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How bureaucracy is destroying Malaysia’s agricultural sector

Prof. Murray Hunter

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Over the last 30 years, Malaysia has miraculously grown into a middle income country, transforming itself from a primary producer of minerals and commodities, to a multi-sector economy.

The Malaysian Government has skilfully attracted foreign investment in high technology industries like electronics, multimedia, medical technology, and pharmaceuticals, service sector industries like Islamic finance, and urbanized the country with a rich retail service industry. However, agriculture has been allowed to slip well behind the rest of these sectors within the economy.  

This is normally the case when an economy transforms itself from the status of ‘developing’ to ‘developed’. However the case of Malaysian agriculture characterizes a number of mistakes. These mistakes have cost the country in terms of better food self-sufficiency, rural and community development, regional development, employment, poverty alleviation, and missed some of the great agro-based sunrise industry opportunities of this millennium.

What more, rural infrastructure and agro-based expertize is drastically lacking in Malaysia, since the Mahathir led drive to modernization back in the 1980s.  

This is particularly dangerous with a gloomy global outlook ahead, where Malaysia must become buoyant enough to internally withstand any deep international recession approaching, if it is to stave off great hardship on its citizens.

According to Malaysian statistics cited over various Malaysian Plans, the agriculture sector in 1970 represented 28.8% of national GDP. As of 2013, agriculture represented only 9.33% of GDP. However in some states like Perlis, Kelantan, and Sabah, agriculture still makes up 20-30% of the total economy.

Employment in the sector has fallen from 13% of the total workforce in 2007, to only 9.3% in 2014. However 66% of the people involved in working within the agriculture sector are over 50 years old. The estate sector is primarily staffed with foreign labourers bringing little income benefits to local communities.

The bulk of Malaysia’s agricultural land is utilized for the production of industrial crops, which has risen from 2.1% in 1960, to over 87% of land use today. Palm oil and rubber dominate, with paddy production and declining cocoa production running far behind. Timber is still a major primary product, where reforestation is lagging behind, making the industry unsustainable. Sarawak for many years has enjoyed a successfully developed a pepper industry, and there are pockets of fruit and market vegetables, around the nation.

However, less land is being utilized for agriculture today, as it is more valuable for industrial and housing developments. The composition of industrial crops, and industrial and housing development for land is steadily driving up the costs of food production in Malaysia. Paddy farming is also facing challenges due to declining productivity, increasing fragmentation of land plots, and poor response to changing consumer desires within the marketplace. Even the production of palm oil is expected to decline based upon recent industry predictions.

The push to industrial crops in the 1960s although rapidly developing the agricultural sector, rapidly decreased the diversity of agriculture within Malaysia. Even settlement schemes like FELDA and FELCA shied away from food and cash crops towards the palm oil and rubber because of the relatively large returns available with little need to market and sell their crops. As smallholder farmers have aged, with the youth reluctant to follow in their parents’ footsteps, the production of crops such as coconut, tropical fruits, vegetables, and other cash crops has been declining.

Estate production of industrial crops is now the mainstay of Malaysian agriculture, which is mainly in the hands of Malaysian Government Linked Companies (GLCs) like Sime Darby. Smallholders have been grossly neglected where little has been done by Malaysia’s agricultural research institutions and universities to modernize and develop appropriate technologies, new hybrids of cash crops, and assist in developing modern smallholder business models through the infusion of entrepreneurial thinking in rural communities. In addition, finance for smallholders is extremely difficult to obtain, and farm extension has all but died out two decades ago. The smallholders have been left to themselves, where they face acute labour shortages and little access to markets that would help make their efforts viable.

If one also factors in poor basic infrastructure such as access to irrigation and roads, the poor level of education of most smallholders, resulting in an attitude towards being production orientated rather than entrepreneurial, “conmen” taking advantage and promising big returns to smallholders if they buy seeds from them, and the condescending attitude many government bureaucrats have towards small holders, it’s not hard to understand why this sector is so much in decay.

The Malaysian agriculture situation has reached a point where the estate business model that was once so successful for the production of commodity crops is now stagnating. Malaysia is losing its dominance as the major producer of palm oil, and palm oil itself is under threat from international health concerns, and also concerns from the international community about the environmental record of Malaysia’s palm oil producers. Rubber prices are facing a slump, and paddy production is primarily insufficient to feed the total population, i.e., 35% of Malaysia’s rice needs to be imported from Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, India, and Pakistan.

There is little evidence to see where local communities have benefitted from the presence of Malaysian GLCs, yet state Governments have been eager to transfer state land to them for development with virtually no transparency. Picturesque pieces of virgin jungle are still being ripped up to make way for new palm plantations, to replace those developed into housing and industrial estates, where the GLCs are making mega-profits.

Malaysia’s agricultural direction was planned through a series of 5 year plans. The Malaysian political/bureaucratic elite have always presented rosy forecasts and gained publicity through staging MOU ceremonies, to announce projects which never happen, or fail through mismanagement.

Part of the problem in the Malaysian agriculture sector is that the politicians and bureaucrats have been thinking big, at the cost of thinking small. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture has developed a list of agro-based industries that should be national priorities. The Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI), and the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) restrict their research to these national priorities, while leaving a void in research on crops needed to spur on the growth and development of small local communities. Consequently, Malaysia’s research efforts have benefitted few communities, which still remain in relative poverty today, particularly in the agricultural dominant states like Perlis, Kelantan, Sabah, and Sarawak. There are a lot of potentially viable crops that should be researched and developed, but are being ignored.

Institutions like MARDI and FRIM have become showpieces to please the politicians.

Further, the bureaucrats involved in these plans implementation have appeared to lack the zeal and commitment to see these plans progress into reality. Managers on the ground have focused upon building hard infrastructure where favoured contractors can be employed to build these projects and facilities, rather than ploughing resources and money into education and extension. The result has been a number of ‘white elephants’ that litter the country.

Corruption, via land grants, misallocation of funds, and building irrelevant facilities, is a major issue hampering effective rural development in Malaysia today.

Malaysia, as an economy skewed towards state planning and intervention has attempted to “pick winners” and develop them through the state apparatus. In the case of herbs and biotechnology, massive funds were allocated in the pursuit of achieving success in these “sunrise” industries, where the funds were predominately channelled into developing ineffective and costly bureaucracy.

The Malaysian Herbal Corporation was formed in 2001 with much fanfare, where it was considered within the bureaucracy to be the driver and ‘flagbearer’ for the industry. The corporation undertook many initiatives, with the staff travelling widely and luxuriously around the world. Today, the Malaysian Herbal Corporation is now defunct.

With former Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s focus on biotechnology as a ‘sunrise industry’ midway last decade, the Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation (MBC), along with various state funded biotechnology companies such as Melaka Biotech, J-Biotech in Johor, K-Biocorp in Kedah, and Kelantan Biotech, were all well-funded with hundreds of millions of Ringgit in grants, but have little, if anything to show for it. Most of, if not all of the grants given out by MBC to commercial companies failed to produce any commercialized intellectual property, as university research also failed to do.

Technology Park Malaysia (TPM) built biotech labs around the country in places like Perlis, which are mostly empty. The East Coast Economic Regional Development Council set up herbal parks in Pahang and Terengganu which are basically inactive in regards to their original purpose.

FELDA opened up the FELDA Herbal Corporation which is now replaced with another attempt at developing biotechnology through Felda Wellness. Biotropics was set up by Khazanah Coropration and is basically only producing some cosmetic and herbal products. The Ministry of Health set up NINE BIO to produce Halal vaccines and herbal products.

The Malaysian-MIT partnership hailed as being an example of a smart-partnership, cost the Malaysian taxpayer USD20 Million with absolutely nothing to show.

The Malaysian Government rather than be a driver of the industry became a participant with drastic results.

Just about all these Government interventions into business have failed dismally, losing hundreds of Millions of Dollars for the Malaysian taxpayer.

What is tragic is that there has been no transparency in the way the Malaysian Government handed over responsibility to personnel within these government corporations, and no accountability.

Top down planning with no consultation with local industry, local communities, and local scientists, has led to Malaysian agriculture falling well behind its neighbours within the Asian region. Top down planning has allowed bureaucracy to overrun market considerations in Malaysia’s agricultural and agro-based industry development.

Development programs like the agropolitan schemes in Sabah are conceptualized and developed within the bureaucrats’ paradigms. GLCs are asked to take up large swabs of land, plant palm oil, and develop a small corridor for local villagers. They have been of large benefit for these GLCs, but local villagers have been short changed where GLCs partaking in these projects fail to live up to their responsibilities.

Likewise, other bureaucrat concepts such as combining fragmented land holdings into paddy estates run by anchor GLC companies, as promoted by the Performance Management Delivery Unit (PEMANDU) within the Prime Minister’s Department disempower local land owners who are expected to work as labourers on their own land. These types of projects have failed in their conceptualization, let along during the implementation stage.

As a consequence opportunities to alleviate poverty in rural communities have been missed, and opportunities to develop new crops, and create new industries have been ignored.

Many successful programs like entrepreneurship mentorship schemes run at Agricultural Institutes around the country, are starved of funds, because of the preference for the bureaucratic ‘white elephants’ that benefit policy implementers financially.

Malaysian agriculture is now in crisis and there is a need to reinvigorate the sector, particularly with the expected global economic slowdown.

Malaysia is currently importing up to 60% of its current food needs. With the level of national debt, falling foreign reserves due to a low Ringgit, and a potential slow-down in exports due to a sluggish international economy, food self-sufficiency may become more important than ever.

Food self-sufficiency would create an important buffer for rural Malaysia to withstand any deep recession. Without food self-sufficiency the population within the Malay heartlands will suffer immensely. As mentioned, Malaysia imports much of its rice needs, milk, beef and mutton, flour, and fruits.

Within this problem, lays an opportunity. Malaysia’s Neighbour Thailand has been reinventing itself as the ‘kitchen of the world’. Malaysian agriculture with modern farming methods, utilizing appropriate technology, and adopting new branding paradigms through merging GAP and Halal practices into say a “HalalGAP” protocol could enter and prosper in the rapidly growing Halal market worldwide.

Malaysian agriculture needs new farming practices, business models, and reinvented supply/value chains. The decline of the value of the Ringgit will help Malaysian farmers find a new era of competitiveness that the sector has never had.

Now is the time to take this opportunity.

Innovator and entrepreneur. Notable author, thinker and prof. Hat Yai University, Thailand Contact: murrayhunter58(at)gmail.com

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Ahok biopic: The making of a man, the unmaking of a nation

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After comedies, ghost horror films are the genre most liked by Indonesians, with 44 percent saying they enjoy them. Apparently they produce a thrill, stimulate the imagination, invite curiosity and induce anticipation that the protagonist will prevail over evil forces.

Personally, I’m not a fan of such movies but I found myself looking forward to Nov. 8, when a “ghost“ movie was to be screened in theatres all over Indonesia. How come? That’s because the film was A Man Called Ahok — yup, about Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, former governor of Jakarta, currently jailed on blasphemy charges. I thought he was one of the best governors Jakarta has had, indeed, one of Indonesia’s best leaders, someone who wasn’t afraid to shake up the status quo.

It was a “ghost” movie in that it contained an apparition of Ahok, which embodied not just his spirit, but also the spirit of values that Indonesia seems to have forgotten, values needed to build a nation.

Controversy never seems to be far away from Ahok, from the no-nonsense way he ran his office, his zero tolerance for bad management, laziness and corruption, his unpopular policies (notably the eviction of squatters from slums), his fiery temper and tough talk (which enraptured and excited, agitated and outraged at the same time), his blasphemy trial and subsequent imprisonment, his divorce from Veronica Tan, his wife of 21 years while in prison, but also his amazing achievements during the short time he was Jakarta governor: disciplining civil servants, eliminating the ubiquitous pungli (illegal levies), transparency of the city budget, responding to citizens’ complaints, transforming Jakarta city transportation into one fit for a metropolitan city, cleaning up filthy polluted Jakarta rivers, beautifying and greening the city — achieving many things his predecessors were unable to do.

But you’ll see none of that in the film that was far from controversial. A review of the film stated that the “biopic about one of Indonesia’s most divisive, loved and hated political figures chooses to play it safe through a family friendly narrative and storytelling” (‘A Man Called Ahok: Journey from childhood to prominence’, The Jakarta Post, Nov. 10).

While the review provides a good summary of the film, I don’t think it was at all a matter of playing it safe. The filmmakers made a very deliberate, wise and insightful choice to portray the making of a man, from his childhood origins in Bangka Belitung, which makes us understand better why he turned into the leader that he did.

The film started when Ahok was aged 10 ( 1976), and stopped just about the time he became regent of East Belitung (2005). Ahok was born and raised in Gantong, East Belitung. His father Kiem Nam was a tauke (Chinese businessman), owner of a tin mining company, who raised his five children with tough love, teaching them to cooperate with each other, instilling the values of hard work and ambition, not for selfish personal reasons, but to serve others.

Kiem would drive his wife to despair, as he was always giving out money to people in need, even borrowing, so he could continue helping them. He said to her that their family still had a roof over their heads, and good food to eat. Yes, that was the case, because she sold some of her gold jewelry, so that the family could continue to eat.

While their relationship was often strained, clearly Ahok was a chip off the old block. He gave up being a doctor (his father’s dream) and a businessman (his own dream), to become a politician so that he could help people in a systematic way, unlike his father, not using his own money, but state funds.

The film is a biopic, true, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s in fact a microcosm of Indonesia, raising issues that remain relevant.

Discrimination: despite Kiem’s known humanitarianism and generosity, when Ahok decided to run for office, he faced resistance because of his Chinese ethnicity. As a child, he had once asked his father, “Are we Chinese or are we Indonesian?”. The father responded unequivocally, “We are Indonesians”. The film shows clearly how his father instilled the love of people and nation in his son.

Bangka Belitung has one of the largest concentrations of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, who have helped the tin industry flourish. Indonesia is the second-largest producer of tin in the world, after China, this means the ethnic-Chinese have contributed to creating revenue for Indonesia.

That’s not the only thing they have contributed. They have contributed to our culture (look at all those dragons, phoenix, snakes and Chinese lions motifs on batik!), food (too many to mention), much needed capital, sporting prowess and guess what? Also Islam, which was brought in by Chinese traders in the 15th century. And yet the Chinese remain reviled and have been targeted as scapegoats throughout Indonesia’s history.

Poverty: There was clearly poverty depicted in the film throughout Ahok’s life in Bangka Belitung. While in 2018 poverty has fallen to a historic low, the Statistics Indonesia (BPS) figures show that almost 10 percent (27 million) of Indonesians are poor. That is still a very large number.

Corruption: in the film, there was a corrupt government official who kept trying to extort money from both Kiem, and later Ahok when he was an adult running the company. So far, corruption is still the cancer that is eating up the nation. According to the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, Indonesia ranks 96th out of 175 of the least corrupt countries. Well, at least it’s better than in 2007, when we ranked 143rd.

The lack of health services portrayed in the film is still the reality for many families in Indonesia, as are education facilities, still out of reach for many children.

Watching the film was a very emotional experience for me because of the injustice Ahok has had to endure. Talk about being punished for doing good! But it was emotional also because I thought of Indonesia and how the nation is currently ruled by mindless sectarianism, where religion is used to incite evil instead of fostering good, where selfish, narrow group interests prevail over the greater good.

A Man Called Ahok is a timely reminder of what it takes to build a nation. Hopefully, like a good ghost movie, the (good guys) protagonists will prevail over the evil forces currently haunting Indonesia.

An early version of text appeared in the Jakarta Post

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What Were Shapers Shaping at the SHAPE APAC 2018?

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Photo: Career Mentorship series organized by Global Shapers Bangkok Hub

Just over a week ago over 150 young people across Asia-Pacific gathered in Bangkok for four days in an event dubbed as SHAPE APAC 2018. For outsiders little was known about what was to happen. For Global Shapers that are now 7,000 strong globally the event was one not to be missed. The event was organised by Global Shapers Bangkok Hub, an activity largely by and for fellow Global Shapers Community, a volunteer initiative of the World Economic Forum. The Bangkok Hub has been in existence since 2012 just before the first World Economic Forum in ASEAN held in the same year. The past years have seen many changes including in leadership and collective power of young people to contribute for “the greater good”. That said, as the Hub is evolving out of the SHAPE APAC, which is in many ways its tipping point, the question it is being presented is: to what extent can the power of this autonomous collective– run completely voluntarily and without external funding, and now bigger than ever –turn into positive energy that results in lasting change to the outside community, precisely those they are meant to serve? So I made a conscious effort to sit Raghav Mettakhun, the current lead of the Bangkok Hub, down to share his thoughts and vision for Bangkok. Let’s see what we get out of this conversation.

First of all, could you share what SHAPE APAC is all about?

SHAPE APAC 2018 was tasked to bring together Global Shapers from the region under a specific theme. There are 7 more SHAPEs organised annually in other parts of the world map. Our main drive was to connect, empower and inspire young people to initiate impactful projects in their home communities. We selected Green Evolution and Sustainable Lifestyle as a theme as we wanted to raise awareness of the impact of their daily lives on the communities they live in. Participants chose a track that was most relevant to them. We had ‘Blockchain and Smart Energy‘, ‘Sustainable Cities‘ and ‘Future of Food’. We also included filed visits in and near Bangkok to expose participants to sustainability issues in real life contexts. Some of these activities included visiting local neighborhoods looking at how local residents have coped with rapid urbanization and tourism growth. Another one was at local fishing communities in Samutsangkram during which participants had the chance to participate in community lifestyles in the coastal mangrove ecology.

Photo: SHAPE APAC participants at Portuguese Embassy, Bangkok Thailand

Why was sustainability chosen for SHAPE APAC 2018 – what is its significance?

Since 1987 when the term ‘sustainability’ was formally put forward as an agenda to guide the global development, it has transcended from a political rhetoric into fields of business and lifestyles. These were amplified due to recent events related to climate change – record temperature and floods in Japan, tsunami and earthquake in Indonesia, drought in China, you name it. Not only environmental effects but social and economic issues too. Bringing my passion in the environment, we also integrated the resource minimization aspect to it where everyone was encouraged to bring their own refillable water bottles as SHAPE APAC is the first ever single-use plastics-free event.As Bangkok Hub, we realised that these issues should be priorities for young people and they too should have a role to play in driving the change. In shaping SHAPE APAC, we were contemplating over how Global Shapers can make a difference. Our key objective is to get them inspired and implement related projects in their communities.

How were you initially involved in sustainability issues yourself…what was your personal background?

Although I was born and lived in the city almost my entire life I must admit that I’d always lived in the bubble, a pretty big and thick one. I came from a middle-class background where my family is managing a textile business in Bangkok for the past 50 years. I was educated in a private all-boys Catholic school and an international school before heading off to the UK for university for a degree in Environmental Science – the subject that have raised eyebrows of many Asian parents, a subject that is unlikely to bring substantial income comparing to Engineering, Law or Medicine. I have been labelled into so many different things from my surface-level background. I am by no means an expert on the issue but my willingness to make change remains the same. For me, sustainability is not just about protecting the environment, not using plastic bags and straws in the name of saving the world but viewing life and business from the ground up, seeing what we can change, what impact we can make in our community in Bangkok. Let’s try not to fall into the trend and abuse the buzzword that can sometimes lead to greenwashing.

So building on from this big SHAPE experience, which was somewhat a “gamechanger” for Bangkok Hub? What’s the Hub’s gameplan in relation to sustainability issues looking ahead?

As many previous SHAPE organisers have said, organising SHAPE is either make or break. I am sure that everyone in my team would agree with me that it is the former. We became closer than ever before. Continuing on from SHAPE APAC, we will bring topics of SHAPE APAC’s tracks to integrate into existing projects from now, at least for the year ahead. We plan to seek collaboration from neighbouring Hubs and roll out some of these projects. Maybe I am over ambitious but I think it is not impossible. I have seen positivity from participants attending, and I am sure many will be more than willing to lend us a hand to impact a couple of hundred to many thousands! One of specific plans I have in mind include implementing tree plantation and monitoring across cities in ASEAN, educating locals on compost, and blockchain 101 for beginners.

Let’s zoom out just a little bit. So Bangkok Hub has been existing for six years now? What do you think is special about the Hub and the Community itself?

The hub has come pretty far since our founding curator Nick Pisalyaput, Director of Sasin Entrepreneurship Center, who was nominated by the Global Shapers Community in 2012.  What is special about the hub is the members – its utmost important composition that keep the Hub going. Our members came from all walks of life and nationalities, from a hotel owner, social enterprise leaders, to human rights expert and food connoisseur. Our hub is more diverse than ever before with a common goal of adding value to making Bangkok a better city to live for all. We look for young people who are passionate, driven and committed.

Photo: Some of Global Shapers Bangkok Hub 2018

I think that what we do should at least resonate with the World Economic Forum’s vision which is ‘Committed to Improving the State of the World’. Not only do we look for talented young individuals but we also look for those with exceptional level of integrity and service mind because without the will to serve the community, especially on a voluntary basis, members can be easily distracted by their full-time job and other priorities.It is really important especially in the volunteer setting that members get to know each other. Projects are best executed when there is trust, and teamwork is an absolute vital. Previously members were mostly from recommendations and referrals within our network of friends but now we strive to be more inclusive, what I mean is people with whom we are less likely to cross path in our daily lives. My aim is also to recruit more volunteers from the creative sector to enhance our diversity – with this could create comprehensive projects with greater impact.

Any final thoughts you want to share?

My vision is to educate and empower local communities to be more aware of the impact we are currently making in their daily lives – and how we could make a real difference. Resilience and adaptability are the keywords I would like to emphasise during my tenure in leading the Hub. For example, how we could live our lives sustainably through technological disruptions, demanding skill sets, increasing stress, higher cost of living but not higher income and climate change. The Hub will plan to create mini-projects led by Hub members e.g. mental health, environment, career planning, blockchain technology and sustainable fashion while we would concurrently drive a bigger project at the same time. Actually, we will have the meeting in a few weeks’ time to discuss next steps in more detail. So, let’s see.

It seems that the Hub’s ambition is still running high under the current leadership. Like any other human structures, it seems that leadership is one of the key ingredients in shaping the overall direction and success for the Hub. However, the definition of success for Bangkok Hub should derive not from its members benefiting from the structure itself, but how much impact it truly creates on the community they live in. I suppose there is only one way to find out! If anything, SHAPE APAC 2018 was an instance of what young people can achieve when they come to work together and a reminder of the reason that a structure such as Global Shapers Community exists. To hear more about Bangkok Hub or support the group you already know how to find them!

The SHAPE APAC 2018 summit was sponsored by Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Royal Patronage and Thai Beverage PCL. Also supported by SPCG, Tesco Lotus, TCEB, Six Network, Alvaascé, Makkha Spa and 192 Logistics.

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Reforming the Faith: Indonesia’s battle for the soul of Islam

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Nahdlatul Ulama, with 94 million members the world’s largest Sunni Muslim movement, is bent on reforming Islam.

The powerful Indonesian conservative and nationalist group that operates madrassahs or religious seminaries across the archipelago has taken on the ambitious task of reintroducing ijtihad or legal interpretation to Islam as it stands to enhance its political clout with its spiritual leader, Ma’ruf Amin, slated to become vice president as the running mate of incumbent President Joko Widodo in elections scheduled for next April.

In a 40-page document, argued in terms of Islamic law and jurisprudence and scheduled for publication in the coming days, Nahdlatul Ulama’s powerful young adults wing, Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, spells out a framework for what it sees as a humanitarian interpretation of Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic in nature.

The initiative is designed to counter what many in Nahdlatul Ulama, founded in 1926 in opposition to Wahhabism, see as Islam’s foremost challenge; the rise of radical Islam. The group that boasts a two million-strong private militia defines as radical not only militants and jihadists but any expression of political Islam and asserts that it is struggling against the weaponization of the faith.

While it stands a good chance of impacting Islamic discourse in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, it is likely to face an uphill battle in making substantial headway beyond Indonesia despite its links to major Muslim organizations in India, the United States and elsewhere. It also could encounter opposition from the group’s more conservative factions.

Mr. Amin, the vice-presidential candidate, is widely viewed as a conservative who as issued fatwas against minorities, including one in 2005 denouncing Ahmadis, a sect widely viewed by Muslims as heretics. Violent attacks on Ahmadis by extremists have since escalated with mob killings and the razing to the ground of their homes.

Mr. Amin is also believed to have played a key role in last year’s mass protests that brought down Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, aka Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, and led to his sentencing to two years in prison on charges of blasphemy against Islam.

The vice-presidential candidate appears to have since mellowed. In a recent speech in Singapore hosted by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Mr. Amin projected himself as an advocate of an Islam that represents a middle way and stands for balance, tolerance, egalitarianism, non-discrimination, consultation, consensus and reform.

Mr. Amin’s speech appeared to be not out of sync with the reformist thinking of Ansor.

To achieve its goal, Ansor hopes to win Middle Eastern hearts and minds in a roundabout way by targeting European governments as well as the Trump administration in a bid to generate pressure on Arab regimes to promote a tolerant, pluralistic form of Islam rather than use the faith to garner legitimacy and enhance regional influence.

To further that goal, Yahya Staquf, a diminutive, soft-spoken general secretary of the group’s Supreme Council and a member of Mr. Widodo’s presidential advisory council, met in June with US Vice President Mike Pence and Reverend Johnnie Moore.

Mr Moore is an evangelist who in May was appointed by President Donald J. Trump as a member of the board of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Mr. Staquf also paid in June a controversial visit to Israel where he met with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu against the backdrop of Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu’s office trumpeted the meeting as an indication that “Arab countries and many Muslim countries (are) getting closer to Israel” despite Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians becoming with US backing more hard line. The meeting served to strengthen Nahdlatul Ulama’s relations with Mr. Trump’s evangelist, pro-Israel supporters.

While making significant inroads in the West, Nahdlatul Ulama risks being identified with autocrats like United Arab Emirates crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed who strives to depoliticize Islam as a means of ensuring the survival of his regime. It also risks being tainted by its tactical association with Islamophobes and Christian fundamentalists who would project their alliance as Muslim justification of their perception of the evils of Islam.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s association could further bolster the position of evangelists locked into battle with expanding Islam along the 10th parallel, the front line between the two belief systems, with Nigeria and Boko Haram, the West African jihadist group, at its core.

If successful, Nahdlatul Ulama’s strategy could have far-reaching consequences. For many Middle Eastern autocrats, adopting a more tolerant, pluralistic interpretation of Islam would mean allowing far greater social and political freedoms. That would likely lead to a weakening of their grip on power.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s credibility in pushing a tolerant, pluralistic interpretation of Islam rides in part on its willingness to subdue its own demons, first and foremost among which sectarianism manifested in deep-seated prejudice against Muslim sects, including Shiites and Ahmadis. That may be too tall an order in a country in which ultra-conservative Islam remains a social and political force.

As a result, Nahdlatul Ulama’s battlefields are as much at home as they are in the larger Muslim world. Proponents of the reform strategy chose to launch it under the auspices of the group’s young adults wing in an admission that not all of Nahdlatul Ulama’s members may embrace it.

Moreover, the group’s meetings at times coincide with clashes between its militia and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a banned non-violent organization that seeks to re-establish the caliphate.

The most recent clash occurred last week on the eve of a meeting in Yogyakarta of the Ansor-sponsored Global Unity Forum convened to stop the politicization of Islam. Attendees included Mr. Moore as well as Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi of the All India Imam Organization and imams from the United States.

Beyond militants in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama’s foremost rival is Turkey.

It is a battle that is shaped by the need to counter the fallout of a $100 billion, four decades-long Saudi public diplomacy campaign that enjoyed tacit Western support to anchor ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam in communities across the globe in a bid to dampen the appeal of post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal. The campaign created a breeding ground for more militant and violent strands of the faith.

The battle for the soul of Islam finds it most geopolitical expression in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Turkey as well as Iran. The battle with Turkey has come to a head with the killing earlier this month of journalist Jamal Khashoggi while visiting the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul to certify his divorce papers.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan drove the point home by exploiting the Khashoggi crisis to advise religious leaders that “Turkey with its cultural wealth, accretion of history and geographical location, has hosted diverse faiths in peace for centuries, and is the only country that can lead the Muslim world.”

If Nahdlatul Ulama couches its position in terms of Islamic law and jurisprudence, Mr. Erdogan’s framework is history and geopolitics. “The Turkish president’s foreign policy strategy aims to make Muslims proud again. Under this vision, a reimagined and modernized version of the Ottoman past, the Turks are to lead Muslims to greatness,” said Turkey scholar Soner Cagaptay.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s focus may not be Middle Eastern geopolitics. Nevertheless, its strategy, if successful, would significantly impact the region’s political map. In attempting to do so, the group may find that the odds are humongous, if not insurmountable.

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