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Jakarta Post

Is Indonesia a camel-wannabe, a 'pandamel' or a panda in denial?

Jakarta   /   Wed, April 1, 2020   /   08:21 am
Is Indonesia a camel-wannabe, a 'pandamel' or a panda in denial? A muslim pilgrim wears a protective face mask to prevent contracting coronavirus, as he prays at the Grand mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia February 27, 2020. (REUTERS/Ganoo Essa)

Does a virus have a nationality? United States President Donald Trump has a fixation with this. He refers to the coronavirus as being the “Chinese virus”, as it was first detected in China. It encouraged a spate of anti-Chinese and even anti-Asian racist acts in the US. Sad!

Beyond Americans, Twitter saw a 900 percent increase in hate speech toward China and Chinese because of the coronavirus.

Even without the coronavirus, we Indonesians have been pretty racist toward the Chinese, despite their many contributions to the nation: capital, world recognition in badminton, batik, food and even aspects of our wayang tradition. In fact, so much that we think of as quintessentially “Indonesian” bears the mark of Chinese influence – even Islam.

Most Indonesians associate Islam with Arabs, and look to the Middle East for the roots of their religion. But the spread of Islam in the archipelago was through trade by Indian and Chinese merchants, and so the Islam that came to Indonesia was much less austere than that of the seventh century Arabian desert. But in recent years, there has been an increasing reactionary return to Arabic harshness.

One recent example is in the context of containing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Rather than observing the government’s call to stay at home for work, school and religious services, some Muslims, responded with recalcitrance and bravado. “We are not afraid of the coronavirus; we are only afraid of God!”

Oh man, is that even the issue? If you think that Allah would get mad at you for putting the (health) interest of others ahead of yours, then you don’t know your God, or what Islam is about!

It made me wonder, is there an economic cost a society pays for its strong cultural influences like pervasive religious orientations? And did countries like China and Vietnam actually gain certain institutional strengths from their centralized communist past that enabled them to play the capitalist game better than the capitalists?

What if Indonesian history had taken a different turn? In 1966, Soeharto’s military-dominated New Order regime banned the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), which had close links with the Chinese Communist Party. For this reason, Indonesia severed diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China from 1967 to 1990.

If Indonesia had not cut relations with China for 23 years, could it have prevented, or balanced out the spread of Wahabism that started in 1980 by Saudi Arabia pouring money in for its style of Islamic education?

It’s not just related to religion, but like Saudi Arabia, Indonesia has relied more on its natural resources than on industrialization. But our oil supplies diminished, and after joining the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1962, we left in 2009 and rejoined briefly in 2016.

Well, Saudi Arabia is an “energy superpower” and the world’s largest petroleum exporter. The best we can do now is sell cleaner oil and import dirtier oil for local consumption.

I am not suggesting that Indonesia should have become a satellite of China, but maybe we could have done better by following its development paradigm. Okay, China is also a superpower, so look at Vietnam, which is now an ASEAN economic giant. Like China, it’s a communist country but is very capitalist and fully
integrated into global trade and investment.

Vietnam used to be behind Indonesia, but now it leads both in industrialization and foreign direct investment (FDI). In 2017, Vietnam was able to get US$35.88 billion in FDI, while Indonesia only got $32.34 billion. On a per capita basis, FDI in Vietnam is triple that in Indonesia. Wow!

Another comparison with Vietnam: education. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted research in 2015 that stated that “Indonesian students were performing at lower levels in all areas — science, mathematics and reading” than the average in advanced nations, and “a shocking 42 percent of Indonesian students were failing to meet minimum standards in all three areas covered by the test – being outperformed by students in neighboring Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand”.

Okay, Indonesia hasn’t had an easy history. Centuries of colonialism followed by authoritarianism did not allow the creation of an educated, tolerant middle class. Both colonialism and dictatorship favor stupid and sheepish behavior. On this substratum of ignorance and slavery, the priests, clerics of all kinds could easily flourish, making it easier for Wahabism to take hold.

Vietnam was colonized by the French, they fought a war against them — won — then fought another devastating war against the Americans — won again. But it lost millions of citizens and had farmland and infrastructure devastated.

What good excuse does Indonesia have for falling behind China and Vietnam? Indonesia had a head start, World Bank development lending, the Inter-Governmental Group on Indonesia (IGGI), etc. etc. And now China produces most of Indonesia’s consumer goods.

The way Indonesia handles the coronavirus pandemic also reflects the way we handle our national development, politics and international relations.

The panda is an unofficial symbol of China and the camel of Saudi Arabia. Conservative and political Islam in Indonesia wants us to be a “camel”. We are now probably a crossbreed of both or a “pandamel”. Or are we also secretly a “panda-wannabe”, i.e. a mini-China?

Our identity crisis and our indecision are costing us, and with regard to the coronavirus, killing us.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.