Wednesday, July 14, 2010

3 things Indonesia can teach Malaysia

Malaysia and Indonesia are two countries with great similarities in language and culture, yet with great differences as well. Malaysia to the north is relatively peaceful, and one of the wealthiest and most modern states in Southeast Asia; Indonesia to the south is massively overpopulated, beset by civil strife, corruption and grinding poverty. And anyone who think the KL traffic jams are bad has obviously never experienced Jakarta's.

Yet Indonesia still has managed to get some important things right in a way that Malaysia seems unable to. I think most Malaysians would be loathe to admit it, but their struggling island cousins are streets ahead in certain departments. For example:


It's a pretty savage indictment on Southeast Asia in general that Indonesia is now a beacon of multi-party democracy in the region. Sure, it was effectively ruled by dictators for half a century, and is still corrupt as all hell. But since the fall of Suharto, Indonesia has had 4 democratically-elected presidents in 12 years. Which means that for all the faults inherent in Indonesian politics, the populace can and does vote out any leader who they deem not up to scratch. In how many countries in the region can that be said to be true?

Certainly not Malaysia, where Barisan Nasional, in one form or another, has enjoyed 47 years of unbroken rule, driven by racially polarising policies. The one recent politician to emerge realistic challenger to BN's dominance conveniently found himself in jail on sodomy and corruption charges; which of course the ruling party had absolutely no hand in, or so they say.

Friendly customer service

I know loads of Malaysians and so can testify that they are generally a lovely bunch of people. Except you would never guess it by observing what passes for customer service in their country.

I'm by no means a demanding customer, and have no desire to be waited on hand and foot, but there are certain things I appreciate when I go into a shop or restaurant. A smile, a greeting, a sense that they actually appreciate that I am spending my hard-earned in their establishment; these are easy things. But things that tend to be the exception in Malaysia.

I'm perhaps being a little harsh on regional Malaysia, which is generally not too bad in these respects. I have found pleasant service to be commonplace in Penang, Terengganu, Kucing and elsewhere, but most people who serve you in Kuala Lumpur seem to have zero interest in doing so. There is certainly friendly and polite customer service to be found in KL, but it stands out because of its comparative rarity.

Indonesia is a very different story - most people are quick to smile, speak politely and respectfully, and give the impression that taking your order or assisting you is not an onerous burden.

It is strange that despite being sandwiched between Indonesia and Thailand (whose people are also renowned for their politeness), so many Malaysian staff have settled on grumpy indifference as their default setting.

Moderate Islam

Yes, I know that Indonesia has been the site of numerous terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists, as well as Christian-Muslim violence in Maluku and Sulawesi. And Malaysia hasn't.

But forget for a moment what happens at the extreme end of the spectrum. Indonesia seems to have figured out a much better way of integrating Islam with the modern world, and with the demands of a multi-ethnic and multi-faith society. It's unfortunate that Indonesia, despite being the world's largest Muslim nation, will forever considered a backwater by Middle-East-dominated mainstream Islam, because Indonesian Islam is a far better brand of religion than how it is practiced in, say, modern Saudi Arabia. And it's a shame that so many Muslims in both Malaysia and Indonesia look to the Arab World as role models when perhaps it should be the other way around.

Indonesia may have its share of vigilante zealots like the Islamic Defenders' Front, but lacks an official body of "morality police" in the way that Malaysia does. Malaysia is still locking up and caning Muslims who dare drink alcohol and frequent clubs; Jakarta on the other hand is at least 90% Muslim yet has a thriving bar, club and band scene. Indonesians would care little whether Christians used the word "Allah" in reference to the Christian God; in Malaysia the prospect of it led to uproar and attacks on churches (it was seen as a means of proselytising to Muslims).

One of Malaysia's key problems is the way that it has linked Malay identity so firmly with Islam; there is no concept of being Malay yet not Islamic. Thus, religious disputes automatically become ethnic disputes as well, and vice versa. In Indonesia, Muslims can convert to other religions without legal consequence, but in Malaysia this is both illegal and unthinkable; a betrayal not only of Islam but of the Malay race as well.


  1. Good understanding of the differences in both nation. I've seen both countries as well only to agree with u completely on this. Well done as i enjoy reading your blog.

  2. Well done,I get lots of info from this..I hate to confess that all you've said are quite painful at some points,but,to be frankly enough,you're honest n quite true.Proud with that..1 little request,would u mind to explain on the difference concept of Malay (as a race,in M'sia)n (as a clan@suku in Indonesia)

    1. Hi Fara.
      In Indonesia, there are lots of different ethnic groups. Each speaks their own language, but most also speak Indonesian as well. There are tensions between different groups, but aside from the ethnic Chinese, there is no question about their "Indonesian-ness". In that sense, Malay is just another ethnic group.

      By contrast, "Malay" in Malaysia refers to a group of people who speak Malay and follow Islam. As I understand it, Malaysia would previously have been full of lots of different groups speaking their own languages and following a variety of beliefs. But over time these people took on the dominant culture and hence "became" Malay by adopting the Malay language and the religion of Islam. The only ones who did not are the Orang Asli of the central Malaysian jungles, and the various ethnic groups of East Malaysia (Iban, Dusun, Dayak, Kadazan, etc).
      What is interesting to me is that the East Malaysian indigenes are considered bumiputera (sons of the soil) and to have an equal claim to Malaysia as the Malays, when compared to the descendents of immigrants such as Chinese and Indians. But under the current system, an Iban or Kadazan would never get to be Prime Minister. Even in Sarawak and Sabah, where Malays are 23% and 6% of the population respectively, the rulers are all Malays. YET, some prime ministers have been of non-Malaysian heritage and still rise to the highest office. Najib and his father have Indonesian Bugis heritage, while Mahathir is part-Indian. Yet they are considered "Malay" and thus be part of the power structure. You have to figure that religion plays a big role in this discrepancy.