The commemoration of Indonesia’s 20th year of Reformasi in May this year coincided with Malaysia’s new chapter in democratization and governance. In the 14th general election ( GE14 ) held on May 9, Malaysians voted the reform-oriented Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition into power, replacing the decades-long rule of Barisan Nasional (BN).
This historic development in Malaysian politics instigated peculiar reactions on Indonesia’s side.
Some Indonesian political actors were quick to grab the political capital produced by PH’s victory, the return of Tun Mahathir Mohammad to top leadership and “Malaysia Baru” to bolster their own narratives in the run-up to next year’s presidential election.
These include the comparison between President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Mahathir as popular and successful leaders, the portrayal of PH’s election win as a sign of a similar government change in Indonesia and the call to abandon identity politics, a staple in BN’s campaign strategy which proved unfruitful in GE14.
The absorption of GE14’s outcome into Indonesia’s national conversation should not come as a surprise. After all, the aftermath of Malaysia’s election presents a strong political narrative of administrative change and the conversion from a corrupt to reformist regime.
These subjects strongly resonate with the current climate of Indonesian political discourse, which could explain why politicians jumped onto them like hungry lions. Opposition parties, especially, need fresh ammunition to sustain their barrage on Jokowi’s administration until April next year, considering the president’s high electability score.
It seems unfortunate that the tectonic shift in Malaysia’s removal of a corrupt regime and its subsequent embarkation at democratization – both attained without bloodshed – merely serve as political currency exploited by Indonesian politicians. Surely for citizens of a nation which spectacularly toppled the New Order regime and embraced Reformasi 20 years ago, the experience of Malaysia deserves better appreciation from us?
Regardless, the entry of Malaysian political experience and ideas into our national conversation is akin to fresh breeze in an environment where Malaysia is commonly ridiculed and regarded as Indonesia’s eternal rival.
At a time when Indonesia’s democracy appears to be fumbling, Malaysia’s recent development shows a necessity to escape the trap of our ethnocentrism and learn from our closest Nusantara neighbor, despite the effort by politicians to frame the subject as befitting their interest.
So could Indonesia learn from Malaysia’s undertaking of its reform agenda?
Caution should be applied here. Any call for Indonesia to emulate Malaysia’s reformasi process must not be based on simplistic reasoning that romanticizes democratization and the difficulties of political transition, but ignores the vast difference of national experience between the two countries.
Considering the different circumstances driving Indonesia and Malaysia to embark on their respective government reform, the priorities and endgame envisioned by each country also diverge from one another.
For example, Mahathir’s PH administration has placed priorities in rooting out corrupt figures, relaxing the public sphere and reforming government institutions, among others. These agendas are being pursued vigorously by Putrajaya with Mahathir at its helm, aimed not only at eliminating the illness festering under the previous regime, but also to consolidate public approval towards the fledgling government.
Since the advent of former president BJ Habibie’s administration, Indonesia has tackled similar agendas to reverse the failings of Soeharto’s 32 year-old rule. In fact, the Reformasi-era governments bore even greater responsibilities, which include returning the military to the barracks, revamping the financial sector in the wake of Asian financial crisis, ensuring political participation and embarking on decentralization as well as separation of power.
It has been 20 years since we as a nation embraced our Reformasi and thus to aspire to Malaysia’s model of reform is illogical, comparable to repeating the same process that we initiated two decades ago.
Perhaps the most important lesson Indonesians can learn from “Malaysia Baru” is not the changing of governments, but why that change occurred in the first place.
Malaysia’s case is the latest testament that a regime characterized by hubris and greed has no place in a politically-awakened society, one where participation in day-to-day governance is guaranteed by a democratic system.
Malaysia’s Reformasi was sealed when the people realized that removing a corrupt government was of higher priority than voting for people of similar ethnicity and religion, triggering what media colloquially called the “Malaysian tsunami”.
Yet the issue of corruption is missing in the way Indonesian politicians are discussing GE14, despite this being the main constraint to our reform movement.
Not only do corruption cases continue to be rampant among Indonesian lawmakers and officials, there have also been alleged attempts to stifle the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to deter the proliferation of this illicit practice. After all, corruption and political power go hand in hand, both under authoritarian and democratic regimes.
The persistence of corruption is why maintaining the integrity of institutions is an imperative. This does not only translate into ensuring transparency and accountability of government institutions, but also channeling political support for anti-corruption agencies and safeguarding their independency from invested interests.
In Malaysia post-GE14 developments symbolize monumental support from both the elites and the grassroots for anti-corruption drive spearheaded by Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Commission (SPRM). Within a month after GE14, the investigation into the 1Malaysia Development Berhad ( 1MDB ) scandal was reopened, corrupt officials with chequered records either resigned or were dismissed and scrutiny on institutions was mounted.
Malaysia’s renewed fight against corruption should be among primary subjects in Indonesia’s approach to the next general elections. The positive progress could inject greater stimuli to revitalize Indonesia’s fight against embezzlement, bribery and abuse of power, especially in the country’s most corrupt institutions.
As much as Indonesians like to pride themselves on being a democratic nation, the constant fragility of our rule of law and institutions would always contribute to the deficit of trust towards the government of the day, regardless of who between Jokowi or Prabowo Subianto sits on that throne in the Merdeka Palace.
No one president could fully dismantle our ubiquitous culture of corruption, since this fight requires the convergence of both the elites and the grassroots’ support in our anti-corruption agency.
Thus there is an imperative to sensitize Indonesians of the necessity to carry forward this good fight, and this is where Malaysia’s anti-corruption drive could play a role.
If only this narrative could be incorporated into our national conversation, the dynamics of reformasi in Indonesia and Malaysia would then come full circle. Whereas Malaysia’s reform leaders were inspired by their Indonesian counterparts to stage a similar movement 20 years ago, Indonesians could aspire to emulate their Malaysian neighbors’ determination to bring back dignity to the country by picking up where Reformasi was left off.
As Malaysia’s post-GE14 reality continues to unfurl and brings about interesting development almost on a daily basis, bits of it may trickle into Indonesia’s political conversation until April next year. However, we Indonesians should try to look past what our politicians are telling us about Malaysia’s political experience and derive essential lessons that could contribute to our nation- and state-building process.
Muhammad Sinatra. The writer is an analyst at the ISIS Malaysia research center.