Thursday, 30 July 2015

Political Islam and Indonesia - A few points worth understanding.

Recently I was in Indonesia conducting research on a project I am working on, and although I have extensively travelled throughout Indonesia previously and have done significant studies on Islam, I paid particular attention to certain aspects of Islam in everyday life. With Western governments and media institutions constantly facilitating and leading a conversation that, at times, can negatively portray one of the worlds great religions, it is important to highlight moderate Islam as the Islam that is predominate, normal and mainstream. 

Throughout the non-Islamic world we are constantly besieged by governmental propaganda, media biases and, at times, factual reports on sectarian Islamic violence or violence committed by certain aspects of the Islamic community towards those who are not Muslim. It is easy to think difference of theological opinion within Islam leads to violence, again driven primarily by media institutions. However those who have a basic understanding of Islam and politics within countries that have a predominate Islamic population, will know that most differences within Islam are peacefully and intellectually debated. A good example of intellectual debate is demonstrated in the July edition of the well respected Tempo magazine.  The article clearly makes known the debate surrounding recitation of the Quran in Indonesia, after a Javanese inspired recitation was made at the State Palace in May 2015. This engulfed a debate surrounding Javanese Islamic traditions and Middle Eastern Islamic traditions. The debate, although colourful, was completely peaceful, included a televised debate and was widely discussed at universities and workplaces. 

This lead me into writing a general overview of Political Islam in Indonesia, to attempt to get a point across that Islam can thrive both practically and intellectually within a country. I am passionate about destroying myths and prejudices that surround Islam, especially found in countries such as Australia, the United States, China and Thailand. Notice, it is not only Western countries who have inaccurate assumptions of Islam. Understanding Islam in a country like Indonesia goes along way in improving ones understanding that Indonesia is not a hotbed of Islamic extremism.                      

In the keynote address to the International Association of Political Consultants (IAPC) in 2007 the then Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) explained, “Rather than becoming a bastion of radicalism, the heart and soul of Indonesia remains moderate and progressive. In Indonesia, democracy, Islam and modernity go hand in hand effortlessly together” (Yudhoyono 2007). President Yudhoyono’s claim is carefully scripted for his intended audience however there is a significant amount credibility found within his words.  There are also challenges to what President Yudhoyono argues with radical groups operating all throughout Indonesia, however somewhat limited in scope. To accurately demonstrate why Indonesia is still relatively moderate, although challenged at times, I will discuss reasons why Political Islam has not become a dominant force within Indonesian society and politics, again very generally. 
                
In recent decades numerous States throughout North Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia have seen a reemergence and reappearance of religious values and issues in public affairs. Little consensus has surfaced in to why this has occurred with some more credible commentary noting reasons include, the rejection of globalisation, apprehension of the spread of democracy, state interference, the desire for religious authenticity and legitimacy, and the desire for a global caliphate (Hirschkind 1997:4). Many scholars have adopted the term ‘Political Islam’ as the distinct development of the Islamic religion into the secular sphere of politics. This creates little differentiation between religion and state thus enables Islam to be both a political ideology and a religion (Hirschkind 1997:12).

There has been no consistent or homogeneous growth of Political Islam throughout the Islamic world although there are some commonalities, such as the rise of Islamist political parties and Islamic community leaders and scholars entering the political arena. The so-called Arab Spring saw long-term dictatorships fall and Islamist parties rise, however the majority of these were short-lived, such as in Egypt and Tunisia. Even in Turkey where the Islamist AK Party has dominated for many years, at the recent election, there was a significant swing towards more secular political parties. Over the last couple of years the world has seen the growth of the so-called ‘Islamic State (IS)’, which poses new questions into the discourse of Political Islam, especially the influence IS is having throughout the world. I would argue IS is attempting to prove that Political Islam and Islam in general is not compatible with democracy, authoritarianism or capitalism, thus a new ‘IS’ style Islamic State (regional caliphate) is necessary. 

To Australians especially, Indonesia is often seen as a ‘hotbed’ of Islamic fundamentalism, where Islam flourishes giving Australia a somewhat ‘dangerous’ neighbour just to its north. However this depiction could not be further from the truth. Indonesia demonstrates minimal aspects of Political Islam and is arguably distinctively unique as it lacks many of the contributing factors states within the Islamic world inhabit, thus limiting religion and ensuring the supremacy of secularism. However it still has internal battles with the ideals of Political Islam. 

A historical look at Indonesia 

In March 1945 the occupying Japanese forces established a committee to investigate and commence preparatory work towards potential Indonesian independence (Tamara 2009:4). The committee demonstrated profound religious and social division within Muslim communities, with Mietzner explaining, “…when it came to politics, each stream had major differences over ideology, policy and leadership style, and each used different aspects of Islamic thought and tradition to legitimate their particular approach to politics” (Mietzner 2009:73). There were two primary areas of competition, one that concerned the role of Islam within the State and the other the purpose of the State. In June 1945 a small percentage of Muslims argued for Islamic law however those in favour of a religiously neutral state argued Indonesia would split up instantly with non-Muslim areas seceding from the nation state (Pringle 2010:58). Upon negotiation freedom of religion was determined however the President would always have to be a practicing Muslim. This compromise also failed and five pillars, know as ‘Pancasila’, were selected as the national ideology, with the President able to be of any monotheistic religion he or she chooses.  

Indonesia’s first President and founding father, Sukarno, argued that the new Indonesian state needed to be based on a belief in God, thus making it neither Islamic nor a secular state but that of a religious state (Ramage 1995:14). This would enable all religions, including Islam, to practice and perform all their religious commitments. The leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (one of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organizations), Wahid Hasyim, recognised and accepted this premise and agreed that in order to have unity within the new Republic no single religion could receive superior treatment. Hasyim explained, “what we need most of all at this time is the indissoluble unity of the nation (Ramage 1995:14).  

In understanding why Political Islam does not have a significant role within Indonesia today it is crucial to understand the ideology of the Indonesian state. As mentioned Pancasila is the basis and glue of the Indonesian state. The five pillars that Sukarno purposefully set out as the national ideology are; nationalistic unity, humanitarianism, democracy through consultation and consensus, social justice, and belief in God (Ramage 1995:13). The sole purpose of the ideology is to promote and reinforce unity through diversity in a state that has such a broad range of conflicting viewpoints. It was formulated by President Sukarno to define the new Indonesian state, by President Suharto (Indonesia’s second President) to form a ‘state religion’ through all facets of life, and currently as a successful instrument that demands respect as it has enabled democracy, Islam and modernity to flourish within such a diverse society (Porter 2002:30). 

In 1892 a Dutch scholar who concentrated on Islamic Studies, Snouck Hurgronje, explained Indonesian Islam to be remarkably different to that practiced within the Middle East and North Africa with only one pillar of the faith found, “…the confession that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” (Pringle 2010:48).  The lack of Quranic theology and understanding was due to a lack of education, the ability the ruling colonial power had at controlling Islam, and centuries of Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism being practiced alongside Islam (Geertz 1985:272). In the early twentieth century the amount of Indonesians receiving an education increased with numerous students studying in Europe and the Middle East thus creating a challenge for the Dutch. Opposition grew towards the colonial power and Islamic and secular societies were established throughout the Dutch East Indies. There was little consensus amongst Islamic groups in what a future Indonesian state should look like and many debated to what level should Islam play a role. However the desire for statehood and nationalism primarily created aspects of unity. One of the most influential voices during the 1930’s was that of Muhammad Natsir, a western educated Islamic scholar. Natsir promoted a modernist interpretation of Islam and supported liberal parliamentary democracy within Indonesia in order for all Indonesians, “to feel as they are members of a larger family sharing a language and a geographical location” (Kurzman 2002:66). Japanese occupation during the Second World War also encouraged nationalism and assisted in the set up of nationalistic institutions that significantly assisted in the birth of the Indonesian state. 

In 1926 tens of thousands of youth and educated Indonesians held a conference that pledged no matter what social group you identify with or the location you inhabit within the archipelago, all belonged to one fatherland, Indonesia. It was also the first time both ‘unity’ and ‘diversity’ were acknowledged as a potential future basis for Indonesian society and polity (Pringle 2010:59). Prominent Islamic leader Wahid Hasyum famously explained that unity must be the priority of all Indonesians and that it was incorrect to ask the question, ‘what ultimately should be the place of Islam in the State’ (Pringle 2010:63). Hasyum argued the appropriate question should be, “By what means shall we assure the place of our religion in Free Indonesia” (Pringle 2010:64). However although there was a strong nationalistic movement it would be inaccurate to understate the rise of Political Islam within Indonesia in the 1940’s. In what could be referred to as an academic or intellectual civil war there were many individuals and groups who wanted Islam in all facets of society and polity and it was not until the early 1950’s when independent and under Sukarno, Political Islam was significantly limited (Porter 2002:2). Two of the most influential voices throughout the Independence struggle and early independence were the Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama. Still two of the most powerful groups within Indonesian civil society today, both groups have limited Political Islam, although not entirely, by solidifying Islam and its importance within civil society.  

In contrast to other states that have large Islamic organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic organizations within Indonesia rarely get involved within the political process at an organizational level. Although having such a large membership basis, political parties do consist of members form different organizations and organizations can influence voting habits at times, however this rarely occurs publicly. After the fall of Suharto both Muhammadiyah and Nathdlatul Ulama did attempt to get involved within the political scene however their was little interest amongst their members thus both organisations became reasonably neutral and gave up political ambitions and affiliations. 

The modernists, who follow the orthodox Santri practice of Islam, are primarily members of Muhammadiyah, who claim to have over 30 million members (Brown 2003:235). Modernists are more interested in a purist form of Islam derived from the Arabian Peninsula and challenge local, primarily Javanese customs. Before independence they were eager to implement western political and social practices and many ‘so-called’ modernists went to Europe and Egypt to be educated. The socio-religious organization is extensively involved within civil society in both a religious and non-religious manner. Members of Muhammadiyah primarily support the secular nature of the Indonesian state and are opposed to Political Islam however aspects of the organization support the creation of a stronger ‘Islamic society’ within the framework of Indonesia’s state ideology (Ramage 1995:7). 

The traditionalists, who follow what Clifford Geertz calls the Abangan practice of Islam, are primarily members of Nahdlatul Ulama (Porter 2002:40). Traditionalists were predominantly rural farmers however since urbanization are now found within cities. They primarily incorporate local religious practices into their Islamic faith and emphasize clerical teachings, religious boarding schools and social justice. Brown states the former leader of Nahdatul Ulama, who is also a former Indonesian President, Abdurrahman Wahid, argued strongly against making Indonesia an Islamic state (Brown 2003:235). Wahid was also a vocal critic of Political Islam, with Ramage explaining he was a, “…leading proponent of secular democracy in Indonesia” (Ramage 1995:45). Nahdlatul Ulama and its leadership have constantly supported Indonesia to be a democratic civil society that is basically non-Islamic and not that of a military state (Nakamura 2001:31). Although there has been a long rivalry between both Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiah on interpretations of the Koran and Islamic practices, as demonstrated in the July edition of Tempo early mentioned, both organizations fundamentally support the state ideology and respect the diversity of Indonesia thus significantly limiting Political Islam.

The lack of significance Political Islam has within Indonesian society and politics can be contributed to the presidency of Sukarno. Although society was fragmented with ideas and thoughts in how Indonesia should be politically, President Sukarno supported secular nationalism and was determined to have it as the leading political philosophy of the state (Pringle 2010:65). For many Indonesians ethnic or regional identity, such as Javanese, Balinese, or Sumatran was as important or at times more crucial than ideology or religion. President Sukarno’s own personal circumstances demonstrated the diversity of the archipelago and how unity was possible, having been born in Bali, was a nominal Muslim, and had a Hindu wife. During his presidency Sukarno confidently and effectively limited both a growing insurgence from the Indonesian Communist Party and Islamists who wanted an Islamic state. Sukarno also solidified the military as the guardian of secularism, unity and diversity, although at times through oppressive and ineffective ways. An example of Sukarno demonstrating the importance of national unity was his opposition to the growth of communism. Military operations such as the ‘Madiun Affair’, the military clashing with communist supporters in Madiun, left a lasting legacy on those who wanted to diverge away from the foundations of the Indonesian state (Pringle 2010:72). The Madiun Affair was used by President Sukarno to demonstrate to Indonesians that extreme ideology was dangerous and a threat to the newly formed diverse state. 

Ideologically opposite to communism and in disagreement with the foundations of the state, was the rise and threat of Darul Islam. In what started as a small group of Islamists who supported Indonesia becoming a Islamic state soon expanded to include areas such as Aceh and West Java, with tens of thousands of members. Violence broke out throughout the country and once again the military was used to limit the influence of Darul Islam with an estimated 15,000 deaths, primarily in Aceh province. The significance of Durul Islam and the impact it has had on Political Islam was immense. It was used as an example by President Sukarno as a potential danger to the very fabric and nature of Indonesia, that could lead to a significant amount of separatist movements. It is also important to note Durul Islam is often referred to as ‘Islamic extremism’ within Indonesia and is now linked to groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah. This link limits Political Islam within modern day Indonesia by forging links, although limited, between elements of Political Islam and aspects of Durul Islam. President Sukarno’s legacy on Political Islam is considerable, primarily in how he treated those who acted against the secular nature of the state and against nationalism, unity and diversity (Monash Asia Institute 2008:52). Many within both academic and political circles within Indonesia today share President Sukarno’s belief.

President Suharto’s haphazard ability to both limit yet enable Islam’s growth during his presidency has had a lasting impact on the lack of significance Political Islam has within Indonesia today. President Suharto believed diversity found within Indonesia was a threat rather than a national asset (Pringle 2010:85). Although believing communism was the number one threat to the state, President Suharto believed Political Islam was a danger and threat to state security, thus he initially repressed Islamic groups. However towards the end of his rule, against a backdrop of unpopularity and to ensure the continuation of his rule, President Suharto reluctantly enabled and empowered Islamic groups to operate, whilst significantly controlling and monitoring them. Although it initially gave Suharto more support, it somewhat backfired as the ‘control’ aspect insulted many Islamic leaders giving Islamic fundamentalism support. During the 1980’s Suharto allowed Islamic Universities, Islamic banks, intellectual Islamic debate, and Islamic media to form. Although there was a rapid Islamic expansion, the very nature of it was moderate and primarily not political, thus making Suharto seemingly confident. The non-political nature of the growth of Islam was primarily due to the fact its leaders understood they had freedom outside of the political realm, only. With the lifting of restrictions, growth in Islamic education and the ability for religious leaders to travel to Saudi Arabia and other areas within the Middle East, enabled radical Islamic youth movements to gain significant support thus resulting in another attempted suppression of Islamic groups by President Suharto. The growth of Islam and the potential influence it was beginning to have on political and private life once again enabled nationalist movements to gain support and although only minimally, assisted in Suharto’s downfall. 

Political Islam has also been significantly hindered due to the education system and the way the state influenced educational outcomes. Education under Sukarno and Suharto was controlled and limited, with Islam given little respect or room to grow, other than the previous loosening of restrictions Suharto allowed. Within the last ten years there has been a considerable amount of transformation within educational institutions, especially within Islamic institutions. Islamic institutions are no longer only for the exceptionally religious and those who were religiously marginalized. This is primarily due to educational reforms that were implemented after the fall of Suharto. Islamic institutions are now able, and at times required, to offer subjects in all fields, including sciences, thus creating a problematic discourse for some Islamic intellectuals due to the lack of separation between the sciences and the religious within Islam (Bustama-Ahmad 2011:45). Azyumardi Azra explains, “Natural sciences are of course already based on universal principles. If certain theories in the social sciences and humanities are Western-based, then the need is not to ‘Islamize’ them, but to develop theories that are based on Muslim social and cultural realities” (Bustama-Ahmad 2011:45).  Another distinct aspect of Islamic institutions within Indonesia is the diversity they inhabit. Local Islamic Universities primarily represent the beliefs of the communities they are found within (Bustama-Ahmad 2011:54). The majority of Islamic educational institutions are run by those who are religiously moderate and not politically inclined. Although it is yet to be determined if graduates from Islamic institutions are more conservative yet respect the Indonesian ideology. There is little reason to believe this will enable Political Islam to gain support, as the educated are primarily nationalists before they are Muslim.   

The role the military plays within Indonesia is vast and critically important when discussing the lack of significance Political Islam has within Indonesia. Since independence the Indonesian military has played a large role in securing the state Ideology and promoting secularism (Federspiel 1973:407). They have used excessive force numerous times in order to limit those on the left (communists) or right (Islamists) of the political spectrum. It could be argued at times the military balanced the rule of both Sukarno and Suharto and ruled along side both Presidents. However recently there has been much debate to what extent the military is now needed within the political realm, since Indonesian is a vibrant democracy. In 1998 political veteran Amien Rais stated, “One of our greatest challenges now is to sideline the military from politics. They have dominated our political system, our society, our economy for too long…It is now time for us civilians to take charge and reform the foundations of this nation” (Mietzner 2009:1). Although now relatively sidelined, the military still plays an important part, be it in image, of protecting the secular nature of the state, and at times, will remind certain individuals of this. 

There are some contradictions within Indonesia, and this discussion speaks of Indonesia ‘in-general’. The semi-autonomous region of Aceh has had a constant battle with the Indonesian state, in its desire to practice, what it calls, a more purist form of Islam. Arguably Aceh's desire to be independent is even more important than its interpretation of Islam. More recently Aceh has enforced some practices that many see as draconian and anything but that of secular, however due to the uniqueness of the Aceh case, I will not attempt to analyse the situation in this post. It is also worth stressing that the uniqueness of Aceh and its historical relationship with the Indonesian state and previous colonial power, means the rest of the Indonesian archipelago is vastly different and can not be compared to ongoings in Aceh - the Aceh issue will not spill over to other areas. It is also not fair to state, "But Mat, what about Aceh and some of their laws and regulations...", I do not believe one can compare, in general, this situation to a broad discussion on Political Islam in Indonesia. More on Aceh to come...       

Some commentators argue that the 2014 presidential election saw a rise in the desire for Political Islam within Indonesia. They argue that because there was a slight rise in votes for  broadly Islamic based parties, that Political Islam is making a comeback into the political arena. However these observations are overly general and neglect to understand the division found within Islamic parties within Indonesia. There is little consensus or agreement amongst Islamic based political parties. The top five Islamic parties in Indonesia are the PKS, PBB, PPP, PKB and the PAN, however only the PKS, PBB and PPP openly argue for Islamic agendas to return to the political sphere. The other two are more nationalistic in practice and have members of other faiths within their ranks, and their popularity in the 2014 election demonstrate moderate Islam is much more acceptable to the majority of Muslims within Indonesia. If put together, the amount of votes the five ‘so-called’ Islamic parties received was significant. However all five parties have significantly different ideologies, are plagued by corruption and scandals, and fail to attract attention from the vast majority or Indonesians, who primarily vote for nationalistic and secular parties. Although there is space for ‘Islamic Parties’ there is a strong desire for Indonesia to remain the same, and little consensus amongst Islamic Parties in how they can further influence politics within Indonesia. 

It is clear that Political Islam has not become a significant force within Indonesian politics and society. There is also credibility to President Yudhoyono’s words mentioned at the beginning of this article, “In Indonesia, democracy, Islam and modernity go hand in hand effortlessly together”. This is primarily due to the limitations on Political Islam due to the national ideology and past historical events. Both the Dutch and Japanese occupations, the vibrancy of civil society, President Sukarno and Suharto’s rule, the role of the military and education within Indonesia have all limited Political Islam and enabled Indonesia to be the state it is today. The 2014 elections also demonstrated that due to the vibrancy and diversity found within Islamic parties, and the lack of consensus and agreement, Political Islam and its dominance is not inevitable in Indonesia.  

Indonesia is vibrant, diverse and complicated, yet at its core, democratic. The vast majority of Indonesians disapprove extremist ideologies and practice and significantly endorse the secular nature of the Indonesian state. Those who constantly condemn Islam, in a generalised and broad simplification, are being influenced by enormously biased media organisations and governments who use the condemnation of Islam as political capital. It is always worth having an in-depth look at what you are condemning, as Indonesia demonstrates, the county is by no means extreme or growing in extremist ideologies.

National Monument, Jakarta. 


Brief Bibliography for those inspired to continue to research the topic: 

Brown, C. 2003. ‘A short History of Indonesia’. Allen and Unwin. Sydney

Buehler, M. 2009. ‘Islam and Democracy in Indonesia’. Insight Turkey 11:4 51-63

Bustama-Ahmad, K. 2011. ‘Islamic Studies and Islamic Education in Contemporary Southeast Asia’. Yayasan Ilmuwan. Malaysia

Federspiel, H. 1973. ‘The Military and Islam in Sukarno’s Indonesia’. Public Affairs 46:3 407-42

Geertz, C. 1985. ‘Cultural and Social Change: The Indonesia Case’. Man 19:511-532

Hefner, R. 2000. ‘Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia’. Princeton University Press. Princeton

Hirschkind, Charles. 1997. ‘What is Political Islam’. Middle East Report 205 12-14

Kurzman, C. 2002. ‘Introduction: The Modernist Islamic Movement” in Charles Kurzman (ed), Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A sourcebook. Oxford University Press. Oxford

Mansurnoor, I. 1990. ‘Islam in an Indonesian World”. Gadjah Mada University Press. Yogyakarta

Mietzner, M. 2009. ‘Military Politics, Islam, and the State of Indonesia’. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Singapore

Monash Asia Institute. 2008. ‘Muslim Politics and Democratization in Indonesia’. Monash Asia Institute Publishings. Clayton

Pepinsky, T. 2012. ‘Testing Islam’s Political Advantage: Evidence from Indonesia’. American Journal of political Science 56:3 584-600

Platzdasch, Bernhard. 2009. ‘Islamism in Indonesia: Politics in the Emerging Democracy’. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Singapore

Porter, D. 2002. ‘Managing Politics and Islam in Indonesia’. Routledge Curzon. London

Pringle, R. 2010. ‘Islam in Indonesia: Politics and Diversity’. University of Hawaii Press. Hawaii. 

Ramage, D. 1995. ‘Politics in Indonesia: Democracy, Islam and the Ideology of Tolerance’. Routledge. New York

Tamara, N. 2009. ‘Indonesia Rising: Islam, Democracy and the Rise of Indonesia as a Major Power’. Select Publishing’s. Singapore

Yudhoyono, S. 2007. ‘Key Note Address: 40th Annual Conference on International Association of Political Consultants. Office of the President of Indonesia. Jakarta. 12 November 2007. Cited 13 September 2012. http://www.presidenri.go.id/index.php/eng/pidato/2007/11/12/784.html


Monday, 20 July 2015

The fine line between ethnocentrism and cultural change

Ethnocentrism - judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one's own culture. Is this always negative? 

Understanding how to embrace and respect cultural differences is a vital aspect of living, studying, working and travelling internationally. From one cultural position looking into another one might might be intrigued, interested, confused, annoyed and frustrated. It is all part of a global journey of discovery and understanding we are not all the same. Although those that assist in the development of universities must be respectful and observe some cultural norms, they must also speak truth and let academics and universities know of their weaknesses. If not done, only because if may cause offence, then the development of the university will be skewed and hindered.  

As a country like Myanmar continues to open up to development, tourism and educational progress, conflict is inevitably going to occur. With transient borders comes the introduction of new cultures, values and ways of doing business, education and journalism. Many will attempt to facilitate change within Myanmar by bringing in new ‘foreign’ ways of doing things, and some individuals will label this ethnocentric, by arguing it devalues local culture. 

There is a fine line between attempting to assist with areas that need developing, and attempting to change decades old cultural practices and traits. How does one encourage and promote change within institutions within Myanmar, without being ethnocentric? Or is a small amount of ethnocentrism acceptable for those involved in education development within Myanmar? Is it even ethnocentric? 

Some cultural traits and practices are simply unnecessary and need to be stopped, transformed or changed. Government interference into educational institutions and the hinderance they place on academics, the restricting of knowledge, and the control of students, is something that must be stopped. It is not ethnocentrism, placing foreign educational values on other country education system, and is similar to the acceptance most countries have of human rights standards and norms and how they are a global necessity and benchmark.

Perhaps the most important role of a university is to both create and practice knowledge whilst being critical and creative in all forms of thinking. If a university lacks this ability and is influenced by government or nongovernment bodies alike, then it lacks integrity, accountability, academic independence and legitimacy. A university influenced by external forces may also ‘create’ knowledge that backs up a certain political and business perspective. A university can not desire reform, to be internationalised, and welcomed into the the field of credible scholarship, if it continues to hold on to a legacy of uncritical thinking, rout learning, and carefully scripted research.

A university that still holds on to knowledge that became obsolete in the 1970’s, is making the process of internationalising the institution, basically impossible and impractical. Likewise a university that wants to protect itself from criticism, be it correct or questionable criticism, is lacking the ability to perform like an intended academic institution. A university that does not equip students to be critical and to question everything, including its own teaching staff and results, lacks an appropriate understanding of what a university should be.  

Although generalising, Thailand is a good example where there critical thinking skills are not as developed as they need to be in order to develop a flourishing and critical academic scene. This is even more problematic when some Thai universities attempt to influence universities in Myanmar. Although Thailand is years ahead of Myanmar in academic knowledge and development, there is still immense issues within Thai academia. However Myanmar can still learn from Thailand in both how to develop and what not to do in regards to teaching styles. There is a large activist movement within Thai academia, however there is also a large portion of academia who have little ability to be critical and question and debate their academic superiors.

Undergraduate students who take what their professors teach them as ‘gospel’, and professors who allow this to occur, are doing a great disservice to the future of both Thailand and academics in Thailand, Myanmar should take note. To attend a lecture, listen, write down some facts, and then use your notes to study for an exam, should not be the basis of university education. Learning knowledge to debate, challenge and argue with those, even with higher credentials than ones self, is vital and under appreciated partially in Thailand and significantly in Myanmar. Other ways that demonstrate a lack in critical ability is the enormous following some Professors have in Thailand. Numerous individuals have told me that if 'so and so said that', then there is no need to question it, it must be correct. Following academics is fine, however to follow academics to the point you will never question them is both dangerous and unhelpful to academic development. I know of senior and acclaimed academics in Thailand who plagiarise and have others write on their behalf. An almost criminal action within academia.    


After my last visit to Mandalay University I provided a critical assessment of some of the University practices and procedures however upon delivering my assessment was instantly shut down in Thailand in fear of causing offence. Although apologising for causing offence, it was my understanding that we were there as a team to help develop the Univesity, thus I was open and honest in my approach. Although I agree, change must be slow and delivered with respect, Mandalay University researched out in order to gain assistance in internationalising itself. However it was clear that they are not ready for this process, as gentle criticism was faced with offence and resistance, demonstrating the huge change that is needed in academia in Myanmar. Chiang Mai University’s defence of Mandalay University complaint that it was offensive to criticise certain practices also demonstrates that lack of rigour in certain aspects of Chiang Mai University. Politics still significantly influences both universities, meaning academic rigour, freedom and integrity is lacking. 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Jakarta: a city that should be on the tourist map

Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Manila are all to some extent on the Southeast Asian tourist trail or at least on the stopover trail. However there is one Southeast Asian city missing from that list, the city with the largest population, and arguably asserts the most influence throughout the region. Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, you know, that large country just north of Australia, the one that Australians ridiculously fear, that consists of the island everyone thinks is a country, Bali. Jakarta has in-excess of 30 million people within its metropolitan area, making it one of the largest cities in the world. 

You can’t hide the fact that Jakarta is enormous, chaotic, confusing and lacks significant tourist infrastructure. However this also adds to the uniqueness of the city. There is boundless history, the cheapest shopping in Asia, enormous mega malls, inexpensive hotels, and some of the most friendly people you will meet. Although most of Jakarta is not pedestrian friendly, taxis are cheap and reliable and in a much better state to that of taxis in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. 

If you have only travelled to the ‘common’ travel destinations in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Bali, Vietnam and Cambodia), then Jakarta offers adventure and surprise for you. From the point of arriving and Sakarno-Hatta international airport in Jakarta, there is a distinct difference to that of other cities in the Southeast Asian region. Much of this can be contributed to Indonesia’s unique history, vastly different to that of other countries throughout the region. 

At the airport you will notice that customs and its well practiced officers are significantly stricter to that of customs elsewhere in the region, with my bag being thoroughly searched, something I don’t mind at all. There is a significant amount of ‘anti-drug’ literature throughout the airport, making it obvious that those caught with drugs in Indonesia deserve little sympathy. The taxi process is a little chaotic, however once you secure a price (Rp.250,000 from airport to downtown) in a recommended Bluebird taxi, you will realise the taxis are in great condition (much better than that of other SEA countries and Australia), the drivers are friendly and drive with caution and know Jakarta incredibly well. After living in Thailand for some months I was also pleased to see the drivers ID actually matched the driver. 

Sakarno-Hatta international airport is a mass of cranes and building works, as the very much anticipated terminal 4 is constructed. A terminal that Jakarta is in desperate need of, as Jakarta’s airport is now one of the busiest in the world and will soon be the busiest in Southeast Asia. The construction adds to the chaos however it won’t be long before the airport is in much better condition. Upon leaving the airport you will have your first experience with Jakarta’s notorious traffic. The traffic issue is exacerbated primarily due to a lack of public transport and recent growth in Jakarta. Fortunately a MRT system is currently under construction and a well planned bus system, with bus lanes, is being expanded. However this does not take away from the fact that on average Jakarta residents spend more time stuck in traffic than in any other city in the world. But, don’t forget your taxi is reasonably inexpensive, clean and the driver will most likely be chatty, making time go by reasonably fast (I say this as a visitor as I am sure locals don’t agree will my casual assessment of the traffic). It is also wise to be strategic, travelling in off-peak times will save you ‘traffic-time’. 

Construction is everywhere in Jakarta, roads, buildings, public transport systems, factories and housing estates litter the city. A sign of a rapidly developing economy, a fast growing city and prosperity. Jakarta is by no means as ‘high-rise’ as other large Southeast Asian cities, however it is easy to see that this will soon change. Seismic activity also does not go in favour of large cheap high-rise projects, thus making large building projects slightly more complicated and expensive than that in Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. 

The first thing you will realise is that there are only a few expats in Jakarta, primarily from Holland, Australia, Germany and Japan, however almost no tourists, other than the highly adventurous European backpacker or the occasional ‘stopover’ visitor. In fact you can visit museums, places of interest and shopping malls and not encounter a tourist. At the airport they are easy to spot, primarily on their way to Bali or one of Indonesia’s incredible surfing or diving locations.  

So what does one do in Jakarta? Jakarta is definitely not a Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur ( and I think this makes the city even better to experience, especially with Bangkok becoming ‘tired and expensive’), and you need to both get a taxi to each attraction and do some research into where you want to go. Culturally and historically Jakarta is rich and vibrant. There is precolonial history, colonial history, Japanese occupation history, independence history and history on the recent evolution to democracy. All five stages of ‘Indonesian history’ can be explored in Jakarta through a range of statues, museums and historical buildings. Perhaps the two most famous places to visit are the National Museum of Indonesia and the National Monument (Monas). 

The National Monument is a large tower-like structure in the middle of Merdeka Square, symbolising the long fight for independence. Built in the 1960’s by President Sukarno, the square is rather awe-inspiring and well worth visiting (not open on Mondays). Merdeka Square is a large parklike area that hosts the tower and is worth in-itself exploring. Numerous army personal sleep next to their trucks in the shade, suggesting they are there for security but don’t really get much action. The National Monument is also in-front of the Presidential Palace, thus perhaps they also reside within the grounds of the monument, in-case needed near by. The gardens within the square are worth walking around with reliefs describing different stages of Indonesian history scattered along the outer walls. The reliefs describe the evolving process of the archipelago’s history, from the earliest known times, such as the Majapahit Empire, to the independence struggle. You also get a nice view of Jakarta from the top of the tower and whilst walking around the grounds of the square. Due to the sheer size of the square it looked quiet when I initially arrived however as you get closer to the monument you realise the line to go up the tower is incredibly long. On a Tuesday morning it was over 2.5 hours long, however whilst in line I got to speak to numerous school children who were rather excited about visiting the symbolic structure.  

If you are interested in experiencing local suburban Jakarta life (highly recommended), the best place to go is Ancol Beach Park, in North Jakarta. The large park contains hotels, a beach (probably not recommended to swim in due to its close proximity to a very large port), numerous amusement parks and miles of coastal walks. Thousands of local families grace the park on the weekends, making it a somewhat family playground, with the smell of local food and picnics, and the screams and laughter of children riding on unique rides, filling the park. Young couples romantically walk along the path that follows the shoreline, and fitness enthusiasts both work out on equipment or slowly jog around the park. I have experienced this elsewhere in Indonesia, and again here at Ancol, the regard Indonesians have for family life. It is rarely seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia, perhaps in Malaysia and Brunei, the appreciation of family and the ‘picnic culture’ it offers. 

Those that love shopping will have plenty to do in Jakarta, with malls that dwarf the likes of malls in Singapore, Kuala lumpur and Bangkok. Malls such as Grand Indonesia and Plaza Indonesia are glitzy 5 star malls, enormous in size and offering all the famous international brand labels, as well as local chains from Thailand, Japan and Singapore. I found the prices were significantly cheaper in stores such as Zara, H&M and Uniqlo, than in the same respective stores else where in Southeast Asia. Grand Indonesia mall is over 10 stories and contains 3 floors of restaurants and bars, in a very post-modern setting. All malls are also full of classy massage shops. If getting a massage is your thing and you don’t like the ‘filth’ that can be associated with massages in Thailand, then Jakarta is the place to be. Massages here are also significantly cheaper than in Thailand and offer a more ‘moral’, or perhaps a better way to put it, ‘a family friendly atmosphere’. There are also other malls, such as ICT Mangga Dua, which is set-out in a more chaotic market setting, however is a haven for those who like to market shop. Again, the prices are significantly cheaper than the likes of Thailand and Malaysia and you have over 10 levels to explore.

There are endless amounts of places to visit in Jakarta and sights to see. I have included some more attractions you should definitely include in your visit to Jakarta. The Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, is rather spectacular and serves as the National Mosque. Directly across the road from Merdeka Square, recently the Mosque has been visited by both the U.S President Barak Obama and the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (not at the same time). Although only Muslims may enter the enormous place of worship, you can take it all in by walking around the complex or talking to very friendly devotees who relax around the Mosque. 

The area of Kota Tua (Old Jakarta) is also worth exploring. Although the area is a little ‘tired’ and in need of some love and care, the area is dotted with historical buildings from the colonial period, including interesting museums, such as the Jakarta History Museum. Some of the collections in the Museum are incredibly interesting, such as a display that included photographs of executions taking place in the square directly in front of the museum during Dutch rule. The area also has a ‘somewhat’ backpacker district with grungy bars and clubs where you can sip on a cheap beer and watch old Jakarta go by. If you are a backpacker then travel sites such as Lonely Planet will tell you to stay in this area, however I would most likely disagree, as there are much better areas to stay in with very cheap accommodation, such as in Mangga Dua.  

If you like a good view them Wisma 46 is worth visiting as it is the tallest building in Jakarta. Although not tall when comparing it to international standards of ‘tall’, Wisma 46 offers great views of the greater Jakarta metropolitan region, and you really do get a good feeling of how enormous the city is. The building is also in the heart of the business district and it is worth walking the streets throughout the area checking out the leafy embassy complexes and residential compounds and the constant construction work.   

It is correct to say you don’t need more than 4-5 days in Jakarta, making it perfect for a stopover on your way to or fro Australia, Bali or else where in the region. It is also an exciting and economical trip from the likes of Singapore, or a nice side trip from the overly touristy Bali.  

So Jakarta, tell your travel agent you want to stop off in Jakarta on your way to, well, where ever! Why not fly Garuda Indonesia, voted in 2015 as the airline with the world’s best cabin staff, and now exceeding international standards in safety. They are also well priced and will let you stop over in Jakarta. Give it a go, I guarantee you won’t be bored or disappointed. 

Jakarta is enormous! 

There is much development and construction in downtown Jakarta 

The National Mosque with military helicopters next to the Presidential Palace 

The mighty Monas



The National Museum 
Central Jakarta 

Fun to be had at Ancol Park, North of Jakarta 

An unusual flying fox contraption at Ancol

Children play at Ancol Beach Park, not sure I would swin here

All sorts of fun at Ancol! 





Wednesday, 15 July 2015

A tropical wonder in the midst of a vibrant city.

Singapore is famous because of successful economic practices and development, Orchard Road and the endless supply of shopping malls, prestigious hotels, Sentosa Island, casinos, superb architecture and efficient and clean streets and public transport. However few people know Singapore for its tropical gardens and nature, and even fewer for its wildlife. 

Arguably the most underrated attraction in Singapore, the Singapore Botanic Gardens, are a natural wonderland in the middle of an urban jungle. Although the most visited Botanic Gardens in the world, primarily because of local appreciation and adoration, to international visitors the gardens are often ignored and either not visited or known of. Established in 1859 and situated a little to the south of the Islands centre, the Botanic Gardens offer Singaporeans and tourists alike a unique natural experience, with over 183 acres of tropical rainforest, gardens, grasslands and park space. Although easily accessible through Singapore’s efficient MRT train system, once you step through the gate and enter the gardens, you hardly realise you are in the middle of an incredibly busy metropolis. 


In early July 2015 the Singapore Botanic Gardens received World Heritage status at a ceremony in Paris. Thus gaining international acclaim and prestige as a site that offers environmental, cultural and historical significance, and meaning the gardens will be treated with even more respect and honour. Singaporeans are very proud of their first World Heritage site and numerous signs boldly state the new title and prestige awarded to the gardens. The gardens are also home to numerous workshops and research centres who are world leaders in tropical botany and horticulture. In the herbarium there are over 750,000 specimens, containing almost every species from throughout the Southeast Asian region. 

As you walk through the gardens almost every large tree and numerous small shrubs have small plaques stating the species and where it originates from. Information signs and brochures are plentiful, clearly explaining what one is looking at, the significance of such a species, or the historical importance of that one section of the gardens. There is a stair case that was built by Australian prisoners of war during the Japanese occupation of Singapore.  


The Botanic Gardens have numerous smaller gardens scattered throughout, offering a pleasant surprise to those who visit the gardens for the first time. The National Orchid Garden is the most famous of these gardens, consisting of the largest orchard display in the world. Even for one who does not have a significant appreciation for flowers, the Orchid Garden is impressive, with thousands of bizarre and intriguing flowers. The National Ginger Garden (my personal favourite) contains over 3000 plants that belong to the ginger family. Who knew there were over 3000 different varieties of ginger and that there are numerous types of ginger flowers! The Healing Garden contains over 400 species of plant that are traditionally used throughout Southeast Asia for medicinal purposes. 

The wide open spaces, with lush tropical grass and the odd enormous tropical tree, provides a very  scenic backdrop to any walk. Tranquil lakes and ponds, surrounded by grasslands, tropical forrest and thousands of ferns, create perfect habitats for black and white swans and numerous different types of birds. There are literally thousands of neat and artistic statues throughout the gardens, and numerous playgrounds for children and adults alike. The paths are immaculate, with some venturing off into the rainforest on steep mist covered boardwalks, and almost all of the garden is disabled accessible. The large and informative information centre offers numerous insights into local and regional fauna and flora, and provides details in to why the gardens are so important. The tranquility found within the gardens is astonishing and it is easy to understand why Singaporeans appreciate their gardens. 


Every weekend there are concerts, buskers, tours and activities held at the gardens, providing a relaxing and enjoyable social place for Singaporeans. This is significant as Singapore is a city state, not offering much space to its citizens, thus the gardens provide a natural and awe-inspiring oasis.  

I am hard to impress and I always have my doubts over man made gardens. I primarily enjoy natural experiences far away from the hustle and bustle of a city, however the Singapore Botanic Gardens really impressed me. It is far from being ‘fake’, and has botanical and historical significance in the middle of a city that is almost entirely brand new.   


It could not be more simple to get to the Singapore Botanic Gardens - MRT station, Botanic Gardens. Entry is free, except for the National Orchard Garden, which is $5 SGD.


















Tuesday, 14 July 2015

A customer service revolution is needed.

I'm over it! Can't handle it! And I want to know how it can be fixed! Customer service in Malaysia and Thailand, the vain of my existence. Utterly diabolic! 

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love Southeast Asia, the people, the culture, the history and the politics. It is a diverse, complex and intriguing part of the world. However there is something that irks me, significantly. The lack of good customer service. I am not pretentious or pompous, desiring ‘red carpet’ service, I just want service that is friendly and attentive, or put another way, helpful. Yes, horrible customer service is endemic everywhere, however customer service in some Southeast Asian counties is absolutely shocking. It also far from represents tourism advertising campaigns the likes of Thailand and Malaysia promote, demonstrating delightful customer service staff. I definitely do not ‘discover Thainess’ (the slogan used by the Thai tourism authorities) when at the airport or a shopping mall in Thailand! 

As I write this I sit in White Town Coffee at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, slowly sipping a well boiled latte, that if finished, will most likely result in me falling into a diabetic coma. Whilst I sip, I am watching 9 poorly presented staff members randomly walk around the small cafe in a somewhat zombie-like state, with occasional chatter amongst themselves. Two young men sit behind the register, one on Facebook and the other watching You Tube clips of what I am presuming is K-Pop. A Japanese gentleman walks up to the register, stands patiently for 20 seconds, makes a deliberate cough, thus gaining the attention of the register clerk, who then stares at the customer waiting for order directions. 

Before my overly burnt coffee, I visited the Malaysian Airlines desk to ask when check-in opens. I walk up to the information desk, the airline representative with her head down continues typing on her computer, I speak, “excuse me”, her head rises and she abruptly responds, “yes!”. It was obvious I was disturbing the Malaysian Airlines employee, a CUSTOMER SERVICE ATTENDANT, as she was certainly not impressed by me. For an airline that is restructuring due to deep financial issues, they might want to concentrate on their service standards.  

This experience reconfirms my belief that Southeast Asia is in dire need of a customer service revolution. More specifically Thailand and Malaysia. There is a complete lack of understanding in customer service, ranging from food outlets and restaurants, retail stores and department stores, and most notorious, airlines. The worst experiences I have ever had in the world of custom service is with both Thai Airways and Air Asia, both having staff who have no regard what so ever for customer service or customer satisfaction. With Thai Airways also in a dire economic position, you would think senior management would want to concentrate on how staff interact with customers. 

In my opinion there are three potential reasons for this lack of service. A complete lack of training, a distain for ones own job or no appreciation for a job, or they are simply overworked. I understand wages in the majority of customer service related positions are not high, however this does not provide reason for certain actions and behaviours, and plain-right rudeness. Although there are some staff who are exceptional, (a big shout-out to Singapore Airlines staff) the vast majority are rude and completely uninterested in both their jobs and their customers. A common site, especially in restaurants, is that of staff playing around on their mobile devices, in view of the customer or loudly chatting amongst themselves. 

Other than the grumpy, careless and ‘simply can not be bothered’ staff member, there is also the ‘follow you around the store' staff member. These staff members constantly try and talk, not in a polite or interesting manner, but in a way that is annoying/irritating, in their attempt to sell you products you are only browsing at or passing by. Last week at Swatch I even informed the staff member I was only browsing, however he insisted in continuing to follow me, standing less than one meter away from me the whole time. I could even tell he recently had coffee, due to his coffee breath that was suffocating.  Even if a customer shows little or no interest in interacting with the staff member, they continue to follow them around the store, having no ability to determine the customers attitudes or desires, or displaying tact. To me, this is incredibly off-putting and irritating. 

Yesterday I walked up to the Boost Juice counter at the Air Asia KLIA2 terminal, I stand in front of the counter and wait for the staff to finish what seems to be a funny conversation. A young lady then makes brief eye contact with me, stands at the register, waiting of me to give my order. There was no acknowledgement other than the brief moment our eyes connected. I proceeded to give my order, she took the money, and placed the change firmly on the counter. No word was yet to be spoken. I thanked her and smiled, yet still no response. 

I return to paragraph one and the White Town Coffee shop I am currently sitting in. The conversation amongst staff has now become animated and loud, with lots of laughing. It is obvious customers are annoyed, as the banter is obnoxious, disturbing the peace the airport terminal has to offer. 

In contrast to the severely lacking customer service skills found in Thailand and Malaysia, Indonesia is a bastion of good customer service. Indonesian customer service representatives offer warmth and a genuine understanding of good customer service. Indonesia is often seen as years behind that of Thailand and Malaysia in regards to development, however this argument is becoming increasingly redundant, demonstrated through numerous aspects, including service standard levels. From hotels, retail stories, taxis and airport staff, there is a real sense of friendliness. I tested this both yesterday and today, entered 12 stores at two large Jakarta malls, and was greeted with a smile and genuine friendliness that is rarely found in other Southeast Asian countries. They did not follow me around, however they were polite and there ready to help me if need be. People also seem to be enjoying their jobs, not matter what their position is. 


Again, I am not pompous or desiring high maintenance service, I just WANT service or someone who understands service. I do not know about you, but I find it incredibly depressing when a customer service representative is rude, bored and has no interest whatsoever in their job. Of course I am generalising and good service can be found throughout Thailand and Malaysia, however in general, it sucks, and serious attention needs to be directed towards enhancing service training. Start with the airlines, as it is there the problem is most obvious. A customer service revolution is necessary!