Articles & Commentaries

2021/23 “Longer-term External Conditions Behind Legal Conservatism in Malaysian Islam” by Mohd Faizal Musa and Siti Syazwani Zainal Abidin


An imam reads the Friday prayers sermon during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, at the National Mosque, which was reopened after the Malaysia government relaxed measures to combat the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, in Kuala Lumpur on May 15, 2020. In the last decade, conservative forces in Malaysia have been pressuring the federal government to amend the country’s laws to increase the authority of the Sharia courts. Photo: Mohd RASFAN, AFP.


  • In Malaysia, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is conventionally seen as one of the main external factors that contributed to rising conservatism in the country today. This association appears in the writings of numerous academic scholars and observers on Malaysian Islam.
  • However, the fact that Malaysian Muslims generally exclude and demonise Shiites suggests that there are other underlying forces at play to account for this trend. Shiism is the dominant Islamic sect in Iran, and the revolution led to a Shia cleric coming to power.
  • Malaysia’s own Islamic traditions, its religious elites and the dakwah (missionary) movements also contributed to the rising conservatism and prevalence of different strands of Islamism in Malaysia today. These include the Wahhabi movement, as well as the Islamic Brotherhood (Ikhwanul Muslimin) ideology imported from Egypt.
  • This paper argues that rising conservatism has led to an increased push towards a stricter and more rigid Sharia law influenced mainly by Wahhabism, which came to northern and eastern states in Malaya, namely Perlis and Kelantan, already in the early 19th century, as well as the Ikhwanul Muslim ideology which came a century later.

* Mohd Faizal Musa is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Research Fellow at Institute of the Malay World and Civilization, National University of Malaysia (UKM). Siti Syazwani Zainal Abidin was formerly a Research Officer at the Institute.


In the last decade, conservative forces in Malaysia have been pressuring the federal government to amend the country’s laws to increase the authority of the Sharia courts. Under the Najib Razak government (2009-2018), a controversial Bill to amend the Syariah Courts (criminal jurisdiction) Act (RUU355) was tabled in parliament by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang in 2017. It never saw the light of day even though it was listed for a second reading in 2018. However, in November 2020, Dr Zulkifli Mohammad al-Bakri, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department of Religious Affairs under the current Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, said that he hoped that the RUU355 amendment would be realised one day.[1]

The politicians’ preoccupation with stringent Islamic laws is conventionally linked to the 1979 Iranian Revolution as one of the contributing external factors.[2] Prominent scholars such as Chandra Muzaffar,[3] Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Ahmed Shabery Cheek ascribed the rise of political Islam in Malaysia to the Iranian Revolution, although they did not underplay the significance of domestic politicking among Malay political parties, such as the kafir-mengkafir phenomenon (calling one another infidels) between UMNO and PAS in the 1980s.[4] Suggesting that Islamic revivalism in Malaysia came in three phases, Jomo and Ahmed cited “Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979” as the main external factor having “a most significant impact on the growth of political Islam in Malaysia”;[5] the other global factors cited being the Arab-Israeli war in the 1970s and the 1973 Oil Crisis. These external factors combined with other local developments such as the rise of dakwah movements among middle class and educated Malays. Their works have been highly cited by many scholars ever since. Similarly, Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman further alluded the obsession with Islam and hudud law (puritan interpretation of sharia) to the Iranian Revolution.[6] The same suggestion was also made by political leaders such as Liew Chin Tong.[7] He blames the Islamic resurgence movement, particularly citing the Iranian Revolution, for inspiring many Muslims around the world to put their faith in radical means to champion their cause. 

This article argues that connecting Islamic resurgence solely to the Iranian Revolution needs a more nuanced discussion. Undeniably, the revolution led many Muslims in the region to be inspired by the 80-year-old cleric Ayatollah Khomeini’s leadership of the movement, which ended up toppling the Shah of Iran. And some felt that the Muslim world needed the “leadership of the jurist (Islamic scholar)” such as Khomeini. Still, Islamic law in Malaysia does not subscribe to the Shia school of legal thought. Therefore, while the Iranian Revolution had an impact on Malaysian political thought during the resurgence, its impact on legal thought is less apparent. Instead, the push towards a stricter and more rigid Sharia law has existed since the 1900s and is undergoing an evolution. Lately, it has been the influence of what we define as the Salafisation of Islamic law. This phenomenon was strengthened further by the Qutbists or Muslim Brotherhood.


The term Wahhabism, also referred to as Salafism,[8] was inspired by Muhammad Abdul Wahab (d.1787). The Wahhabis followed Ibn Taimiyyah’s (d. 728 CE) theological ideas and accepted the Hanbali school of  Islamic jurisprudence. They adopted special doctrines of Ibn Taimiyyah on Islamic theology and law, and followed the conventional Hanbali doctrines The Wahhabis accepted various commentaries including Muhammad Abdul Wahab’s Kitab al-Tawhid. Wahhabism was associated with many military actions, including the attacks on Karbala and Najaf in 1801, the centres of learning for the Shiites.

While the puritan type of Wahhabism reached the shores of the Malay world a century later, it was the reformist Muhammad Abduh and Muhammad Rashida Rida who managed to spread their teachings in Malaysia and who influenced many aspects of religious activities. This happened under British colonial rule. Muhammad Abduh and Muhammad Rashid Rida’s brand of Salafism “emphasised political aims; anti-colonialism, Islamic solidarity and Arab unity, and of course, opposition to the Jewish invasion of Palestine.”[9] It was only in recent years that Salafism of the Wahhabi type made its way to Malaysia. According to  Ibrahim Abu Bakar, “[it was] spread by those who received their religious training in Medina. They taught Salafism from Saudi Arabia in their informal religious classes.”[10] From his genealogical study on Salafism in Malaysia, he concludes that “Salafism in Jordan was from the Salafism in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria” and that Malaysian students who studied in Jordan in yesteryears had adopted Salafism and brought it back to Malaysia.

Proponents of Wahhabism in Malaysia are of three fundamentalist orientations. The first is the purist, apolitical, and missionary type found within Islamic activist circles. The second is found among politicians, with dissident ulamas being spokespersons, calling for reform of the state and the religious establishment. The third is the jihadi-type movements, which aim to abolish the nation-state. They pay special attention to doctrinaire jihad, influenced by Muslim Brotherhood thinker Sayyid Qutb (referred to as Qutbism).[11]


To better understand the rise of nationalism and Islamic revivalism, one has to reflect on developments in the Middle East between the 1960s and the 1980s. In Egypt, there was the Muslim Brotherhood, whose objective was to reinstate Islam as the foundation of Egyptian society. Politically, it sought to topple President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism project. Guilty of plans to stage a coup, many of the Muslim Brotherhood members, including Sayyid Qutb, were arrested. His brother, Muhammad, managed to flee to Saudi Arabia.[12] Coincidently, between 1965 and 1975, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was embracing pan-Islamism to counteract Nasser’s pan-Arabism.  Members of the Brotherhood, most of whom were teachers, were also given sanctuary in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi education system was suddenly awash with Egyptian Muslim Brothers and other Salafis. King Khalid (1975-1982) offered academic positions to proponents of Qutbism. Although both shared the same vision of Pan-Islamism and the ambition to revert to Islam, the Saudis however took most of their creed from Muhammad Abdul Wahhab and Ibn Taimiyyah.[13]

In tandem with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the revolution in Iran was also brewing. In the 1960s, the Shah continued to develop Iran using a Western model and was a dictator that controlled all aspects of life through the violent force of his secret police. By weakening the traditional role of the imams, the Shah incurred the wrath of the Shi’ite community.[14]

In the 1970s, the Shah tried to modernise Iran by importing Western culture, styles of dressing and general public behaviour. With further problems in the country, the Shah’s regime became increasingly repressive.[15] The public mood shifted towards Ayatollah Khomeini; and the slogans of demonstrators were “God is Great” and “God, God, Khomeini.” Once the Shah was toppled, the public sought to increase the role of Islam in all aspects of life and undo West-centric policies, culminating in increased conservatism.

Few questioned that the 1979 Iranian Revolution was a counteraction against Western hegemony through Islam. Even for Malaysian Islamists, the Iranian Revolution was deemed as the ability of Islam or theological democracy to govern a state/country. Even those who blame the rising conservatism on the Iranian Revolution have not been able to answer why Malaysian Islamists solely adopted the political dimension of the Iranian Revolution but not the theological and legal dimension. One might argue that Malaysian Muslim elites were simply being selective in accepting the political dimension of the revolution but not the theological and legal aspects. But even then, one cannot deny that the concept of velayet e faqih or the “leadership of the jurists” which some Malaysian elites embrace is derived from the Shiite Twelver theology. Velayet e faqih as coined by Khomeini is indeed the continuity of the Imamate, after Prophethood.

Thus, the argument that the Iranian Revolution was the main factor of Islamic revivalism, and thus resulted in Malaysian Muslims’ obsession with Sharia law was accepted unquestioningly. This argument was put forth by Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Ahmed Shabery Cheek in their paper, “The Politics of Malaysia’s Islamic Resurgence.” Chandra Muzaffar in ‘Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia’ mentioned that the success of the Iranian Revolution in establishing an Islamic State and in preserving an Islamic identity was a great inspiration for Islamic resurgence in Malaysia Liew Chin Tong in his op-ed, “The Evolution of Political Islam in Malaysia” similarly figured Iran for Malaysia’s obsession with Sharia law. One also needs to remember, with the discourse on Shia Islam being more available today, the abovementioned statement needs to be tackled prudently, through a detailed discussion on marjaiyyat (religious authority, a concept within Shia Islam); also, the developing of political and philosophical doctrines such as hikmah muataaliyah (transcendent wisdom) or wilayatul faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist, a concept adopted by the Republic Islam of Iran as political, law and religious framework) cannot be neglected.

In short, if the Iranian Revolution was truly the main factor for the rise of conservatism in Malaysia in the 1980s, then the deep-seated hatred towards the Shiites today would not be as profound as it now seems to be.


Apart from the Iranian Revolution, there are other push factors that led to the eventual pressure for stricter and rigid Sharia law. They include the role of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and the Wahhabi movement of Saudi Arabia. In the early 20th century, a spin-off, unique version of Islam, dubbed “Islam Kelantan” and “Islam Perlis” emerged. It gained traction in the north of the Malay Peninsula and was spearheaded by Saudi Arabia scholars such as Sheikh Hassan and Sheikh Nur al-Surur, who arrived in the Malay states in the 1920s. Sheikh Nur al-Surur came from a Wahhabi learning institution, and soon Wahhabism started spreading under a new name: Ahlus Sunnah of Perlis. The existence of Ahlus Sunnah of Perlis was further patronised by state officials, with four founding fathers – Haji Mat Hakim, Sheikh Ahmad Muhammad Hashim, Wan Ahmad Wan Daud and Abu Bakar al-Asyaari, all of whom also occupied important political positions. Wahhabism and Ahlus Sunnah of Perlis were interwoven because of the shared and basic concepts towards the interpretation of anthropomorphic verses; their stand on intercession (tawassul); the way to handle funerals, and the eradication of superstitions and innovations.[16] However, Ahlus Sunnah of Perlis was restricted to Perlis and could not expand their influence due to strong resistance in other states.

Secondly, the Muslim Brotherhood was already making significant strides in Malaysia long before the Iranian Revolution. As stated earlier, the Muslim Brotherhood had an amicable relationship with Saudi Arabia during King Faisal’s rule. As a result, the writings of Sayyid Qutb flourished all around the world, also spreading to the Malay world. It must be noted that Qutbist ideas, mainly introduced by PAS, an Islamic party with a vision for an Islamic State, had arrived earlier in the 1940s and 1950s when PAS members first received “revelations” from Muslim Brotherhood leaders and members and even had direct contact with Sayyid Qutb and Hasan Al-Banna.[17] This shifted PAS’ focus from one that was strictly political to one that became increasingly religious. The spread of these ideas stems from when the Muslim Brotherhood flocked to destinations in Europe and Southeast Asia due to the organisation being banned in 1954 by the Egyptian government. By the 1960s, several Muslim Brotherhood members were present such as Dr. Nabil a-Tawil, a member of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood who was then working at the University of Malaya. He helped spread the Brotherhood’s ideology of tajdid (renewal) and Islah (reform) to Malay-Muslim students at the University of Malaya, particularly students from the Islamic Studies Department.[18]

As a consequence, they became familiar with Qutb’s ideas. Among the viewpoints that they were impressed with was Qutb’s rejection of secular notions such as nationalism, socialism, and capitalism, which he described as jahiliyyah (uncivilised) philosophies. These notions were later documented in his book, Fi Zilal Al Qur’an (In the Shade of the Qur’an) that was read by many, including Malay students, who were exposed to the Brotherhood.[19] The arrival of the so-called Qutbists opened a wide path for Islamic activism. The Brotherhood for instance emphasises the jihad doctrinaire, and with takfir (the act of excommunication or declaring other Muslims as no longer Muslims) being its main approach, it is also a political call for the sovereignty of God. Their principle is ‘the Qur’an is our Constitution’.

Thirdly, the discourse on hudud law was advocated by a group of religious elites. In 2012, a survey done by University of Malaya’s Centre for Election and Democracy found that about 62% of local Muslims supported the implementing of hudud law, believing it would bring about a more just judiciary. This belief stems from Harun Din who was very influential in the academia and dakwah (missionary) scenes in the 1970s. He first called for ‘hudud’ as a ‘remedy of crime’. It should be noted here that many years later, Harun would become PAS’s Mursyidul Am (Advisor).

In April 1978, Harun Din presented at a seminar and published in Dewan Masharakat (15 July 1978)[20], arguing that those who opposed hudud law in Malaysia were siding with the enemy of Islam, and that opposing its implementation was a sin for Muslims. Harun Din’s call for hudud in Malaysia was well reflected among other important Muslim figures. The call for the implementation of hudud law emerged in 1978, a year before the Iranian Revolution exploded to the scene. Since the majority of Muslims in Malaysia are not Shiites, the fight against the corrupted Shah of Iran long before 1970s was not felt in Malaysia. Moreover, the Iranian Revolution was not about implementing hudud, but about the Iranian people’s struggle against the Shah’s corrupted regime, and their strong hatred of Western imperialism.

Prior to 1978, several other leaders were also receptive to the idea of hudud. For example, High Court Judge as well as Secretary of PERKIM, Dato’ Syed Agil Barakbah, proposed elevating Sharia law to the level of Malaysia’s civil law. When questions about potential opposition from non-Muslims and liberals who were uncomfortable with the idea of hudud law arose, the questions were dismissed with simple rebuttals.


I argue that the stricter push for Sharia law, together with the greater shift towards conservatism in Malaysia, is mostly derived from Wahhabi-oriented scholars. This argument does not mean that the Shiites are free from rigidity.[21] One problem with the Wahhabi approach to the Sharia is its negligence of the development of human rights within Islam when it should be the main objective of Sharia. Many Muslim fundamentalists who identify with the Wahhabi approach to the Sharia are criticised for the ‘intellectual laziness’ of their opinions. More recently, Wahhabism has been associated with the religious and political views of Islamic militants including Osama bin Laden and members of the Taliban. Characterized by the strict rejection of beliefs, practices, and rituals considered as modifications away from the original followers of Islam, Wahhabism has faced much opposition to their violent attempts to enforce their worldview on other Muslims. Although Wahhabis subscribe to the value of ijtihad (process of legal reasoning on the basis of Islamic scriptures), their intellectual intolerance renders the movement rigid and simplistic.[22]

The more radical version of Wahhabism retracted the rationalisation process of the Sharia which in definition, refers to the studying of the general goals and objectives of the Sharia to illuminate the understanding, development and implementation of Islamic laws within contemporary circumstances.

If indeed the Iranian Revolution was the epitome of Islamic revivalism in Malaysia, then, why was Shia Islam rejected by the Muslim society? To be sure, political considerations could explain why Shi’ism was considered deviant as late as the 1980s, after some PAS activists converted to the sect.[23] The growing dislike of Shia Islam is also evident in how Malaysian Muslims are often bombarded by propaganda against the Shiites in the mosques and the media.

A late Professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies once issued the warning that we were blaming the wrong quarters, and ‘missing the elephant in the room’. It is indeed important for us to understand who were/are responsible for the current situation of Islam in Malaysia. Undoubtedly, creeping Salafization had been ignored. and instead, Malaysian authorities since the 1980s had forbidden and banned Shia Islam while allowing Wahhabism to command the religious sphere.

Many have attributed the Malaysian obsession with hudud and Islamic law to the Iranian Revolution. However, the demonisation of Shiites in Malaysia renders this argument invalid. It is instead Islamic traditions and the dakwah (missionary) movement that contributed to today’s rigidity in Malaysian Islam. The Islamic revivalism of the 1980s and 1990s, if it really was a healthy step for Malaysian Muslims to take, should have advanced us. Instead, what happened was the Salafisation of Sharia law in Malaysia, resulting in increasing pressure for the implementation of hudud law.

ISEAS Perspective 2021/23, 4 March 2021.


[1] Arfa Yunus. 2020. Zulkefli: RUU355 Amendments Will Hopefully Take Place Before I Die. New Straits Time. August 10.

[2] Shamsul Akmar. 2005. Iranian Revolution the catalyst for ‘tudung code’. 13 November. The Star Online. for this?

[3] Chandra Muzaffar, Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia (Petaling Jaya: Penerbit Fajar Bakti, 1987), p. 37.

[4] Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Ahmed Shabery Cheek. 1988. The Politics of Malaysia’s Islamic Resurgence. Third World Quarterly 10 (2). Islam & Politics. Pp. 843-868].

[5] Ibid, pp.843%2D844

[6] Mohamed Osman, M. N. 2013. Transnational Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia. In B. Rubin (Ed.). Islamic Political and Social Movements: Critical Concepts in Political Science. London: Routledge.

[7] Also blaming Iran for the rising Islamic temperature that created an obsession with Sharia was Liew Chin Tong in his op-ed ‘The evolution of political Islam in Malaysia’ [Liew Chin Tong. 2015. The evolution of political Islam in Malaysia. Malaysiakini. 27 September.]. He stated that Iranian Revolution radicalised Muslims at the global stage; “the Iranian Revolution in 1979 inspired Muslims around the world to put their faith in using radical means to obtain victory”.

[8] Ehsanul Karim, Muslims History and Civilization: Modern Day View of Its Histories and Mysteries (Canada: Pragmatic Publishings, 2007), p. 796. Refer also Muhammad Abdul Wahab. Without Year of Publication. Muallafat al Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab: Part Five al Rasail al-Shaksiyyah. Islamic University of Imam Muhammad Su’ud al-Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab. P. 189. Also see Wahhabist rubbishes Sufi followers, Abdul Rahman Abdul Khaliq. 1412 H. Fadha’ih al-Sufiyyah. Maktabat Dar as-Salam. Riyadh. P. 46-47. Also Ibnu Baz. 1988. Fatawa Islamiyyah li Majmuatin Minal Ulama’ al Afadhil. Darul Qalam. Beirut. P. 165. On excommunicating Shia followers, see Ibnu Baz. 1990. Majmuk Fatawa wa Maqalat Mutanawwi’ah al Riyasatul Ammah Li Idaratil Buhuth al Ilmiyyah wa Ifta’ wa al Dakwah wal Irsyad: Al Tauhid wa Yulhaqu bihi Vol 4. al Idarah al Ammah Li al Tab’ie wa al Tarjamah. Riyadh. p. 439.

[9] I. Abu Bakar, “Salafism in Malaysia and Jordan: An Overview”, Issues of Culture and Thought. Malaysia-Jordan Perspectives (Bangi: Department of Theology and Philosophy National University of Malaysia and Faculty of Syariah University of Jordan, 2007), p. 55.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Andreas Armborst, “A Profile of Religious Fundamentalism and Terrorist Activism”, Defence Against Terrorism Review 2, no. 1 (2009): 53, 60.

[12] Virginia Murr, “The Power of Ideas: Sayyid Qutb and Islamism”, Rockford College Summer Research Project (Illinois: Rockford College, 2004), p.  8. See also Jacob Olidort. 2015. Analysis Paper No 18: The Politics of “Quietist” Salafism. Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. Brookings. P. 17.

[13] Quintan Wiktorowicz, “A Genealogy of Radical Islam”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 28 (2005): 81.  See also Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement”. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 29 (2006): 213.

[14] Potočnik, Dragan, Plemenitaš, Katja (2018). The Iran revolution and its influence on the revival of Islam. Annales. Series historia et sociologia 28 (1): 29-40.

[15] Ibid: 35-36. By January 1978, the first revolution was sparked, provoked by a newspaper article attacking Ayatollah Khomeini, a clergy who was actively criticising the Shah regime for his backward ideas. Widespread protests erupted in Qom, Tabriz, the city of Yazd and soon, spread to other cities. The Shah regime responded to this by clamping down on protesters, resulting in the death of innocent lives. On 27 August, the government was dissolved and replaced by a new government – Government of National Reconciliation.

[16] Shaharuddin Saad, “Tok Senggora: Sumbangannya Terhadap Penulisan Kitab Tajwid Lama di Malaysia”, Proceeding International Research Management and Innovation Conference 2014,  17 – 18 November (2014): 383. See also Mahir al Hujah, “Pengaruh Fahaman Wahhabi di Kalangan Masyarakat Islam di Malaysia”, blog post, 15 May 2009, available at Or further Maszlee Malik and Hamidah Mat, “The Historical Development of the “Sunnah” Reform Ideology in the State of Perlis, Malaysia”, SAGE Open, July-September (2017): 8. For more clarification see Jabatan Penerangan Malaysia Negeri Perlis and Jabatan Mufti Negeri Perlis facebook page, 28 April 2015, available at See also Jabatan Mufti Negeri Perlis facebook page, 21hb April 2015, available at and Mohd Rizal Yaakop and Asmady Idris, Wahabi Doctrine in Malaysia-Saudi Relations, Undated, pp. 6-7, available at

[17] Zulkifly Abdul Malek. 2011. From Cairo To Kuala Lumpur: The Influence of The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood on The Muslim Youth Movement Of Malaysia (Abim). Thesis Faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Georgetown University. Washington. Georgetown University.  p. 22.

[18] Ibid. 22.

[19] Ibid. 23.

[20] Harun Din. 1978. Hudud Pengubat Jenayah. Dewan Masharakat. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. Kuala Lumpur. pp. 9-11.

[21] I have discussed this matter in other works entitled ‘Sunni-Shia Reconciliation in Malaysia’.

[22] Irene Oh, “Islamic Conceptions of Human Rights”, in Thomas Cushman (ed.), Handbook of Human Rights (New York: Routledge, 2014), p. 260

[23] Mohd Faizal Musa, “Sunni-Shia Reconciliation in Malaysia”, in Norshahril Saat & Azhar Ibrahim (eds.), Alternative Voices in Muslim Southeast Asia: Discourses and Struggles (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2020), pp: 156-182.

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2021/22 “How The Vietnamese State Uses Cyber Troops to Shape Online Discourse” by Dien Nguyen An Luong


A Vietnamese youth checks his mobile phone on the century-old Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi on September 3, 2019. Vietnamese authorities have handled public political criticism – both online and in real life – with a calibrated mixture of toleration, responsiveness and repression. Photo: Manan VATSYAYANA, AFP.


  • The operations of Vietnam’s public opinion shapers and cyber-troops reveal that the online discourse is manipulated to enforce the Communist Party’s line.
  • Vietnamese authorities constantly grapple with the vexing question: How to strike a delicate balance between placating critical public sentiment online while ensuring that it does not spill over into protests against the regime.
  • When it comes to methods, targets and motives, there appears to be significant crossover between public opinion shapers and the government’s cyber troops.
  • The Vietnamese state cyber-troops have been encouraged to use real accounts to mass-report content. This helps explain why it is the only Southeast Asian state to publicly acknowledge having a military cyber unit.
  • The lack of political and technological wherewithal presents an uphill battle for these cyber-troops in influencing Vietnam’s online information environment.

* Dien Nguyen An Luong is Visiting Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. A journalist with significant experience as managing editor at Vietnam’s top newsrooms, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, South China Morning Post, and other publications.


Since its official inception in 2017,[1] Vietnam’s 10-000-strong military cyber unit, dubbed Force 47, has been subjected to widespread lampoon, criticism and backlash. Critics have pointed the finger at what is widely assumed as the main objective of the unit: target dissidents and activists[2] and mass-report anti-state content in order to have their accounts suspended and “anti-state” posts removed. [3] While there is some truth to this observation, zeroing in on such operations could risk glossing over the core duties laid out at the very outset for Force 47.

In the view of the authorities, Force 47 has a legitimate raison d’être: These “well qualified and loyal” cyber-warriors work “every hour, every minute, every second” to scour and collect information on social media, participate in online debates to maintain “a healthy cyberspace” and counter any “wrongful opinions” about the regime and protect it and the public from “toxic information”.[4]

But as Vietnamese authorities have handled public political criticism – both online and in real life – with a calibrated mixture of toleration, responsiveness and repression,[5] the key tenet of the operations of Force 47 should be appraised in a broader frame. In fact, a closer look at how Vietnam’s public opinion shapers and cyber-troops have operated offers a glimpse into the unit’s ultimate goal: manipulate online discourse to enforce the Communist Party’s line in a country whose leaders have been fixated on curbing anti-state content.

The authorities have publicly admitted that Vietnam’s ossified propaganda apparatus was ceding ground to social media in the race for readers’ attention.[6] But Vietnam’s lack of political and technological wherewithal and limited home-grown social media platforms[7] have throttled its efforts to create a “national Internetmeant for enforced blocking of Western social media platforms.[8] This has paved the way for Facebook to become the main venue for Vietnam’s cyber unit to safeguard the party line, shape public opinion, and spread state propaganda.[9]

Some key observations: First, the red flag that would galvanize the cyber unit into action is anti-state content, one that is deemed detrimental to the reputation and legitimacy of the regime and its leaders; second, discourse, toleration and responsiveness have been the prioritized strategy of choice; and perhaps most intriguingly, while the authorities have repeatedly warned the mainstream press against the risk of trailing behind social media, they have often tacitly sanctioned the cyber unit to be ahead of the propaganda media in shaping the online narrative on certain sensitive issues.


Vietnamese authorities have long frowned upon anti-government propaganda and freer flow of information as threats to the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party, using this as a pretext to rationalise reining in the online sphere and cracking down on such activities. In recent years, contents being anti-government has been the most oft-cited rationale for Vietnamese censors to force Facebook and Google’s YouTube to restrict or take down posts from their platforms.[10] There have also been real-life consequences. According to Reuters, of 280 people who have been arrested for “anti-state” activities in Vietnam since 2016, 260 have been convicted. This marks a precipitous spike from the 68 arrests and 58 convictions carried out during the 2011-2016 period.[11]

On the legal front, since the Internet’s arrival in Vietnam in 1997, Vietnam has enacted a raft of laws and regulations, with a consistent focus on criminalising those who use the online sphere to “oppose the government; undermine the state and state unity, or threaten national security, public order, or social security; or incite violence or crime”.[12] An analysis of Vietnam’s laws and regulations on Internet controls during the 2001-2020 period shows how legal terms governing the criminalization of anti-state activities have formed the frontline in the country’s Internet control efforts. (Figure 1)

Figure 1. Legal terms on anti-state activities dominate Vietnam’s Internet controls

On the information control front, Vietnam’s propaganda czars have hashed out terminology as well as the tone and position of press coverage on individuals, organizations and contents flagged as “anti-state” (Table 1).

TABLE 1. List of key terms used to describe anti-state activities

Vietnamese EnglishDescription
“thế lực thù địch” hostile forcesany groups or organizations plotting to topple the regime.[13]
“diễn biến hoà bình”peaceful evolutionthe process in which anti-communist forces deploy unarmed means under the banner of “democracy”, “freedom”, and “human rights” against the Communist Party.[14]  
“cách mạng màu” colour revolutionpopular uprisings against authoritarian regimes, such as those which took place in former Soviet countries.[15]  
“tự diễn biến”, “tự chuyển hoá” self-evolution, self-transformation recently coined terms to describe those who, after being able to access a more free flow of information, lose faith in the regime and decamp from its ideology.[16]  
“xuyên tạc”, “chia rẽ”, “chống phá”distort, divide, sabotageused to label the act of spearheading anti-state propaganda or plotting against the regime.

The Central Propaganda Department – the Communist Party’s propaganda organ – and the Ministry of Information and Communications have been at the helm of controlling this discourse, dictating over all state-run print, broadcast, online, and electronic media.[17] The flip side of this approach is glaring, however: Couched in hackneyed language, the mainstream media has often been pooh-poohed for being riddled with a war mindset that is occasionally borderline “paranoid”.[18] This risks leaving the government message out of sync with a language used by forward-looking, Internet-savvy young population.[19]

Opting to embrace social media – chiefly Facebook – to spread the Party’s message,[20] the authorities have been constantly grappling with a vexing question: How to strike a delicate balance between placating public sentiment online while ensuring that it does not spill over into protests against the regime. This is the context in which Vietnam’s public opinion shapers and cyber-troops enter the fray, setting the stage to jockey for control of public narrative in the online sphere.


Vietnam had already in 2013 acknowledged publicly that it had deployed groups known as “public opinion shapers” to spread views in defence of the state against detractors or “hostile forces”.[21] It was only in late 2017 that the country officially rolled out Force 47. When it comes to methods, targets and motives, significant crossovers occur between public opinion shapers and cyber troops.[22]

To gain insight into the personnel, structure and operations of both Force 47 and public opinion shapers, we examine hundreds of posts and comments on 10 Facebook groups whose stated missions, policies and contents are systematically aligned with the modus operandi of the cyber unit. Several of these groups publicly claim links with Force 47. We have also thoroughly reviewed dozens of publicly available documents, reports and newspaper articles that shed light on this issue.

Who they are: Officially, Force 47 is backed by the Ministry of National Defense and comprises mostly of “professional defense officers” mostly trained in propaganda and equipped with skills to counter “wrongful opinions” or “toxic information” about the regime.[23] Who accounts for the force of “public opinion shapers” is a trickier question to answer. Due to the voluntary and pro bono nature of their work, at a certain time, anyone interested – be it war veterans, journalists, doctors, academics, businesspeople, or students – can take the government up on its offer to dabble as public opinion shapers online. Another potential segment, which is not part of the state-sanctioned cyber unit but which should not be discounted altogether, are zealous Internet users who may be voluntarily participating in defending the state. The common pull factor? These people share a nationalist, and to some extent anti-West, sentiment, and are sympathetic of Vietnam’s policies and actions.

In what is called “diversified propaganda”, these actors are often recruited by the local chapters of the propaganda apparatus or from other state-affiliated political groups such as the Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Youth Union or Women’s Association.[24]

Elsewhere in the region, Thailand has also turned to youth groups to aid in shaping public opinion on social media.[25] The public opinion shapers are not obliged to report to any agency, but if they do, it is often to the local-level propaganda departments.[26] Like the Philippines,[27] Vietnam is also said to have commissioned paid influencers to shape public opinion in certain cases. But still, there has been no definitive research to substantiate this allegation.

How they are managed: Both Force 47 and public opinion shapers operate on a mission-based basis without any concrete organisational or physical structure. Nguyen The Phuong, a researcher from Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City, summed up the structure of the cyber unit in a 2018 article for The Diplomat: “There is minimal or even no command and control in some cases because members of the task force are given the rights to operate independently and actively in the Internet. The [Vietnam People’s Army] can still maintain order and ideological discipline of this force (and of course provide general guidelines) through its unique network of political commissars.”

What they do: Vietnam’s Force 47 and public opinion shapers have made the most of Facebook to execute their daily tasks and missions, which include “training, studying and  interacting with specific audiences.”[28] According to a report by researchers at Oxford University,[29] the expanded typology of the strategies of messaging and valence (valence describes “how attractive or unattractive a message, event, or thing is”) that cyber troops use to communicate with Internet users online includes: “(1) spreading pro-government or pro-party propaganda; (2) attacking the opposition or mounting smear campaigns; (3) distracting or diverting conversations or criticism away from important issues; (4) driving division and polarization; and (5) suppressing participation through personal attacks or harassment.” Vietnam’s cyber-troops check three out of five boxes (Table 2).[30]

TABLE 2. Messaging and valence strategies of Vietnam’s cyber-troops

The Oxford report places the communication strategies of the cyber troops into five categories: “(1) the creation of disinformation or manipulated media; (2) mass-reporting of content or accounts; (3) data-driven strategies; (4) trolling, doxing or harassment; and (5) amplifying content and media online.” Vietnam ticks four out of these five categories[31] (Table 3)

TABLE 3. Communication strategies of Vietnam’s cyber troops

As Giang Nguyen-Thu (2018, p. 903) points out, Vietnam’s online censorship playbook still more or less “adheres to the old model of mass media discipline.”[32] In that context, the modus operandi of both Force 47 and public opinion shapers continue to comport with the ideological and political dos and don’ts that have long dictated the editorial line of the mass media. The methods and communication strategies of the cyber unit, however, show that it has evolved into a more sophisticated extension of Vietnam’s traditional propaganda model.


This research programme at ISEAS sets out to examine several case studies to sketch out a pattern of how Force 47 and public opinion shapers allocate resources in the online sphere. There has been no consistent implementation of the aforesaid calibrated mixture of toleration, responsiveness and repression in the online sphere. The two following two case studies seek to illustrate when, how and to whom toleration, responsiveness or repression are applied. The first case involves Thuy Tien, a popular Vietnamese singer who is also known to be a keen philanthropist. The other relates to Pham Doan Trang, a high-profile Vietnamese dissident arrested in October 2020 for “anti-state activities.”[33]

When floods ravaged central Vietnam in October, Thuy Tien used her Facebook account to call for public donations.[34] She also went to the central region to personally provide succour  flood-hit victims. That should have been a feel-good story, which indeed it was, grabbing headlines and setting social media abuzz. But when the donations crossed the threshold of VND100 billion (US$4.3 million), Thuy Tien found herself caught in the whirlwind of a growing online controversy.

It first centred around the legitimacy of the funds, then it morphed into a spate of online criticisms. Critics lambasted Internet users for capitalizing on Thuy Tien’s charity and her Facebook page to unleash a floodgate of anti-state comments. According to the critics, in questioning the legitimacy and efficiency of the regime in its response to the floods, those comments besmirched the reputation of the government and dismissed the state effort and the sacrifice of many soldiers. Those comments were also accused of misleading the public into believing that the authorities were conspiring to siphon off the donations that Thuy Tien had been able to raise.

Nowhere was such criticism more manifest than on Facebook pages purportedly run by public opinion shapers and/or Force 47.

Gleaning from all relevant posts on the same Facebook pages  (10 of them) analysed in the previous section, we are able to establish a pattern: In the case of Thuy Tien, online conversations on the topic were not flagged until they involved anti-state content. Her popularity and influence further merited the intervention of either cyber-troops or public opinion shapers, or both. Their activities centred around (i) arguing directly with critics, (ii) seeking to neutralize undesirable public opinion by peddling pro-state views through posts and comments on Facebook, and (iii) steering online conversations in what is perceived as the right direction. The propaganda media did not take the lead in initiating the discussion, only chiming in later to mostly encapsulate what had already been discussed on pro-state Facebook pages.

In the case of Pham Doan Trang, a different pattern emerged: The issue attracted much less attention and bandwidth in all those Facebook pages. The contents chiefly focused on amplifying the government indictment of her anti-state agenda and rebutting foreign criticism of the arrest.

We take a deeper dive into all relevant posts and comments from three such Facebook pages, codenamed A, B, and C. They were selected for analysis because:

  • Their direction and contents are consistently aligned with the purpose and modus operandi of Force 47 and public opinion shapers .
  • Whenever anti-state content is flagged on social media, these pages swing into action almost immediately and concurrently. The state-sanctioned terminology on anti-state activities were exhaustively used, particularly in the comments.
  • They have all amassed a strong base of followers. A, which has a foreign name, has 171,000 followers. B, which claims to have a mission to counter reactionary information, has 198,000. C, which is said to be commissioned by a group of military officers, has 66,500.

The posts appeared between October and December 2020. It was in early October 2020 that Thuy Tien started raising money for flood-hit victims; and Pham Doan Trang was arrested on October 7.[35] Posts related to the case of Thuy Tien overwhelmingly outnumbered those on Pham Doan Trang. B entertained 14 posts on Thuy Tien but only 2 about Pham Doan Trang. A and C, despite their popularity, did not have any post on the latter. The number of average reactions, shares and comments on Thuy Tien in each Facebook page also exceeded those on Pham Doan Trang by a wide margin (Chart 1).

CHART 1. The number of reactions, shares and comments on Thuy Tien and Pham Doan Trang

What accounts for the different approaches and findings in these two case studies? Some important context: Social media is a concern for Vietnamese authorities, not so much for the public criticism, but more for its ability to coalesce collective action or organise protests in real life. The takeaway here is that as long as collective action is nipped in the bud, social media can serve as a release valve for public opinion.[36]

Even though the anti-state comments in the case of Thuy Tien, the singer, were disparaging, they showed little sign of translating into real-life actions. In that context, by allocating major resources to handle online criticism, the censors in fact proved their intent on tolerating the discourse. There was even some sign of responsiveness: Almost immediately in the wake of the online controversy over the legitimacy of the charity funds, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc called for the quick clearing of any legal hurdles that could stand in the way of such philanthropic activities.[37]

In contrast, the Vietnamese police have long been accused of harassing and beating up Pham Doan Trang, the dissident, for her activism in real life.[38] Past and recent crackdowns on social media in Vietnam have shown that repression took place mostly when dissidents or activists appeared to cross the red line on political multilateralism, improved human rights, freedom of speech and regime change. In that context, for both Pham Doan Trang and the authorities, her arrest was perhaps a more or less foregone conclusion. The onus of dealing with her would thus appear to have fallen concretely to Vietnam’s security apparatus, and not the cyber unit in the online sphere.

From July 2020 to January 2021, anti-state content stemmed mostly from controversy over philanthropic activities for flood victims, Vietnam’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the arrest of several high-profile dissidents (Pham Doan Trang included). We generate relevant keywords on those topics and analyse online discussion on them in two opposing categories: anti-state and pro-state content. 54.4 percent of the content originated from social media, which more or less means Facebook; 32.5 percent were from news sites (Chart 2).

CHART 2. Online posts on pro- and anti-contents in different channels

Pro-state content overwhelmingly eclipsed anti-state content online over the July 2020-January 2021 period (Chart 3). The reasons could vary: By successfully battling the Covid-19 pandemic,[39] Vietnam’s leadership could have won hearts and minds. Force 27 and public opinion shapers may have played a role, or it could have been due to the combination of both factors, and possibly other reasons.

CHART 3. Pro- and anti-contents in the online sphere since the first half of 2020

There have been media reports in which advocacy groups, dissidents and activists accused Vietnam’s cyber-troops of online harassment and abuse.[40] Force 47 has also allegedly cashed in on loopholes in Facebook’s community policies which allow for automatic rejection of content if enough people lodge complaints about certain accounts. In other words, by mustering up a large number of cyber-troops to report to Facebook, the task force could have targeted accounts suspended and content belonging to activists removed.[41] The lack of empirical evidence has, however, made it hard to ascertain the extent to which these operations account for the daily workload of Vietnam’s cyber-troops.

Unlike their peers in Thailand, Malaysia or the Philippines, Vietnam’s cyber-troops have been encouraged to use real accounts to mass-report content.[42] This helps explain why Vietnam has been the only country in the region to acknowledge its authorities’ deployment of cyber-troops. The use of real accounts is also a testament to how increasingly adept Vietnam has become at co-opting Facebook. When the authorities invoked local laws to compel Facebook to take down posts, the platform was bound to document such “content restrictions” in its biannual transparency report, which could deal a major blow to its reputation and invite increased scrutiny. But when Facebook removes content based on mass reporting, which is subject to its own content moderation policies, the takedown does not merit any public acknowledgement. This approach amounts to a two-way street that is likely to redound to the benefit of a transactional social media giant.[43]


At a time when Southeast Asian nations are embracing China’s state censorship approach,[44] the use of cyber-troops appears to be part and parcel along that trajectory, and Vietnam is apparently not an exception.[45] But the scale, capacity and performance of Vietnam’s cyber-troops are still dwarfed by those of their Chinese counterparts.

Contrary to widespread assumptions, empirical evidence presented in a 2017 Harvard paper shows that China’s “50-cent” party, which consists of as many as two million people tasked with faking around 448 social media comments a year, “engages in almost no argument of any kind”.[46] The force is instead charged with chiefly “cheerleading for the state, symbols of the regime, or the revolutionary history of the [China]’s Communist Party.” According to the paper authors, these activities are designed to strategically distract from “collective action, grievances, or general negativity.” Even though Vietnam has said its web-monitoring unit is now capable of scanning up to 300 million news items per day for “false information”,[47] it remains an uphill battle for Vietnam’s cyber-troops to fulfil the task of diluting the information environment in the online sphere. Against that backdrop, the daily mission of Force 47 and public opinion shapers is likely to continue revolving around (i) making specific, directed pro-regime arguments, (ii) attacking those who oppose the government from inside Vietnam and from abroad, and (iii) targeting high-profile activists and influential groups online. It is likely that the Western media will continue focusing on how Vietnam’s cyber-troops target dissidents and activists. Still, in a country where the media is tightly controlled, how much the cyber unit contributes to the official narrative is an intriguing question and merits further discussion.

ISEAS Perspective 2021/22, 3 March 2021.


[1] James Hookway, “Introducing Force 47, Vietnam’s New Weapon Against Online Dissent”. The Wall Street Journal, 31 December 2017, https://www.wsj. com/articles/introducing-force-47-vietnams-new-weapon-against-online- dissent-1514721606

[2] James Pearson, “Vietnam steps up ‘chilling’ crackdown on dissent ahead of key Communist Party congress”. Reuters, 19 January 2021.

[3] Davey Alba and Adam Satariano, “At Least 70 Countries Have Had Disinformation Campaigns, Study Finds”. The New York Times, 26 September 2019. disinformation-cyber-troops.html

[4] Hookway, “Introducing Force 47”.

[5] Dien Nguyen An Luong, “How Hanoi is Leveraging Anti-China Sentiments Online”, ISEAS Perspective, no. 2020/115, 13 October 2020, p.2.

[6] Dien Luong, “Why Vietnam cannot hold back Facebook”. VnExpress International, 10 September 2017.

[7] Dien Nguyen An Luong, “Vietnam and Social Media: The Clock Is Ticking on Tiktok”. ISEAS Commentary, 27 August 2020. /media/commentaries/vietnam-and-social-media-the-clock-is-ticking-on-tiktok/

[8] Dien Luong, “Vietnam Wants to Control Social Media? Too Late”, The New York Times, 30 November 2017,

[11] “Vietnam arrests popular Facebook user for ‘anti-state’ posts”. Reuters, 19 January 2021.

[12] Zachary Abuza, Stifling the Public Sphere: Media and Civil Society in Vietnam, (Washington DC: National Endownment for Democracy 2015), p .10, https:/

[13] “Scientific Conference ‘Identifying the sabotage plots and tactics of hostile forces towards young people nowadays and proposing solutions’,”. The Electronic Portal , Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics, 21 September 2020.

[14] Bich T. Tran, “Evolution of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s Control Over the Military”. The Diplomat, 29 August 2020.

[15] “Color revolution aims to ruin HK’s future”. Global Times, 13 August 2019.

[16] “Solutions to prevent ‘self-evolution’ and ‘self-transformation’ among cadets at military training institutions”. National Defence Journal, 27 September 2017.

[17] Abuza, “Stifling the Public Sphere”, p. 10.

[18] Hồ, Mạnh Tùng, How a Rational Organization Responds to an Increasingly Mediatized World (May 30, 2019), p. 4. or

[19] Jessica Meyers, “Their parents’ lives were defined by war. Now Vietnam’s youth are pushing the country toward a new identity”. Los Angeles Times, 2 February 2017.

[20] Lien Chau, “Vietnam embraces social media as health minister launches Facebook page”. Thanh Nien News, 2 March 2015.

[21] Nga Pham, “Vietnam Admits Deploying Bloggers to Support Government”. BBC News, 12 January 2013.

[22] Sam Biddle, “Facebook Lets Vietnam’s Cyberarmy Target Dissidents, Rejecting A Celebrity’s Plea”. The Intercept, 22 December 2020.

[23] Nguyen The Phuong, “The Truth About Vietnam’s New Military Cyber Unit”. The Diplomat, 10 January 2018.

[24] Hồ, Mạnh Tùng, How a Rational Organization Responds to an Increasingly Mediatized World (May 30, 2019), p. 5. or

[25] David Nathan, “Thailand’s Youth Asked To Cyber-Spy For The State”. New Internationalist, 5 September 2014. [26] Truong Son, “Công an Hà Nội đang xác minh về lực lượng ‘dư luận viên’ tự phát” (Hanoi police launch probe into self-proclaimed ‘public opinion shapers’”). Thanh Nien, 17 March 2015.

[27] Ong, Jonathan Corpus and Cabañes, Jason Vincent A., “Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines” (2018), p. 35.

[28] Nguyen The Phuong, “The Truth About Vietnam’s New Military Cyber Unit”.

[29] Davey Alba and Adam Satariano, “At Least 70 Countries Have Had Disinformation Campaigns, Study Finds”, The New York Times, 26 September 2019, disinformation-cyber-troops.html [30] Samantha Bradshaw & Philip N. Howard. (2019) The Global Disinformation Disorder: 2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation, p. 13. Working Paper 2019.2. Oxford, UK: Project on Computational Propaganda.

[30] Samantha Bradshaw & Philip N. Howard. (2019) The Global Disinformation Disorder: 2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation, p. 13. Working Paper 2019.2. Oxford, UK: Project on Computational Propaganda.

[31] Bradshaw & Howard. (2019) The Global Disinformation Disorder, p. 15

[32] Giang Nguyen-Thu. 2018. “Vietnamese Media Going Social: Connectivism, Collectivism, and Conservatism”. The Journal of Asian Studies 77, no. 4: 895–908

[33]  “Vietnam detains activist hours after human rights meeting with U.S.”. Reuters, 7 October 2020.

[34] “Help at hand for flooded provinces”. Vietnam Investment Review, 27 October 2020.

[35] “Pham Doan Trang: Vietnam arrests leading pro-democracy blogger”. BBC, 7 October 2020.

[36] Dien Nguyen An Luong, “How Vietnam has borrowed from China’s online censorship playbook”. South China Morning Post, 14 September 2020,

[37] “Floods in Central Vietnam: Revising law to ensure effectiveness and lawfulness of charitable activities”. Vietnam Law & Legal Forum, 11 November 2020.

[38] Richard C. Paddock, “The Jailed Activist Left a Letter Behind. The Message: Keep Fighting”. New York Times, 14 October 2020,

[39] Lien Hoang, “Asia’s COVID recovery: Vietnam’s breakout moment”. Nikkei Asia, 20 January 2021.

[40]  “‘Let Us Breathe!’ Censorship And Criminalization Of Online Expression In Viet Nam”, Amnesty International, p.50, 1 December 2020,

[41] Megha Rajagopalan, “Facebook Has Been Accused of Helping The Vietnamese Government Crack Down on Dissent”. BuzzFeed News, 10 April 2018. mark-zuckerberg

[42] Bradshaw & Howard. The Global Disinformation Disorder.

[43] Biddle, “Facebook Lets Vietnam’s Cyberarmy Target Dissidents, Rejecting A Celebrity’s Plea”.

[44] “Is a splinternet emerging? ASEAN nations are turning to a Chinese model on internet censorship”, ASEAN Today, 19 April 2019.

[45] Justin Sherman, “Vietnam’s Internet Controls: Following China’s Footsteps”. The Diplomat, 11 December 2019,

[46] Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts. 2017. “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument.” American Political Science Review, 111, 3, Pp. 39, [47] Linh Pham, “Vietnam vows to identify social network users”. Hanoi Times, 11 November 2020.

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2021/21 “Indonesian Islam beyond Habib Rizieq Shihab: Deconstructing Islamism and Populism” by A’an Suryana and Nur Syafiqah Binte Mohd Taufek


This picture taken on December 12, 2020, shows Indonesian Muslim cleric Rizieq Shihab (centre) surrounded by his supporters upon arrival at the police headquarters in Jakarta, before he was arrested on December 13 over allegations of breaching coronavirus restrictions. Habib Rizieq is currently the most controversial ulama in Indonesia. Islam in Indonesia, however, is not monolithic and has numerous strands – some of which are moderate and serve as a bulwark against radical ideas. Photo: Jenaya, AFP.


  • The radical Salafi ideology of Muhammad Rizieq Shihab or Habib Rizieq, and the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI) have been at the centre of media attention and scholastic study for quite a while.  Islam in Indonesia, however, is not monolithic and has numerous strands – some of which are moderate and serve as a bulwark against radical ideas. These diverse orientations are nevertheless understudied due to the prevailing discussion on Habib Rizieq as a key figure of religious populism and Islamism.
  • This article presents some key thoughts of established and emerging religious thinkers, who subscribe to moderate views of Islam. Most of them are undervalued as ivory tower academics, although they actually have extensive reach at the grassroots, and are also seen as credible Islamic scholars (ulama). They espouse tenets of tolerance and non-violence in Islam, and hence are a significant force in countering the influence of the radical Islamist preachers. 
  • The recent retreat of radical and conservative Muslims following social and political pressures from the Joko Widodo government provides a timely opportunity for proponents of moderate Islam to boost their presence on social media – a crucial battleground nowadays in the perpetual war of religious ideas.

*A’an Suryana is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS Yusof – Ishak Institute. Nur Syafiqah Binte Mohd Taufek is a Research Officer at the same institute. We thank Norshahril Saat and Aninda Dewayanti for their useful feedback on this article.


The rise of populism and Islamism among politicians and Indonesian ulama (Muslim preachers) has become a subject of interest among Indonesianists. In particular, the role of Habib Rizieq Shihab, the Grand Imam of the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI), in exploiting Islamism and populist issues to attain social and political power, has been widely studied.[1] However, his hard-line Salafist views represent but one strand in Indonesian Islam. The excessive attention given him has sadly led to other strands and religious figures being understudied.

This article examines other religious discourses that challenge radical and populist views and that towards maintaining moderate Muslim practices. It aims to present to the reader the wealth of Islamic thought in Indonesia.

There is no doubt that Habib Rizieq is currently the most controversial ulama in Indonesia. He has been making headlines following his return to the country in November 2020 from his self-exile in Saudi Arabia. He was recently detained by the police for, among others things, allegedly violating the Covid-19 quarantine and faces legal prosecution which could jeopardise his social and political influence. If found guilty, he can be imprisoned for a third time; he was jailed for inciting violence in 2008 and for defamation in 2003. On 30 December 2020, he suffered another serious blow when the Joko Widodo (Jokowi) government banned FPI, an organization he founded, from organizing activities due, among other things, to FPI’s lack of a legal standing.

Habib Rizieq began his career as a high-school teacher. It was in 1998 that he founded FPI. FPI is known for violent acts such as raiding bars and cafes that sell alcoholic drinks during the holy month of Ramadhan. Habib Rizieq, however, remained a peripheral social and political figure for years; both the masses and social and political elites kept their distance from him due to FPI’s notoriety, and Habib Rizieq’s divisive and combative style of preaching. However, he rose to prominence after leading a series of protests against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in 2016 and 2017 which led to the imprisonment of the former Governor of Jakarta on blasphemy charges. His populist fight against Ahok earned him accolades among poor urban Muslims who felt oppressed by the prevailing socio-economic system.

In April 2017, Habib Rizieq left for Saudi Arabia on self-imposed exile after being named a suspect in pornography-related and defamation cases. Despite his absence, he managed to maintain his popularity and influence on Indonesia’s social and political events. Before being banned by the government, Front TV (the official YouTube channel of FPI)[2] uploaded videos of him and presented him on live teleconference during important events such as Prabowo Subianto’s mass campaign during the 2019 presidential elections held at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium.[3] A snippet of the video received over 200,000 views.[4] By 2018, Habib Rizieq was surveyed as one of Indonesia’s most influential ulama, alongside Abdul Somad, Yusuf Mansur and Abdullah Gymnastiar (Aa Gym).[5]

His view on Islam and the state is quite ambiguous. Habib Rizieq accepts Pancasila, the state foundation that promotes pluralism, as long as “the interpretation of Pancasila is still in line with Islam.”[6] On the other hand, he supports the establishment of Islam sharia in Indonesia. He backs Islamic movements that attempt “to make Islam sharia the law of the state, because this is a constitutional way of doing it, and the movement has to be supported as well by Muslims in Indonesia.”[7] He also argues that democracy is against Islam because it is not based on Islam and is created by infidels.[8] Habib Rizieq criticises tolerance in Indonesia, claiming that these have been implemented excessively. He claims that during the holidays of non-Islam religions (such as Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism), “almost all government offices in Indonesia erect banners to commemorate the holiday and even organise special events to celebrate it.”[9]

As explained earlier, Habib Rizieq’s religious views have been the focus of scholar attention for quite some time. This has obscured the reality that Indonesia possesses many Islamic strands. The following section will discuss some established and emerging Muslim thinkers who serve as competitors to Habib Rizieq’s divisive and intolerant preaching.


The traditionalist and modernist Muslim groups, Nadhlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, have made immense contributions to religious pluralism in Indonesia.[10] These are reflected in the thoughts of their leaders or prominent members, which serve as a bulwark against radical forms of Salafism and other exclusivist ideologies. Established Muslim thinkers who are from these organizations, Said Aqil Siradj and Ahmad Syafi’i Ma’arif, for example, have promoted moderate Islam for years through their numerous speeches and writings. They have been facing tough competition from radical and conservative views of Islam, the latter being spread effectively through social media and offline activities.

Said Aqil Siradj, the current chairman of Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia, has played an important role in introducing and popularising the concept of Islam Nusantara. Islam Nusantara, introduced in 2015, refers to Islamic tenets that have “blended harmoniously with the original cultures of Indonesians, so long as these cultures do not violate Islamic sharia.”[11] To foster better relations between Muslims and Christians, he proposes the term “non-Muslim”, instead of “kafir (infidel)” to describe other faith communities since that better reflects the idea of equal citizenship among all Indonesians.[12]

Ahmad Syafi’i Ma’arif, who chaired the second largest Muslim organisation, Muhammadiyah, between 1998 and 2005, is another senior figure who has been combating religious radicalisation. He contends that radicalism is a product of the wealth gap in the economy.[13] Indonesia may be a resource-rich country but few get to share the economic pie, and many remain poor. Political and economic elites are in collusion to enrich themselves, and law enforcement is weak. It is this unjust situation that motivates some religious elites to instill radical views among the marginalised.

Today, a new generation of modernist and traditionalist thinkers such as Rumadi Ahmad, Syafiq Hasyim, Ahmad Najib Burhani and Ahmad Bahauddin Nursalim who is famously called Gus Baha, continue to bring fresh ideas to the table. Widely regarded as academics, their contributions in Islamic sciences have been under-analysed.

Rumadi Ahmad, head of Nahdlatul Ulama’s Institute for Research and Human Resources Development (Lakpesdam), expanded the idea of Islam Nusantara by proposing three pillars to support religious moderation in Indonesia.[14] The first pillar is moderation in religious thoughts. This pillar, according to Rumadi, rests on the historically peaceful dissemination of Islam since its arrival in Indonesia. This condition has generated community characteristics in favour of religious moderation, namely tawasuth (moderate), tawazun (balanced) and tasamuh (tolerant). In having these characteristics, people emphasise harmony and moderation in responding to social developments. The second pillar is based on the spirit of amar ma’ruf nahi munkar (commanding the good and forbidding the evil), and on that spirit being expressed through compassion, love and the avoidance of acts of violence. The third pillar is peaceful co-existence between Islam and the original cultures of Indonesia. According to Rumadi, peaceful co-existence can prevail if Muslims allow for creative dialogue between Islam and the original traditions and practices (al-amaliah al-diniyah) of Indonesia. Indeed, Islamic practices must be based on primary sources of Islam, such as Al Quran and Hadith. However, according to Rumadi, Muslim elites and commoners should not impulsively prohibit practices that stem from syncretism between Muslim and Hindu traditions. Otherwise, people will be pushed towards radicalism. 

Syafiq Hasyim, a scholar with NU background, is an expert on, among other things, gender issues in Islam and on Islamic radicalism. On gender in Islam, he argues that fields such as theology and jurisprudence “continue to be heavily male-centric”.[15] In fact, he sees patriarchal interpretations as not only un-Islamic but also akin to shirk (associationism).[16] As such, he encourages Muslim women to study and interpret Islam to deconstruct the patriarchal understanding of religion and reclaim gender justice and egalitarianism as advocated by religion.[17] On Islamic radicalism, he observes that in recent times, some scholars argue for tolerance of radical and intolerant views and practices in Islam because these are part and parcel of Islam. According to Syafiq, however, such views are to be tolerated only so long as they have not been actualised in the public sphere. Once these views materialise in public space, and even “violate shared aspirations manifested in the articles of state foundation, Pancasila, and the Indonesian Constitution, then they must be rejected.”[18]

Ahmad Najib Burhani is a Muhammadiyah scholar who writes extensively on religious minorities. He encourages mainstream Sunni Muslims to stand up against the marginalisation of religious minorities and to foster tolerance between communities.[19]

He points out five “cultural problems” that let “some people” in Indonesia ignore existing discrimination and intolerance toward certain minority faith groups in the country, in particular, the practitioners of folk religion.[20] The first cultural problem is the messianic tendency based on the idea that followers of minority faiths are heretical and that their souls are in need of salvation. The second cultural problem is the belief among some religious groups, such as FPI, that acts of violence, for example, against people of minority and “heretical” faiths, are justifiable and are part of Islam’s “religious calling.”[21] In other words, these people feel that, in order to attain dakwah (preaching) objectives, resorting to violence is justified. The third cultural problem is euphemistic narratives of intolerance. This refers to phrases or expressions used to justify acts of violence against followers of minority faiths. For example, several community leaders in Tanjung Balai city, North Sumatra, misused the proverb dimana bumi dipijak, disitu langit dijunjung (when in Rome, do what the Romans do) in response to a riot in the city which resulted in a mob burning two viharas and five Confucian temples. The riot was the result of a hate speech campaign on social media following a dispute between an Indonesian woman of Chinese descent, who is non-Muslim, and officials of a mosque nearby over the noise level of the mosque’s loudspeaker. By uttering that proverb in public, the community leaders shifted the blame to the Buddhist minority for being  “a minority that fails to know their place in the community.” The fourth cultural problem is conservative attitudes that support, agree with or keep silent about intolerant and discriminative practices in the community, and consider members of the community who are followers of minority faiths to be rightfully deserving of intolerant or discriminative practices aimed against them. The fifth cultural problem is exclusive pluralism. This refers to the privilege given by the state toward religions that it acknowledges, namely Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism, and not to others.

Ahmad Bahauddin Nursalim, who is famously called Gus Baha, another thinker from Nadhlatul Ulama, is also attracting wider public attention. Gus Baha is wholly educated in pesantren (Islamic boarding school) and has never pursued a formal secular or religious education. He was initially famous among students of pesantren and the intellectual circle of Islam (both traditionalists and modernists). His audience expanded recently, with people following his speeches and sermons through YouTube postings uploaded by, among others, students from his pesantren. Gus Baha is famous for his extraordinary knowledge on, and his memory capacity of Al Quran and Hadith. Indonesia’s most prominent expert on Quran exegesis, Quraish Shihab, once commented thus on Gus Baha: “It is difficult to find a person like him, who really understands, and has great memory for Al Quran, and also knows greatly the details of human experience and the practices (fiqh) of Al Quran verses.”[22] In addition, Gus Baha is also an extremely well-read ulama. He does not only read kitab kuning (classical Islamic books written in Arabic, which are staple reading for pesantren students), but also books written by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars such as Quraish Shihab and Karen Amstrong.[23]

Gus Baha promotes a friendly and flexible face of Islam. Islam, according to him, does not consist of stringent rules; Islam does not scare people. Instead, Islam makes it easy for people to perform religious practices (religious services).[24] With regard to Islam moderatism, Gus Baha argues that ulama need to be moderate. Ulama with a hard-line religious outlook will alienate people while a lenient ulama will encourage permissiveness in religious practices. Hence, the Almighty God dislikes both these stances, he argues, and favours moderatism.[25]

Another emerging ulama who is not from NU or Muhammadiyah, is Habib Husein Jafar Al Hadar, a young preacher of Arab descent who was born and raised in Bondowoso, East Java.[26] He completed his Master’s degree in Quranic Exegesis at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University,[27] and has written several books published by major publishing houses in Indonesia such as Gramedia and Mizan.

Less than three years ago, Habib Ja’far decided to embark on digital dakwah (online preaching) after realising that Indonesians are generally not interested in reading[28], but instead prefer to search for Islamic content on YouTube. This motivated him to set up Instagram and YouTube accounts in 2018 to engage in dakwah with the millennial generation. Currently he has over 273,000 followers on Instagram, more than 244,200 followers on Twitter and over 385,000 subscribers on his YouTube Channel.[29] He is known as an activist of Gerakan Islam Cinta (Islam is Love Movement), and as a content creator.

Though Habib Ja’far speaks on a variety of topics, his underlying message is that Islam promotes peace, mercy and tolerance. This is evident in his content on his YouTube channel such as “Islam bukan agama perang” (“Islam is not a religion of War”)[30], “Islam itu agama cinta” (“Islam is a religion of love”),[31] “Islam Bukan Agama Takfir” (“Islam is not a religion that easily labels others as infidel”)[32].Habib Ja’far expands on the concept of Islam Rahmat li al-Alamin (Islam as a mercy to all creation) through the concept of “Islam Cinta” where he bases Islamic teachings on the idea of love.[33] This serves as an antithesis to exclusivist, extremist and intolerant interpretations of Islam which are considered to stem from hatred.[34]


The various thoughts on moderate Islam proposed by established and emerging Islamic thinkers in Indonesia compete with conservative and radical forms of Islam. Moderate scholars of Islam had been struggling to gain an audience amidst fierce competition from proponents of conservative and hard-line Islam. But recently, they have benefited from the stricter stance taken by the government against political and radical Salafism.

The banning of HTI in 2017, followed by the effective banning of FPI on 30 December 2020, and Habib Rizieq’s pending prosecution for various charges, provide an opportunity for moderate Muslim figures to reclaim “lost territories” as radical and conservative ulama retreat from the public. However, to ensure that their views of Islam regain influence, proponents of moderate Islam will need to be more proactive and creative on social media. They need to learn from how youngsters have been drawn to radical and conservative views partly because moderate views were disseminated badly, and therefore failed to appear as attractive alternatives.

ISEAS Perspective 2021/21, 2 March 2021.


[1] Several Indonesianists, with Prof. Vedi R. Hadiz as the leading figure, have written on Islamist populism in Indonesia over the last few years. Examples of their works, which also discuss populism issues being raised by Habib Rizieq, are:

i] Vedi R. Hadiz, “Imagine All the People? Mobilising Islamic Populism for Right-Wing Politics in Indonesia”, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 48:4, 466-583 (2018), DOI: 10.1080/00472336.2018.1433225.

ii] Marcus Mietzner, “Fighting Illiberalism with Illiberalism: Islamist Populism and Democratic Deconsolidation in Indonesia”, Pacific Affairs, Volume 91, No. 2: 261-282, (2018) DOI:

iii] Marcus Mietzner, “Rival Populisms and the Democratic Crisis in Indonesia: Chauvinists, Islamists and Technocrats”, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 74:4, 420-438, (2020), DOI: 10.1080/10357718.2020.1725426.

[2] All social media accounts of FPI and Habib Rizieq have been suspended following the banning of the organization. Contents on Front TV have also been removed.

[3] Other mass events where Habib Rizieq participated via live teleconferencing or which had his recording played include FPI’s 21st anniversary and the demonstration against the Pancasila Ideology Policy Bill (RUU HIP). See: [i] VIVA.CO.ID., “FULL! Rizieq Shihab Soal Pancasila & NKRI Bersyariah di Milad FPI ke-21”. YouTube. Aug 26, 2019. [ii] Reza Deni, “Rekaman Suara Habib Rizieq Diperdengarkan Saat Aksi Unjuk Tolak RUU HIP di DPR”, Tribun News, published on July 16, 2020,

[4] Pencinta Habib Rizieq Syihab. “Di Stadion GBK Habib Rizieq Lantang Mengatakan Ini, Kampanye Akbar”. YouTube. April 8, 2019.

[5] Lalu Rahadian, “LSI Ungkap 5 Ulama Paling Berpengaruh di Indonesia”, Tirto Indonesia, published on November 14, 2018,

[6] Habib Rizieq, Wawasan Kebangsaan: Menuju NKRI Bersyariah (Jakarta: Suara Islam Press, 2012), p. 12.

[7] Ibid, p. 24.

[8] Ibid, p. 56.

[9] Ibid, p. 81.

[10] Jeremy Menchik, Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance without Liberalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 6.

[11] Idham Kholid, “Di Depan Jokowi, Said Aqil Jelaskan Makna Islam Nusantara, Detik News, published on August 1, 2015,

[12] Ibnu Hariyanto,”Said Aqil Soal Rekomendasi ‘Jangan Sebut Kafir ke Non-Muslim’: Untuk Orang NU”, Detik News, published on March 22, 1019,

[13] Ahmad Syafii Maarif,” Radikalisme, Ketidakadilan, dan Rapuhnya Ketahanan Bangsa”, Maarif Journal Vol. 5, No. 2 (2010): 147-158.

[14] Rumadi Ahmad, “Penguatan Moderasi Beragama”, Kompas Indonesia, published on July 8, 2019,

[15] Yoginder Sikand, “Indonesia: Developing a Discourse of Gender Justice in Islam”, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, published on June 24, 2010,

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Syafiq Hasyim, “Involusi Makna Toleransi”, Kompas, published on May 15, 2017,

[19] Ahmad Najib Burhani, Menemani Minoritas, (Jakarta: PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 2019), 1-33.

[20] Ahmad Najib Burhani, “Agama, Kultur (In)Toleransi, dan Dilema Minoritas di Indonesia”, Geotimes Indonesia, published on August 27, 2020,


[22] Muhammad Nasikhul Abid, “Mengenal Lebih Dekat KH. Ahmad Bahauddin Nursalim (Gus Baha’)”,, published on Feb. 21, 2020,

[23] Rahmat Hidayat Zein, “Gus Baha, Guru Yang Berwawasan”,, published on Dec. 3, 2019,

[24] Kalam – Kajian Islam. “Gus Baha, Gus Reza Lirboyo dan Gus Kautsar Ploso Ngaji Bareng di PWNU Jatim”,, premiered on Oct. 12, 2019,

[25] Syakir NF, “Gus Baha Ungkap Sikap Moderat Para Ulama”, NU Online, published on Nov. 25, 2019,

[26] Habib is a name used to address preachers who are descendant of the Prophet. Ayun Masfupah, @Dakwah Digital Habib Husein Ja’far Al Hadar”, Jurnal Dakwah, Vol. 20, No.2 (2019). DOI:, 253.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Habib Husein cited a data released by UNESCO that stated only one for every 1,000 Indonesians like to read books. Source: Ibid.

[29] [i] Husein Ja’far Al Hadar, @husein_hadar. Instagram. [ii] Husein Ja’far Hadar, @Husen_Jafar. Twitter. [iii] Jeda Nulis. YouTube. [iv] Habib Husein also has a Facebook account, Husein Jafar Al Hadar, which has 2,760 followers,  

[30] Jeda Nulis. “Islam Bukan Agama Perang”. YouTube. May 13, 2018.

[31] Jeda Nulis. “Islam itu Agama Cinta”. YouTube. May 19, 2018.

[32] Jeda Nulis. “Islam Bukan Agama Takfir (Mudah Mengkafirkan)”. YouTube. June 9, 2018.

[33] Muhyiddin, “Habib Husein, Dai Muda dan Islam Cinta”,, published on May 17, 2020,

[34] Nur Mufidatul Ummah, “Konsep Dan Pengaruh Ide Islam Rahmat Li Al-‘Alamin Husein Ja’farAl-Hadar Terhadap Keberagaman Kaum  Milenial  Di Media Sosial”, (UIN Sunan Ampel Surabaya: 2020), 58.

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2021/20 “Regulating Digital Credit Scoring in Vietnam” by Nicolas Lainez


About 70 percent of Vietnamese citizens have limited or no access to financial services. Here social distancing markers are placed at the ATM counters amidst concern of COVID-19 coronavirus inside a shopping mall in Hanoi on August 14, 2020. Photo: Manan VATSYAYANA, AFP.


  • About 70 percent of Vietnamese citizens are un(der)banked and have limited or no access to financial services.
  • Their lack of credit histories severely limits their access to credit markets as lenders cannot assess their creditworthiness.
  • Fintech startups provide digital credit scoring services to lenders in Vietnam to assess credit risk of the un(der)banked. Risk assessment is based on alternative data collected from users’ smartphones and processed through machine learning algorithms.
  • Digital credit scoring provides more consistent, efficient, accurate and timely credit scores than traditional scoring based on economic data, especially credit repayment history.
  • Digital credit scoring though raises concerns about unfair discrimination against the underbanked in credit access, the loss of privacy and ability to make choices and personal data protection.
  • This technology is deployed in Vietnam in a legal vacuum. A legal framework is proposed that aims to balance normative trade-offs between innovation and public protection.

* Nicolas Lainez is Visiting Fellow with the Regional Economic Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.His research is located in the field of economic anthropology, covering credit and household debt, formal and informal finance, migration and trafficking, family and care economies. He is currently working on Financialisation and credit and consumer lending growth in Vietnam.


Big data and artificial intelligence (AI) are transforming the credit industry worldwide. This process is clearly visible in Vietnam, an emerging lower-middle-income economy where credit markets are undergoing rapid liberalization and transformation. Lenders increasingly assess borrowers’ creditworthiness – defined as the likelihood and willingness to repay their loans – using ’digital credit scoring’. This technology combines big data and machine learning algorithms to generate scorecards about loan applicants’ risk profile. It promises efficiency, accuracy and speed in predicting credit risk. With 70 million unbanked and underbanked citizens short on credit history and access to banking services, digital credit scoring emerges as a magic tool to foster financial inclusion in Vietnam. However, it also raises public concern about opacity, unfair discrimination, and privacy threats, especially in the more developed markets.[1]

Regulation is critical to foster innovation while safeguarding public interest. The problem is that Vietnam lags in having regulations covering digital credit scoring. As a result, the lending industry deploys it at scale without a proper regulatory framework. This article addresses this issue from a legal perspective. After describing the pros and cons of digital credit scoring in Vietnam, it suggests novel ways to regulate it. The goal is to provide oversight over this technology and make the process from data collection to credit decisions transparent, accessible and fair. This study’s assumption is that adequate regulation is vital to delivering big data and machine learning’s promise in the financial services market, while ensuring fairness and privacy protection. The legal proposal aims to amend and complement credit and data privacy legislation in Vietnam.


The financial industry is driven by information. In particular, lenders need accurate and up-to-date data on borrowers to determine loan pricing and terms. This is to decrease exposure to bad debt and maximize profit. However, lenders have imperfect information on their customers. Data can be difficult to obtain in countries where financial exclusion prevails and citizens are not sufficiently served by financial institutions. Financial exclusion is high in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, 70 percent of 98 million Vietnamese are un(der)banked and therefore lack access to formal financial services.[2] Lenders and credit scoring firms assume that many of these individuals seek loans and have the ability to repay them.

To achieve financial inclusion, credit scoring startups take an ’all data is credit data’ approach. They take advantage of the recent introduction of digital technologies and services, new electronic payment systems, and smart devices to collect alternative data. They capitalise on high mobile phone and internet penetration rates in Southeast Asian. In Vietnam, the internet penetration rate reaches 52 percent and smartphone ownership reaches 72 and 53 percent in urban and rural areas, respectively, in 2016.[3] In 2017, 132 million mobile devices were in circulation.[4] Credit scoring firms glean alternative data from borrowers’ mobile devices, which they feed to machine learning algorithms for generating detailed and intimate knowledge about their behaviour and risk profile. These are derived from telco and mobile data, social network data, browser data, e-commerce, and financial transaction data.

Credit scoring startups make an argument for efficiency by comparing their scorecards with traditional scoring based on economic data and simple statistical tools. Their marketing presents the latter as a system of “archaic credit data and scoring technologies of the 70s”.[5] In Vietnam, the Credit Information Center (CIC) under the State Bank is the official public credit registry. It collects, processes and stores credit data, analyses, monitors and limits credit risk, scores and rates credit institutions and borrowers, and provides credit reports and other financial services. It gleans credit data from 670,000 companies and 30.8 million individuals with existing credit history.[6] The CIC operates alongside the Vietnam Credit Information Joint Stock Company (PCB), a smaller private credit registry created by 11 banks in 2007. The CIC and PCB provide essential services to the financial community, but use traditional credit data and scoring methods that limit their reach and scope. The CIC, for instance, takes several days to deliver individual reports and lacks a national credit database system with a unique profile for every citizen.

Credit scoring startups put forward efficiency, accuracy and speed to set themselves apart from credit registries and promote their sophisticated technology. Their predictions offer higher accuracy than traditional scoring because they leverage a much larger number of data points relevant to risk behaviour and analyse them with AI. They also increase speed to provide ’real-time credit decision’, as stated in CredoLab’s privacy policy.[7] Banks and consumer lending companies also seek to provide a ’fast and easy’ credit experience. Kalidas Ghose, CEO of FE Credit, the leading consumer lender in Vietnam and a subsidiary of VPBank, promotes the power of big data to foster financial inclusion and credit growth in Vietnam. At first, FE Credit developed an “enhanced process for instant application in 1 click” that takes less than two days: an SMS is sent to the customer, a “fair price” is calculated based on a “highly reliable score”, the customer applies for a loan on “1 click”, the sales team calls back in less than 30 min, an appointment is made in less than 24 hours to close the deal, and the loan is disbursed within 12 hours. This system leverages telco data provided by Viettel (63.6 million users), Mobifone (20.5 million) and Vinaphone (34.6 million) to assess risk.[8]

As if two days were not fast enough, FE Credit then developed $NAP, an automated lending platform that digitises the loan application process and shortens the time for approval and disbursement to 15 minutes.[9] $NAP reduces customer recruitment cost and lowers the risk of losing them due to cumbersome procedures. According to Ghose, a “strong risk management process”, based on “extensive usage of big data analytics”, has resulted in “an ability to take on higher exposure with better customers, delivering them top-up loans earlier in their lifecycle, and expansion of target base by using alternate behavioral data in partnership with telcos, e-commerce and utility companies” (ibid.). In Ghose’s opinion, new technological practices “have helped us to serve our customer faster, easier, deliver the right product to them, at the right time and right place. And as a result, we can now increase our revenues while reducing risk as well as operations cost” (ibid.). According to FE Credit, $NAP has succeeded in attracting customers – “2 million application downloads, 540,000 application registrations, and 200,000 successful disbursals.[10] $NAP will most likely set the path for a ’fast and easy credit’ experience in Vietnam. Big data and machine learning algorithms are critical to achieving this goal. They deliver accurate predictions at a glance and cut down bureaucracy and human discretion that prevail in traditional credit scoring and human decision, as the narrative goes. They make possible the next frontier of consumer lending: the automation of lending.


Digital credit scoring promises to foster financial inclusion and make customised credit products available to the un(der)banked. But can machine learning algorithms and big data live up to their promise of distributional fairness and privacy protection?

There are conflicting public perceptions of big data and AI. A common assumption is that this technology is truthful, objective and neutral. This positive view gives AI authority over humans to take on heavy responsibilities and make vital decisions. Meanwhile, the general public worries that algorithmic governance may be biased and discriminate against vulnerable groups, including the poor, women and racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities.[11] The hidden nature of machine learning algorithms exacerbates these anxieties. Algorithms are popularly described as ’black boxes’ because they run autonomously, especially unsupervised learning. The reason is because they operate sometimes without disclosing even to their programmers how they calculate and what datasets or combinations of datasets they use to predict the most accurate outcomes. For risk assessment, borrowers fail to understand how algorithms make predictions based on data from call and SMS logs and social media networks A widespread fear is that ’opaque’ algorithms will standardise past prejudices and biases into discriminatory rules that will reinforce inequality. If these fears are founded, they ignore an important consideration, which is that the danger of discrimination lies not in algorithms but in humans who classify and rank other humans permanently, and design, programme, and train algorithms to perform certain operations and reach determined outcomes.

Another area where digital credit scoring raises anxieties is consumer autonomy and privacy. Autonomy refers to consumers’ ability to make choices and decisions free from outside influence. Consumer lending markets use credit pricing and customisation to discipline behaviour as well. Loan prices and conditions result from the sorting and slotting of people in “market categories” based on their economic performance.[12] In the US, these market categories are linked to credit scores that determine credit access, pricing and conditions. However, they also determine one’s ’life chances’ because credit scores measure creditworthiness and trustworthiness. A favourable credit score is required to purchase a home, a car, a cellphone on contract with no security deposit, seek higher education, start a new business, and secure a job with a good employer. Conversely, bad scores hamper one’s life chances. Credit scores thus make and undo fates.

In Vietnam, it is too early to observe behaviour change and nudging among consumers based on digital credit scoring, as it at an early stage of deployment. Yet, banks and lending companies increasingly use this technology to assess creditworthiness and make traditional and digital credit widely accessible to borrowers. They also take the initiative to educate people about credit scoring and to advise on how to adjust behaviour to improve scores and chances of obtaining loans.[13] The media pay some attention to digital credit scoring. For instance, there has been a news clip where Vietnamese students are advised on how they are to behave to secure loans and fund their studies and consumption in the US.[14] The journalist shares “the reasons why one should accumulate credit points and how one learns to build credit effectively and safely while living in the US”. These materials reveal the emergence of digital credit scoring and its normative power for guiding behaviour in Vietnam.

A last issue of growing concern is cybersecurity or the fraudulent use of data for profit. In Vietnam, new wealth fuels cybercrime. With rapid economic and digital growth and a growing and impressive number of internet users (66 percent out of 98 million inhabitants) and social media users (60 percent), Vietnam is an “El Dorado for cyber-offenders”.[15] Cyberattacks and data breaches are common. In 2019, the Government Information Security Commission reported 332,029 access attacks (using improper means to access a user’s account or network) and 21,141 authentication attacks (using fake credentials to gain access to resources from a user).[16] These data are just the tip of the iceberg in a country where cybercrime remains largely underreported.[17] The media regularly report data breaches. In 2019, the Maritime Commercial Joint Stock Bank (MSB) suffered a leak of personal data. A list of two million account holders’ names, ID, phone numbers, addresses, birthdates, gender, emails, and occupations was posted in a website trading stolen data. It is unclear if the data were leaked by an employee from the bank or by a hacker who attacked the bank’s database.[18] In 2018, the police dismantled a group of 12 cybercriminals who broke into the server of an unspecified bank to access the accounts of customers who had not subscribed to online banking services. After fraudulently subscribing to these services, they impersonated bank officers and called customers to ask for an OTP to disburse a loan. They use OTPs to log into the accounts of 560 customers to steal VND43 billion (US$1.8 million).[19]


Big data and AI make big promises but pose big challenges as well. These challenges require regulation, oversight and safeguards. However, in its current state, Vietnamese law is ill-equipped to regulate big data and AI, including digital credit scoring. This technology calls for revising credit law, especially matters related to creditworthiness assessment. In Vietnam, credit law is scattered across several instruments. The 2010 Law on Credit Institutions is the general framework, but it addresses creditworthiness tangentially. Other rules appear in circular 39/2016/TT on lending transactions of credit institutions, circular 43/2016/TT on stipulating consumer lending by financial companies, and circular 02/2013/TT on conditions of debt restructuring. The regulations on creditworthiness require creditors and regulators to continually assess and categorise debtors and loans in risk categories. Since these regulations were designed before the advent of AI, they contain gaps and inadequacies.

First, lenders are required to assess borrowers’ creditworthiness using traditional, financial and (non-)credit data (“qualitative and quantitative, business and administration situation”), which they collect from borrowers and the CIC. This framework is inadequate to regulate the gleaning and processing of alternative data by credit scoring startups.

Second, credit law does not ban discrimination against vulnerable borrowers through sensitive characteristics like race, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, and so forth. Vietnam does not have any specific law about discrimination – except the articles 16 in the Constitution and 12 in the law on gender equality. If credit scoring firms collect alternative data comprising sensitive characteristics and use them to assess risk, they may (in)advertently (re)produce unfair discrimination.

Third, credit regulation requires credit institutions to provide borrowers with a reason for rejecting loan applications. However, the law does not grant borrowers the right to correct credit data, appeal human or automated decisions, and request explanations on how decisions are made, and suggestions on how to improve their credit record and scoring to avoid future improper rejections.[20]

On the whole, legal provisions on creditworthiness assessment leave lenders unaccountable for their decisions and adds an extra layer of opacity to credit scoring and decision-making, thereby putting borrowers at a disadvantage.

The goal for industry players from the fintech and finance sectors, for the regulator and for society is to negotiate normative trade-offs between efficiency and fairness, innovation and public interests that are to be represented in the amended regulation.[21]

The regulator could issue a decree that would update credit law. It could limit what data is collected, how it is used, under what circumstances it can be transferred, stored and sold, and whether and how it should be shared with the CIC.

The decree could also ensure that consumers are given the possibility to oversee the entire scoring process and have the right to explanation in case of rejection, appeal for rejection, and correction of credit data to improve their chances of approval in the future.

The decree could also detail safeguards and procedures on how to open the scoring system for inspection by a public regulatory body – for instance the State Bank of Vietnam. The decree could also address the issue of bias and discrimination against vulnerable groups by banning the use of sensitive characteristics.

The regulator could design this decree and negotiate optimal compromises between efficiency and fairness with industry players and civil society organisations.

Another area of concern raised by big data and AI is privacy. Laws on personal data protection are comprehensive but scattered in many statutes and decrees. The reference legislation is Law 86/2015/QH13 on Cyber-Information Security (CIS). Other relevant regulations can be found in Law 67/2006/QH11 on Information Technology (IT).[22] The CIS and IT require data collecting companies to obtain consent from data owners prior to gleaning personal data. For the CIS, consent requirement shall include the “scope and purpose of collection and use of such information” (art 17a). According to the IT, companies must “inform those people of the form, scope, place and purpose of collecting, processing and using their personal information” (art 21.2a). Data owners have the right to “update, alter or cancel their personal information collected or stored” by companies and to stop these companies from “providing such personal information to a third party” (CIS, art 18.1). It also requests data collectors to “delete the stored personal information when they have accomplished their use purposes or the storage time has expired” (CIS, art 18.3). Art 22 of the CIS stresses that data owners have a right to “inspect, correct or cancel such information” (see also art 22 of the IT).

All-in-all, the law provides data owners a comprehensive s​et of rights and protections against companies that collect personal data. It also promotes transparency and accountability. However, it does not delimit what data companies can collect to protect privacy.

This gap is problematic given the severe implications big data and AI have in people’s lives. Legal scholars call for minimising data collection, meaning banning the collection and “processing of certain types of personal data – such as relationship, health and social media data – that are considered intrinsic to a consumer’s identity and autonomy”.[23] This suggestion raises a challenging question: How does one determine what data are intrinsic and therefore non-commodifiable for preserving privacy and intrinsic identities?[24]

This thorny question requires extensive political, societal and legal debate, negotiation, and compromise. The Vietnamese government could address it by launching a consultation with industry players, international bodies, data protection organisations, and civil society associations to determine what personal data should or should not be collected and commodified for credit scoring purposes.

The goal would be to find a compromise between efficiency in risk assessment and credit decision-making while preserving the data owner’s privacy and intrinsic identities. The results of this consultation could be made enforceable by issuing a decree that amends privacy regulations including CIS and IT. Meanwhile, the authorities should ensure that credit scoring firms and local and international lenders operating in Vietnam follow the law on personal data protection to respect privacy.


It is important to follow the deployment and study the impact of digital credit scoring in Vietnam. This technology stirs mixed feelings: excitation over prospects for greater efficiency and potential for fostering inclusion, and concern about discrimination and privacy threats. It is too early for a comprehensive evaluation of the pros and cons of digital credit scoring in Vietnam, as this technology is being deployed as we speak. Nevertheless, regulation is vital to support fintech innovation and positive socioeconomic change.

Given that digital credit scoring thrives in legal limbo in Vietnam, the regulator should address new challenges posed by big data and AI and reflect on normative trade-offs without further ado. Implementing legal safeguards and human oversight to support efficiency and accuracy while preserving public interest and privacy is an imperative. The authorities will also have to make sure that domestic and foreign credit scoring firms and lenders comply with proposed changes in regulation.

ISEAS Perspective 2021/20, 26 February 2021.


[1] Nikita Aggarwal, “The Norms of Algorithmic Credit Scoring,” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2020,; Citron Danielle and Franck Pasquale, “The Scored Society: Due Process for Automated Predictions,” Washington Law Review 89, no. 1 (2014): 1–34.

[2] World Bank, The Little Data Book on Financial Inclusion 2018 (Washington DC: World Bank, 2018), 160.

[3] Hai Yen Nguyen, “Fintech in Vietnam and Its Regulatory Approach,” in Regulating FinTech in Asia, ed. Mark Fenwick, Steven Van Uytsel, and Bi Ying, Perspectives in Law, Business and Innovation (Singapore: Springer, 2020), 121.

[4] CSIRO, “Vietnam Today: First Report of the Vietnam’s Future Digital Economy Project” (Hanoi: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, 2018), 3.

[5] (accessed 20 November 2020)

[6] (accessed 20 November 2020)

[7] (accessed 20 November 2020).

[8] Kalidas Ghose, “Financial Inclusion- Leveraging the Mobile Device: The FE Credit Experience” (Hanoi: FE Credit, 2018), (accessed 20 November 2020).

[9] Saigon Times, “FE Credit Reshapes Vietnam’s Consumer Finance Industry with Its Disruptive ’$nap’ Digital Lending Platform,” Saigon Times, January 11, 2019,’s…nce-industry-with-its-disruptive-$nap-digital-lending-platform.html (accessed 20 November 2020).

[10] (accessed 20 November 2020)

[11] see, i.e., Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: New York University Press, 2018).

[12] Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy, “Classification Situations: Life-Chances in the Neoliberal Era,” Accounting, Organizations and Society 38, no. 8 (November 2013): 561-572.

[13] FE Credit, “Điểm Tín Dụng Xấu Là Gì? Làm Gì Khi Điểm Tín Dụng Xấu? (Phần I) [What Is a Bad Credit Score? What to Do When a Bad Credit Score? (Part I)],” May 23, 2016, (accessed 20 November 2020).

[14] Anh Duong, “Credit Score (Điểm Tín Dụng) – Yếu Tố Quan Trọng Trong Cuộc Sống Của Du Học Sinh Tại Mỹ [Credit Score: An Important Factor in the Life of International Students in the US],” San Sang Du Hoc, June 28, 2018, (accessed 20 November 2020).

[15] Tech Collective, “Vietnam Suffers the Most Southeast Asia Offline Cyber Attacks Q2 2019,” KrAsia, August 9, 2019, (accessed 20 November 2020).

[16] Vietnam Security Summit, “Cyber Security in the AI and Big Data Era: Event Brochure” (Vietnam Security Summit, November 10, 2020), (accessed 20 November 2020).

[17] Hai Thanh Luong et al., “Understanding Cybercrimes in Vietnam: From Leading-Point Provisions to Legislative System and Law Enforcement,” International Journal of Cyber Criminology 13, no. 2 (2019): 294.

[18] Lam Bao, “Two Million Account Details from Major Vietnamese Bank Leaked Online,” November 22, 2019, (accessed 20 November 2020).

[19] VNS, “Sophisticated Cyber Crime on the Rise in Việt Nam,” Viet Nam News, August 14, 2018, (accessed 20 November 2020).

[20] A good credit scoring will differentiate the different grades of credit risk a borrower has and inevitably there will be high risk borrowers that lenders would not want to accept given the high cost of credit that would impact lenders financial performance.

[21] A more comprehensive analysis would require exploring the legal safeguards implemented in more developed markets. See Aggarwal, “The Norms of Algorithmic Credit Scoring” for a brilliant study of the UK case, and Danielle, Citron and Franck Pasquale, “The Scored Society: Due Process for Automated Predictions.” Washington Law Review 89, no. 1 (2014): 1–34 for a study of the U.S. case.

[22] For a description of other laws, see Ha Quyen Hoang Nguyen, “Protecting Personal Data on Cyberspace: Enterprise’s Obligations under the Laws of Vietnam,” December 2, 2019, (accessed 20 November 2020).

[23] Aggarwal, “The Norms of Algorithmic Credit Scoring,” 17.

[24] For a similar discussion, see also World Bank, CGAP, “Data Protection and Privacy for Alternative Data” (Washington, D.C: World Bank, CGAP, 2018), 13–14.

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2021/19 “Thailand’s Lèse Majesté Dilemma: Defending the Monarchy versus Silencing Critics and Alienating the Young” by Termsak Chalermpalanupap


Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn attends a ceremony to commemorate the birthday of his father the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Sanam Luang in Bangkok on December 5, 2020. Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA, AFP.


  • There were no arrests under Thailand’s lèse majesté law for nearly the first four years of the reign of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the Chakri Throne on 1 December 2016.
  • However, the escalation of anti-government protests late last year, with their increasing anti-monarchy tone, forced Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha to revive enforcement of the law. Authorities have arrested a growing number of protest leaders and their supporters.
  • The crackdown has not deterred these leaders, many of them university students, from pressing on with their demands, including reform of the monarchy.
  • Debating the pros and cons of the lèse majesté law is unlikely to resolve the dilemma that its application confronts, between defending the monarchy and alienating younger generations of Thais.
  • The best way forward is to encourage the Reconciliation Committee set up by the House Speaker to look into all pertinent issues surrounding the lèse majesté law.

*Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. Before joining ISEAS, he served nearly 20 years at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, where his last post was the Director of Political and Security Cooperation.


At the height of intensifying anti-government protests—with their increasing anti-monarchy tone—late last year, Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha resorted to an unprecedented response. He declared in an official statement issued on 19 November that the government and its security apparatus would henceforth step up their operations by “enforcing every law and every existing section [in each law] to deal with protesters who are breaking laws and disrespecting rights and freedoms of others; and would duly prosecute all cases in accordance with the justice process which is consistent with international standards. …”[1]

It was immediately understood that the prime minister was warning protesters that they could face arrest under Thailand’s lèse majesté law if they defamed the monarchy or insulted King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Since 1976, a guilty verdict under this law, Section 112 of the Criminal Code, has carried a jail term ranging from three to 15 years. Defendants facing trail for lèse majesté are sometimes denied bail, and their trials can be held in secret because evidence of their wrongdoings cannot be shown to the public.

Prayut’s warning was enough to force protest leaders to change their plans. They had previously threatened to stage a protest rally in front of the office of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB) on 25 November, to demand transparency on the part of the bureau. Instead, they led their supporters to rally in front of the headquarters of the Siam Commercial Bank, in which the king is the largest shareholder.[2]

The protest leaders, several of them university students, wanted to draw attention to the current king’s management of royal assets. Under the law on royal assets which came into force on 4 November 2018, the king’s personal wealth, crown properties that used to belong to the monarchy as an institution, and other assets such as land, shophouses, markets, and shares previously held and managed by the CPB, have been merged into royal assets under the explicit ownership of the king. The king now manages royal assets using the CPB merely as an administrative tool.[3]

For almost four years into the reign of the new king, who ascended the Chakri Throne on 1 December 2016, there were no new lèse majesté arrests. General Prayut once disclosed that it was the wish of the king not to invoke the lèse majesté law.[4]

However, General Prayut justified the recent de facto revival of application of the lèse majesté law by citing in his 19 November statement that “the situation [concerning the protests] has not improved, … and there is a trend towards conflicts, leading to more serious violence … which could damage the country and its revered institution. …”[5]

Since the prime minister issued that statement, authorities had arrested at least 55 persons in 41 cases of alleged lèse majesté activities as of 25 January, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR).[6] TLHR data show that there are six persons already convicted and serving jail terms for lèse majesté ranging from two years to 35 years.[7]

Among those slapped with the lèse majesté charge in recent months are leaders of the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration. They include Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, a Thammasat University student who has been named in 15 lèse majesté cases; Panusaya “Roong” Sithijirawattanakul, spokesperson for the United Front, eight cases; Anon Nampa, a human right lawyer, eight cases; and Panupong “Mike” Jadnok, a labour activist, seven cases.[8]

The four expect to face more lèse majesté charges, because the latest cases filed against them concern earlier rallies, including the mock mailing of protest letters to the king during a rally near the Grand Palace on 8 November. Since then, the four have led many more protests to demand General Prayut’s resignation, a new constitution, and reform of the monarchy. Some of them are likely to resume staging protest rallies once the COVID-19 pandemic eases and the current public health emergency ends.


Three dramatic recent lèse majesté cases have attracted considerable attention and reactions from overseas.

The first involves a 16-year-old freshman at a state university. He took part in a “fashion show” on Silom Road in Bangkok on 28 October, in which he appeared in jeans and a crop-top shirt. His clothing and the graffiti on his bare belly made it quite obvious he was parodying someone well-known to protesters and to many other onlookers.

One onlooker, Warisnun Sribowornthanakit, asked the police to arrest the student and the organiser of the “fashion show”. Ms Warisnun is an active royalist known as “Admin Jane” on her pro-monarchy Facebook page.[9] She capitalised on a loophole in the lèse majesté law providing that anyone encountering any incident deemed to be defamation of, an insult to, or a threat against the king, the queen, the heir apparent or the regent, may notify the police; and the police must investigate accordingly.

The student became the youngest person to face a charge of lèse majesté. He was summoned for questioning at the Yannawa Police Station on 17 December, along with Chatuporn Sae-Ung, who organised the fashion show event as part of the Free Youth group’s protest rally.

The lawyer for the accused contended that the arrest of his young client contravened Thailand’s obligations, under the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to uphold the best interests of every child (under the age of 18) and to respect the freedom of expression of every child, as well as the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees all individuals’ freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.[10]

The student has been released on bail pending a hearing in the Central Juvenile and Family Court.

A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that “it is extremely disappointing” to see a sudden surge of lèse majesté cases, “and – shockingly – now also [a case] against a minor…” The spokesman reiterated the call of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the Thai government to amend the lèse majesté law and to bring it into line with Article 19 of the ICCPR on freedom of expression.[11]

One month later, an even more dramatic lèse majesté case hit the headlines. A 65-year-old woman received an initial sentence of 87 years in jail for 29 separate lèse majesté violations. This is the longest jail term for lèse majesté ever ordered in Thailand. Because the woman confessed her guilt, however, the court halved the sentence to 43 years and six months. She has now requested her release on bail in order to prepare her appeal.

The woman in question is Anchan Preelert, a senior mid-level retiree from the Revenue Department. She was arrested on 25 January 2015 for posting on YouTube and Facebook under pseudonyms anti-monarchy audio clips of the YouTuber “DJ Banpot” in 2014-15. The military court that initially had jurisdiction over her cases denied bail. After the general election of March 2019, Anchan’s cases were transferred to the Criminal Court, and she was released on bail.

The YouTuber who produced the audio clips in question was also arrested in early 2015. He was sentenced to 10 years in just one case of lèse majesté. He confessed, and the jail term was reduced to five years, which he has already finished serving. Ironically, while the original culprit is now free, Anchan is still struggling with her appeal against the verdict of 43½ years’ imprisonment.

Anchan’s predicament has raised questions about the lack of procedural fairness, the unpredictable discretion of law enforcement authorities and the lack of proportionality of punishment. The prosecutor chose to pursue 29 separate charges against Anchan, instead of merging all of them into one lèse majesté case. Even though the judge imposed the minimum jail term of three years per charge, the jail term when multiplied 29 times led to the record sentence of 87 years in jail.

Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director, Yamini Mishra, decried the “shocking case” of Anchan’s sentence as “yet another assault on Thailand’s vanishing space for freedom of expression.” She called for repealing or significantly revising the law, which “gags freedom of expression both on- and offline … ”[12]

Compared with the two cases above, the third recent lèse majesté case has more significant political implications, since it involves famous embattled politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit as the defendant, and the Prayut administration as the plaintiff.

On 19 January, Thanathorn gave a 30-minute Facebook live talk under the rather provocative title “วัคชีนพระราชทาน: ใครได้ –ใครเสีย?” or “Royally bestowed vaccine: Who gains – who loses?”. During the talk, he raised questions about a possible “conflict of interest”, about delays and about a lack of transparency in the government’s procurement of COVID-19 vaccines.

Thanathorn demanded disclosure of all vaccine procurement contracts. The government has signed one contract with pharmaceutical firm Astra Zeneca, which has developed a vaccine against the coronavirus in collaboration with Oxford University, to purchase 26 million doses of the firm’s vaccine. It will supply lots of its vaccine to Thailand starting in early February, coming from its facility in Italy. Under a second contract, between AstraZeneca and Siam Bioscience,[13] the vaccine will in time be produced in Thailand. Siam Bioscience is a Thai pharmaceutical firm wholly own by the king. Under this second contract, the latter firm will produce the AstraZeneca vaccine for distribution in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. Yet another contract is between Siam Bioscience and the government, which has reportedly provided that firm with 1,449 million baht in funding to boost its vaccine production capacity.[14]

Thanathorn asked why Siam Bioscience, without any open bidding for the contract, had been chosen to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine in Thailand. He pointed out in one of his presentation slides that the Thai firm would receive technology transfer from the pharmaceutical giant; that it would gain world-wide renown as a producer of the vaccine; that it would gain from selling 200 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine per year, with annual revenue at 18 billion baht ; and that it would benefit from 1,449 million baht in government subsidies.

In another slide used during his Facebook live talk, Thanathorn contended that the government carelessly bet on the AstraZeneca vaccine, but could secure just a small supply of it, enough for only 21.5 per cent of the Thai population. Further, he argued that the Prayut government had been slow in approaching other vaccine developers, and that it therefore had less bargaining power with AstraZeneca. Consequently, the Thai people would continue to live in fear, and the Thai economy would remain stagnant until the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in June.

Thanathorn concluded his talk with more provocative questions. What if the AstraZeneca vaccine is ineffective? What if large numbers of Thais have serious allergic reactions to the vaccine? Will General Prayut accept responsibility if vaccine production by Siam Bioscience is delayed? And if things go wrong, will people fault Siam Bioscience, which is wholly owned by the king?


The reaction from the Prayut administration was swift. On the following day, General Prayut sent three senior officials to file a lèse majesté complaint against Thanathorn at the Technology Crime Suppression Division . The officials also accused Thanathorn of spreading falsehoods through social media, a violation of the Computer Crime Act of 2017 — punishable by a jail term of up to five years, or a fine of up to 100,000 baht, or a combination of imprisonment and fine.

The government officials identified 11 parts of Thanathorn’s talk that they claimed defamed the king, as well as false information on the vaccine deals. “The false information could mislead the people”, said Putthipong Punnakan, the Minister of Digital Economy and Society.[15]

Thanathorn was apparently taken aback by the forceful reaction of the government., and on 21 January, he held a press conference to elaborate his views further, still contending that it was General Prayut who exposed the king to public doubt by praising the king for giving permission for Siam Bioscience to participate in the vaccine deals under mysterious circumstances.[16]

Thanathorn accused the prime minister of using the lèse majesté law to try to silence him. He added that, since the government was spending taxpayers’ money to procure the vaccine, it must face public scrutiny and all parties concerned must be held accountable.[17]

Senior officials and the CEO of the Siam Cement Group, all of whom took part in the vaccine negotiations put forth the following clarifications.

  • The government chooses the AstraZeneca vaccine because the company is willing to transfer its vaccine technology to a Thai partner.
  • The AstraZeneca vaccine does not require ultra-cold storage.
  • The AstraZeneca vaccine is less costly than other vaccines, selling at only about US$3 per dose.
  • AstraZeneca – not the government – chose Siam Bioscience to produce the vaccine in Thailand. One of its reasons was that Siam Bioscience operates on a business model of no-profit and no-loss, as does AstraZeneca.
  • Siam Bioscience has equipment which is compatible with AstraZeneca’s vaccine production technique and thus can readily receive the transfer of technology needed for production of the coronavirus vaccine.
  • Siam Bioscience will repay its government subsidies with vaccines purchased from AstraZeneca.
  • AstraZeneca will ship 150,000 doses of the vaccine to Thailand in early February.
  • The government’s goal for 2021 is to secure enough vaccines for 50 per cent of the Thai population and does not include children and juveniles under 18 in the vaccination roll-out starting on 14 February since the young are less vulnerable to the coronavirus.[18]

Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul has dismissed Thanathorn’s demand for the disclosure of all the vaccine contracts, saying that they concerned business entities whose privacy and product secrets could not be violated at will. He considered Thanathorn’s move on social media an ill-intentioned attempt to mislead the public into misunderstanding the King.[19] Anutin also clarified that the government has been trying to secure more vaccines from different sources, including 2 million doses from China’s Sinovac.

On 31 January, the Criminal Court ordered Thanathorn to remove the recording of the live talk in question from the Progressive Movement’s website and Youtube page.[20] However, Thanathorn won a reprieve on 8 February, after the Criminal Court cancelled its earlier order that he delete the recording from all social media platforms on the ground that what Thanathorn said had nothing to undermine national security.[21]


Proponents of Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code insist that the lèse majesté law is necessary to protect the monarchy from unfair attacks. Defaming the monarchy and insulting the king threaten national security, because the king is the head of state and head of the Thai armed forces.

Section 6 of the Constitution of 2017 stipulates that “The king shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the king to any sort of accusation or action.”[22] Moreover, Section 50 of the charter stipulates that the duties of the Thai people include protecting and upholding the nation, religions, the king and the democratic regime of government with the king as the head of state. And in Section 52, duties of the state include protecting and upholding the institution of kingship.

On the other hand, critics of the lèse majesté law have long called for its abolition, saying that it is ineffective, obsolete, and not consistent with Thailand’s international commitments to uphold human rights and civil and political rights. Many deplore the haphazard off-and-on enforcement of the lèse majesté law; the lack of proportionality in punishments for the crime; the secret trials of many accused of lèse majesté; and difficulties in securing bail for defendants in major lèse majesté cases. They have suggested that a better way to protect the monarchy and uphold the dignity of the king would be to introduce substantive reforms to ensure that the king reigns benevolently above politics and stays out of business.[23]


House Speaker Chuan Leekpai has set up a committee to look into ways and means of bringing about national reconciliation in Thailand.[24] Regrettably, all opposition parties and protest leaders have boycotted it.

In the first meeting of the committee on 18 January, Thoedpong Chaiyanan, a veteran Democrat Party member of paliament, was elected unopposed to chair it.[25] Ideally, the committee will look into all pertinent issues concerning the lèse majesté law, explore the possibility of scrapping Section 112, or at least revising it to make it consistent with Thailand’s international commitments on human rights, and civil and political rights.

Abolishing or revising the lèse majesté law requires strong support from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. However, such support is non-existent among parties in the ruling coalition, and in the Senate.

The committee can propose a general amnesty to let all protest leaders facing lèse majesté charges off the hook, which in turn would motivate these people to discuss with the committee their demands on reforming the monarchy.[26]

Protest leaders maintain that a truly democratic constitutional monarchy would make it unnecessary for Thailand to keep its lèse majesté law on the books. Hence they are also demanding a new and genuinely democratic constitution to replace the existing 2017 Constitution that was designed by the military regime led by General Prayut which seized power in the May 2014 coup.


Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit seems to have barked up the wrong tree in criticising Thailand’s contracts with AstraZeneca. His information was incomplete. Punishing him for spreading the fake news would have been sufficient, but charging him with lèse majesté was obviously overkill. It gave credence to his claim that the government was trying to silence him.

Flaws in the enforcement of the lèse majesté law were also glaring in the long sentence given 65-year-old retiree Anchan Preelert and in the lengthy court proceedings since her arrest in January 2015.

Similarly, charging a 16-year-old for lèse majesté is unlikely to change, let alone improve, the negative attitude held by many Thai youths towards the monarchy and the king.

Several protest leaders have already been arrested numerous times for alleged violations of the lèse majesté law. But most of them seem unperturbed by the prospect of facing lengthy court proceedings and possibly long jail terms. Their defiance is a worrisome trend for the government, to say the least.

In the face of these concerns, the Reconciliation Committee set up by the House Speaker offers a glimmer of hope, if it tackles pertinent issues surrounding the lèse majesté law with goodwill and sincere determination to create national reconciliation. That will be its challenge.

ISEAS Perspective 2021/19, 26 February 2021.


[1] “แถลงการณ์นายกรัฐมนตรี 19 พฤศจิกายน 2563” [Statement of the Prime Minister, 19 November 2020], Government House website (, accessed 24 January 2021.

[2] According to the Stock Exchange of Thailand, King Maha Vajiralongkorn holds 793,832,359 shares in the Siam Commercial Bank, or about 23.38 per cent the total. The stocks were worth nearly 74 billion baht as of 26 January 2021. (, accessed 26 January 2021). The king is also the largest shareholder in the Siam Cement Public Company, owning 403,647,840 shares or about 33.64 per cent of this Thai blue-chip conglomerate. The stock was worth nearly 160 billion baht as of 26 January 2021 (, accessed 26 January 2021).

[3] For a comparison between the old law of 1948 and the new law of 2018, see “เทียบ กม. จัดระเบียบทรัพย์สินพระมหากษัตริย์ 2491 และ 2561” [Comparing the laws of 1948 and 2018 on regulating royal assets],Thai PBS News, 29 November 2020 (, accessed 26 January 2021). One major difference is that the king’s assets are now taxable.

[4] “นายกฯ เผย ‘ในหลวง’ ทรงมีพระเมตตารับสั่งไม่ให้ใช้ ม. 112” [ The Prime Minister discloses that “the King” is kind and has asked him not to use the Section 112], Thai PBS News, 15 June 2020 (, accessed 26 January 2021).

[5] “แถลงการณ์นายกรัฐมนตรี 19 พฤศจิกายน 2563” , op cit.

[6] “สถิติผู้ถูกดำเนินคดีมาตรา112 ‘หมิ่นประมาทกษัตริย์’ ปี 2563 – 64” [Statistics of defendants under Section 112 on “insulting the King” in 2020-21] (, accessed 26 January 2021).

[7] Details on these six convicts are available on the Facebook page of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights Center, 23 January 2021 (, accessed 26 January 2021).

[8] “สถิติผู้ถูกดำเนินคดีมาตรา112 ‘หมิ่นประมาทกษัตริย์’ ปี 2563 – 64”, op cit.  Their requests for bail rejected, Parit and Anon were sent  to a prison for temporary detention on 9 February while they awaited trial.

[9] “เพจเชียร์ลุงแจงแล้ว รับแจ้งจับเด็ก16 ในความผิด ม.112” [Pro-Prayut page admits asking the police to arrest the 16-year-old juvenile for Section 112 offence], Thai Rath, 14 December 2020 (, accessed 20 January 2021).

[10] Thailand’s accession to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights entered into force on 26 April 1992 and 29 January 1997 respectively.

[11] “Press briefing notes on Thailand”, 18 December 2020 (, accessed on 26 January 2021). Article 19 of the ICCPR concerns respect for freedom of expression.

[12] “Thailand: 87-year prison sentence handed in harshest lèse majesté conviction”, Amnesty International Asia-Pacific Regional Office, 19 January 2021 (, accessed 26 January 2021).

[13] Siam Bioscience Company was established in 2009 as an initiative of the late King Bhumibol to pursue Thailand’s self-sufficiency in pharmaceutical production. See (accessed 28 January 2021).

[14] A recording of Thanathorn’s talk appears at (accessed 20 January 2021). The 42-year-old business tycoon turned politician is already facing a number of other criminal charges after setting up the Future Forward Party three years ago. One of these charges arose from his lending 191.2 million bath to the party to ease its cash flow problems. The Constitutional Court found the loan unlawful and in February 2020 dissolved Thanathorn’s party, which was then the third largest party in parliament, with 80 MPs in the 500-member House of Representatives.

[15] “พุทธิพงษ์ รมว. ดีอีเอส แจ้งความ เอาผิด ธนาธร คดี 112” [DES Minister Putthipong files police complaint accusing Thanathorn of violating Section 112], Prachachat, 20 January 2021 (, accessed 21 January 2021). DES is the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society, which is directly in charge of enforcing the 2017 law against computer-related crime.

[16] “ นายกฯ เป็นประธานพิธีลงนามสัญญาจัดหาวัคซีนโควิด-19 โดยการจองล่วงหน้า มั่นใจไทยมีวัคซีนใช้ในปี 64 เผยพระมหากรุณาธิคุณ ร.10 พระราชทานให้ บจก สยามไบโดไซเอนซ์รับถ่ายทอดเทคโนโลยี่การผลิต” [ Prime Minister presides over contract signing ceremony to procure COVID-19 vaccine by advance reservation, confident that Thailand will have the vaccine in 2021, and discloses the kindness of the king in permitting Siam Bioscience Company to receive the transfer of vaccine production technology ], Government House website, 27 November 2020 (, accessed 28 January 2021).

[17] A recording of Thanathorn’s press conference of 21 January 2021 appears at (accessed 21 January 2021).

[18] “สธ. แจงยิบที่มาการจัดซื้อวัคซีนโควิด ยันไร้ผลประโยชน์แฝง โต้เสียงวิจารณ์” [Ministry of Public Health clarifies in detail to counter criticism, no hidden interest in the procurement of COVID vaccines], Infoquest, 19 January 2021 (, accessed 23 January 2021), and “9 ความเข้าใจเกี่ยวกับการจัดหา / จัดการ วัคซีนโควิด-19 ที่สังคมไทยควรรู้ โดย ศ. นพ. ยง ภู่วรวรรณ” [Nine points concerning the procurement / management of COVID-19 vaccines that Thai society should know, by Professor Dr Yong Poovorawan], Manager Online, 19 January 2021 (, accessed 24 January 2021). Dr Yong is head of the Virology Section, Faculty of Medicine, Chulalongkorn University. The disclosure by Roongrote Rangsiyopash, CEO of the Siam Cement Group, on 1 December 2020 during a dinner talk organised by the alumni association of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Engineering was shown during the Inside Thailand TV programme on 25 January 2021 (, accessed 26 January 2021). The Siam Cement Group’s CEO took part in the confidential negotiations among Oxford University, AstraZeneca, the Thai government, and Siam Bioscience in arranging the vaccine deals; “ ดีเดย์! 14 ก. พ. ฉีดวัคซีนโควิด-19 ล็อตแรกบุคลากรการแพทย์ ลงทะเบียนผ่านไลน์ ‘หมอพร้อม’ ” [D-Day! 14 February injection of COVID-19 vaccine, first lot for health personnel, registration for the vaccination via Line “Doctors Ready”], Manager, 25 January 2021 (, accessed 26 January 2021).

[19] The Inside Thailand television interview with Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul on 22 January 2021 appears at (accessed 23 January 2021).

[20] “ศาลสั่งปิด – ลบโพสต์ ‘ธนาธร’ ไลฟ์วัคซีนพระราชทาน ‘ปิยบุตร แอมมี่ ทราย’ จ่อคิว” [Court orders closure, deletion of recording of “Thanathorn’s” live talk about the royally bestowed vaccine; “Piyabutr, Emmy, Sai” are next], Manager, 1 February 2021 (, accessed 1 February 2021).

[21] “ศาลยกเลิกคำสั่งระงับคลิปธนาธรชี้ไม่เห็นถึงผลกระทบความมั่นคง” [Court cancels order to delete Thanathorn’s clip, saying that there is nothing affecting national security], Thai rat online, 8 February 2021 (, accessed 9 February 2021). 

[22] See the English translation of the Constitution of 2017 at the website of the Office of the Council of State (, accessed 27 January 2021).

[23] Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, “ยกเลิก112 จะเป็นคุณต่อสถาบันพระมหากษัตริย์” [Scrapping Section 112 will benefit the kingship institution], Thai Post, 24 January 2021 (, accessed 25 January 2021). Dr Piyabutr was the secretary-general of the now dissolved Future Forward Party. He and Thanathorn have set up the Progressive Movement, a civil society organisation, to continue mobilising public support for national political reforms, military reform, reform of the monarchy, and decentralisation. Sharp responses to Dr Piyabutr’s arguments came from Dr Warong Dechgitvigrom, leader of the Thai Pakdee group of royalists, in his Facebook posting of 25 January 2021, “#ตอบคำถามมาตรา112 ให้ปิยบุตร” [#Responses to Piyabutr’s questions on Section 112] (, accessed 26 January 2021).

[24] “ ‘ชวน’ ตั้ง ‘กรรมการสมานฉันท์’ แล้ว นัดถกครั้งแรก 18 มกราคม [“Chuan” sets up “Reconciliation Committee” and calls first meeting on 18 January], Bangkok Business News, 11 January 2021 (, accessed 28 January 2021).[25] “เทอดพงษ์ ไชยนันท์ นั่งประธานกรรมการปรองดองสมานฉันท์” [Thoedpong Chaiyanan becomes chairman of the Reconciliation Committee], Prachachat, 18 January 2021 (, accessed 28 January 2021).

[26] “ต้นฉบับ ประกาศกลุ่มแนวร่วมธรรมศาสตร์และการชุมนุม ฉบับที่ 1 เรียกร้องให้มีการแก้ไขปัญหาว่าด้วยสถาบันฯ 10 ข้อ” [The original text of the declaration No. 1 of the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration on 10 demands of resolving problems concerning the institution], at the website of Chon samun (normal citizens), 11 August 2020 (, accessed 28 January 2021). Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, spokesperson of the United Front, unveiled the list at a protest rally in Thammasat University’s Rangsit Campus on the evening of 10 August 2020 . The first demand calls for removing Section 6 of the 2017 Constitution, concerning the revered and inviolable position of the king; the second calls for abolishing Section 112.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /supportISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.   © Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong   Managing
Editor: Ooi Kee Beng  
Editors: William Choong, Malcolm Cook, Lee Poh Onn, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


2021/18 “The Solo 2020 Election: Jokowi’s Dynasty Begins?” by A. Harimurti and Made Supriatma


Gibran Rakabuming Raka (C), the son of Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, rides a bicycle to meet supporters after declaring victory in the mayoral election in Solo on December 9, 2020. (Photo by Anwar Mustafa / AFP)


  • The regional elections in Solo held on 9 December 2020 attracted much attention because President Jokowi’s first son, Gibran Rakabuming, ran for mayor with the support of PDIP, which controls 60% of the seats in the local parliament.
  • In nominating Gibran, PDIP sacrificed its local candidate Achmad Purnomo, the incumbent vice major who had long served the party’s grassroots. Initially, Gibran faced resistance from the local party apparatus, but clinched the nomination with endorsement from party chief Megawati Sukarnoputri and provincial party officials. Gibran rallied a large coalition and secured support from all political parties in the local parliament (40 out of 45 seats) except for the Islamist party, PKS.
  • Following Gibran’s nomination, an independent candidate pair, Bagyo Wahyono and FX Suparjo, emerged to challenge him. These two were largely unfamiliar faces in Solo, with little prospect of withstanding Gibran’s political machine, backed as it was by Indonesia’s most powerful politician.
  • Gibran eventually won by a landslide, amidst conspiracy theories that the challengers were token candidates put up to avoid a possible avalanche of protest votes which could negate Gibran’s victory.
  • Gibran’s victory signals President Jokowi becoming the head of a political family more than it is about the impressive achievement of a newcomer politician. It also suggests that regional politics is now more about having social capital than it is about inter-party competition. This threatens to undermine Indonesian democracy.

* A. Harimurti is Lecturer in the Psychology Department at Sanata Dharma University, Yogyakarta. Made Supriatma is Visiting Fellow with the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  Made’s research focus is on Indonesian politics, civil-military relations, and ethnic/identity politics and he is also a free-lance journalist.


One of the most important races, and one that received the most attention, during the 2020 regional head elections in Indonesia, was the mayoral race in Solo, or Surakarta city. [1] The reason for that was because the race involved the son of President Joko Widodo (affectionately known as Jokowi), Gibran Rakabuming. Solo is President Jokowi’s hometown. He started his political career in this city 15 years ago and rose meteorically to the national level. Jokowi built an image as a self-made businessman, and his down-to-earth approach to politics, called blusukan (impromptu visits to lower class residences), captured the imagination of many Indonesians. He rose to prominence due to his populist rhetoric and his background as an outsider to Indonesia’s mainstream politics.[2] The rise of Gibran, however, is at odds with the whole image projected about his father. Gibran is seen more as a product of dynastic politics rather than as a self-made politician. Without his father’s big name, many believe that it would not have been possible for him to have become mayor of Solo.

A dynastic politician can be defined as someone who runs for public office with the advantage of being related by blood and/or marriage to politicians who are in power. Studies in India[3] and Japan[4] have found that dynasty is as much related to democracy as it is to an authoritarian system. In a democracy, a political dynasty can dominate politics through elections. The number of candidates of this type is on the rise in Indonesia, and this situation has been called the “new normal”.[5]

President Jokowi is being accused of building a political dynasty[6] because both his son and son-in-law ran for mayoral positions—in Solo and Medan respectively. This is a drastic reversal from his previous position. Before his reelection in 2019, Jokowi boasted about how proud he was that his children stayed away from politics, and instead focused on cultivating their businesses.[7] His children also then expressed disinterest in joining their father to pursue a career in politics. All this changed in the few months that followed Jokowi’s reelection.

This Perspective aims to elucidate some aspects of the regional election in Solo. Why did Gibran decide to run for office in Solo after denying that he had political ambitions? What were the dynamics like during the election and what led to Gibran’s landslide victory? And, most importantly, what are the consequences of Gibran’s victory on national politics and on Jokowi’s political future?


Since Jokowi became president, Gibran Rakabuming had often said that he had no interest in politics. During Jokowi’s re-election campaign, Gibran claimed that he was not involved in any way.[8] That was in September 2018. A year later, Gibran was seen visiting FX Hadi Rudyatmo (Rudy), the Mayor of Solo who is also the local chairman of PDIP, and disclosed to Rudy his intention to run in the upcoming Solo mayoral election. [9]

Indeed, things were politically complicated. By that time, the Solo branch of PDIP had already decided on a candidate pair for the election. This was then-deputy mayor Achmad Purnomo for mayor and Teguh Prakosa, a local PDIP man, for vice-mayor. Gibran, however, would not give up that easily.

He went to the provincial PDIP to asked to be the party’s candidate for Solo mayor. They complied,[10] overruling the Solo branch decision to back Achmad Purnomo.

The decision outraged PDIP cadres and activists in Solo. The PDIP bylaw states that the regency or city level branch has the right to nominate a candidate for regional head (bupati) or mayoral (walikota) elections.[11] Rudy, the mayor and the local chairman of PDIP, aired his frustration over the blatant violation of the party’s regulations.[12]

Gibran gained the upper hand, however, when Megawati Sukarnoputri, the party chairwoman, agreed to his nomination. Achmad Purnomo retracted his candidacy while Teguh Prakosa, his candidate for vice-mayor, became Gibran’s running mate. In July 2020, Jokowi invited Achmad Purnomo to the palace to offer him a government position at the national level. Purnomo refused the offer and chose instead to stay in Solo to run his businesses.

Gibran met almost no challenge in garnering support from the political parties in Solo. According to election rules, a candidate must be supported by parties that control at least 20% of the DPRD seats or that represent 25% of the votes obtained in the 2019 legislative elections. PDIP is the largest political party in Solo with 60% seats in the local parliament, which put Gibran easily pass that criterion.

Gibran did not even need support from other political parties since PDIP’s backing was already enough to ensure his candidacy. He chose however to fortify his position by embracing the six parties in the city parliament. All lined up behind him except the Islamist PKS, giving him support from 40 of 45 seats (88.9%).[13]

Overwhelming support from the parties did not automatically mean victory for Gibran. His team understood the lesson from the 2018 mayoral election in Makassar, South Sulawesi, in which a political dynasty candidate who was supported overwhelmingly by the parties in the local parliament, lost nevertheless to the ballot’s empty box, a protest option for Indonesian voters.[14]

To be sure, Gibran seemed overawed by his own political strength and the overwhelming size of his coalition. His hegemonic coalition was hindering his team from understanding grassroots electoral dynamics, and it worried about resistance from within PDIP since his nomination had resulted from party elite support rather than grassroots popularity. Having the ballot’s empty box as an opponent was a risk Gibran did not wish to take. More importantly, a loss to the empty box by him would embarrass President Jokowi and damage his political stature nationally.

And then, unexpectedly, the election commission quite late in the day validated an independent candidate pair to run against Gibran.


Indonesia’s election law stipulates that independent candidates must have the support of at least 8.5% of registered voters in the 2019 election and these are to be spread over more than 50% of the subdistricts (kecamatan). In Solo, it means that the candidates must show support from at least 35,870 registered voters residing in three subdistricts.

As of January 2020, there were two independent candidate pairs in the Solo election: Muhammad Ali Achmad-Abu Jazid (Alam), and Bagyo Wahyono-FX. Supardjo (Bajo). A third pair, Muhammad Ali Achmad-Abu Jazid (Alam), dropped out after failing to meet the requirements.

On 21 February 2020, Bagyo Wahyono-FX Supardjo (Bajo) submitted 41,425 ID cards as proof of support to the local general election commission. The commission performed administrative and factual verifications and found that only 36,006 of these ID cards met requirements. On 26 July 2020, a month after Gibran-Teguh had been declared as candidates, Bajo added a further 21,603 ID cards. The election commission all in all verified 38,831 of the total ID cards, and this qualified Bajo to bid for the mayoral position.

Bagyo Wahyono and FX Supardjo are newcomers to Solo politics. Bagyo works as a tailor in Pasar Gede, a traditional market in downtown Solo, and FX Supardjo is a retiree from a job training centre and is chairman of the neighbourhood association (Rukun Warga). The pair claimed they were supported by a grassroots organisation called Tikus Pitih Hanata Baris.[15]

Bajo was thus an unexpected candidate, and many questions were asked about the pair: Were they in the race for real or were they just puppet candidates to ensure that Gibran did not compete against the empty box on the ballot? Who was behind Bajo’s candidacy? How would they run their campaign operations and who would finance them?


Bajo proved no match for Gibran in all respects. The pair could not afford to have a proper campaign organisation, nor could they afford to campaign online, something necessary during the Covid-19 pandemic, when there were no mass rallies or face-to-face meetings.

The huge disparity between the two campaigns could be seen in the funds involved. Gibran spent IDR 3.2 billion (S$3.2 million) against Bajo’s IDR 152 million (S$152K). Gibran’s campaign was technologically savvy and he conducted virtual campaigns by setting up virtual station boxes that enabled him to talk directly to voters. He called this virtual blusukan—referring to the impromptu visits to lower-class settlements, which had characterised his father’s campaign style.

Gibran talked about making Solo a creative hub for millennials and frequently mentioned ‘Industrial Revolution 4.0’.[16] He appealed to young people and tried to project himself as a business-friendly candidate by virtue of being a businessman himself.

Bajo, on the other hand, campaigned by offering plans that even they themselves were not certain about delivering. They planned to transform Solo into a ‘megapolitan’ city but rarely mentioned what kind of city they actually envisioned. They also promised to solve traffic congestion by building subways, and to deal with frequent flooding. Unlike Gibran, Bajo did not offer a vision to make Solo a sophisticated tech-based city. They tried to appeal to lower class voters but did not address the specific issues that usually attract them, such as housing, welfare, healthcare or education.

Bajo countered Gibran’s virtual blusukan with a traditional campaign method. They called it sekasur, serumah, dan sesumur (one bed, one house, and one well). This sought to influence the electorate in a slow manner through the cultivation of personal relationships with the women in the household, then with families at large, and finally with the whole community. [17] This was a method used under the New Order, by Golkar and the military to mobilise voters.

As the campaign approached the finish line, there were reports in the media about how exactly Bajo had managed to qualify as independent candidates, particularly in how ID cards were collected. The report said that people who were certified by the election commission as Bajo supporters never actually endorsed them.[18] This raised suspicions that Bajo’s candidacy was actually a sham.

A few days before the election, a corroborative report provided further details about Bajo. It found that a third party had been contracted by a police intelligence officer to collect ID cards for Bajo, and IDR 1.5 billion (S$1.5 million) were transferred to an operative in Solo to collect the ID cards. The funds had come from a police general.[19] While it remains unclear whether or not that police general provided supported for Bajo under orders from a higher ranking official, suspicions grew ever stronger that there indeed was a scheme to prevent Gibran from having to compete against the empty box (kotak kosong).


A poll released two days before the election (7 December) by IndoBarometer showed that Gibran-Teguh would get 67.8% of the vote, against only 4% for Bajo. The rest of the respondents said: As yet decided (19.8%); Keeping their vote secret (6.3%); Don’t know (1.3%); Will not vote (1%).[20] It seemed pretty clear that Gibran would win by a landslide.

The final count showed Gibran winning 86.5% (225,419) of the votes while Bajo only got 11.4% (35,133). Gibran won in all sub-districts (kecamatan) in Solo while Bajo won less votes than the number of IDs that they had needed to collect during the process to become an independent candidate.

Table 1. 2020 Solo Mayoral Election Result

Pasar Kliwon31,7935,259

The voters turnout was 70.4%, lower than in the 2019 presidential election (85.92%) and the 2015 mayoral election (73.5%). There were 419,347 registered voters for the 2020 mayoral election, but only 295,112 voted. As many as 33,488 votes were declared invalid.[21]


Gibran’s victory in Solo (and also his brother-in-law Bobby Nasution’s victory in Medan) reveals more about President Jokowi’s political stature than Gibran’s impressiveness as a newcomer politician. It also marks a new stage in Jokowi’s political life, as he shifts from his populist image towards becoming a more normal Indonesian politician.

He is no longer the Jokowi whose image was that of an outsider to Indonesian politics—he did not spring from Indonesia’s established political elites, and he did rise to power from humble beginnings. Indeed,  Jokowi is the first president to win with a “personal brand”. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, another president directly elected by the people, relied on his credentials as a military man being able to manage a government. Furthermore, Yudhoyono also created political parties to support him in power.

Jokowi had had none of that. Instead he relied primarily on his ability to do deals with the political elites instead of challenging them, while carefully crafting an image of himself as part of the common people.

With Gibran’s victory, Jokowi becomes a professional politician in the Indonesian manner. Now he is part of the elite, and more than that, he now heads a political dynasty. The ascendance of Gibran (and Bobby Nasution) as mayor will certainly be assessed as part of Jokowi’s success as well.

Gibran’s success also reinforces what has been pointed out by Meitzner (2013 and 2020), that elections in Indonesia are “personalized elections.”[22] Parties in Indonesia are increasingly experiencing setbacks and the failure of PDIP cadre Achmad Purnomo to be candidate for mayor after serving the party for so long proves this. Gibran had joined the PDIP for only a few months before he became its candidate for mayor; and his candidacy was decided by party elites in dismissal of the internal dynamics of party at the local level.

Weak party institutionalisation strengthens patronage and personal networks. This is not strange to democratic dynasties. Chandra (2015) argues that a democratic dynasty emerges because it is a way for creating more effective loyalties between leaders and followers.[23]  

ISEAS Perspective 2021/18, 25 February 2021.


[1] The formal name of the city is Surakarta, but the informal and more affectionate name is Solo. This Perspective will use Solo instead of Surakarta.

[2] See for example, Marcus Mietzner, “How Jokowi Won and Democracy Survived,” Journal of Democracy, 25 no. 4, 2014, pp. 111-125.

[3] Kanchan Chandra, Democratic Dynasties: State, Party, and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, London: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[4] Daniel M. Smith, Dynasties and Democracy: The Inherited Incumbency Advantage in Japan, Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.

[5] Yoes C. Kenawas, “Dynastic Politics: Indonesia’s New Normal”  Retrieved in December 29, 2020.

[6] Editorial: “Dynasty in the Making,” The Jakarta Post, July 20, 2020.

[7] “Jokowi Bangga Anak-anaknya Jualan Martabak dan Pisang Goreng,”


[9] “Gibran Tanyakan Mekanisme Pencalonan Walikota, Isyarat Terjun ke Politik?”,, 18 September 2020 (, Retrieved 20 December 2020).

[10] “Rekomendasi DPP PDIP Untuk Pilkada Solo Jatuh Ke Gibran”,, 18 June 2020 (, Retrieved 20 December 2020). In December 2018, Gibran claimed that the business he owned was built on his own name without intervention from his father, President Jokowi. Gibran also claimed that he proposed to be Surakarta’s Mayor by his own efforts and without parental intervention. On several occasions, Gibran stated that his decision to nominate himself as candidate in the mayor election was not motivated by Jokowi, but on his own will.

[11] Article 10 of PDIP Regulation Number 24/2017 states that the nomination process sits within the ranks of the PDIP. In this case, it means that the DPC (the party’s branch at the city/regency level) has the power to nominate a regional leader.


[13] The Democrat Party – which won the 2009 presidential election in Surakarta – has no seat in the 2019-2024 Surakarta DPRD.

[14] See Hengky Widjaya, “The 2020 Makassar Mayoral Election: Replay of an Unresolved Political Feud”, ISEAS Perspective No. 14, Feb. 17, 2021.

[15] Tikus Pithi Hanata Baris means mice marching in disciplined manner. It claims to represent ‘small people’ (working class people). There are however many dubious things about the organisation. It was registered in 2014. Its chairman, Tuntas Subagyo, was involved in a financial scandal, however. He claimed that he had discovered Indonesian treasures worth several billion US dollars hidden in some banks in Switzerland, and sought donations to enable him to file a lawsuit to retrieve those treasures. For the 2019 presidential election, Tikus Pithi asked the election commission to open opportunities for independent presidential candidates, but the party would not nominate anyone other than its chairman to be the candidate. The commission rejected this request as unconstitutional. In 2020, Tikus Pithi claimed that it had nominated several independent candidates for regional heads in Central Java and Yogyakarta. However, only Bajo in Solo met the requirements to run as an independent candidate. See, “Rekam Jejak Tikus Pithi, Getol Suarakan Calon Independen Sejak Pilpres 2019”,, 5 August 2020 (, downloaded 20 December 2020)

[16] The “Industry 4.0” revolution has become a buzzword in President Jokowi’s administration. This term was introduced by Klaus Schwab, Executive Chair of the World Economic Forum, and became the theme of the Annual WEF Meeting in Davos in 2016. President Jokowi’s administration launched what is known as 4IR (Industrial Revolution 4.0) which is a road map to make Indonesia’s economy the 10th largest world economy based on GDP. See, Ministry of Industry of Indonesia, “Making Indonesia 4.0” n.d.

[17] In simple terms, it could mean that their followers would influence their spouses to vote for him, and these spouses would in turn persuade the whole family (house) to do the same, and finally the family would influence their community. In the past, a well (sumur) was usually shared by the whole community.

[18] See “Sekeluarga Di Setabelan Kaget Dicatut Sebagai Pendukung Paslon Bajo Di Pilkada Solo”,, 7 July 2020 (, downloaded 20 December 2020); “Gakkumdu Solo Setop Penanganan Kasus Dugaan Pemalsuan Dukungan Paslon Bajo”,, 18 August 2020 (, downloaded 20 December 2020) “Pilkada Solo: Dugaan Makelar KTP a`gar Gibran Tak Lawan Kotak Kosong”,, 8 December 2020 (, downloaded 20 December 2020).

[19] “Pilkada Solo: Dugaan Makelar KTP agar Gibran Tak Lawan Kotak Kosong”,, 8 December 2020 (, downloaded 20 December 2020)


[21] made a point when they noticed that if we add up Bajo’s voters with voters that were not exercising their rights and invalid votes, the total votes for Gibran-Tegush is only 56%.

[22] Marcus Mietzner, Money, Power, and Ideology: Political Parties in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia, Singapore: NUS Press (2013); and “Indonesian Parties Revisited: Systemic Exclusivism, Electoral Personalisation and Declining Intraparty Democracy,” in Thomas Power and Eve Warburton eds., Democracy in Indonesia: From Stagnation to Regression?, Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, (2020), 191-209. 

[23] Chandra (2016), Democratic Dynasties.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /supportISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.   © Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok   Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong   Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng   Editors: William Choong, Malcolm Cook, Lee Poh Onn, and Ng Kah Meng   Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


ISEAS Perspective 2021/17 “Public Perceptions of Climate Mitigation and Adaptation Measures in Southeast Asian Cities” by Melinda Martinus


Slum-dwellers in North Coast Jakarta putting up a makeshift walkaway to adapt to coastal flooding, 2019. Source: Melinda Martinus, author. 


  • The Southeast Asia Climate Outlook 2020 Survey, conducted by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, examines Southeast Asian urban residents’ perceptions of climate mitigation and adaptation measures in their respective cities.
  • It finds that most Southeast Asian urban citizens are aware of climate programmes in their cities, particularly promotion of public transport, recycling measures (including prohibition of single-use plastic), air quality measures, and flood protection.
  • Measures such as tax incentives on hybrid and electric vehicles and physical conservation measures (i.e. building restrictions in riverside and coastal areas) are less well-known to the public.
  • The survey gauges a certain climate measure’s popularity among urban residents and identifies which attract substantial public attention. More research is needed to appraise policy efficiency and to evaluate city government performance in this area.

* Melinda Martinus is Lead Researcher in Socio-Cultural Affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.


In recent years, development experts have extensively emphasised the linkage of urbanisation to climate change. Urban areas worldwide have significant carbon footprints from intensive industrial activities, transportation emissions, and energy consumption. Seventy-five per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are generated in urban areas.[1] Simultaneously, urban populations are increasingly experiencing catastrophic impacts from climate change such as floods, heatwaves, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events.

The nexus of urbanisation and climate change is a significant concern to Southeast Asia. Today, half of Southeast Asia’s population live in urban areas. This number is expected to increase to 60-75% by 2025.[2] While megacities such as Jakarta, Manila, and Bangkok will keep growing, significant growth is predicted to happen as well in medium-sized cities of between 200,000 and 2 million, such as Phnom Penh, Da Nang, Vientiane, and Makassar.[3] The large and young labour pool and the consumer demands in these cities attract investments, and collectively drive the region’s manufacturing, retail, services and ICT sectors.

However, Southeast Asian cities face many environmental challenges. A study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) puts Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, Hai Phong, and Jakarta among the top 20 cities with populations increasingly exposed to coastal flooding by 2070.[4] One-quarter of the population in Manila faces risks from floods and landslides.[5]

Experts estimate that flood events in cities will cause significant asset damage. For instance, Bangkok’s severe flooding event in 2011 almost paralysed the whole country’s economy; the city accounts for 41% of Thailand’s GDP.[6] More recently, retailers in Greater Jakarta incurred an estimated financial loss of more than US$ 71.91 million during the 2020 New Year’s floods.[7]

Driving climate actions scalable to cities gained global agenda status when the Paris Agreement was signed in 2014. Development partners such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank have been aiding cities manage the impact of climate change. Non-profit organisations such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40 Cities), 100 Resilience Cities, the Global Covenant of Mayor, the ASEAN Smart City Network, and the World Smart Sustainable Cities Organisations (WeGO) have emerged as impactful platforms for city governments to exchange best practices and funnel funding supports. Cities across Southeast Asia, in particular Jakarta, Manila, Singapore, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), and Hanoi, have been increasingly involved in these networks of local governments.

The commitment demonstrated by city governments across Southeast Asia is critical for sustaining the momentum. One crucial step are more targeted climate actions. For instance, cities can take scalable actions by incentivising the private sector to transition to low-carbon energy, providing rebates for citizens to transition to green electricity or low-carbon vehicles, and adopting sustainable practices in administering public investment projects. A benchmark of success should be the ability of cities to recover from environmental shocks or crises. Cities can invest in climate-proof infrastructure, practice sustainable urban planning, help communities better cope with disasters, and integrate early warning systems.

Further, climate actions need support from citizens. Citizens can alter behaviour to reduce their carbon footprint, and taking action at the individual level to generate a collective vision. The buy-in of citizens is vital to the success of environmental programmes. Lessons can be learned from bike sharing and e-scooter start-ups in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The programmes were touted as a broad and smooth reduction of dependency on motorised-vehicles, the largest contributor of carbon emissions in the urban context. However, these have not been sustained due to the absence of infrastructure investment, to a general failure to comply with regulations, and most importantly, to the failure to generate user loyalty.[8]

In light of the vital need for coordination between policy and citizen participation, this paper seeks to identify urban citizens’ perceptions of climate actions in their cities. Drawing from the Southeast Asia Climate Outlook 2020 Survey carried out by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, this Perspective gauges various climate actions and their popularity, and identifies climate actions that have received significant recognition in Southeast Asian urban centres.


The Southeast Asia Climate Outlook 2020 Survey, conducted by the Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, is the first to examine Southeast Asian attitudes and perceptions on climate issues.[9] It was conducted online from 3 August 2020 to 18 September 2020 and drew 502 respondents of different backgrounds from all ten ASEAN member states, and managed to collate attitudes towards energy transition and urban food security, as well as views on climate governance and regional cooperation.

Respondents came mostly from capital cities and economic centres. The five most represented cities (see Figure 1) were Singapore (17.0%), Bangkok Metropolitan Region (15.3%), Jakarta Metropolitan Area (13.0%), Greater Kuala Lumpur (7.0%), and Yangon (5.9%).

In the survey, climate mitigation refers to efforts to reduce or prevent carbon emissions, the use of new technologies and renewable energies, improving energy efficiency of older equipment or buildings, or changing management practices or consumer behaviour.[10] Climate adaptation in turn considers changes in processes, techniques and structures to moderate potential damages or benefit from climate change opportunities.[11] The survey gives nine examples each of climate mitigation measures and climate adaptation measures, inviting respondents to identify those implemented in their cities (see Table 1).

Table 1. List of Questions on Climate Mitigation and Climate Adaptation

Which of the following climate change mitigation measures has your city implemented?Which of the following climate change adaptation measures has your city implemented?
Promotion of Public TransportAir Quality Measures
Vehicle Emission ControlCoastal Protection
Tax Incentives on Hybrid VehiclesFlood Protection
Installation of Bike LanesDisaster Early Warning System
Renewable Energy AdoptionNatural Disaster Evacuation/Emergency Plan
Recycling Measures (including prohibition of single-use plastics)Green Restoration in Public Spaces
Energy Efficiency MeasuresPhysical Conservation Measures (i.e. building restrictions in riverside and coastal areas)
Green Building StandardisationClimate Proofing of Infrastructure
Land Use/Zoning RegulationsWater Catchment Measures

Source: Southeast Asia Climate Outlook 2020 Survey, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak institute

Figure 1. Most Represented Cities in The Southeast Asia Climate Outlook 2020 Survey


Figure 2 below illustrates climate mitigation perceptions in 11 observed cities. When asked which climate mitigation measures they have observed in their respective cities, most of the respondents mention the promotion of public transport. This is the top choice in Singapore, Greater Kuala Lumpur, Vientiane, HCMC, and Jakarta Metropolitan Region. More than 70% of respondents from these cities confirm that their cities have promoted public transport. 

Recycling measures including the prohibition of single-use plastics is also a popular choice, especially in Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) and Greater Kuala Lumpur. At least 70% of respondents from those cities agree that their cities have demonstrated efforts to recycle waste.

Meanwhile, vehicle emissions control is popular among respondents from Hanoi and Singapore. Half of the respondents from Hanoi affirm that they recognise this policy being applied by their city government. The agreement rate is higher among respondents from Singapore (72.8%).

Interestingly, Singapore is the only city where more than 75% of  respondents have noted their city implementing renewable energy adoption and green building standardisation. In cities such as Phnom Penh and Yangon, less than 17% of respondents have done the same.

The survey also finds that tax incentives on hybrid /vehicles are the least known policy among respondents. Only 41.7% of respondents from Singapore are aware of tax incentives on hybrid vehicles measures in their city – and this is the highest rate among the observed cities. In Bangkok Metropolitan Region, Greater Kuala Lumpur, and Hanoi, only 30-40% of respondents know of such measures in their cities.

Figure 2. Climate Mitigation Perceptions in Southeast Asian Cities

Source: Southeast Asia Climate Outlook 2020 Survey, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak institute

Figure 3 below exhibits climate adaptation perceptions in 11 observed cities. Most respondents are able to identify air quality measures and flood protection as climate change adaptation measures. Cognisance of air quality measures is impressively high in Hanoi—92.9% of the respondents know of these.

Meanwhile, more than half of respondents from Bandar Seri Begawan, Bangkok Metropolitan Region, Jakarta Metropolitan Area, Singapore, Vientiane, and Yangon agree that their cities have introduced flood protection measures.

Interestingly, respondents from Metro Manila identify climate adaptation measures through natural disaster management. As much as 62.2% and 87.0% of respondents from Metro Manila state that their city has implemented disaster early warning system and natural evacuation/emergency plans respectively. On this front, these are the highest rates among the observed cities.

Physical conservation (i.e. building restrictions in riverside and coastal areas) is the least known climate adaptation measure. None of the respondents from Bandar Seri Begawan are able to identify any such measures. In Metro Manila and Phnom Penh, less than 10% of respondents know of such policies being implemented in their cities. Although the rate is highest in Singapore, even there, it reaches only 45.7%.

Figure 3. Climate Adaptation Perceptions in Southeast Asian Cities

Source: Southeast Asia Climate Outlook 2020 Survey, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak institute


Overall, the survey captures rather diverse perspectives among the observed cities. Singapore has well-rounded responses, especially in identifying mitigation measures. More than half of the respondents from Singapore are able to observe seven out of the nine mitigation measures provided, for example, promotion of public transport, vehicle emission control, installation of bike lanes, renewable energy adoption, recycling measures (including the prohibition of single-use plastics), energy efficiency measures, and green building standardisation. In contrast, none of the respondents from Phnom Penh affirm that their city has introduced physical conservation measures and water catchment measures. This strengthens three presumptions. First, knowledge gaps on climate issues among urban Southeast Asians are significant. Second, the capacity of cities in the region to promote programmes vary greatly. Third, the observed cities have yet to implement measures of the suggested types in the fact of climate change. To be sure, this study does not explore the underlying reasons for respondents’ views and only seek to capture popular opinions held by them.

The survey also underlines that geographic characteristics make a difference. Respondents living in coastal and riverine cities are more inclined to say that their cities have implemented coastal protection and flood control. At least half of respondents from Bandar Seri Begawan, Bangkok Metropolitan Region, Jakarta Metropolitan Area, Singapore, Vientiane, and Yangon recognise flood control measures being undertaken in their cities. Where coastal protection is concerned, at least 66.7% of respondents in Bandar Seri Begawan and Singapore know of such plans in their city. 

There are however certain possible distortions in the survey’s findings. Some cities promote a specific measure intensively, and in such cases, their inhabitants tend to have noticed them, or at least discussions about them. For instance, 56.5% of respondents from Jakarta knew of the installation of bike lanes more intimately than of other climate mitigation measures such as vehicle emission control, tax incentives on hybrid vehicles, or renewable energy adoption. This may be due to the Jakarta city government revamping the city’s streets with pop-up bike lanes during the COVID-19 lockdown. This programme was well received by the public. A transportation study by the Institute for Transportation and Development (ITDP) for example recorded a tenfold increase in the number of cyclists in Jakarta’s city centre during the June lockdown.[12] 

Since perceptions vary over measures and across cities, it is critical that the possible limitations of the survey be openly discussed. 

Not all initiated climate measures are known to the public

Although one might be tempted to generalise that city governments have not comprehensively implemented climate measures if citizens have not recognised them, it is worth considering that policy relevance and popularity also shape public perceptions. 

For instance, less than half of the respondents from Singapore (44.4%) managed to identify tax incentive on hybrids/vehicle, although the city-state has a relatively robust scheme. Singapore promotes rebate programmes such as the Vehicular Emission schemes (VES) to encourage buyers to choose car models with lower emissions. Recently, the government also rolled out additional measures such as rebates depending on the car’s Additional Registration Fee (ARF) as well as road tax adjustments on electric vehicles, including developing EV-charging infrastructure to make low-carbon vehicles attractive.[13] However, these programmes are still nascent and have as yet not been promoted intensively. 

Similarly, only 43.5% of respondents from Jakarta agree that their city has rolled out coastal protection. This is despite the fact that a US$ 40 billion sea wall project, the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development (NCICD), was introduced already in 2015. This project’s unpopularity was due more to politics than to a lack of promotion. The project received more resistance than support from the public due to funding constraints and incomplete socio-environmental impact studies. It was put on hold in 2018, and government officials and development experts are currently evaluating its feasibility. 

Respondents tend to know only the most urgent measures

Some measures are perceived well because of the magnitude of the problems they seek to solve. This appears to be true in the case of climate adaptation measures in Hanoi and Manila. 

For instance, as much as 92.9% of respondents in Hanoi are knowledgeable about air pollution measures undertaken there. This indicates that almost all Hanoi residents can relate to this policy and acknowledges the problem of air pollution being seriously addressed by the authorities. Hanoi is recognised for its polluted air. In fact, a World Health Organization’s study in 2016 linked more than 60,000 deaths in Vietnam to air pollution.[14]  

Likewise, the proportion of respondents that are cognisant of natural disaster management in Manila is high. More than 60% of those from Metro Manila agree that their city had implemented disaster early warning systems and natural evacuation/emergency plans. The Philippines’ urban areas experience frequent deadly tropical storms, landslides, floods and other extreme weather events, due to its location in the typhoon belt and to its long coastlines. These vulnerabilities have therefore been central to the country’s climate policy and action plan. 


While knowing public perceptions of their climate actions is useful to city governments, they nevertheless still need to ascertain how successive and effective each of their climate policies is. Much research still needs to be done, and much thinking about climate issues on a case by case basis is required by climate practitioners and city governments. Examples of topics that need to be explored are: measuring public satisfaction, selecting priority programmes, and learning from how projects successfully increase public awareness and participation.

ISEAS Perspective 2021/17, 24 February 2021.


[1]C40 Cities’ Estimate.

[2] Regan James Leggert, “The Age of ASEAN Cities” (Nielsen, March 2015).

[3] ibid.

[4] R.J. Nicholls, S. Hanson, and C. Herweijer, “Ranking Port Cities with High Exposure and Vulnerability to Climate Extremes: Exposure Estimates” (OECD Publishing, 2008).

[5] McKinsey Global Institute, “Smart Cities in Southeast Asia” (McKinsey Global Institute, July 2018).

[6] Henricus Andy Simarmata, “Building Transformative Adaptation to Sea Level Rise,” ASEANFocus Issue 1/2020, March 2020.

[7] Newsdesk, “Retailers Seek Compensation from Jakarta Administration for Flood Losses, Damages,” Jakartapost, January 12, 2020,

[8] Cindy Co, “Wheel Woes: The Rise and Fall of Singapore’s Bike-Sharing Industry,” CNA, accessed January 27, 2021,

[9] Sharon Seah et al., “The Southeast Asia Climate Outlook: 2020 Survey Report” (ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, December 2020).

[10] UN Environment’s Definition.

[11] UNFCCC’s Definition.

[12] Tri Indah Oktaviani, “Jakartans Turn to Bicycles to Commute in ‘New Normal,’” June 14, 2020,

[13] Christopher Tan, “Singapore Budget 2020: Boost for Electric Vehicles in Move to Reduce Pollution,” Text, The Straits Times, February 19, 2020,

[14] WHO, “More than 60 000 Deaths in Viet Nam Each Year Linked to Air Pollution,” May 2, 2018,

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /supportISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.   © Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong   Managing
Editor: Ooi Kee Beng  
Editors: William Choong, Malcolm Cook, Lee Poh Onn, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


ISEAS Perspective 2021/16 “Dynastic Politics in Indonesia’s Tangerang Selatan Triumphs” by Syafiq Hasyim


Posters of candidates during the Tanggerang Selatan mayoral election held in December 2020. Dynastic politics remains powerful in this region, and in fact the mayoral position in this region has been in the hands of dynastic politics since the reform era. Source: Syafiq Hasyim, author.


  • The persistent and dominant presence of dynastic politics remained an interesting phenomenon in the regional elections recently held at provincial and district levels in 270 regions in Indonesia.
  • Tangerang Selatan, in Banten province, is a vibrant administrative city. Dynastic politics remains powerful in this region, and in fact the mayoral position in this region has been in the hands of dynastic politics since the reform era.
  • The persistence of dynastic politics in Tangerang Selatan indicates that voters there do not consider it to be a crucial issue.
  • Dynastic politics also reflects the failure of democracy in this region, and the lack of open and inclusive participation in elections. Stakeholders such as political parties and also civil society organisations in Tangerang Selatan bear responsibility for this situation.

* Syafiq Hasyim is Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Programme of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Director of Library and Culture of Indonesian International Islamic University (UIII), Jakarta.


Notwithstanding public warnings against the holding of Pilkada Serentak 2020 (simultaneous regional elections) during a pandemic, President Joko Widodo insisted on them being held in December 2020. And so it came about that on 9 December 2020, Pilkada Serentak took place, simultaneously at provincial and district level across 270 regions.[1]

Many observers have since stated that Pilkada Serentak 2020 was relatively well managed. What has caught the attention of observers, however, are the persistence and manifestation of dynastic politics in some regions. Some contenders have blood connections to either political elites in Jakarta or in their regions. Gibran Rakabuming Raka[2] (Jokowi’s son) and Bobby Nasution (Jokowi’s son-in-law) were nominees and both won their seats in Solo and in Medan respectively.[3] 

This article argues that dynastic politics is a serious matter and should not be taken lightly. In particular, it focuses on Tangerang Selatan, Banten. The Pilkada there provides a strong example of dynastic politics at work; all the mayor candidates—first pair Muhamad-Sarawasti, second pair Azizah-Ruhamaben, and third pair Benyamin-Pilar—had political family backgrounds.


Banten was part of West Java province until two years after Suharto’s resignation in 1998. The demand of Banten to become an independent province began already in 1953 at the time when the daerah istimewa (Special Region) status was being given to Yogyakarta and Aceh. Banten argued then that it was also a city with keistimewaan (privileges) and should therefore be given the status Yogyakarta and Aceh were receiving. This was denied them by the central government.[4] Banten was finally separated from West Java province in 2000. Tangerang Selatan, however,  did not immediately become an independent administrative city but was instead merely part of Tangerang. That status came only in 2008, and Tangerang Selatan has since developed into a vibrant city. It has seven Kecamatan (sub-districts), 57 villages, 3844 Rukun Tetangga (sub-village) and 735 Rukun Tetangga (sub-sub village), and is home to 1,747 906 residents, most of whom commute to Jakarta to work.

Tangerang Selatan has 50 seats in DPRD-II (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat Daerah, the regional parliament). The political parties that seized seats for Tangerang Selatan in the 2019 general elections are shown below:

In the mayoral election of Tangerang Selatan 2020, all these winning parties nominated their respective candidate pair: Muhamad-Saraswati was supported by PDIP, Gerindra, PSI and PAN, and Azizah-Ruhamaben was backed by PKS, PKB and Demokrat. Golkar, the political party holding the largest number of seats in DPRD chose Benyamin-Pilar as its candidate pair.


Tangerang Selatan’s dynastic politics did not originate purely from Tangerang Selatan itself. In all likelihood, it sprung from the overall political traditions of Banten province, and has therefore been an important factor in the power structure of the administrative city for the last two decades.

Almost all political leaders of the districts and administrative cities in Banten province have connections within “a network of family politicians”, especially those related to Haji Chasan Sochib.[5] Haji Chasan Sochib was the most influential figure in Banten during his lifetime (1930-2011).[6] He was the most respected figure of jawara[7] (literally meaning a swordsman or a whiz) and had access to all leaders in the central government (eg: Suharto, Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati and also Susilo Bambang Yudoyono). His family’s influence continues, with the current second and third generations now exercising power in most regions of Banten, including Tangerang Selatan.[8]

Interestingly, the three pairs of candidates all had political dynastic ties. The first was Muhammad-Saraswati. Rahayu Saraswati is the daughter of Hashim Djojohadikusumo, the younger brother of Prabowo Subianto, the present Minister of Defence.[9] She is seen to represent Prabowo’s family. By putting forth Saraswati in Tangerang Selatan’s mayoral election, Gerindra was hoping to consolidate its support in the region. With the eight seats the party won in 2019, it has the second largest number of representatives in the DPRD.

The second candidate pair was Nur Azizah-Ruhamaben. Nur Azizah is the daughter of Vice President Ma’ruf Amin. Strangely, during the campaigning, few seemed able to recognize her as such, and the campaign photo seeking to highlight her relationship to Ma’ruf was not always visible. A capable civil servant in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Azizah was recruited by the party-coalition of PKS, Demokrat, PKB and PKPI, largely because of her father. Ma’ruf Amin, however, did not step forth to campaign for his daughter, as some may have expected. Grassroots support from PKS was strong, and Azizah for mayor (supported by her powerful father) with Ruhamaben as her second seemed promising. Furthermore, a coalition made up of an Islamist party (PKS), a religious party (PKB) and a nationalist party (Demokrat) appeared perfect. Ma’ruf Amin was actually born in Tanara, in Banten, although he does not have strong grassroots connections there. Although Azizah lost, gaining 20% of the votes was not a bad result for a newcomer.

The third candidate pair was Benyamin Davnie and Pilar Saga Ichsan. Pilar represents a long political dynasty in Banten. He is the son of Ratu Tatu, the daughter of Haji Chasan Shohib. Haji Chasan Shohib’s family members have been key politicians and businessmen in most districts and administrative cities in Banten for a long while.

The main political battle was thus between Benyamin-Pilar and Muhamad-Saraswati; Azizah-Ruhamben were not really in the running for top position. Benyamin was formerly vice mayor of Tangerang Selatan, while Muhamad was the city’s regional secretary and therefore was well known among its bureaucrats. Benyamin, being direct successor to Airin, a two-term leader, was also no stranger to civil servants and voters.

The Pilkada of Tangerang Selatan was therefore a battle between political dynasties at the regional and national levels. Muhammad-Saraswati and Azizah-Ruhamaben reflected national-level dynastic politics while Benyamin-Pilar represented Banten dynastic politics.

The final victory by Benyamin-Pilar illustrates the triumph of local dynastic politics over national dynastic politics. Challenges to the dominance of the Haji Chasan family have been failing ever regional elections began to be held in Tangerang Selatan. In the first such election, in 2009, Airin Rachmi Diany and Benyamin Davnie won against Arsid-Andreas Taulany and Yayat Sudrajat-Norodom Sukarno.[10] What was unique about 2009 was the fact that it underwent a second round of elections due to a Constitutional Court decision to cancel the victory of Airin Rachmi Diany and Benyamin Davnie following an election fraud claim filed by the other candidates. The alleged culprit was Asda I Pemkot Tangsel Ahadi, who was Airin’s staff at that time in the Tangerang Selatan government. Just three days before election day, he had circulated a letter to all civil servants in the city to be neutral in the upcoming election. This was deemed as election fraud by the MK. In the rematch, Airin-Benyamin emerged victorious anyway, and they succeeded again in 2014.


When Benyamin-Pilar were declared the winner in Tangerang Selatan by KPU (Komisi Pemilihan Umum, General Election Committee),[11] many immediately considered it a continuation of the power of the political dynasty in Banten. All winning candidates in Tangerang Selatan since 2009 have come from the family of Haji Chasan. Benyamin had devoted much of his political career in support of the leadership of that family, and many observers believe that supporting him for mayor was the family’s way of showing him appreciation. The family may also expect Benyamin to be an effective mentor for Pilar and that he would prepare the latter for future leadership of Tangerang Selatan.

The Benyamin-Pillar victory was in line with results from several quick counts.[12] Muhamad-Saraswati were seen to have some chance of winning, enjoying as they did strong party support from the two largest parties in Indonesia, PDIP and Gerinda, as well as the young progressive party, PSI. But that did not prove sufficient.

Muhamad was assumed by many to have credibility due to his impressive track record as regional secretary of Tangerang Selatan and chief of the sub-district of Ciputat.[13] While he was depicted as a progressive future leader, Benyamin was portrayed as a loyalist of the Haji Chasan family. In turn, Saraswati was seen as a very popular and was young, and a progressive politician from Gerindra; Prabowo’s popularity in Tangerang Selatan was also expected to directly transfer into support for Saraswati.

Muhamad-Sarawasti was seen by many as a chance for Tangerang Selatan to free itself from the Haji Chasan family. Some groups felt that Tangerang Selatan would fare better if the influence of that family could be limited. Corruption in high places had in fact set in, and this was evident in the case of Atut Ratu Chosiyah[14] and his younger brother Tubagus Chaeri Pradana Wawan.[15] In fact, Muhamad-Saraswati had corruption as one of their campaign themes.

The victory of Benyamin-Pilar also reflects voter approval of the effective leadership of the previous Mayor, Airin, who was part of the Banten dynasty. The notion that Benyamin-Pilar is a continuation of dynastic politics in Banten was in fact advertised in their tagline wish “to continue” (melanjutkan) the legacy of Airin in Tangerang Selatan.

Other issues that could have boosted Benyamin-Pilar was the inability of the other candidate pairs to mobilise supporters during election day. Voter turnout was around 70 %, and Golput (golongan putih, abstainers) made up as much as 40,01 %.[16] In Indonesia, one can abstain actively by staying absent, or passively by getting the voting process wrong or by punching the white space on the ballot to disqualify one’s own vote.

Democracy in essence, keeps the opportunity of becoming leaders open to all citizens, regardless of family background, ethnicity, religion and gender. One should in that sense say that the proliferation of political dynasties in Tangerang Selatan hinders democracy in that it reserves political positions for a particular lineage.


Many factors sustain dynastic politics—in Tangerang Selatan and in Indonesia as a whole. There are two ways to alleviate the effects of dynastic politics. First, one could drive the influential families to embrace democracy and meritocracy, and second, one could strengthen democracy literacy among voters and among Indonesians in general.

It appears that voters in Tangerang Selatan in 2020 did not consider dynastic politics when casting their votes. Benyamin-Pilar’s victory is also an indication that voters there wished to retain the stable leadership offered by people associated with the local dynasty. Just as interestingly, one could consider the dynamics of how having more established political dynasties can be part of an advancing democracy; this can be seen in the politics of India and the US respectively. Resolving this long-standing issue lies within the responsibility of both political parties and civil society organisations. These should invest in educating future generation of voters to be knowledgeable and objective in their selection of leaders.

ISEAS Perspective 2021/16, 22 February 2021.


[1] Syamsuddin Haris, Partai, Pemilu, Dan Parlemen Era Reformasi (Jakarta: Buku Obor, 2014) p. 256.

[2], viewed on 24 December 2024.

[3], viewed on 24 December 2020.

[4], viewed on 24 December 2024.

[5], viewed on 24 December 2020.

[6], viewed on 9 December 2020.

[7], viewed on 19 January 2021.

[8], viewed on 12 December 2020.

[9], viewed on 24 December 2020.

[10], viewed on 24 December 2020.

[11], viewed on 24. December 2020.

[12], viewed on 18 January 2021.


[14], viewed on 17 December 2020.

[15],, viewed on 13 December 2020.

[16], viewed on 10 December 2020.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /supportISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.   © Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong   Managing
Editor: Ooi Kee Beng  
Editors: William Choong, Malcolm Cook, Lee Poh Onn, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


ISEAS Perspective 2021/15 “Southeast Asians’ Declining Trust in China” by Hoang Thi Ha


Chinese medical supplies to the ASEAN Secretariat in April 2020. Photo: Kusuma Pandu Wijaya, ASEAN Secretariat)


  • The State of Southeast Asia 2021 survey indicates that Southeast Asians’ trust in China continues to trend downward, in contrast to the US’ improved trust ratings.
  • China’s success in containing the pandemic domestically, its “mask and vaccine diplomacy” in the region and Southeast Asians’ acknowledgement of Chinese support on COVID-19 have had little effect on their trust deficit towards Beijing.
  • Southeast Asians’ appreciation of China’s significant influence in the region is accompanied by their profound anxiety over China’s ability to constrain their countries’ sovereignty and foreign policy choices.
  • This persistent trust deficit not only undermines China’s “discourse power”, it is a cognitive bias that may influence Southeast Asian countries’ foreign policy towards China.
  • The survey findings, including on the South China Sea issue, behoove Beijing to recalibrate its approach to the region, especially on recognising both China’s responsibility and Southeast Asian countries’ agency in moving relations forward.

*Hoang Thi Ha is Fellow and Lead Researcher (Political-Security) at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.


The past year has perhaps been the most turbulent and disruptive one since the end of the Cold War, with the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the world, claiming millions of lives, ravaging economies and accentuating geopolitical tensions between major powers, especially US-China rivalry. Early in and early out of the pandemic, China has further consolidated its position as the most influential economic and political-strategic power in Southeast Asia. Beijing also actively extended “mask and vaccine diplomacy” towards ASEAN and its member states to promote China’s image as a responsible major power and shake off the stigma of the “Chinese origins” of the coronavirus.

Has China’s successful pandemic containment and its charm offensives towards Southeast Asia helped to increase the region’s trust towards Beijing? Has the pandemic induced any major positive shift in the region’s confidence in Beijing to “do the right thing” to contribute to global peace, governance and prosperity? How does China’s trust rating in the region compare to that of the US, given the Trump Administration’s abject failure to rein in the pandemic, economic depression, and racial and political violence? Responses from 1,032 respondents to the State of Southeast Asia (SSEA) 2021 survey,[1] which tracks the trust and distrust ratings of major powers in the region since 2019, confirms two juxtaposing trendlines with regard to Southeast Asian perceptions towards China, as simultaneously the most influential and the most distrusted power in the region.

Even though the survey report authors correctly indicate that this survey is not meant to present “the definitive Southeast Asian view” – there is no single Southeast Asian view anyway given the diversity of regional countries’ outlooks – the survey findings are worth pondering as the majority of its respondents are targeted audience from the policy, research, business, civil society and media sectors in the ten ASEAN countries. They are considered as having access to the making of foreign policy and/or having influence in shaping public opinions in the region. This Perspective examines the survey findings on the region’s persistent trust deficit towards China, which should behoove Beijing to introspect and recalibrate its foreign policy towards the region.


One of the most profound geopolitical impacts of COVID-19 is that it has accelerated the power shift in Asia further towards China. The Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index 2020 reported that the US registered the largest fall in relative power of any Indo-Pacific country and that Beijing’s power differential with Washington has narrowed accordingly.[2] Raw power aside, China’s biggest gain from the pandemic is arguably political. With its successful containment of the pandemic and sustained economic growth at 2.3%,[3] Beijing has become even more assertive domestically and vindicated internationally in the control of its one-party, authoritarian state. Buoyed by this momentum, China has aggressively engaged in “wolf warrior diplomacy” in mostly Western countries while undertaking charm offensives across the world, including in Southeast Asia.

In both economics and optics, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought Southeast Asia and China closer together. China remains ASEAN’s largest trading partner for the past decade while ASEAN has overtaken the EU to become China’s largest trading partner in 2020 with bilateral trade increasing by 7% in 2020.[4] Despite the global FDI collapse in 2020,[5] China’s FDI inflows to ASEAN in the first three quarters of 2020 reached USD10.72 billion, a 76.6% year-on-year increase, whereas investment from ASEAN to China increased by 6.6%.[6] The conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement in 2020 is expected to “reinforce(s) the economic interdependence of Asia” and “bring the region closer into China’s economic orbit”.[7]

On the diplomatic front, Chinese leaders have not only engaged in “cloud diplomacy” with their ASEAN counterparts but also made efforts to visit ASEAN countries for “ground diplomacy” despite COVID-19 travel restrictions (Table 1). All these visits were aimed at amplifying the narrative of “a closely-knit China-ASEAN community with a shared future”[8] and pacifying the South China Sea (SCS) issue at a time when all key Southeast Asian claimant states as well as the US and other Western powers have put up a robust legal defence at the UN against China’s maritime claims in the SCS. These direct diplomatic engagements also seek to solidify Beijing’s geopolitical gains from the pandemic, projecting China as a successful and responsible major power in contrast with the US still in the grip of a deadly pandemic and withdrawn from global leadership under the Trump Administration.

Table 1: High-level visit exchanges between China and ASEAN member states (2020-2021)[9]

Jan 2020Xi Jinping’s state visit to Myanmar
Feb 2020Visit to China by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun SenChinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Laos and attendance in the ASEAN-China Special Foreign Ministers Meeting on COVID-19
Aug 2020Visit to Singapore by Yang Jiechi, member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China
Sep 2020Visits to Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines by Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe Yang Jiechi’s visit to Myanmar
Oct 2020Visits to Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos, Singapore (transit visit) and Thailand by Wang YiVisit to China by Indonesian President’s Special Envoy, Coordinator for Cooperation with China and Coordinating Minister Luhut Binsar PandjaitanVisit to China by Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin
Jan 2021Wang Yi’s visits to Myanmar, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines

Most notably, China has turned the COVID-19 crisis into a strategic opportunity by stepping up cooperation with ASEAN countries on pandemic response. ASEAN and Chinese foreign ministers convened a special meeting on COVID-19 in February 2020, pledging to enhance cooperation in pandemic response through sharing information, mitigating supply chain disruptions of medical goods and promoting research and development of medicines and vaccines. At the virtual ASEAN-China foreign ministers’ meeting in September 2020, Wang Yi proposed a “China-ASEAN vaccine friends” initiative which will put “ASEAN countries as a priority after the vaccine is put into use” and “enhance information exchange and cooperation in production, development and usage of vaccines”.[10] Southeast Asia has become a prime destination of Chinese “mask diplomacy”[11] and “vaccine diplomacy”[12] (Table 2). Chinese media has rallied in full swing for Chinese “vaccine diplomacy”, saying that “promoting vaccine cooperation not only paves the way for a faster economic rebound, but also enhances mutual trust among China and all ASEAN countries.”[13]

Table 2: China’s Vaccine Diplomacy in Southeast Asia[14]

ASEAN countriesChinese Vaccine Support
BruneiAmong 14 countries receiving Chinese aid in the form of COVID-19 vaccines
CambodiaChina’s offer of initial 1 million doses, 600,000 doses of which have been donated to Cambodia.
IndonesiaSinovac partnering with Indonesia’s PT Bio Farma to produce vaccines locally, accounting for 40% of Indonesia’s vaccine supplyFirst country outside China approving and rolling out Sinovac vaccinationOrder of 143 million doses from Sinovac with 1.2 million doses already delivered
Laos300,000 China-donated COVID-19 vaccines have been delivered.
MalaysiaAgreement on Malaysia’s priority access to Chinese vaccines with 23.3 million doses
MyanmarChina’s promise to donate 300,000 doses
PhilippinesChina’s promise to donate 500,000 dosesA purchase of 25 million doses from Sinovac under negotiation
SingaporeSigned advanced purchase agreement with Sinovac but so far only Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been approved for local inoculation.
ThailandOrder of 2 million doses of Sinovac, with 200,000 doses to be received by February 2021
VietnamIn negotiation with Chinese, Russian, American and British suppliers to buy COVID-19 vaccines
Through multilateral channelsChina is a member of the WHO-led COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility.China’s USD1 million contribution to the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund


Have China’s charm offensives over the past year paid off in terms of raised trust in the region towards Beijing? The SSEA Survey 2021 findings do not suggest so. On the contrary, the survey demonstrates a continuing deterioration of trust in China among Southeast Asian respondents, which should be disquieting to Beijing, especially in the following aspects.

Growing trust deficit in China despite recognition of its COVID-19 support

Most Southeast Asians are currently preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, viewing it the top challenge facing the region, and duly recognise China’s COVID-19 support in this respect. 44.2% of respondents choose China as the Dialogue Partner that has provided the most help to the region on COVID-19, well above second-place Japan (18.2%). China is the top choice in eight ASEAN countries, except Vietnam which choose the US as providing the most help and Myanmar whose top choice is Japan.

Recognition of China’s COVID-19 support, however, has done little to improve China’s trust ratings among Southeast Asians which have been trending downward every year since this survey started. The percentage of respondents who distrust China[15] increased from 51.5% in 2019 to 60.4% in 2020 and 63% this year. In all ASEAN countries, the levels of distrust towards China are higher than the trust levels. Additionally, the share of respondents who think that “China is a revisionist power and intends to draw Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence” also increased from 38.2% in 2020 to 46.3% this year. Meanwhile, despite Chinese “mask and vaccine diplomacy”, only 1.5% in both last year and this year’ surveys view China as “a benign and benevolent power”.

Trust in the US on the rise, against all odds

To the surprise of many, the survey results show a clear contrast between China’s deteriorating distrust ratings and the US’ improving trust ratings which increased from 30.3% in 2020 to 48.4% in 2021. Likewise, the share of respondents having confidence in the US as a strategic partner and provider of regional security increased from 34.9% to 55.4%. Washington also joins the EU as the two major powers in which Southeast Asians have the strongest confidence to provide leadership in maintaining the rules-based order and upholding international law and championing the global free trade agenda. This is despite the fact that China actively pushed through the RCEP Agreement and recently expressed intention to join the CPTPP while Washington chooses to stay out. As regards the forced “binary choice”, 61.5% of the respondents choose the US, up from 53.6% last year whereas 38.5% choose China, down from 46.4%. At the country level, seven ASEAN countries chose China last year, which has reversed to seven siding with the US this year.

The survey report attributes this positive view of the US to the prospects of the new Biden Administration with its “Build Back Better” promise, including revitalising American global leadership and engagement with the region. In the 2020 survey, 60.3% of the respondents said that their confidence in the US would increase if there was a change in American leadership. This year’s survey results verify just that. Even if many analysts have argued that the world and the region have changed and there is no way back to a pre-Trump time,[16] this survey shows that the Biden Administration will nonetheless enjoy a big reservoir of goodwill and welcome among Southeast Asians.

Between economic interdependence and strategic dependency

The survey carries forward two juxtaposing trendlines from its previous editions with regard to Southeast Asian perceptions of China’s influence. On the one hand, Southeast Asians overwhelmingly view China as the most influential economic power in the region (76.3%). Yet, 72.3% of respondents in this cohort are concerned about China’s growing regional economic clout. The same anxiety with even a higher degree (88.6%) applies to China’s political-strategic clout, and it is pronounced in both the mainland and maritime parts of Southeast Asia. Underlying this perception is the worry shared by 51.5% of respondents that China’s economic and military power could be used to threaten Southeast Asian countries’ interest and sovereignty, including the use of economic tools and tourism to punish their foreign policy choices.

When asked about what China can do to improve relations with regional countries, 68.9% of the respondents suggest that “China should respect my country’s sovereignty and not constrain my country’s foreign policy choices”. This is the top choice for respondents from five ASEAN countries—Cambodia (100%), Malaysia (87.5%), Myanmar (76.5%), Singapore (68.4%) and Thailand (70%). The top choice for The Philippines (90%) and Vietnam (84.4%) is that “China should resolve all territorial and maritime disputes peacefully in accordance with international law”, which essentially boils down to sovereignty concerns as well. It is clear that Southeast Asians are acutely aware of the growing strategic vulnerabilities facing their countries as they increasingly bend towards China’s economic orbit. This interdependence-dependence conundrum explains their persistent ambivalence towards Chinese growing influence in the region.


The above survey results are worth pondering, but they are not surprising. Power asymmetry and geographic proximity between China and Southeast Asia naturally entail awe and anxiety in the region over China’s power. This reality is well captured by Bilahari Kausikan: “As a contiguous big country, China is always going to be influential in Southeast Asia. For the same reason, because it is a contiguous big country, China is always going to evoke concerns in Southeast Asia. In this apparent contradiction lies the essence of the relationship. […] China is undoubtedly influential but distrusted.”[17] Recognising these structural factors, however, does not mean denying the importance of agency in China-Southeast Asia relations. Beijing needs to reflect upon its neighbourhood strategy and take proactive steps to address its trust deficiency among Southeast Asians because “a shortage of empathy towards its neighbours has further hampered China’s welcome in the region.”[18]

The survey results expose the limitations of economic determinism embedded in Beijing’s neighbourhood strategy which relies on the structural factors of geography, history and Chinese economic gravity as its anchors.[19] Although perceptions do not equate to policies, the underlying cognitive bias against Beijing among the respondents continues to inform and influence the process of foreign policy-making in Southeast Asian countries. Consequently, while strengthening economic relations with China, these countries also seek to maximise the space for the exercise of their strategic autonomy and diversify their foreign policy options, be it about securing multiple channels of access to COVID-19 vaccines[20] or pursuing open regionalism through ASEAN-led mechanisms to keep the regional order open and inclusive.

Southeast Asians’ persistent and growing trust deficit towards China is both a drag and a blow to Beijing’s ongoing efforts to develop its own “discourse power”. Thomas Joscelyn views it as the power to control and set the narrative so as to influence how people should think about the world.[21] In the same vein, Nadège Rolland defines it as “the ability to exert influence over the formulations and ideas that underpin the international order”.[22] Promoting this discourse power requires more than finetuning China’s communication tools or trying to come up with some more persuasive formulations than the “community of common destiny/shared future”. Rather, it must start with a fundamental recognition that Southeast Asian countries have a mind of their own in defining and pursuing their national interests. Therefore, their defiance to or disagreement with China on certain issues must first of all be attributed to their indigenous concerns over their national interest as they define it, and not because they are acting as lackeys of foreign powers. As pointed out by Donald Emmerson in his edited book The Deer and the Dragon, “Structure matters. But agency is not a property of the strong alone.”

The SCS issue is a case in point. Chinese leaders and diplomats often dismiss the SCS tensions as externally induced, blaming foreign forces for “stirring up trouble and creating tensions in the SCS”[23] and “driving a wedge between China and ASEAN [which] goes against the will of the people in our region”.[24] The survey findings, however, defy this narrative. When asked about their top two concerns about the situation in the SCS, the majority of respondents (62.4%) choose “China’s militarisation and assertive actions”, followed by “Chinese encroachments in the exclusive economic zones and continental shelves of other littoral states” (59.1%).  Beijing’s maritime encroachments is the top concern for the directly affected littoral states (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam) while its militarisation and assertive actions create the biggest worry among respondents from Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.

Meanwhile, only 12.5% express worry over the US’ increased military presence in the area. Whether Beijing truly believes in its own propaganda or not, it is obvious that its narrative of blaming the SCS tensions on external involvements does not work in changing the region’s perceptions towards China’s actions or alleviating their legitimate concerns over the SCS situation. Continuing to engage in this narrative will not only deny the agency of Southeast Asian states but also deny China a chance for introspection and recalibration of its foreign policy, including in the SCS.


Southeast Asia’s skepticism towards China did not emerge in a vacuum. The SSEA Survey 2021 findings share some key trendlines with other international surveys concerning China. The Lowy Institute Asia Power Index 2020 recorded China’s slight gain in economic relations (+1.4) but a bigger loss in diplomatic influence (-5.1).[25] The Pew Research Centre’s report in October 2020 pointed to historic highs in unfavourable views of China in the developed countries.[26] A survey conducted by the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) in September-October 2020 in 13 European countries also indicated that European public opinion on China in the age of COVID-19 has gone more negatively with the exceptions of Russia, Serbia and Latvia.[27] In Australia, the most prominent target of China’s “punish diplomacy” and “wolf warrior diplomacy” over the past year, trust in China has reached its lowest point: Only 23% of Australians said they trust China to act responsibly in the world, and 9 out of 10 wanted Australia to find other markets to reduce economic dependence on China.[28] In its drive to strengthen its discourse power, China should reckon that its behaviour in other parts of the world is keenly observed by Southeast Asian countries. This may discourage them from going out of the way to provoke China, and at the same time continue to motivate their ongoing effort to diversify their foreign policy options as part of the hedging strategy in dealing with China.

ISEAS Perspective 2021/15, 18 February 2021.


[1] Seah, S. et al., The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute), /wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-State-of-SEA-2021-v2.pdf.

[2] Lowy Institute Asia Power Index 2020 Edition, The Lowy Institute,

[3] “Covid-19: China’s economy picks up, bucking global trend”, BBC, 18 January 2021,

[4] ASEAN becomes China’s largest trading partner in 2020, with 7% growth, Global Times, 14 January 2021,,partner%20for%20the%20first%20time


[6] Chinese investments grow in ASEAN as economic ties deepen, Global Times, 11 November 2020,,by%20Singapore%2C%20Thailand%20and%20Malaysia.

[7] Robert Ward, “RCEP trade deal: a geopolitical win for China”, IISS Blog, 25 November 2020,

[8] Deng Xijun, “China and ASEAN are building a community with shared future”, The Jakarta Post, 9 March 2020,

[9] Compiled by author from various sources.

[10] Wang Yi Attends a Video Conference of China-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, 2020/09/09,

[11] Lye Liang Fook, “Covid-19: China’s shifting narrative and the role of Southeast Asia”, ThinkChina, 14 April 2020,

[12] Koya Jibiki and Tsukasa Hadano, “China pushes ’vaccine diplomacy’ in Southeast Asia”, Nikkei Asian Review, 16 January 2021,

[13] “China vaccine cooperation pivotal for ASEAN economies”, Global Times, 7 December 2020,

[14] Compiled by author from various sources.

[15] The distrust level is measured by the percentage of respondents who have no or little confidence in China “to do the right thing” to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity, and governance, and the trust level is the percentage of those who have confidence or some confidence in this respect.

[16] Ja Ian Chong, “The challenges in resetting US–Southeast Asia relations”, East Asia Forum, 10 December 2020,

[17] Bilahari Kausikan, “The diplomatic dance of South-east Asia”, The Straits Times, 20 August 2020,

[18] Donald K. Emmerson edited, Southeast Asia and China in the 21st Century: The Deer and the Dragon, Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (the Board of Trustees of the Leland Standford Junior University, 2020), p. 4.

[19] Ha, Hoang Thi. “Understanding China’s Proposal for an ASEAN-China Community of Common Destiny and ASEAN’s Ambivalent Response.” Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs, vol. 41 no. 2, 2019, p. 223-254.

[20] Claire Jiao, Ian C Sayson, and Yantoultra Ngui, “Moderna Gets Added to Southeast Asia’s Vaccine Arsenal”, Bloomberg, 8 February 2021,

[21] Thomas Joscelyn, “China’s Discourse Power”, The Dispatch Podcast, 9 May 2020,

[22] Nadège Rolland, China’s Vision for a New World Order, The National Bureau of Asian Research, NBR Special Report no. 83, 27 January 2020,

[23] “US deliberately stirs up trouble in S. China Sea: Chinese vice FM”, Global Times, 5 September 2020,

[24] Mission of the People’s Republic of China to ASEAN, “Working together to Elevate China-ASEAN Relations to Higher Level”, 8 September 2020,

[25] Lowy Institute Asia Power Index 2020 Edition, op. cit.

[26] Laura Silver, Kat Devlin and Christine Huang, “Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries”, Pew Research, 6 October 2020,

[27] Richard Q. Turcsányi, Matej Šimalčík, Kristína Kironská, Renáta Sedláková, et al., European Public Opinion on China in the Age of COVID-19, Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) and partners,

[28] Lowy Institute Poll 2020, China, The Lowy Institute,

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ISEAS Perspective 2021/14 “The 2020 Makassar Mayoral Election: Replay of an Unresolved Political Feud” by Henky Widjaja


Election Banner of Mohammad Ramdhan Pomanto (right) and Fatmawati Rushdi (Left), the pair popularly known as ADAMA.  Source: Facebook of Mohammad Ramdhan Pomanto,


  • The 2020 Makassar mayoral election was a rematch of a controversial contest between Mohammad Ramdhan Pomanto and Munafri Arifuddin in the 2018 mayoral election, which had been greatly complicated by fierce competition between local political clans and political elites from Jakarta. In that round, Munafri stood as the sole candidate with staunch backing from the Jusuf Kalla clan, while the popular incumbent mayor Pomanto was barred by the local election commission from contesting. However, Munafri won less than the 50% endorsement required for sole candidates. Pomanto then served out his term till May 2019, after which the post was passed on to a series of interim mayors.
  • In the December 2020 election, Pomanto won with 41.7% of votes (with Munafri trailing at 34%), to begin his second term as Makassar Mayor. Pomanto’s recent victory (and his success at blocking a walkover victory for Munafri in 2018) is often attributed to his adroit political manoeuvres and his ability to navigate between local and national patrons for protection and resources.
  • While all the candidates had relied on some degree of political patronage, it would appear that the majority of voters preferred candidates with a proven record in delivering effective governance, instead of candidates who merely relied on patronage. Pomanto had gained much credibility from implementing popular programmes in his first term as Makassar’s Mayor.
  • Pomanto also received significant support from minority groups, who saw him as a more inclusive leader compared to his rivals who were identified with the rise of conservatism and increased pressures on minority groups in the constituency.

* Henky Widjaja is a political observer and holds a PhD in anthropology from Leiden University, the Netherlands.


On the afternoon of 9 December 2020, the day of Indonesia’s 2020 simultaneous local elections, the quick-count results for the Makassar Mayor Election were issued by survey institutions to announce the gaining of the most votes by Mohammad Ramdhan Pomanto-Fatmawati Rusdi (the pair popularly known as ADAMA, a local slang word for ‘I’m back’) than three other pairs of candidates in the election. Pomanto’s victory paves his way to a second term as Makassar Mayor. He won his first term already in 2013, and the 2020 election was actually a rerun of a no-winner election in 2018 in which he failed to participate.

Lembaga Survey Indonesia (LSI) Denny JA, one of the survey institutions, announced that the pair won 41.7 percent of the votes. Their strongest competitor, Munafri Arifuddin and Rahman Bando (Appi-Rahman) obtained 34.37 percent, while the candidate pairs of Syamzu Rizal and Fadli Ananda (Dilan) and Irman Yasin Limpo-Andi Zunnun NH (IMUN) came in third and fourth position respectively with 19.23 percent and 4.73 percent.

This election was not only a rerun of the mayoral election in 2018 which ended without a winner, but it also showcased the fierce competition between local political clans and political elites from Jakarta.


Mohammad Ramdhan Pomanto, the reelected Makassar Mayor, is a technocrat turned politician and is known for smart political maneuvers. He is of Gorontalo origin, and was born and raised in Makassar.[1]

His ability to win the 2013 election despite his non-Makassar ethnic background was associated back then with the patronage of Ilham Arief Sirajuddin whom he succeeded as Makassar Mayor. He was a close ally of Ilham and served as a spatial planning consultant in Ilham’s administration.

In his first term, Pomanto was a non-party politician[2] and relied on his personal popularity as an administrator, running various popular programmes and rearranging his organisational structure to gain a firm grip on the city bureaucracy. He also established ties with various patrons not only in the province but also at the national level, which allowed him room to maneuver and afforded him protection against his competitors.

In 2018, he was disqualified by the general election commission for breaching election laws. The Makassar mayoral election that year was therefore a sole-candidate affair where only the pair of Munafri Arifuddin-Andi Rahmatika Dewi (who went by the name Appi-Cicu) was eligible to run.

Munafri, popularly called Appi is the son-in-law of Aksa Mahmud, a local tycoon who owns Bosowa Corporindo, an eastern Indonesia-based conglomerate. Aksa is the brother-in-law of Jusuf Kalla, the former Vice President of Indonesia, and owner of the Kalla Group business emporium.

Appi ran in the 2018 mayoral election with support from 10 political parties representing 43 of the 50 seats in the city council. By controlling the support of the political parties in the city council, Appi left little room for any other hopeful candidate, including Pomanto. Pomanto finally moved to register as an independent candidate by collecting 117,492 copies of ID cards – almost double the required minimum number. His running mate was Indira Mulyasari Paramastuti, a deputy speaker of the city council from Nasdem Party. The pair campaigned using the tagline of DIAmi (a local slang for ‘It’s Him’).[3] 

Pomanto continued to face serious obstacles in his process to join the election that year. He was investigated for two corruption cases before being later declared clean by the investigator.[4] However, in April 2018, KPU Makassar issued a decision to disqualify Pomanto from the election after the supreme court found him guilty of abusing his power to gain advantage in the race. This made the election that year an uncontested one.[5]

Appi-Cicu thus appeared on the ballot next to an empty box. Unexpectedly to everyone, as many as 53.23 percent of the voters (300,795) chose the empty ballot over the pair.[6] This unanticipated result made them to be the only sole candidate of the 16 sole candidates who ran in the 2018 local elections who failed to win.

According to local election law, if an unopposed pair of candidates loses in an election (by getting less than 50% of the vote), then the election will be repeated in the next applicable election period (which in this case was in 2020), with the losing pair allowed to compete once more. In the meantime, the local governor appoints a senior provincial level official to temporarily fill the position. In the case of Makassar in 2018, Pomanto was reinstalled as mayor despite having been disqualified from the election. He officially finished his term in May 2019, after which the interim mayor position was successively filled by three appointees. The first was Iqbal Suhaeb, who assumed the position for one year, to then be replaced by Yusran Jusuf who served for 44 days only. He in turn passed the baton in June 2020 to Rudi Jamaluddin.


The Makassar mayoral election in 2020 saw Pomanto and Appi pitted against each other, alongside two other candidate pairs.[7] Pomanto ran with the support of two political parties with seats in the city council, namely Nasdem and Gerindra. He signed up a member of Gerindra while his running mate Fatmawaty Rusdi was vice treasurer at the Nasdem national office

Table 1: 2020 Makassar Mayoral Election Candidate Pairs with Respective Supporting Political Parties and the Parties’ Voter Size.

No.CandidatesPolitical PartiesAccumulation of votes in the 2019 Makassar City legislative elections
1Mohammad Ramdhan Pomanto – Fatmawaty RusdiNasdem, Gerindra160,469
2Munafri Arifuddin – Abd Rahman BandoDemokrat, PPP, Perindo147,760
3Syamsu Rizal – Fadli AnandaPDI Perjuangan, Hanura, PKB104,114
4Irman Yasin Limpo – Andi Zunnun Armin NHGolkar, PKS, PAN, Berkarya185,875

Appi in this year’s election ran with support from three parties – Demokrat, PPP and Perindo. To improve his electability, he chose Abdul Rahman Bando, a senior city bureaucrat, as his running mate. The same strategy was evident as well in the forming of the other candidate pairs—Pomanto-Fatmawaty, Rizal-Ananda, and Irman-Zunnun. In all cases, administrative experience, personal popularity, and money were the main ingredients in their composition. The representation of political dynasties in this election was also a prominent feature.[8]

The 2020 mayoral election was Makassar’s fourth direct election. The first such elected mayor was Ilham Arief Sirajuddin when he won his second term as mayor in 2009. This accomplishment, together with his success in becoming provincial chairman of Golkar and later, of the Demokrat Party in South Sulawesi made him a senior political patron in the province. Ilham ran for the governorship in 2013 but lost to the incumbent Syahrul Yasin Limpo.

Ilham was succeeded as mayor of Makassar by Pomanto, his close ally. However, the relationship between the two deteriorated. In 2015, Ilham was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison for a graft case in the city’s water utility company. The supporters of Ilham blamed Pomanto for doing nothing to protect Ilham. Furthermore, severe friction between Pomanto and his deputy, Syamsu Rizal, throughout his first term further widened the gap between him with Ilham.[9]

Following his deteriorating relationship with Ilham, Pomanto strengthened ties with other political clans in South Sulawesi, including those with Syahrul Yasin Limpo, the head of the Yasin Limpo clan. In the 2018 mayoral election, Ilham mobilized his followers to support Appi. In 2020, he became political patron to Syamsu Rizal.

For the 2020 mayoral election, Pomanto secured support from Nasdem and Gerindra. In specific terms, he partnered Fatmawaty, the wife of Rusdi Masse, provincial chairman of Nasdem Party in South Sulawesi.

Political rumors circulated in Makassar prior the 2020 mayoral election that Pomanto had used his links to key figures in Nasdem to influence the appointment by the Minister of Home Affairs of the temporary mayor appointees. Rumors had it that the endorsement of Yusran Jusuf as second mayor appointee was due to intervention of Nasdem elites over the names of candidates submitted by Governor Nurdin Abdullah. This had upset the governor, who decided to replace Yusran after 44 days.[10]

Previously, the governor had cancelled 40 decrees issued by Pomanto regarding the rotation of 1,228 Makassar government staff members in the last one year of his first term. Six hundred of them were rotated in his last week, in May 2019.[11] The series of staff rotation were seen as a political move by Pomanto. Upon his return to office as interim mayor, Pomanto proceeded to suspend a number of city officials who he accused of having sided with Appi and also to replace some officials promoted in his absence by his deputy, Rizal. The last-minute rotations ordered by Pomanto, before he ended his first term in May 2019, was suspected by some to be his preparation for the 2020 election.

Prior to the official period of 2020 mayoral election starting in September, a series of popularity surveys indicated Pomanto to be enjoying high electability. Both he and Appi were listed as most likely to win, and to have the potential to gather above 40 percent of the votes. The other two candidate pairs had vote potentials below 20 percent. The final results did indeed show strong accuracy in the surveys.

The big gap in votes gained by the four candidates pairs shows that although they were all supported by parties which collectively had almost equal voter size (see Table 1), this factor became irrelevant because the election was actually a rematch between Pomanto and Appi. Most of the financial sponsorships and voters’ attention were directed at the two, leaving little opportunities for the other two candidates to attract voter support and financial resources.


As discussed above, the 2018 election had presented serious challenges to Pomanto. The competition with Appi that year was really a struggle with the Kalla clan.[12] Various obstacles put in Pomanto’s way were in fact effective interventions by the clan.

As a newcomer in politics and with zero experience in public administration, Appi’s wish to become mayor raised public concerns that he was a proxy for the clan to gain access to city resources.[13] In addition, the disqualification of Pomanto in the 2018 election had created wide public perception that he was a victim of backstage power play by the Kalla clan. It was this that provoked many voters to choose the empty ballot in order to deny victory to Appi-Cicu, the sole candidate pair. Their sympathy lay with Pomanto and much antipathy was felt against the clan and its perceived vicious power play.

In 2020, the same sentiments came into play again in response to smear campaigns launched against Pomanto. One week before election day, a voice record of Pomanto mentioning Jusuf Kalla as the mastermind behind the arrest of the Minister of Fishery and Marine by KPK went viral. The case became big and both sides filed police reports.[14]

Since the incident emerged in the final week before voting day, it was used by Appi-Rahman as their last-ditch attempt to corner Pomanto. Various statements made by the team, including the inner circle of Jusuf Kalla, emphasised that Pomanto had no respect for Jusuf Kalla as a respectful senior figure, and thus he did not hold the values of Bugis-Makassar enough to be elected leader.

Despite this last bout, Pomanto managed to capitalise on the attacks against him by turning them to his advantage. The tension between the two candidates secured the loyalty of militant supporters and also drew voters away from the other two candidates.[15]


Aside from the negative public opinion on his heavy reliance on the patronage of Jusuf Kalla in his nomination, a crucial factor that limited chances for Appi in the 2020 mayoral election was ethno-religious sentiments. Such sentiments play a significant role in Makassar politics and social life, especially among the minority ethnic Chinese in the city.

There are around 40,000 ethnic Chinese in Makassar, a city of 2.5 million people. Ethnic and religious minority groups, including the ethnic Chinese make up almost 10 percent of the population. The city has experienced a series of anti-Chinese incidents and also attacks against religious minorities. The growing conservatism in Indonesia’s political and social landscape have also had an impact on the perspectives and the political participation of minority groups. Minority groups in Makassar tend to vote for candidates they consider to be pluralists and whom they think can guarantee them protection.

In the 2020 Makassar mayoral election, pluralism was indeed a sensitive issue for all the candidates. At the beginning of the official campaign period, a video went viral. It showed a man claiming himself to be a campaigner for Appi-Rahman talking provocatively about ethnic Chinese to a group of people. This came to be used as the ammunition by the other candidates to discredit Appi-Rahman.[16] Appi-Rahman made a public clarification and also reported the case to the police.[17]

Pomanto had a significant advantage in having the support of minority groups. In his first term, he had managed to establish a public image as an inclusive leader. This was an advantage that Rizal, Pomanto’s deputy back then, also had. They are both popular among minority groups, and maintain good ties with prominent ethnic Chinese and leaders of other minority groups in Makassar. Why many chose Pomanto over Rizal in the end, it has been suggested, was because it was considered that Pomanto had a much bigger chance than Rizal at winning the election. This consideration also affected sponsorships, and Pomanto was favoured even on that front before Rizal.[18]


Pomanto’s success in winning the 2020 mayoral election in Makassar, and in managing 2018 to cancel the chance for Appi to win the sole candidate election in 2018 are attributed to his smart political maneuvers navigating between local and national political patrons for protection and resources. Appi was furthermore a candidate with heavy weight political connections and abundant financial resources.

Being able to run in this year’s election enabled Pomanto to combine resources he gained from political patrons with the strong influence he had acquired as an incumbent. His incumbency status gave him substantial influence in the city bureaucracy and also in the community. He could also attract voters by showcasing his first term’s performance; in administering city development and sharing the ‘fruits’ with his loyalists, and in maintaining order, especially in the protection of minority groups.

Pomanto capitalised on the ethno-religious sentiments of the minority groups. In the series of mayoral elections, the minority groups were sensitive about rumors and strategically favoured pluralist candidate(s). Lastly, while all candidates relied on the political support of their patrons, most voters still went for candidates who also had a proven record.

ISEAS Perspective 2021/14, 17 February 2021.


[1] Before becoming Makassar Mayor, Pomanto tried to join the Gorontalo gubernatorial election in 2011 but failed to reach the required minimum support from 15% of parliamentarians:, accessed on 2 December 2020.

[2] This was prior to him joining Nasdem in 2018. He move to Gerindra in 2020.

[3] Pomanto later received support from the Demokrat Party, then the only party represented in the City Council. Additional support came from Perindo and PSI, which were then newly established parties.

[4] ‘Walikota Makassar Danny Pomanto Dinyatakan Bersih Korupsi’:, accessed 2 December 2020.

[5] In February 2018, Appi-Cicu requested of the local KPU to cancel Pomanto’s candidacy, citing the allegation that Pomanto as mayor had distributed more than 5,971 smartphones to community chiefs (RT/RW) in December 2017, ahead of the campaign season. The smartphones were allegedly for the chiefs to monitor the Appi-Cicu campaign for Pomanto’s benefit. The State Administrative Court of South Sulawesi followed up by ordering KPU Makassar to cancel Pomanto’s candidacy. The order was reinforced by the Supreme Court.

[6] Law No. 10/2016 on Local Elections allows voters in uncontested races to vote against the sole candidate pair by ticking an empty box.

[7] All mayor candidates had participated in the previous elections. Syamsu Rizal was the running mate of Pomanto in 2013 election, while Irman Yasin Limpo was their competitor and came in as runner-up.

[8] The candidate pair of Irman Yasin Limpo-Zunnun Nurdin Halid was an anomaly in that each of them represented a powerful political dynasty in South Sulawesi, but failed to gain significant votes in the election. Irman was a former senior bureaucrat and younger brother to Syahrul Yasin Limpo. The election was his second effort to become mayor. In this election, he ran together with Zunnun, the son of Nurdin Halid, a senior Golkar politician. The two deciding to pair up was a surprise since there has been a long rivalry between the two clans. Syahrul and Nurdin had been competitors in gubernatorial elections since 2003. In the 2020 election, their outreach to voters turned out to be weak. This was due to a lack of financial sponsorship, which was reflective of limited support from their own clans. In fact, Syahrul was considered to be supportive of Pomanto. Furthermore, the clan as such seemed to be more focused on working with Adnan Purichta Ichsan Yasin Limpo, the third generation of the Limpo clan, who was running for his second term in Gowa. Adnan went on to win with 91% votes.

[9] Rizal is known as an Ilham loyalist, and even as deputy to Mayor Pomanto was considered a proxy for Ilham.

[10] ‘Pernah Temui Danny, Alasan NA Copot Yusran? Hingga Minta Prof Rudy Lawan Tungguma’:, accessed 29 November 2020.

[11] The decision of the governor was based on instructions from the Ministry of Home Affairs and the State Civil Apparatuses Commission. The rotation, which involved the promotion and demotion of more than a thousand Makassar civil apparatuses, was regarded as maladministration by Pomanto because he had not sought approval from the State Civil Apparatuses Commission:, accessed on 29 November 2020.

[12] The nomination of Appi for he mayor was the second attempt by the Kalla clan to win a political position in South Sulawesi. The first was by the brother-in-law of Jusuf Kalla, Mansyur Ramly, who ran as vice governor candidate partner to Amin Syam (then the incumbent governor) in the 2007 gubernatorial election. The pair was defeated by Syahrul Yasin Limpo-Agus Arifin Numang.

[13] See among others, the interviews done by VICE after the 2018 election:, and also the review of the 2018 election result at, accessed on 28 November 2020.

[14] Pomanto admitted that the circulated voice record was his voice from an informal conversation with Laskar Merah Putih at his residence. He claimed that he should not be blamed for his personal opinion about the Minister of Fishery and Marine, especially because the conversation took place in his own residence. Pomanto claimed that he had been spied upon by Appi-Rahman, and that the record was made by that pair to discredit him: accessed on 8 December 2020.

[15] In the 2020 election, 59 percent of the city’s 901,087 registered voters turned up to cast their ballots, two percent higher than in 2018: Accessed on 10 December 2020.

[16] Since the 2018 mayoral election, Appi had been looked upon negatively by ethnic and religious minority groups in Makassar. This was apparently due to the involvement of the Kalla clan in supporting Anies Baswedan in the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2017. It was suggested that Appi lost many votes from minority groups in both elections due to the association of his family to the smear campaign in the Jakarta election and to their links to conservative groups.

[17] ‘Tim Hukum Appi-Rahman Lapor Ketua LPM Tamalanrea ke Polda Sulsel’,, accessed on 28 November 2020.

[18] The strong support for Pomanto from minority groups can be seen in the results for districts where the population of the Chinese is dominant, such as Wajo and Ujung Pandang where the number of votes for Pomanto were double those for Appi. In Wajo District, Pomanto won 5,315 votes while Appi collected 2,902 votes. In Ujung Pandang District, Pomanto had 5,228 votes against Appi’s 2,400 votes:, accessed on 16 December 2020.

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