The Culture of Political Culture in Indonesia and Malaysia

What do Jokowi‘s Mental Revolution and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi‘s Islam Hadhari have in common? They are both normative expressions of desire for a new kind of politics that is more ethical, just, humane, and progressive, even if they differ in how this ought to be manifest. But Mental Revolution and Islam Hadhari also share an assumption about what is wrong with the societies in which they would operate: they both appeal to problems of national character. They presuppose that “what is wrong” with politics ultimately lies with societies themselves, such that changing mass cultural mindsets is a precondition for political change. The problem, in other words, is political culture.

I explore this idea at greater length in an essay entitled “Adab and the Culture of Political Culture,” prepared for an upcoming conference on adab in Southeast Asia. Adab means something like manners or etiquette or comportment, and my brief is to write on its politics in Southeast Asia. But aside from a version of the mirrors-for-princes genre that can be found in classical Malay literature, it is hard to discern exactly what the politics of adab is. So instead, I reflect on the way that adab and words formed from it—beradab, peradaban, berkeadaban—are used both in popular discourse and by political elites. Doing so highlights, first, the general vagueness of how adab and its derivatives are actually used, but second, a common belief that politics is ultimately an expression of national character. A civilized politics (politik beradab) is an expression of a civilized nation.

I am not proposing that adab denotes a particular vision of political culture in Indonesia and Malaysia. Rather, that its use simply reflects a cultural predisposition to believe that political culture is somehow problematic. This is a “second-order political culture,” or a culture of political culture. There is surely nothing unique to Indonesia and Malaysia about this. However, it is easy to see how a culture of political culture is a convenient distraction from an alternative diagnosis of “what is wrong” with contemporary politics, one that focuses on the failures of politicians or political institutions.