The silent majority and the dangerous minority

The Jakarta Post
07 June 2017

Oleh : Wimar Witoelar 


Ihad the privilege of having a one-on-one conversation the other day with a gentleman who heads the Indonesian office of a major multilateral institution. We structured the conversation in a Q&A on Indonesian current concerns.

Topping the list was the political tension that colored the Jakarta gubernatorial election. A popular and effective governor with an approval rating of 76 percent managed to lose by a 15 percent margin to a challenger without an original program, but who capitalized on religious sentiments. The campaign did not deal with the issues and did not produce a winner, just a loser. The incumbent not only lost the election but was tried for blasphemy, then convicted and imprisoned with no evidence. Obviously it was politics. It happens.

Many have analyzed why this happened. Did those who lost wage the wrong campaign? More importantly, what has to be done to prevent this? The gubernatorial election was not just a process ending in the selection of the new governor. It could be a grand rehearsal for elections yet to come, like the presidential election.

The tools of campaigning and persuasion, the alliances and funding mechanism, have been honed to a fine detail in the Jakarta elections. There’s every possibility that the same tools could be used to push through the presidential candidates preferred by the people who won Jakarta. In a democracy elections can yield any result. We have seen that in the United States; we have seen that in Brexit. Not always do the forces and voices of negativism prevail and win the day. At least France and the Netherlands have used elections to reaffirm their faith in their core values, and emerged as stronger states.

In Indonesia, the core values since we were born as a nation are informal but deep. It is a climate of pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect with a few exceptions. Religions, ethnicity and geography have not had too much say in the way people voted. People say Indonesia is a young nation but it is actually almost 72 years old. It could be called “mature” or it could just be called “old.”

Old age has its blessings but it brings a self-serving and exclusive way of seeing the nation to the point that we forget that diversity is the key to our survival. A nation as diverse geographically and ethnically as Indonesia could not have survived if it were forced to live under binding unified leadership. Sure we have had strong persons as leaders. Some overly strong. But they have operated in a society of pluralism and eclecticism that has found a way to deal with adversity. There is strength of the community, of being together.

A study released on Sunday by the reputable Saiful Mujani Research Consultants (SMRC) found that 79.3 percent of respondents prefer the Indonesian state as it is now, based on the 1945 Constitution. It features Pancasila, the national ideology, which is based on diversity. Religions and ethnic origins are protected by the state, which separates state and religion.

However, 9.2 percent say they would accept a caliphate nation as expounded by the Islamic State (IS) group. That is worrying, but the majority do not approve of its action program, 80 percent disapprove and only 2.7 percent approve. Respondents familiar with IS support a state ban on the organization. Only 7.5 percent disagree with the notion of a ban on IS. Most or 89.3 percent find IS as a threat to Indonesia’s existence.

Some sigh with relief at the findings that do not show Indonesia about to turn into a Pakistan or Afghanistan. But some are worried about the approval of hard-liners that in the past were not part of our mainstream. They see the small minority of religious extremists as being a dangerous minority, especially as the majority is silent and ineffective.

We must actively reach out and turn the silent majority into an active force in our communities. Outreach could take many forms: town hall meetings and forms of public gatherings; expressions in the press and social media, radio and television. And we must seek to promote outreach in other cities beyond Jakarta because the problem is everywhere.

The other purpose of the gatherings is to encourage actions from people entrusted with power — the President and his government. The President, to people’s puzzlement, has not taken a very active position in the political aggression of recent months. Except for the last week or so when he gave very resounding, non-compromising speeches on Pancasila and underneath it the spirit of pluralism, which he said makes the nation beautiful. This voice of leadership, not apologizing for the harshness of hard-liners and the impetuousness of the extreme groups is something that we yearn to hear. First, because it brings comfort. Secondly, it encourages more action. It can turn the silent majority into a strong citizenry.

There is little doubt among rational people that President Jokowi is doing a good job and trying to do better. Outliving the doubts when he was elected, he has shown himself to be a man of intelligence. He is strategic; his demure manner and politeness hide firmness of conviction. And he has staunch supporters, such as National Police chief Gen. Tito Karnavian, who make his intentions more convincing.

This is not a campaign for Jokowi; the elections are scheduled two years away. But it is a campaign to keep the elections in 2019 and not have it subverted by earlier political maneuvers, which could bring downfall to liberal, forward-looking and modern leadership. Extra-constitutional methods subverted president Abdurrahman Wahid in 2000 by a cabal of politicians who have moved on to separate opportunistic paths.

We need to have a sense of where things might go or where things are going and how we can make a difference. We need to be encouraged by community solidarity and we must channel our voices so that it reaches the nation’s leadership; and insist that they protect our diversity, our pluralism, our secularism and our sanity.

Political power rests in the hands of those with money but ultimately power has its real base among the empowered population. The population now needs to be empowered. We seek a strong majority to repel the dangerous minority.


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