The implications of growing Indonesian Assertiveness on ASEAN

By Farish A. Noor

In his book ‘Losing an Empire, Finding a Role’ the British Political scientist David Sanders poses the intesting question of whether Britain could have found a better role for itself in the wake of the Second World War and the decolonisation process.

Sanders’ argument runs along the following lines: After the end of the Second World War it was obvious to everyone that Britain could no longer maintain its grip on its imperial dominions abroad. The independence of India and Pakistan marked the beginning of a decolonisation process that eventually denuded the British Empire, leaving it with a handful of islands and protectorates scattered across the world, but for all intents and purposes the British Empire was dead – along with the Empires of France, Spain and Holland. But Britain (like France) entertained the longing for its imperial past and longed for a global role to play, despite its manifold handicaps and the enormous economic burden of post-war reconstruction.

The net result was a Britain that was over-extended and playing the role of loyal ally to the United States, a dubious honour which meant that the UK shared the blame for all of the US’s mistakes but none of the credit. Sanders opines that Britain might have been better served had it opted for a more modest role like that of Austria’s, which eventually gave up all pretense of being a world power but which later became a force within Europe.


Post-war Britain suffered the fate of those countries with a grand and impressive history and which tend to fall back on nostalgia for the past, rather than the realities of the present. While tales of lost power and grandeur may serve the needs of egoistic politicians, they do not serve as good foundations for foreign policy.

Today a similar fate may lie in waiting for Indonesia, which has of late been showing more signs of a renewed nationalism and assertiveness in the Southeast Asian region of ASEAN. The current spat between Indonesia and Malaysia over the question of cultural ‘piracy’ and ‘theft’ is a case in point, with Indonesia claiming that Indonesia’s rich and complex culture has been ’stolen’ by neighbouring countries like Malaysia – as well as others like Singapore. So heated has the debate become that Indonesian nationalists have even threatened to go to war against Malaysia, and the streets of Jakarta have been taken over by self-proclaimed gangs of ‘patriotic vigilantes’ like the Benteng Demokrasi Rakyat (Bendera), Barisan Muda Betawi, Relawan Ganyang Malaysia and the Relawan Pembela Demokrasi (Repdem).

The sudden emergence of these groups have given analysts cause to suspect that Indonesia still retains features of its culture of ‘Preman’ gangsters and clandestine militias that dates back to the Suharto era, when pseudo-militia units like Ratih (Rakyat Terlatih) and Pamswaraksa were likewise trained, funded and instrumentally deployed by senior army officers like generals Moerdani and Wiranto, who used such groups in order to harass and eliminate opponents both in and out of the country.

But more worrying than the fiery bellicose rhetoric of nationalist politicians are the statements coming from Indonesian policy makers and statesmen who now claim that Indonesia should go along its own appointed path and that Indonesia has less need of ASEAN than ASEAN has need for Indonesia.

It is undeniable that Indonesia is the biggest player in ASEAN today and that the success or failure of ASEAN in the long run will depend on the success or failure of Indonesia. As the forth largest country in the world, ASEAN cannot afford to neglect Indonesia or turn a blind eye to its internal developments. Yet it is precisely the internal developments in Indonesia that give cause for concern: The return to the politics of premans and gangsters reminds the world of the time when Indonesia was known less for its refined culture and more for the culture of gangsterism in politics. And right-wing extreme nationalist rhetoric that we hear from some Indonesian politicians today is alarming to say the least, sending all the wrong signals to the international community at large.