocracy-implemented national economic strategies. As Southeast Asia after 1997 has demonstrated, technocracy’s old role has been truncated. Technocrats found themselves being squeezed between popular demands for equitable social policies and oli­garchic resistance to reform agendas, between satisfying the calculations of politicians and meeting the claims of civil society. To that extent, technocracy’s trajectory, which included its course in Southeast Asia, has shown how relatively ineffectual was the impact of technocracy on political economy in crises, precisely when, it was thought, technocracy would best fulfill its role.

Accepted: November 1, 2013


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1) For the original “best and brightest,” see Halberstam (1972). Gabler (2010) argues that the Obama administration is packed with “The Best and Brightest 2.0”—“cool, unflappable customers . . . Ivy-educated, confident and implacable realists and rationalists. Like their forebears, they have all the answers, which is why they have been so unaccommodating of other suggestions on the economy, where economists have been pressing them for more stimulus, or on Afghanistan, where the President keeps doubling his bets.”

2) Here, “technocrats” has been substituted for “bureaucrats” in the original text.

3) “Clearly, some expertise is necessary to operate a statistical office or build a bridge. It is not so obvious, however, that one need be familiar with econometrics to be able to discuss economic policy or be an engineer in order to judge the merits of a new airport site” (Centeno 1993, 318).