Indonesia is Neither an Islamic nor a Secular State

I recently came across a discussion of alcohol regulations in Indonesia, housed on a site that apparently caters to Indonesia’s expat community. (Westerners have something of an infatuation with restrictions on alcohol as a measure of how religiously tolerant Muslim societies are. This is true even though it is still far easier to purchase beer in Jakarta than it is in my home town in central Pennsylvania.)

What struck me was not the discussion of alcohol—old hat—but rather an instructive error in the very first sentence.

Indonesia, being a Muslim majority country, is also a pluralist, democratic and secular nation.

The error is in the word “secular.” Indonesia is not an Islamic state, but it is also not a secular state and it never has been. Misunderstand this, and you misunderstand Indonesian politics and religion.

The Indonesian constitution (PDF) declared in Chapter XI that

(1) The State shall be based upon the belief in the One and Only God.
(2) The State guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his/her own religion or belief

(1) is the key, establishing the founding principle that the state is religious, from which follows the conclusion that the state has legitimate role in regulating religious practice and religious affairs. Chapter X also stipulates that

In exercising his/her rights and freedoms, every person shall have the duty to accept the restrictions established by law for the sole purposes of guaranteeing the recognition and respect of the rights and freedoms of others and of satisfying just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security and public order in a democratic society.

This provision clarifies that the protection of religious values may serve as the basis for lawmaking. Note that this is not a reasoned argument on legal grounds about where the rights of one infringe on the rights of others, this is a constitutional provision that asserts that such laws are permissible.

From these and a few other provisions, many interesting things follow that have no place in a secular state. There are religious courts. There is a Ministry of Religions that regulates religions, not just Islam but others as well. The Indonesian state has the constitutional architecture necessary for state actors to take a position on what religious beliefs and practices are normatively acceptable, which ones are deviant, and which ones are a threat to social order. The argument that the sale and consumption of alcohol inflicts harm on Indonesian Muslims even if they do not consume it themselves is an entirely coherent position (even if I don’t agree with it at all).

The politics in Indonesian Islam is not about defending the state from Islam. It is about positioning Islam within a state apparatus that can and does regulate it and other religions. Secular states solve these problems by preventing the state from taking a position on religion. For better or for worse, that is not the path that Indonesia’s elites chose at independence.

What’s Behind the Lee Family Troubles in Singapore?

The Guardian has an explosive story today of a split within Singapore’s first family, the Lees. Lee Hsien Loong is Singapore’s Prime Minister, and is the son of former Prime Minister, Senior Minister, and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. After months of simmering tensions with his siblings Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang, the two have come out with a damning public criticism of their brother the Prime Minister. (See for more, including some social media posts by Lee Hsien Yang’s son Li Shengwu.)

The story behind this is almost prosaic: a dispute over Lee Kuan Yew’s former home, which the late former Prime Minister did not want to be preserved as a memorial to himself. Hsien Loong has not followed his father’s wishes, and as a result, his siblings allege that

we believe that Hsien Loong and Ho Ching are motivated by a desire to inherit Lee Kuan Yew’s standing and reputation for themselves and their children. Whilst our father built this nation upon meritocracy, Hsien Loong, whilst purporting to espouse these values, has spoken of a “natural aristocracy”. Hsien Loong and his wife, Ho Ching, have opposed Lee Kuan Yew’s wish to demolish his house, even when Lee Kuan Yew was alive. Indeed, Hsien Loong and Ho Ching expressed plans to move with their family into the house as soon as possible after Lee Kuan Yew’s passing. This move would have strengthened Hsien Loong’s inherited mandate for himself and his family. Moreover, even if Hsien Loong did not live at 38 Oxley Road, the preservation of the house would enhance his political capital.

One might see this as just one more example of why one should not allow family dynasties to emerge in electoral regimes, for the phenomenon of regression to the mean means that outstanding parents are statistically unlikely to have outstanding children. Although that might be a good lesson to learn—see also my commentary on the Soeharto regime and the Trump administration—there is a still deeper problem that the Lee family troubles reveal.

That problem is the structural dangers of personalized politics. It actually does not matter whether Hsien Loong or his siblings are correct. A system in which the charismatic authority of deceased politician may conceivably be appropriated by his ruling child is one in which it is always possible to call into question the justice or fairness of the system itself. It is a weapon of criticism which is always available, a source of doubt which can never be erased. State ideology in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore was for better or for worse constructed around an ideology of meritocratic excellence. Lee Hsien Loong finds himself bound by his father’s outsized political legacy in ways that would never have been possible had (1) LHL not been LKY’s son, or (2) LKY not been such a gigantic personality in Singaporean politics. So when the current Prime Minister Lee acts in ways that are even plausibly attributable to an anti-meritocratic preference for family favoritism (as, for example, his comments about “natural aristocracy” suggested to many Singaporeans), it is not just a crisis not just for the Prime Minister, but potentially an indictment of the system itself.

The consequences will almost certainly not be regime change. But scandalous rumors and family squabbles certainly undermine Singapore’s reputation as a bastion of meritocratic excellence among the very citizens whose assent is most essential for perpetuating the political status quo.