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Resetting intra-Nusantara relations

It is undeniable that YAB Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister, has made history on his first official visit to Indonesia. The warmth and enthusiasm shown by our neighbor, from President Joko Widodo, cabinet ministers, society leaders, and the ordinary people of Indonesia, was deeply felt by many Malaysians. To his credit, the Prime Minister had also reset the relationship as one between Indonesia as “Abang” (elder brother) and Malaysia as “Adik” (younger brother).

The Prime Minister acknowledged Indonesian contribution through teachers and lecturers in the transition of our education system from Malay to English which began in the 1970s. Indonesian lecturers were mainly instrumental in establishing Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and other institutes of higher learning. One towering Indonesian well-known to
Malaysian students in Malaysia and Australia is the late Ir. Dr. Imaduddin Abdurrahim. He was not only lecturing in engineering, he was also prominent in the genesis of Islam as an ideology of change and justice at a time when the Vietnam War drew youth to leftist socialism as an anti-colonialist movement.

As in most exciting time travel, when the Malaysian Anwar mentioned “terbuang” to describe his ten years of incarceration and many more years of political emasculation, we had thought he was going to burst into an oration of “Aku” by Indonesia’s Chairul Anuar.

To a greater extent, Indonesians are still discussing the visit when Malaysians are not. To their surprise, Anwar had jolted Indonesians with their history when he mentioned past leaders such as Sukarno, Hatta, Natsir, Sutan Sjahrir, Mokhtar Lubis, HAMKA, and many others contextually within their unified and proud sense of history. This is unlike our divisive and dismissive attitude towards leaders who were not part of the Merdeka narrative of ruling parties. Ours is loaded with exclusivist identity politics of a certain race and religion. Sukarno is unlikely to be embraced and appreciated as a leader of the
Ummah as socialism is deemed godless. How could the Sukarno – Hatta partnership exist without a common understanding of the role of Islam in
nation building.

This reset by a diplomatically humble but confident Prime Minister has never been done before throughout our modern history. I wish Dr. Subroto, former Secretary General of OPEC (my dear friend and mentor in energy affairs), had been alive to witness this extraordinary visit.


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Now let us examine and react to some of Anwar’s conversations with his Indonesian host at Istana Bogor and CT Corp Leadership Forum.

Tenaga Kerja Indonesia (TKI) is a hot-button issue between Indonesia and Malaysia. Still, for Malaysians who are better informed of history, TKI for industries, construction, and home maintenance is not Indonesia’s first human resource exported to Malaysia. In the early 1970s, the new education enclave of Bandar Baru Bangi of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia had Indonesian professors living in comfort and respect. The same could be said of the campuses of other universities in the country. Sadly, very few of us remember now because the Indonesians we see nowadays are in construction sites, plantations, factories, restaurants, etc. We don’t see how they live!

Hardly a reminder of the first wave of highly valued TKI exist in print, monuments, annual commemoration, or the halls of our universities. For example, there is no mention of Dr. Imaduddin on the campus he used to lecture or write the syllabus of electrical engineering. What about other academicians in schools of agricultural sciences, medicine, and architecture?

In the first TKI wave, lecturers and teachers were allowed to bring their spouses and children along. In the second wave, especially of undocumented labourers and maids, the norm was the separation of husbands from wives and parents from children. The plight of Muslim female housemaids and restaurant workers against physical and sexual abuse was largely ignored by Muslim political parties, organizations and religious authorities. Few Muslims bother to know if they have access to halal food, prayer times and Ramadan fasting. Undoubtedly many lucky ones have educated and humane nonMuslim employers, but those working in farms and illegal factories tell harrowing stories. Some lucky ones receive counselling and assistance to escape the clutches of modern slavery by Malaysians. In the years I worked in Jakarta, the stories of poor working conditions and exploitation abound. Indonesians are particularly incensed with the absence of “Islamic protection” of “bangsa serumpun“.

Malaysia, especially the Malays, were intoxicated with the promises and successes of the Dasar Ekonomi Baru (DEB) as the Indonesian marhaen increased in large numbers during the Orde Baru of Indonesia. TKI is thought of as the marhaen to be exploited as blood to be squeezed from stone, if possible. After all, we are helping the households of the marhaen in the Orde Baru to survive with the remittance sent back to the Indonesian villages and slums.

The DEB was then strengthened and embellished with Vision 2020 when “Malaysia Boleh” became an overdose of adrenalin to justify all manner of privatization, mega-projects and the wealth race.

It was appropriate when Anwar assured his Indonesian host, President Jokowi, and Chairul Tanjung that he would be serious about tackling the critical issues in the second TKI wave. It is a matter of principle, and he could connect with the TKI with his own incarceration.

Anwar quickly clarified with humility that his incarceration by the Malaysian authorities could not be compared with the imprisonment of the undocumented Indonesian labourers and maids. His detention was protested worldwide and had international attention. His wife could take care of his children, and their education was not interrupted. As a Malaysian who had visited almost all provinces of Indonesia, he was aware of the political psyche of the Indonesians embodied in “Amanat Penderitaan Rakyat” or AMPERA. Sukarno envisioned this from his exchange of letters with Ustaz A Hassan
during his exile in Ende Flores imposed by the Dutch colonialist. As an indigenous philosophy of political accountability, AMPERA is a constant reminder to Indonesian leaders of the burden of hardship of the people they have to carry. This is also the constant theme in Anwar’s “Membangun Negara Madani“. A politician should internalize the burden of the marhaen he has to carry, especially when he is alone with his Creator during tahajjud prayers.

Unless this is his real self, the politician will be no different from Donald Trump who was insensitive to the plight of Americans (and others) of the 99% amidst excessive wealth accumulation of the top 1% during Covid 19.

Malaysians need to acknowledge those who helped us in the 1960s and 1970s when help was needed most. To do so is to please God and man.

Which of the bounties of your Lord will you deny?” (Quran 55: 12) 

There is extreme contradiction when the advanced economies try to normalize for this planet a global order for climate change. In a twisted paradox, the new techno-cum-climate capitalists are in the expensive race to the heavens to find new colonies to settle when 20,000 of the extreme poor die every day (quoted from “The End of Poverty” by Dr Jeffrey Sach) from hunger. This daily occurrence hardly makes headlines in newspapers and social media because these deaths are in developing and war-torn countries. What
matters to the global order is the remembrance of September 11, 2001, the American exit from Kabul in August 2021, the Ukraine War, the lop-sided narrative of climate change and the survival of Israel to prolong the brutal occupation of Palestine.

The elite of Makkah initially rejected the message of Prophet Muhammad SAW and showed little sympathy for the poor. The Quraish nobles were divinely rebuked more than 1,400 years ago for this lack of conscience. The same could be applied to the present-day 1% who didn’t share the billions they make during the global Covid lockdown.

“And when it is said unto them: Spend of that wherewith God has provided you”, those who disbelieve say to those who believe: “Are we to feed one whom, if God willed, He would feed him? You are naught but manifest error.”

This verse 47 from Surah Yasin is recited every Friday night and in calamities by Muslims. It tells the neglect of society to circulate wealth.

It seems that Indonesians know Anwar more than Malaysians. We know him as a national politician who was in and out of jail from 1999 to the time he was released and pardoned by the Agong (King) in May 2018. Much of the official narrative during the incarceration was to cast him as a man without principles who should not be trusted with public office. After his second detention, few businessmen (and businesswomen) and no universities would invite him to speak on any subject that would touch on national policies. Nevertheless, he was accused of being pro-West, an agent of Israel and America, promoting LGBTQ, pro-IMF, an enemy of Islam, and a long list of unMalaysian behaviour. Pejoratively, a former prime minister said that all Anwar wanted was to be the Prime Minister. 

Many Malaysians do not know that to the Indonesian he is Dato Seri Dr (HC) Anwar Ibrahim, until 8th January of 2023 when he visited Indonesia. It is also remarkable that his wife, Dato Seri Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, is wellknown and respected by Indonesian  leaders. In introducing Anwar for the honoris causa from Universitas Negeri Padang in 2018, former president Megawati Sukarnoputri also honoured Wan Azizah as the “strength of steel” behind Anwar’s political struggle. Since none of this personal and endearing
respect had been expressed openly by Malaysian government leaders, we could not fault Anwar if Indonesia would claim him as her own. This could be witnessed in the extraordinary reception by the Indonesian president, other leaders, and the general public.

After his second incarceration, Anwar would visit almost all the provinces of Indonesia, talking to the business communities, university students, youth organizations, and his natural constituency – the Islamic societies and ulama. In short, the tragedy of Malaysia is that an opposition politician could be cast as an enemy of the nation, society, and in extreme cases he would be cast as an enemy of God.

Suppose he is pro-West, especially of America. In that case, he must necessarily be an ardent defender of the liberal meritocratic form of capitalism favoured by Washington, Europe and India versus the state-led political form of capitalism exemplified by China, Singapore and Vietnam. In the debate on the future of capitalism in Foreign Affairs magazine (January/February 2020), Indonesia is grouped with the United States. However, it is more likely that the current trajectory of Indonesia will converge with the vision and reformist policy framework of Anwar’s “Madani” agenda and Sukarno’s  MPERA. Firstly, Anwar alluded to the extraordinary paradigm shift of China that catapulted market socialism from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping. This lifted 800 million out
of poverty in 40 years – accounting for 75% of global poverty reduction. 

Anwar also acknowledged the contribution of Muhammad Hatta, who Indonesian Islamists now see as laying the foundation of the Islamic economy, albeit one that appears to lean towards socialism with Maqasid Shariah. Acknowledging the contribution of Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir in the economic genesis of Indonesia does not make Anwar a “progenitor” of Rockefellerian or Greenspanian capitalism.

He accepted the emergence of China as an economic superpower vis-a-vis the end of American exceptionalism. The rise of the yuan is inevitable, but he cautioned those who countenance the demise of America. We have to concede that Americans can self-generate from every crisis. Neither will this validate any theory of Jewish conspiracy. On the contrary, American thinkers, academia and policymakers have been able to analyze and synthesize new challenges in their universities and think tanks to adapt America’s trajectory. In the 1980s, the mantra is “Japan As # 1”. That didn’t happen!

When someone in the audience at the Leadership Forum at CT Corp asked for his views on a currency merger between Indonesia and Malaysia, Anwar offered to upscale current economic cooperation and diversification of currencies of settlement and national reserves. He paid particular attention to Jokowi’s “hilirisasi”. Perhaps this refers to the enormous potential of common platforms between Malaysia-Indonesia of the palm oil in the decarbonizing energy transition.

One thing is almost inevitable. Most of his dearest friends in Indonesia (such as B.J Habibie, Jokowi, Natsir, and Imaduddin) and Indonesian leaders and thinkers that he admires are essentially Islamists in one form or another, according to the circumstances of their era. The latter include Sukarno, Muhammad Hatta, HAMKA, Tjokroaminoto, and many others. Elsewhere, he can count on Syed Hossein Nasr, Monzer Kahf, Jomo Sundram and Abbas Mirakhor to posit Islamic economic thinking as an alternative pathway to future challenges and opportunities. The globalized world is struggling with post-Covid recovery amidst economic uncertainties wrecked by geopolitics, weaponized currencies, and incoherence in the pursuit of an international mandate for climate change. An alternative or a reform of the broken capitalism is no longer a subversive proposition. 

But as brothers that had matured and taken different pathways, the abangadik  elationship will reflect the seniority of age and renewed mutual respect rather than domination and dependence. This reset is consistent with the cultures and values of Nusantara. Anwar has promised full support when Indonesia chairs ASEAN this year.

So far his Islamic proclivity has been on economic justice, good governance and inclusiveness of a multi-racial and multi-religious Malaysia. It is not the first 100 days yet but we are already feeling hopeful for our country.

Felicitation to YAB Dato Seri Anwar and all Malaysians.

Haji Rahim Kamil Sulaiman
Global Islamic Unity Forum (GIUF)

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