Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or simply “Ahok”, the first ethnic-Chinese governor of Jakarta, was thrown into hot soup last year when he explained to Indonesian voters that his opponents had used a verse from the Quran / Koran to deceive voters, after conservative Islamist opponents quoted the verse warning against Muslims voting for non-Muslims (kafirs).
Ahok, who is a Christian, was an easy meat and it didn’t take much persuasion for 150,000 Muslim protesters rioting violently on the street. As the world’s most populous Muslim country, what the Indonesian extreme groups needed to do was to conveniently accuse Ahok of insulting Islam, and all hell breaks loose.
Of course, like its neighbour Malaysia, Ahok was easily trapped when his political opponents played the religion card. Indonesian Muslims were no different from Malaysian Muslims – they would run amok at the slightest provocation. Ahok was fighting an uphill battle for re-election when his political opponents working hand-in-glove with MUI (Indonesian Ulema Council).
In a page taken from Malaysia’s UMNO political party, Ahok’s opponents secretly conspired with MUI, an agency similar to Malaysia’s notorious JAKIM (Department of Islamic Development Malaysia), in a race for Jakarta governorship. Both his opponents are Muslims – Anies Baswedan and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono (the son of former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono).
In a blasphemy trial, one of Ahok’s defense lawyers had claimed that former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was trying to exert undue influence on the MUI chairman – Ma’ruf Amin – to issue a fatwa against Ahok. MUI, as expected, had denied the allegations, claiming that no political party can or has ever exerted pressure on, or tried to dictate MUI into issuing an edict.
However, MUI was later found to have had “lied about its relationship” with Yudhoyono family. During the eighth session of Ahok’s blasphemy trial, the so-called spiritual leader Ma’ruf Amin made statements contradicting with information Ahok’s lawyers have in their possession. Ma’ruf also tried to hide the fact that he was a member of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s advisory council.
When interrogated, Ma’ruf confirmed he had a meeting with Yudhoyono’s son Agus and his running mate Sylviana Murni but claimed that it took place “before the blasphemy case”. Later, Ahok’s lawyers grilled Ma’ruf and asked whether he had received a phone call from former President Yudhoyono, to which the MUI chairman replied – “None of those”.
After the panel of judges and Ma’ruf were shown evidence by Ahok’s lawyer that the phone call had indeed taken place, Ma’ruf made a quick U-turn claiming he had forgotten. Later, Yudhoyono furiously compared the alleged wiretapping of his conversation with the MUI chairman to the wiretapping of US President Richard Nixon in Watergate, indirectly admittingthat he had influenced MUI after all.
Caught with his pants down, MUI chairman Ma’ruf Amin may now be forced to make another U-turn. He is now under pressure to issue a new fatwa against spreading of fake news online, a move that could get Ahok re-elected. Indonesian President Joko Widodo, a close ally of Ahok, is himself pressured by China after MUI’s fatwa last year has opened the floodgates of fake news.
After four Chinese nationals were arrested by Indonesian authorities for planting imported chilli seeds contaminated with a bacteria “erwinia chrysanthemi” on a farm about 60 km south of Jakarta, headlines splashed across Indonesian media with conspiracy theories. The fake news spread that China was using a “biological weapon” against Indonesia, triggering anti-Chinese sentiment.
The rumours of China’s invasion of Indonesia got so bad that the China’s embassy in Indonesia was forced to raise alarm that the fake news were “very worrying” and hoped that the bilateral relations and friendship between the people of China and Indonesia will not be affected. Indirectly, Beijing was telling Jakarta to tackle its complex mix of politics and religion problems, or else.
President Joko Widodo, popularly known as President Jokowi, has an ambitious plan of transforming Indonesia into a high-tech nation. But he could only do so much promising the sky and moon to Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Apple. At the end of the day, infrastructures such as ports, electricity, roads, railways and whatnot must be in order.
Indonesia depends heavily on China because the Chinese were the only one willing to deliver the much needed infrastructure without causing serious financial burden to Jokowi administration. That was the reason China was awarded the high-speed train project connecting Jakarta and Bandung in 2015. China could do it “without Indonesian debt guarantee”, while Japan could not.
Besides tax cuts, investors are generally afraid of high transportation costs, rigid labour market, government red tape, corruption and in the case of the Chinese investors – political instability. If President Jokowi couldn’t control the extreme groups, including the MUI (Indonesian Ulema Council), Beijing might stop whatever foreign funds intended for Jakarta.
President Jokowi tweeted in December last year – “Libel, hate speech and false words on social media are increasingly troubling society.” He also said the law enforcement had to come down hard on those who engaged in these online behaviours. Ma’ruf Amin might be the country’s spiritual leader, but even he cannot risk having a chaos economic system.
Ma’ruf knew that his MUI is often used by the government, any political parties or interest groups for their own political purposes. To Beijing, Ahok, like Jokowi, is seen as an economic reformer and would be a key player in plans to beef up infrastructure in the city of 10 million, the largest in the country and a commercial as well as political hub.
A recent poll showed Yudhoyono garners 24.1% support whereas Baswedan 22.7%. Ahok remained the front-runner ahead of the election on Feb. 15, securing 37.4%. Both Jokowi administration and China want the status quo to remain in order to prevent major changes to the local policies. It’s a fact that Beijing likes Ahok’s policies and MUI has no choice but to issue a fatwa condemning fake news it started in the first place.