Parallels between Identity Politics in Southeast Asia & the United States

By Lance Jackson —

Protests against Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama "Ahok" in Jakarta highlight the issue of identity politics in Indonesia. Source: Global Media Sharing's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Protests against Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama “Ahok” in Jakarta highlight the issue of identity politics in Indonesia. Source: Global Media Sharing’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Identity is often an explicit factor in the politics of many Southeast Asian nations, whether it is the rural-urban divide in Thailand, language in Malaysia or ethnicity in Indonesia. Appeals to identity for political purposes have generally been more restrained in the United States, but were far more overt in the last presidential election. The implications of this are still being debated, with opinions ranging widely from those who argue the rise of identity politics was caused by the dissolution of the traditional political left and right, that Hillary Clinton’s loss proves the impotence of identity politics, or that Donald Trump’s victory heralds its resurrection.

Parallels between the current political landscapes of Southeast Asia and the United States can be readily observed without a perfect understanding of identity politics. For example, many aspects of the recent protests in Indonesia against Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaya Purnama are mirrored in the ongoing U.S. protests against the impending presidency of Trump, with both protests contesting the qualifications of government leaders. Trump and Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, are both considered to be straight-talking political outsiders. Ahok cultivated his persona by being brash and direct, which is at odds with Indonesian political norms. Similarly, Trump’s persona is characterized, in part, by his rejection of political correctness.

In terms of demographics, the people participating in the two protests are quite different. However, both protests brought together different social groups under a common cause. The anti-Trump protests featured minorities, millennials, urban intellectuals, and Republican “never-Trumpers.” While the media has concentrated on the conservative Muslim groups leading the charge against Ahok, the Indonesian protestors are also a fairly diverse group.

After Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, flippantly contested claims that the Quran forbids Muslims from selecting non-Muslim leaders, conservative Muslim groups accused him of blasphemy, a criminal offense in Indonesia. The recent protests in Jakarta centered on calls to arrest Ahok on blasphemy charges. However, the motivations of some protestors were not solely religious. Deep-seated suspicions about Indonesia’s Chinese minority motivated some protestors, while others resented the forced evictions Ahok has employed to empty Jakarta’s slums.

The anti-Ahok protests are having a far greater effect than their American counterparts. In order to appease protestors, Indonesian police have named Ahok a suspect in a blasphemy investigation. Hardline groups are not willing to settle for anything less than Ahok’s arrest and are planning future protests. In response, law enforcement officials have banned further protests, citing concerns that they are smokescreens for a coup attempt.

Similar comparisons could be made about the recent protests in Malaysia organized by Bersih, a coalition of non-governmental organizations that seek to reform and root out corruption in Malaysia’s electoral system. The rallies have a similar tone to the Trump protests, calling on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to step down over his alleged involvement in the misappropriation of funds from the state-owned investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). However, the rallies have been a feature of Malaysian politics for 10 years, and thus do not provide the best parallel to the more spontaneous anti-Trump protests. A better place to find similarities between Malaysia and the United States is in the demographic divisions the two electorates share.

In the U.S. election, Trump secured 80 percent of the white evangelical Christian vote . A similar nexus between race, religion, and politics exists in Malaysia, which has three major ethnic groups: Malay (and various other indigenous peoples), Chinese, and Indians. In the next Malaysian general election due by 2018, Najib will again be counting on the support of rural voters, who tend to be Muslim Malays. However, Najib cannot take the support of his traditional rural base for granted. Over the past two elections Najib’s ruling political coalition, Barisan Nasional, has faced stiff opposition. In the 2013 election, the ruling coalition won enough seats in rural areas to maintain control of the parliament and government while losing the popular vote. The 2017 budget offers rural voters many incentives to continue their support for the ruling coalition, including cash handouts and rural infrastructure projects.

The opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan, is hoping to convert some rural voters to its cause, similar to what the Trump campaign accomplished when it won over many blue-collar workers who had traditionally voted Democrat. The core of the Malaysian opposition coalition typically enjoys strong support among Chinese and urban middle-class voters. Going forward, the coalition hopes to make inroads with rural Malay voters with the help of its new partners, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party and the National Trust Party.

The Malaysian United Indigenous Party champions the rights of the Malay and other indigenous peoples and is led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. The National Trust Party advocates for a progressive version of political Islam. At the recent Bersih rally in Kuala Lumpur, both the Malaysian United Indigenous Party and the National Trust Party demonstrated they could mobilize Malays to the opposition’s cause. However, the coalition is still new and has yet to work out all the disagreements among its members. Only time can tell if opposition coalition will be able to pose a significant challenge to the ruling coalition.

Identity remains a salient factor in both U.S. and Southeast Asian politics. However, as much importance as society attributes to the divisions people make among themselves, the fact that the fractures remain fairly constant across polities speaks more to our similarities than it does to our differences.

Mr. Lance Jackson is a researcher with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

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2 comments for “Parallels between Identity Politics in Southeast Asia & the United States

  1. Suriyon Raiwa
    December 1, 2016 at 20:06

    The lack of historical perspective that scars this article is unfortunate. The author seems utterly unaware of the dilemmas of “nation-building” and “national integration” that occupied the interests of an earlier generation of Southeast Asianists. Too, he’d do well to expose himself to the arguments made about identity in Federico Ferrara’s brilliant new Cambridge University Press book on Thailand’s political development.

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