Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim nation, has 42% of Southeast Asia’s restive population and yet it remains stable, democratic and economically thriving.
It is a miracle that receives little attention in the regional media. There are more stories on tiny Singapore than on sprawling Indonesia.
Perhaps that explains why it is so misunderstood, and also widely feared – out of sight, out of mind. The fear, of course, comes from the Islamic angle and causes many people, not only in the West, but also in this region, to avoid the place because “it’s full of Muslims”.
This is odd, because Indonesia is remarkably secular and far more open and tolerant of non-Muslim lifestyles than, say, Malaysia or Brunei. At Indonesia’s annual national day reception, drinks flow freely; but at Malaysia’s or Brunei’s, there’s only water or diabetes-inducing fizzy pop. And if you want a glitzy, go-go night scene to rival Bangkok’s, check out Jakarta, Medan or Makassar.
As for tolerance, recall that Malaysia denies visas to Israelis, and when Jewish midfielder Yossi Benayoun recently had an exemption to play for Chelsea in Kuala Lumpur, he was jeered repeatedly.
In contrast, Indonesia happily welcomes thousands of Israelis and other Jewish tourists every year without any problems.
Yet the scaremongering edicts continue and one sprouted last week from a friend of mine, Dr Bilveer Singh, who runs a national security centre at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. While conceding that Indonesia’s counter terrorism record is among the region’s best, Bilveer still went on to sternly caution that the “threat of Islamist terrorism in Indonesia remains strong”.
Well, duh. Yes, it does, just as it does in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. There are more terrorist attacks every day in Thailand’s deep south than anywhere else in the region, including Indonesia. And violence continues unabated in Mindanao in the southern Philippines.
Even Singapore, although mercifully spared major outrages, has hardly been reassuring in its counter-terrorism measures, nor has it exactly won over its own Muslim community.
It’s very dangerous you know. They have a lot of Muslims there.
As a recently released WikiLeaks cable revealed, former leader Lee Kuan Yew described Islam as a “venomous religion” in a 2005 meeting with then Senator Hillary Clinton.
Last week, Lee issued a denial, but it sounded hollow. And certainly there is no rhyme or reason for US diplomats to have made it up.
Earlier this year, Lee also had to apologise for saying, in his book Hard Truths, that multiculturalism worked well in Singapore until the “surge of Islam” made integration tough for Muslims.
Later, he admitted that other ministers had told him Muslims were making special efforts to integrate and that his comments were “out of date”.
But he is not alone in reflecting deep-rooted anti-Islamic sentiments. I once asked Lee’s successor, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, why Singapore’s Armed Forces discriminated against Muslims.
Goh said there was no formal prejudice, but that it would be silly to deny that when the cry of “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Great) went up, Singaporean Muslims might not have divided loyalties.
Later, when transiting in Changi Airport, I inquired at Singapore Airlines about flying to Cotabato City in the southern Philippines. The woman at the counter, an ultra-efficient “Singapore Girl”, was upset at being unable to get the information.
“Are you going there on business?” she asked. I said I was. “It’s very dangerous, you know,” she said. “They have a lot of Muslims there.”
After recalling such bigoted comments and others like them, it really grates to read Singaporean “experts” like Bilveer tut-tutting that Indonesia lacks resolve in its counter terrorism policies.
Actually, what’s needed more is a greater resolve to expunge endemic anti-Islamic attitudes prevalent among Indonesia’s neighbours.
That would help combat the threat of terrorism in the region far more effectively than anything else.
Until that happens, platitudes by Bilveer and others about “deradicalisation and rehabilitation” among Indonesia’s Islamist groups is just worthless hot air.