Developing Vietnam with whom?

Restoration 2.0 for the Resurgence of Modern Vietnam


By Mia Ji Sørensen

”Wouldn’t you define Vietnam as a middle-income country?” I was asked this rhetorical question last week. Despite its emerging economy status, with a growth rate of approximately 7 per cent during the past two decades, it is still one of the poorest of the ‘Next 11 Countries,’ and even though Vietnam has been in vibrant development, it is now faced with stagnant economic growth. There is a lot of potential for Vietnam to move up the ladder, as it has a vast young workforce, 50 per cent of the population being younger than 26. In addition, Vietnam has gone through a gradual shift from the agricultural sector towards an industrial sector that has attracted a great amount of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). FDI has been the primary focus of many developing countries over the past decade, as most host countries have liberalised their FDI regulations. FDI has been the primary source of the buoyant economic growth in the Southeast Asian economies, and in contrast to other regions, which over the past years have experienced a decline in their FDI inflows, Southeast Asia increased by 2 per cent annually ($110 billion)[1]. Here, Singapore is the leading host destination for FDI, which also improves FDI levels in the lower-income countries in the neighbourhood such as Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia.

According to the IMF, Vietnam is defined as a lower-middle-income country (also referred to as a developing country), as its GNI per capita falls in the range between $1,026 and $4,035. Developing countries are regularly stimulated by aid from developed countries, and this is also true of Vietnam. Before the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was one of the central donors to Vietnam. After the conquest of South Vietnam in 1975, and the strain between the Chinese and the Vietnamese, the elimination of Chinese aid in 1978 compelled Hanoi to look to Moscow for economic and military assistance. This made the Soviets the largest contributors of aid, in addition to being a pivotal trade partner. But frequent occurrences of distrust between the two, in the context of Sino-Soviet contemplations, entailed that the Soviet resented their enormous aid burden in the beginning of the 1980s, as they perceived it a wasted investment. As a consequence of the Soviet experience, Vietnam is uneasy about dealing with its donors.

Developing interaction with developed countries

The European Union (EU) is by far the largest donor to Vietnam; 2013 disbursements are measured to be EUR 743 million, and the Union is also the second largest investor of FDI, surpassed only by Japan.  Nevertheless, there has been a vibrant wave of European donors shifting their relationship with Vietnam from disbursing millions of euros for Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) towards developing their respective partnerships into a more strategic manner. This goes hand in hand with more EU member states gradually phasing out donations.

In fact, during the past decade, Vietnam has conducted more than ten partnerships. Of these, four are European: Italy (2013), Germany (2011), the UK (2010) and Spain (2009). France is currently negotiating one, and two European member states have contracted sectoral partnerships that focus on climate change. Deepening relations with external partners is clearly an important aspect of Vietnamese foreign policy. The partnership agreements with the European countries should match the strategic importance in regard to the security, prosperity and international standing of Vietnam. Strategic partnerships are established to diversify the external relations of a country and for proactive integration of it into the world, by helping to develop the country and make it more resilient to external shocks. From this point of view, a partnership with real potential to create prosperity for Vietnam is the one with Germany. Germany is one of the most important EU members when it comes to economic relations, as it accounts for more than one-fourth of the overall two-way trade between the EU and Vietnam. Germany is also the second largest contributor of ODA, subsidising 8.4 per cent of overall EU grants. In 2012, the EU market became the largest export market for Vietnamese products, overtaking the United States, which had until then been the central export market ever since the trade-embargo was lifted between the two partners in 1995. It is not just because of Germany’s economic strength that Vietnam draws a great deal from this European partner. The common history of the two Germanys and the two Vietnams has connected the former DDR and North Vietnam in the framework of socialist solidarity; also, a German-Vietnamese University will be established in order to promote sustainability in the relationship between the two countries.

In April this year, a conference between Vietnam and Germany was held in Hanoi in order to discuss the process of developing a social market economy in Vietnam, utilising Germany as an example. Social Market Economy stands for an ideal compromise between two ideological ways of organising and coordinating an economy: social democracy and economic liberalism. Soziale Marktwirtshaft was an idiom introduced by former German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Hanoi was thus the host of this event. Several prominent academics were invited to the conference to elaborate on the importance of reaching this ideal compromise.

Avoid the middle-income trap

In this regard, and in numerous other international gatherings between European partners and Vietnam, the Vietnamese rhetoric of what Europe can do for Vietnam focuses on avoiding the middle-income trap. The middle-income trap refers to a situation in which a middle-income country fails to transition to a high-income economy due to rising costs and declining competitiveness. A situation only a few developing economies have managed successfully, as seen in East Asia where South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore have made a transition to advanced economies. Domestic forces drove the transitions on a political and bureaucratic level for each country, albeit with different national obstacles. For Vietnam, there are several detrimental challenges; one is the correlation between growth, public governance and corruption. This is a challenge when aiming for a less closed and dynamic Vietnam, because the government maintains austere control. As the legacy of Stalinism remains, the Communist Party of Vietnam and its one-party structure largely determine the outcome of any reform and proceeding. The government maintains strong control over land ownership and enterprises of the most influential sectors, which is why the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) remain powerful, and thus impedes private enterprises in becoming more competitive. In the current context of booming free trade agreements taking place in Asia (more than 30 were completed in the Asia Pacific in the past two decades), the SOEs and their influential presence in the Vietnamese economy is a factor crucial to the lack of sustained economic growth. As the SOEs in Vietnam are a pivotal income source for public officials, these officials are hesitant in negotiating free trade agreements.

Since the economic reform, the doi moi introduced in 1986, Vietnam has recorded impressive growth rates. Doi moi means restoration in Vietnamese and was intended to push forward a much-needed renovation process in order to reshape the regional and international agenda of the country. The Vietnamese restoration process has contributed to a successful escape from the poverty trap into the emergence of a middle-income country. Notwithstanding, there is still a long way to go; the economy is now characterised by slow growth and frail international competitiveness. For seven years, the average GDP growth rate was recorded to be 8.7 per cent (from 2000 to 2007) whereas in 2012, the growth rate has dropped to 5 per cent[2]. In the latest investment outlook conducted by The Economist (2013), Vietnam’s macroeconomic troubles have taken the shine off the country’s once strong appeal as investments and growth have a cohesive and reciprocal effect (investors are more attracted to invest in countries with a high growth vis-à-vis investments help to create growth). One of the main challenges to economic growth in Vietnam is the SOEs, and in order to continuously sustain growth, there is a demand for restructuring them.

The asymmetrical relation between private and public enterprises is a paradox because of the significant performance of the private sector in Vietnam. After the doi moi, private enterprises gained legitimacy, and their contribution to economic growth has been remarkable. According to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, the private sector accounted for 50 per cent of the total industrial output in 1989, whereas 15 years later, this figure nearly reached 73 per cent. The private sector is also responsible for creating the majority of new jobs in this period.

By contrast, the SOEs are challenged with debt, while the public authorities, the owners of SOEs, give favourable conditions to the SOEs. The government’s mismanagement also entails a society with incomplete domestic supply chains, creating dependency on other supply chains (such as China’s) to provide the necessary components, which in turn leads to wage inflation and less attractiveness for investments. Subsequently, before we can start talking about a competitive state circumventing the middle-income trap, there are domestic obstacles that have to be dealt with by the government – obligating the public officials in showing true strength. This will require a new model of thinking within the Vietnamese government and public officials, who are rather rigid and still bound to traditional socialist ideologies.

Obviously, the German model of a social market economy seems appropriate for Vietnam because of the shared ideologies about market and state, but it will only function in practice with true political determination of adapting to it, particularly in relation to market reforms. The central idea of a social market economy is to protect the freedom of the market participants, on both the demand side and the supply side, while securing social equity. If the country is to avoid falling into the middle-income trap, there are domestic challenges that have to be solved, as there is restricted freedom for private enterprises, which creates a gap in social equity. If the officials are serious about a social market economy, one of the key responsibilities for the government is to establish a policy framework which is effective for competition. This will require openness and transparency and a serious alternative to ingrained public preferential treatment. This is the challenge in a one-party state and the process is now in a reactive phase, rather than a proactive one; hence a significant demand for change has already arisen. Ultimately, if the Vietnamese politicians and public officials want to put Vietnam in focus, overcome stagnant growth and middle-income traps, it all begins at the core of the one-party system.

What is necessary is a new doi moi, a restoration process 2.0 in order to make the essential shift from rhetorical promises to action taken to start/create a structural reform that can renovate and renew the notion of a modern Vietnam.


Mia Ji Sørensen,

MA Student in International Studies and Social Science, Aarhus University,

Affiliated Workplace Student at Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Political Science, University of Copenhagen



  • Freedom House: Countries at the Crossroads 2012
  • United Nations Conference on Trade and Development UNCTAD STAT Database
  • General Statistics Office of Vietnam (GSO)
  • East Asia Forum – Economics, Politics and Public Policy in East Asia and the Pacific: Developing Asia and the middle-income trap
  • EUROSTAT Comext Statistical Database HS2,4
  • International Monetary Fond, 2013
  • The Economist Corporate Network 2013: Investing in Accelerating Asia
  • article published April 26, 2013 “How many strategic partners are enough for Vietnam” by Le Hong Hiep
  • Nguyen, T.T. & Dijk, M.A. (2012). Corruption, growth and governance: private vs. state-owned firms in Vietnam. Journal of Banking and Finance 2012.
  • Kokko, A. (2011). EU and Vietnam: From a Parental to A Competitive Relationship. Retrieved from

[1] UNCTAD: United Nations World Investment Report 2012

[2] Data and own calculations retrieved from UNCTAD 2013.

On Testimonial Therapy & the Life Project


What testimonial therapy does is try & bring private suffering into public & political spheres.

Igner Agger


Inger Agger (IA) is a psychologist, currently working with the Danish Institution Against Torture,(DIGNITY) and the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. She visited Hong Kong in early March to conduct a workshop on Testimonial Therapy, which is her area of expertise. Basil Fernando (BF), Director Policy & Programmes, Asian Human Rights Commission, spoke with Ms. Agger, exclusively for Torture magazine. 1)


BF: First, could you start by sharing your personal background? How did you get involved with developing Testimonial Therapy?

IA: Actually it goes more than 40 years back, all the way back to the 1970s, when I was part of a consciousness-raising group, in a women’s movement known as the “Red Stockings Movement”, and there we worked with testimony. That was the first time I tried giving testimony. One of the main methods of the consciousness-raising groups was for women to give testimony about their private lives and try to see their personal experiences in a political perspective. Our slogan was “to make the private political”. So we tried in giving testimony about our own lives to see how we, as women and girls, had been oppressed by the patriarchal society, in which ways this oppression had shown itself in our own lives and become conscious of that. So that was the main objective of the consciousness-raising method. In this consciousness-raising group I gave testimony about my own early childhood trauma. For the first time I was able to speak about the loss of my mother and my separation from my family when I was four to five years old, and to see how this painful story related to the post-war situation in Danish society in the 1940s, in which many women – of which my mother was one – could not get any education that enabled them to support their children if they got divorced. When a child is separated from their parents they will often blame themselves and feel shameful about not being like other children. The consciousness-raising group helped me to see my “private pain as political”, and this empowering experience gave me the initial strength to start a lifelong process of liberating and healing myself. I was gradually able to formulate a “life project” of exploring ways of healing trauma – both for myself and for others. I actually wrote my thesis about it for my masters in psychology. So that was the first time I tried giving testimony and I thought it was such a powerful experience that I never forgot it and I have worked with it in different variations ever since, in everything I’ve been doing.

BF: Your Masters was in that?

IA: Yes, on the Consciousness-Raising Method in the Women’s Movement 2). It was published in 1977, in Danish, by the Danish Pedagogical Institute. This method included testimony as a main principle for connecting the private, individual level with the political level. One of the aspects of testimony that I experienced at that time and have met many times since is the fascinating way that testimony can change the energy in a group. When someone says: “Let me tell you what happened…” it can have an almost palpable, electric effect on the audience.

BF: You are touching the heart of the issue here. So what testimonial therapy does is try to bring private suffering into the public and political spheres.

IA: Exactly. I spent my first six years of in a so-called “free school” which had been created by a group of parents opposition to the “black” authoritarian school system we had in Denmark at that time. The “Free School Movement” was amongst others, inspired by Grundtvig, and think that the method of creating liberating testimonial narratives, which I met in the Movement, touched me at a deep because this spirit of freedom, poetry, creativity, and discovery had also been an important part of my learning experience in “free school”. It is so interesting that you Basil, have also been inspired by Grundvig have promoted his ideas in the “Folk School Movement” among human rights in Asia.

BF: Grundtvig was very important to my own development and that of the Asian Human Rights Commission. I fact, I discovered N.F.S. Grundtvig on my own.I came across one of his quotes in a book, and felt, it said something very close to the way I was beginning to see things. I then inquired about him and I was told that the library in the Lutheran seminary, may have some of his writings. In fact, I found three books there. Later, I told some friends at the Danish Institute of Human Rights that I wished to know more about him and his work. The Institute provided me a fellowship for three months. I came to Copenhagen, met many people associatedwith the Folk School Movement and was able to read a lot more about Grundtvig. I visited the home for elderly people where there is a large statue of him, close to the central bus stand in Copenhagen. During those three months I wrote a book, comparing the ideas of Gruntvig and the Indian political leader, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. It was later published under the title “Demoralization and Hope”. At the AHRC we adopted the folk school approach as a framework for our discussions and educational work. Everyone who participated in our programmes have expressed appreciation for the “folk school style”.

Now returning to your work, this, in fact, has quite strong philosophical roots. The whole idea of the development of consciousness and what you are really advocating is not just that public politics, but also that the private lives of individuals should be brought into the public sphere, and that a working method for implementing this should be created.

IA: Yes exactly, and I think it’s all connected with the radicalization that was also happening at that time among the students in the Western World – in the sixties and seventies. I thought a lot about that when I was in Hanoi last week, and visited the Hoa Lo Prison museum (called the “Hanoi Hilton” by the American pilots that were detained there during the Vietnam War). There I saw photographs from the demonstrations of the Vietnam Movement in France and the US, and I remembered how it was a very powerful experience for myself to participate in these demonstrations. In 1967 I worked as a volunteer at the Russell Tribunal, also known as the International War Crimes Tribunal or Russell-Sartre Tribunal, which was a private body organized by British philosopher Bertrand Russell and hosted by French philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre. One of its sessions, concerned with the US aggression towards Vietnam, took place in Roskilde, Denmark. Representatives of the Black Panther Movement also participated in the Tribunal and told us how “Black is Beautiful”. Of course, as everybody else I knew, I participated in the Vietnam demonstrations in front of the American embassy in Copenhagen, where we met regularly and in which we ran while we shouted “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh”. All this happened while I was studying psychology, and so I realized when I was standing there in the Hanoi museum, how important that had been for my own radicalization or politicization of my consciousness and that this inspiration had given me the wish to work politically with psychology, not just to view a person’s psychology as an individual phenomenon, but as connected with their context – their surroundings and society. It was very important for us at that time, for the radical psychologists, to fight for this viewpoint: we were not trying to change people so that they became better at accommodating a repressive system; no, we wanted to support them in liberating themselves from oppressive structures. This meant that we had to see and understand people’s suffering in political terms and not as an individual trauma or mental health problem. “They are not ill, they are suffering from the dictatorship and the oppression”, as the Latin American psychologists said at that time, and that brought me into the Latin American understanding of things which helped me connect psychology and the fight for human rights. In 1969 I had gone to Cuba and lived there for a year, and as many others at that time, I also went on pilgrimages to other communist countries: the Soviet Union in 1973 and to China in 1976 in search of alternatives to our own, capitalist societies. Later on, many of us became disillusioned with the ways in which these utopian dreams had been realised by authoritarian, centralized governments. Instead we turned towards the development potential of grassroots movements in local communities, and searched for other ways in which people could organize and liberate themselves.

I travelled to Latin America in the eighties and experienced the approach of the Latin American psychologists and psychiatrists, who saw mental health as strongly linked to human rights. Their discourse was based on the principle of connecting “human rights and mental health” (derechos humanos y salud mental). This was an approach they had developed as a response to the various dictatorships in Latin America, in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay at that time. Many doctors, psychologists and social workers who were part of the left-socialist movement had been imprisoned and tortured, and they developed their approach as a resistance against these dictatorships. As I had learned Spanish in Cuba I was able to read the documents of the Latin American psychologists, and in reading these conference papers I read – for the first time – about the testimonial method that Chilean psychologists had developed as part of their resistance movement. This method was very similar to the consciousness-raising method I had met in the Women’s Movement and I felt very familiar and “at home” with it. The Chileans had – sort of accidentally – discovered that when the lawyers from the resistance movement made testimonies with victims to keep as evidence against the dictatorship, it also had a beneficial and therapeutic effect on the victim. Lawyers of the resistance collected testimonies of human rights violations during the dictatorship in Chile under the protection of the Catholic Church. They kept these testimonies of torture hidden with the purpose of using them after the end of the dictatorship as evidence. But then, while recording these legal testimonies they discovered that this process also had a psychotherapeutic effect on victims. So they started working more consciously with this method and started writing about it. Later, in 1983, a Chilean psychologist and a psychiatrist under pseudonyms published a very famous article in English about their testimonial method3) . The real name of the main author was Elizabeth Lira, a prominent Chilean psychologist whom I interviewed later as part of a research project in Chile in 1988-89.

In 1984, I started working for the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT) 4) in Denmark, as a clinical psychologist, and this gave me a unique opportunity to work with political refugees from Latin America, and in this way work “politically” with psychology. I have to thank Inge Genefke for giving me that opportunity. I tried using the testimonial method with the refugees and I published my first international article about it in 1990 – that’s 23 years ago 5) . I also used the testimony method in my PhD research, in which I had made testimonies with 20 Latin American and 20 Middle Eastern women who had been tortured and were political refugees in Denmark 6) .

BF: Could you say more about the Chilean approach? You said you started reading their papers during your visit to Chile. Can you say more about what they were doing, what those people were trying to do?

IA: Are you familiar with their work? The radical mental health professionals in Latin America worked on basis of the same understanding as the radicals in Europe and the US: that “the private is political”. Their way of phrasing it was by connecting human rights and mental health, and they were always emphasizing that we should not pathologize victims. They are not “ill” – they are suffering from the dictatorship. So the Latin Americans emphasized that we should always see the suffering of torture victims in a political perspective and that this approach would be the most healing for victims of human rights violations. One of the objectives of these Latin American psychologists was to try to re-establish the connection of the victim to his or her political project – the “life project” as they called it. At that time, torture victims in these countries were often politically active people in the socialist movement. They could be political party or trade union leaders – people who were active in politics and whom the dictatorship tried to crush. And so the therapeutic goal was then to strengthen the victim so that he or she could re-establish this project, the life project, which gave their life meaning. I describe this approach in detail in a book based on our research in the Chilean Human Rights Movement 7).

BF: Is this in English?

IA: Both in English and it was also published in Spanish, in 1996, in Santiago de Chile. The Spanish edition was edited and revised by Elizabeth Lira 8) . I had received a grant to do a post-doctorate research project in Chile and based on this research I wrote the book in cooperation with my ex-husband, who is a psychiatrist. We went to Chile and interviewed psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers from the Human Rights Movement and that was just in the transition period at the end of the eighties, when Pinochet was ousted and they had their first democratic elections. So that was happening at the time of our arrival, actually. It was a very interesting period to be there. So, now the mental health people could talk freely about their work and we interviewed many mental health professionals who had been in prison and tortured themselves.

BF: Could you say more? Because I think you are now touching something dynamic. You are really linking the element of mental health and the political ethos. In the post-Hitler period, the psychologist, Alexander Mitscherlich, who wrote Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, did his clinical work with patients and then he came to the conclusion that the things that his patients were complaining about had nothing to do with illness, but was a result of their inability to come to terms with Germany’s political past. The repression of the political problems that were associated with the Hitler’s regime period was causing the mental illnesses. In Asia, this has not been brought forth in a forceful way. Still, psychology is about individual health, the individual person. You try to< help them get out of depression or something like that, but the larger issue, that political repression is a cause of disturbed mental health, is ignored.

IA: I would say that the main conclusions we drew from the research in Chile was the importance of a movement, the Chilean Human Rights Movement, as a protective shield or context for the victims and for the mental health workers in the resistance movement: they were not alone. They were part of this large movement which they had developed very expertly in Chile. We also noticed the way in which the mental health people had developed a system of helping victims organize themselves in groups, such as groups of former political prisoners, or family members of torture victims, or mothers of disappeared people. These groups were very good at organising in Latin America and seemed to have a great therapeutic effect on the victims.

So we observed the activities of the groups and wrote about it. I guess that was the main conclusion from our research, how important it was to support these kind of protected networks in situations of human rights violations, and in Chile, the Catholic Church had an important role as a part of this protective network. When I later worked as a researcher from 2010-2012 in Cambodia, I did not see this type of protective organisations for victims to the same extent, although some NGOs were trying to promote it. In Cambodia, I found that Buddhism had an important protective and healing role.

BF: That’s very important. I think it was the Jesuit priest from El Salvador, Ignacio Martín-Baró, who, in his work on social psychology, pointed out the need for dealing with the structural issues, which cause mental illness.

IA: Yes he was a great inspiration for me also, and for the Chileans, definitely. I have during my whole career been opposed to a medical, clinical approach to torture, to what the Chileans call a “medicalizing” of political problems.

BF: Can you explain that, why you are opposed to it?

IA: Yes, because by medicalizing, by diagnosing, and pathologizing victims of torture, and victims of political oppression, you are in a way giving them the responsibility for their pain. It’s like saying they are sick or “crazy” because they are “weak” and could not resist. Mostly, victims do not appreciate that. You should instead place their cause of their mental suffering where it belongs, in the political structures. By doing this you might also support them in becoming conscious of the reasons for and the meaning of their mental symptoms, of how they have been persecuted, and learn that their symptoms are a result of that outer pressure, not because a personal illness or weakness or of being mentally ill, crazy, suffering from PTSD, or whatever people believe about themselves. This can enable them to become survivors and participate again in their “life project”.

BF: So it is getting a person to come to a recognition, or understanding, that his problem is related to what has taken place in his society and giving him a method of understanding the process of healing, while also trying to support him in engaging with his society.

IA: Yes absolutely. Many other psychoanalytic or psychological theorists have also emphasized re-connecting to the “life project”, but they have used other terms for it. I have found the writings of Carl G. Jung, the great Swiss psychoanalyst, very important, especially his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, in which he describes his own self-actualization process which has involved what he calls “transcendence”, the integration of the diverse systems of the self toward the goal of wholeness and identity with all of humanity. Transcendence also includes a spiritual or religious dimension, which is an integrated part of self-actualization.

BF: That is a very dynamic thinking process.

IA: Yes, and that is what you can encourage when you are making a testimony with an individual victim. That’s why the attitude of the human rights defender who is helping the victim make their testimony is so important, because the human rights defender can help the victim to become conscious of this. So the human rights defender is active in his or her response to the victim, and should help victims to contextualize their suffering. This includes helping victims to understand how their testimony can help other victims and how it can become a weapon in the fight against dictatorships. Essentially, this means helping victims to see the political meaning of their private pain.

You can work with testimony in many ways, and the model, which includes a culturally adapted testimony ceremony at the end of the therapy process, is a special Asian brief therapy version of the method. Supported by the RCT, I developed this model in an action research project from 2008-2010 with the RCT’s local partners. We started with a pilot project in India 9), and continued in Sri Lanka, Cambodia and the Philippines. This work with testimony ceremonies also brought me in closer contact with Asian spirituality and the great resources for healing, which are part of many Asian cultural and religious traditions, and inspired me to continue my testimony work with a research project in Cambodia on local approaches to healing of trauma.

BF: So the idea of developing the document, the testimony, is working with the victim to get him to realize that what he is going through is related to much larger issues, helping him to come to that recognition, and then holding a public ceremony where he makes a declaration about it.

IA: Completely correct and very well expressed. Yes. And this is why it’s so important to train human rights defenders to understand that this story is not just something which is out there that they just need to record, but that they are helping the victim to come to that understanding – to see their suffering in another perspective and to record that. The public ceremony at the end of the testimony process also plays a very important role, because it links the victim to the community through a public acknowledgement and mobilisation on basis of the narrative about the human rights violations suffered by the victim 10). This public ceremony can also be seen as a re-connection with the life project or, in Jung’s terms, a ritual in which the victim can re-connect with his or her spiritual and transcendent self.

BF: So the testimonial therapy method is really not a teaching process, it’s a dialogue?

IA: It’s a dialogue! Just as you and I are having an important dialogue right now about certain aspects of my life story.

BF: To get him or her to come out, to express their story.

IA: Yes, but one of the problems is, of course, to help those victims who were imprisoned by accident, or who were not politically active. It is quite common that people are arrested and tortured maybe because they have the same name as someone that the police is looking for, or by another error or just by accident. So it’s actually more difficult to provide psychotherapeutic help to these victims who maybe do not have a life project or a cause they are fighting for.

BF: So a person develops a meaning. A meaning! They are developing something to fight for; to live for. See, this is very different. Victor Frankl’s idea of looking for meaning comes in.

Now, the difference is now in Asia, in a number of places, there is an idea of dealing with mental illness by helping people to forget. Now, for example, in Cambodia, before this new period with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, they had many ceremonies, rituals, conducted by the Buddhist monks, and various other people, including water purification ceremonies. The victim, who is feeling down and dark, is encouraged to go through a whole process in which the monk tries to make him feel happy internally. By these methods, the monks help him to become a little lighter and then the monk says “forget this”. The same thing was done in Sri Lanka.

IA: Of course I would be very much against that approach. You shouldn’t forget, but maybe forgive! In Buddhist Vipassana meditation and “mindfulness” which I have been working with over the past five or six years, the main principle is not to forget, but to accept and then let it pass. That is a very different process. I also think that meditation is very good for calming the nervous system. By including the body in the therapeutic process the victim can be supported to restore self-regulation and the sense safety and goodness, (which has often been destroyed by torture) as explained by Peter Levine in his book In an Unspoken Voice. In later years I’ve been very interested in combining the Asian spiritual knowledge – represented in the West by, for example, mindfulness andyoga – with the more political approach represented by testimonial therapy. In the testimony ceremony the two approaches come together. The political and the spiritual dimensions mutually reinforce each other. A human being is both mind and body and we must pay attention to both when we search for the restoration of resilience and involvement in the world.


1 (Conversation transcribed by Meredith McBride)

2 Agger, I. (1977). Basisgruppe og kvindebevidsthed: En analyse af basisgruppemetoden som udviklingsproces (Consciousness-raising group and women’s consciousness: An analysis of the consciousnessraising
method as developmental

3 Cienfuegos, A.J., & Monelli, C. (1983). The testimony of political repression as a therapeutic instrument. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 53, 43-51

4 Now: Dignity – Danish Institute Against Torture.

5 Agger, I., & Jensen, S.B. (1990). Testimony as ritual and evidence in psychotherapy for political refugees. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 3, 115-30.

6 Agger, I. (1994). The blue room: Trauma and testimony among refugee women. London: Zed Books. Spanish edition (1994). La Pieza azul: Testimonio femenino del exilio. Santiago de Chile: Cuarto Proprio.

7 Agger. I. & Jensen S.B. (1996). Trauma and healing under state terrorism. London: Zed Books.

8 Agger. I., & Jensen, S.B. (1996). Trauma y sanacion bajo situaciones de terrorismo de estado. Santiago de Chile: CESOC.

9 Agger, I., Raghuvanshi, L., Khan, S.S., Polatin, P., & Laursen, L.K. (2009). Testimonial therapy: a pilot project to improve psychological wellbeing among survivors of torture in India. Torture: Journal on Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and Prevention of Torture, 19 (3): 204-217.

10 Agger, I., Igreja, V., Kiehle, R. & Polatin, P. (2012). Testimony ceremonies in Asia: Integrating spirituality in testimonial therapy for torture survivors in India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and he Philippines. Transcultural Psychiatry, 49(3–4): 568–589.


This article was originally published in


Unearthing the Past: From Independent Filmmaking to Social Change

Wu Wenguang, considered the father of independent Chinese documentary film, has since 2005 slowly but surely been handing over the camera to people on the margins and to younger generations of Chinese documentary filmmaking. In 2010 Wu and Caochangdi Workstation initiated the Folk Memory Documentary Project, where young filmmakers go to the countryside to gather and document memories of the Great Famine (1959-1961) from elderly villagers.


Wu Wenguang introduces his film "Treatment".

Wu Wenguang introduces his film “Treatment”.

Bumming in Beijing

Wu Wenguang is known as one of the first to make independent documentaries in China. His first documentary film, Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers, aired in 1990 and soon after the film toured the international film festival circuits. Wu started out in 1988 filming five artists, a writer, some painters and a theatre director all involved in the production of art on the edge of Chinese society. The artists had, for the most part, no Beijing registration and they stayed with friends or in shabby courtyard houses on the outskirts of Beijing close to the old summer palace while trying to practice their art in the China of the late 1980s. Only one of the five artists portrayed in the film remained in Beijing, by 1990 the other four had left China to pursue their dreams elsewhere in the world.  Wu’s documentary was the first in China to give the characters of a documentary a space to voice their concerns and dreams of the future, letting the narratives of their stories weave together presenting lives on the edge of Beijing, both figuratively and literally.

For the next ten years, Wu produced several documentaries concerned with people living on the margins of Chinese society and films related to sensitive historical issues. Meanwhile, he toured the international film festivals and presented and discussed his work with international filmmakers and audience. In 2000, when he again found himself at an international film festival and was yet again asked the question: What will your next film be about? Wu realized that he was not interested in ‘the next topic’, making ‘the next film’ or filmmaking in general for that matter. What he wanted was to make change possible by creating the conditions for change in people.  Wu believed the camera could be instrumental in this process: by giving people the opportunity to record and re-experience their lives through the lens of the camera, there was maybe a possibility of creating awareness of the marginalized person’s own position and thereby a possibility to empower this person.

Initial steps

The initial steps in the direction towards engaging in possible social change were taken in 2001, when Wu and the dance choreographer Wen Hui made the performance and documentary film Dance with Farm Workers. 40 migrant workers, originally from Sichuan Province, were hired to be part of a dance performance in collaboration with Wen Hui’s international dance troupe. Nine days of rehearsing culminated in a public dance performance which took place in an old, empty factory in Beijing. The process was intended to establish a relationship between the people who build the city (the migrant workers) and the people living in the city (in this case the dancers and documentarists), while it also directed attention to the poor conditions migrant workers often worked under and the local urbanities prejudice towards them.

Even though the intentions were sympathetic, and the film features moments of sincere interaction between the migrant workers and the dancers, the performance still seemed to reproduce an existing hierarchical relationship between migrant workers and urbanities. The workers remained workers in this new context. Nevertheless, Dance with Farm Workers represented a new attitude in Wu Wenguang’s documentaries moving towards a more engaging kind of filmmaking.

Handing over the camera – the Village Documentary Project

In 2005 Wu Wenguang initiated the Village Documentary Project – an EU-funded initiative projected to document the village self-governance system introduced in the 1990s with democratic elections at village level. Instead of going to the countryside himself, Wu decided to hand over the camera to the villagers themselves. The idea was that the villagers, by looking at their own community through the lens of a camera, would see the community with fresh eyes and reach another level of awareness. Wu advertised nationally for villagers willing to participate in the pioneering project and in the end ten villagers from all over China were chosen. They were given a camera and taught to use it through intensive workshops at Wu Wenguang’s Caochangdi Workstation in the north eastern corner of Beijing. Each villager made a film which related to the village self-governance system in their own village. The ten villager films feature very different perspectives on and circumstances for democratic elections in rural China, presenting diverse rural communities full of good-will, corruption, laughing children, misunderstandings, close relationships, stubborn village elders, younger generations with new views on society and in some cases seemingly democratic elections in village China. Wu Wenguang has with the Village Documentary Project taken a step back in order to provide a platform for the villagers from where it is possible to transgress social barriers and present rural problematics to a greater audience.

Collecting memories – The Folk Memory Documentary Project

Building on the experiences from the Village Documentary Project, the Folk Memory Documentary Project was initiated in 2010. Young people, some still in school and some recent university graduates, were engaged to go to the countryside to gather and document the memories of the Great Famine from 1959-1961 from elderly villagers, telling the previously untold stories of the millions who died because of the famine. Most young people in China today are taught that the famine was caused by natural disasters and debt to the Soviet Union, a narrative the filmmakers and the villagers come to question once they unearth the memories of the people. Each of the young filmmakers went to a village with which they had a personal connection, either they were born there themselves, their parents or grandparents had grown up there or a family member had been sent there as ‘sent down youth’ during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The young filmmakers spend three months every winter in each their village collecting memories of the troubled and agonizing years of the great famine and being part of the rural community. The interviews with the elderly villagers are used in the documentaries and are gathered in a memory archive at Caochangdi Workstation.

At Lund University. From left to right: Zou Xueping Wu Wenguang Zhang Mengqi and Shu Qiao

While the young people are in the villages to shoot their documentaries they are advised by Wu Wenguang and Caochangdi Workstation to set up small scale, socially engaged projects. The young filmmaker Zou Xueping organized screenings of the Folk Memory Project films and arranged garbage collecting activities, to address one of the more pressing problems in many Chinese villages. Another participant of the project, Zhang Mengqi, made a public library to make books more accessible in the village and to create a place for sharing. A third participant, Shu Qiao, raised funds for a monument to commemorate those who died during the great famine, a way to create awareness in the village of the wrongdoings of the past. Furthermore, he engaged a school class (11-12 year olds) and had them collect and document the memories of their village elders. In this way, the memories of the great famine were transferred to younger generations and thus seized to be the taboo it had previously been. These films collects memories of a forgotten past of suffering and a the same time document young people’s journey into this past as they rediscover themselves through a process of interaction and engagement in an effort to dissolve taboos and traumas of the past.

With the Folk Memory Project, Wu Wenguang has handed over the camera to villagers and young people of China using the camera as a tool of unearthing the unknown and of transforming the present by rewriting history.

Mai Corlin


Wu Wenguang and the three young filmmakers Zou Xueping, Zhang Mengqi and Shu Qiao visited Lund University, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS) and University of Copenhagen in April 2013 where they presented Caochangdi Workstation’s Folk Memory Documentary Project. Most of the films of the project can be viewed for a small fee on China Independent Documentary Film Archive: For more about Caochangdi Workstation please visit their website


Mai Corlin is enrolled as PhD student at Aarhus University, Department of Culture and Society, Asia Section. Her project is entitled Utopian Imaginaries in Rural Reconstruction – Urban Activists in Rural China and is concerned with socially engaged art in the countryside of China.



Wu Wenguang presents the Folk Memory Documentary Project “Memory: Hunger – Protest Amnesia through Documentary and Theater”:

 Clip from Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers:

 Clip from Dance with Farm Workers:


How to Win Elections in Indonesia?

Insights from the Campaigns for Jakarta Governor 2012

This online exhibition shows photographs, videos and other material from the 2012 election campaigns for the Governor’s office in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. It covers the two main pairs of candidates in the field: incumbent Governor Fauzi Bowo (Foke) and his running mate Nachrowi Ramli (Nara) vs. challenger Joko Widodo (Jokowi) and his running mate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok).

The exhibition was designed to allow you to browse through and just pick individual sections that might be interesting to you OR read it as a story from beginning to end. As this is not an academic article it does by no means aim at presenting a comprehensive picture of the dozens of different campaign strategies followed by each team. Due to the mostly visual nature of an exhibition, several important but less visible elements of these campaigns can only be hinted at within this framework. Nevertheless, this exhibition aims at conveying an impression of how enormously contrasting these two pairs of candidates and their respective campaign approaches were and what has enabled Jokowi’s remarkable rise from small town mayor to Governor of Jakarta to most promising presidential candidate within just a bit more than a year.

Fauzi Bowo and Nachrowi Ramli mostly relied on typical strongman campaign tactics involving money politics, voter intimidation, campaigning based on ethnic and religious discrimination, and mobilisation of various ally groups from within their patronage network, but also staged media events and expensive advertising. While Fauzi was believed to win easily within the first election round, the radically different campaign strategy of challenger Joko Widodo turned the game around (Jokowi-Basuki 42.6 % vs. Fauzi-Nara 34.05%), leading to a remarkable catch-up race and his final victory after a second election round (JB 53.82 % vs. FN 46.18%). Jokowi and his running mate Ahok combined strategically located face-to-face campaigning with a clever marketing technique to capture the attention of the media. They performed on a good governance agenda of providing services for the population, against ethnic or religious discrimination, and promoting the inclusion of the population into politics.


The campaign strategy of Jokowi and Basuki was to a large extent based on face-to-face campaigning in the slum areas of Jakarta. Their arrival was often anticipated with a mixture of curiosity and sceptisism, however, mostly the candidates managed to switch the atmosphere to one of excitement and even euphoria within a few minutes.

They immediately pick up individual conversations with people of the kampung (neighborhood), while walking through the narrow alleys lined with tin-roofed huts and shaded by plastic sheets. Dozens of potential voters and even more kids follow them on their way through the densely packed kampung.

Every now and then Jokowi or Ahok stop to enquire about the often very visible problems of the area (flooding, bad water- and sanitation conditions, waste-disposal). They explain the most important points of their programme, such as a health card or cheaper education.

During the whole time their entourage of a few close campaign team members and party allies responsible for organising the event in that particular kampung remain quietly at a distance. Only their bodyguards in civilan clothes stick around closely but almost invisible. There are no speeches by local leaders, party members or the like.

This creates a very personal and lively atmosphere for the encounter. People are laughing and joking around as they follow along through the kampung or pose for the journalists’ cameras (or mine) to show the “rock ’n roll” campaign sign with three fingers. This stands both for the candidates’ no. 3 on the ballot and Jokowi’s love for rock music. Using this hand sign was new to most people and created quite some fun and confusion, when people tried to get it right. Over the course of the campaign it became so iconic that ever since no. 3 candidates in several other local elections all across Indonesia have taken it over as their own campaign sign.

An important direct effect of these face-to-face campaign events is, that the population feels genuinely respected by the candidates, as they even take time for several minutes of personal discussion, as Basuki here does in a several minutes long conversation with a pious Muslim man (Basuki is of Chinese descent and Christian, which plays a large role in his own as well as in Fauzi’s and Nara’s campaign – albeit in very different ways, as we will see later).

Many voters even feel honored to have the chance to meet Jokowi or Basuki and come up with their own creative ideas to support the candidates. In this case two women came rushing after Basuki with a caricature of him riding a bicycle, which they had made themselves and they wanted him to sign.

However, the central point of these campaign events was not to meet as many people as possible and directly convince them to vote for Jokowi-Basuki – an attempt which would have been doomed to fail in a city of more than 10 million inhabitants. This strategy could only be successful because it was paired with a highly clever marketing of these events via the media, so that the messages sent at these small events affected the perception of the wider population.

This marketing strategy via the media had actually begun several months before the campaign got to the grounds of Jakarta neighborhoods. Agenda-setting pushing selected issues of Jokowi’s performance as Mayor of Solo into the national media made him rise as a media darling as soon as his candidacy had been decided behind the scenes. Overall this turned out to be so successful, that the campaign for the local Governor’s office developed into a national event on a scale never seen before for any local election.


The incumbent Fauzi and his running mate Nara chose a very different strategy quite in contrast to the personal face-to-face approach of Jokowi and Basuki. During the first official two-week campaign phase in June / July Fauzi Bowo even left all the activities to his vice-candidate. Only in the evenings he would do campaigning behind closed doors.

The team carried out two main kinds of public campaign events, the first one being staged media events mostly taking place at their media centre with no electorate (other than journalists) present.

This group of pictures from the media centre shows typical scenes of these staged events: A group of celebrities has been taken under contract to voice their support for Fauzi-Nara. While Nara speaks they are obviously completely bored and don’t pay any attention to what is going on, until the moment they are asked to give their two-lines statement of support for the cameras. What they say is almost the same, uninventive and fairly unconvincing standard phrase. The journalists do not bother to ask questions, because they know the answers are meaningless. Then the stars and starlets get up to show the candidates’ sign no. 1 with the index finger, smile for the photographers and off they go. The media will make a brief news item out of this, saying celebrities X and Y have stated their support for Fauzi and Nara. During the rest of the campaign we will not hear from them again.


The second type of public campaign events by the Fauzi-Nara team took place outside and usually involved cloths-covered pavilions and chairs for the VIPs to sit, a stage, microphones to bridge the distance between the speakers and the voters and a line-up of local leaders, strongmen, party allies etc., all delivering longwinded but mostly empty speeches.

This set of five pictures is a prime example of such an event in a neighborhood in Central Jakarta. First, Nara sits together with several other VIPs on a shaded verandah in the back of the stage, while waiting for his turn to speak. He is hardly visible to the audience assembled in front of the stage, all niecely dressed up in brand new campaign shirts or shirts of ally organisations. When it is his turn he starts with a several minutes long list of acknowledgements towards the present allies. During the remainder of his speech he makes a few jokes, which make the audience laugh and bring a moment of ease into the otherwise tense atmosphere. Apart from these instances the faces of the assembled population remain between disinterest, sceptisism and discomfort.

The reasons for this are – among others – to be found in two little details: In the back of the audience you see several men wearing caps with the writing FBR (Forum Betawi Rempug or Betawi Brotherhood Forum) – a Jakarta organisation between ethnic gang, local mafia, strongmen, employer on the informal market and generally a powerful local actor, particularly in this area of Central Jakarta. Nara holds close ties to FBR and their significant presence in this event sends a clear message who to vote for in this kampung.

Secondly, a banner reading Anak Polisi Pasti Pilih Foke-Nara (the clients and members of the police will vote for Foke-Nara). This banner is more than a mere statement of support from the police – which as a state organisation should remain neutral – it can be read as a “friendly reminder” for the local population to be on the right side, if they want to avoid trouble.


Aksi SAPU (Aksi Satgas Anti Politik Uang) or Action Task Force against Money Politics perfectly merges the two campaign event types mostly used by Foke and Nara: staged media event combined with a “show of force” directed at the electorate, while at the same time making sure to keep a distance from them – both socially and physically.

This time the purpose is the declaration of a task force against the use of money politics in the campaign. As usual, it involves a large array of allies from various parties and other supporting organisations of Foke and Nara. The action is meant to counter the manyfold accusations against the team, exactly because of their widespread use of money politics.

Again, a cloths-veiled pavilion is set up in the background for the VIPs to be seated in the shadow of the burning sun. A line-up of speakers gives their obligatory recitations of support and condemnations of money politics, while standing on a small podest at a large distance from the assembled population – but directly in front of Tugu Proklamasi – the momument commemorating the declaration of independence, complete with the statues of the founding fathers of the Indonesian nation Soekarno and Hatta. Only the press is allowed to come a little closer to take pictures.

After Nara’s speech the whole press is called closer to take the key picture: central figures from the ally groups, all men in the prime of life, well nurtured, several sporting expensive watches and gold or diamond clad seal rings, and wearing sunglasses so you cannot see their eyes. On top of this they wear white caps and shirts with the “Task Force Anti Money Politics” emblem – after this event you will not hear about this task force again. Instead of posing with the campaign sign of one finger (for ballot no. 1), they show a typical strongman guesture with their fist raised right into the cameras, conveying a picture open to interpretation.


In their largest event towards the end of the first election round the main candidate Fauzi Bowo attended a public campaign event for the first time.

Again, this event combines typical features of their campaign style: The obligatory comfortable sitting area for VIPs. A few celebrities advertised on the huge stage-spanning banner in the background; most notably Rhoma Irama, a famous singer and Muslim conservative, who should spark an outcry of protest a few weeks later, when he preeches in a Jakarta mosque that Muslims should not accept to have a non-Muslim leader. Here he is greeting Fauzi Bowo after he finished the performance with his band. Then, again, there follows the range of prominent speakers, this time quite high ranking party officials such as Anas Urbaningrum (at the time still Chairman of the Democrat Party, recently he had to step back because of large scale corruption allegations); Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono (son of the current president, Secretary General of the Demokrat Party, Vice Chairman of a sub-section in the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, until recently Member of Parliament); Wiranto (former military General infamous for being Commander of the Indonesian military during the last months of Soeharto’s dictatorship, former and future presidential candidate), and Sutiyoso (Governor of Jakarta before Fauzi Bowo and one of his sharp critics until he suddenly changed his mind half-way through the first campaign phase).

Interestingly, a few hundred supporters get squezed into the small space directly in front of the stage and directly in front of the media’s cameras, behind them a wall of large party flags and banners. In the videos and photos that will be used in official campaign material later on this looks like a sea of many thousands of supporters, while in reality behind the flags were mostly not more than a few dozen dispersed people. You can see the results of this in several brief scenes in the camaign video entitled Foke-Nara INSYA ALLAH Nomor 1 untuk 1 Putaran, which is displayed in the video section further below. This video shows many scenes filmed during this particular event. In line with this portrayal was the suspiciously equal “estimation” of all members on the campaign team claiming there were about 50.000 supporters present. My personal guess would be somewhere around 10.000.


Religion as well as ethnicity played a major role in the election campaigns of both teams. Having said that, there was a huge difference in how voters were attempted to be mobilised along those lines.

Jokowi is a moderate Javanese Muslim from the area Central Java. His running mate Basuki is a pious Christian of Chinese descent, originally stemming from an Indonesian archipelago far away from Jakarta (Kepulauan Bangka Belitung). The opposing Fauzi and Nara are both Muslims and originate from the local Jakarta ethnicity Betawi, which has a reputation for being rather conservative, compared to the more syncretistic traditional Javanese Islam. Therefore, it may seem natural that Foke-Nara were trying to attack this perceived weak spot of Jokowi-Basuki as not being “sons of the soil” (putra daerah) of Jakarta and not representing the religious stream of the local ethnicity.

However, this calculation neglected several important facts: Jakarta has a Muslim majority population of about 85 %, but with more than 10 % also a relatively large Christian population, mostly from the Chinese Indonesian minority (the term Chinese in this context refers to Indonesian nationals of Chinese ethnic descent, whose families mostly have been living in Indonesia for many generations). With an estimated 7 % – 10 % the Chinese hold a significant share of the Jakarta electorate. Furthermore, the local ethnicity Betawi has been strongly marginalized in Jakarta and today only makes up less than 30 % of the population. By far the largest voting block comes from the approximately 40 % of Javanese, who mostly follow the rather moderate form of traditional Javanese Islam.

Jokowi and Basuki understood how to take advantage from those figures. Generally the two performed on a platform against racial or religious discrimination, but this does not mean that they abstained from using racial or religious sentiments for their campaign purposes.


Rather silently and not very visible to the media or larger public Basuki ran an enormously successful underground campaign among Chinese and Christians, gaining the team remarkable 100% of the Chinese vote in the first election round and about 93% in the second. In public, however, the team was careful not to make his Christian belief a topic of debate, but rather countered the attacks against him by portraying Jokowi and Basuki as candidates for all religions and ethnicities in Jakarta. Meanwhile Jokowi devoted his evenings to tour through the Muslim communities of Jakarta and eat and talk with local Muslim leaders to portray himself in the media as a pious but moderate Muslim man.

During the fasting month of Ramadhan just after the first election round, he spontaneously made a small Hadj to Mekka, which was widely reported about. Ramadhan greeting cards with photographs from this Hadj were distributed among the population to be send to friends and relatives.

In these and similar ways they efficiently managed to counter the aggressive negative campaigning by Foke and Nara, who were trying to mobilize anti-Chinese sentiments and conservative Muslim ideas discriminating against other religious groups. Finally, Jokowi-Basuki even garnered about 48 % of the Muslim vote, drawing almost even with Fauzi and Nara among this voting block.


The term black campaigning (kampayne hitam) describes the use of discriminatory, illegal, or generally morally doubtful campaign strategies, such as defamation, personal attacks, spreading of lies etc.

Both campaign teams were accused of using black campaigning, however the attacks carried out by the team Foke-Nara were rather obvious, widespread and often particularly nasty. It was a major part of their campaign strategy, in particular in the second, more aggressive election round. Discussing the high risk such a strategy brings along, a team member even confessed “We know that it can backfire, but what shall we do? We have no alternative.” (confidential interview Jakarta, July 2012).

Hence, in the second election round the black campaigning was brought to full force. Regularly pamphlets against Jokowi or Basuki were spread in the city. In conservative mosques hate sermons against both candidates were to be heard frequently. The smear campaigns also spread online via the social media, most notably twitter. Both teams had hired groups of young people to fight the social media war for them. In Fauzi’s team, for instance, a group of 20-30 students assembled every evening throughout the second election round to follow a black campaign strategy specifically designed for the web: The messages were to be spread via one central twitter account, two “offspring” accounts (akun anakan) with a designated use of “blunt and open language” and another 400 minor twitter accounts, each student being responsible for administering 20 of those. These 400 accounts were to be used to retweet the messages of the first three accounts and counter other twitter users backfiring at them. Each student earned about 15 US $ per night. This went on for approximately one to two months during the second election round and the number of accounts was raised throughout this time to become about 600.

Among other things, the students were told to portray Jokowi as a tool for the 2014 presidential election bids of the party leaders Megawati and Prabowo; at the same time they should spread fear about Chinese vice candidate Basuki becoming Jakarta’s Governor in 2014, when Jokowi might run for presidential office himself; in a particularly impudent statement it was said that behind Jokowi-Basuki would be a hidden agenda of PKI (PKI is the former Indonesian communist party, destroyed in bloody massacres 1965/66, which brought dictator Soeharto to power; Communism is forbidden ever since and PKI does not exist anymore). After a series of fires in Jakarta’s slum areas the team of Jokowi and Basuki raised allegations against Fauzi-Nara of being behind these incidents, as the fires allegedly occurred in Jokowi’s strong support areas. The twitter team of Foke-Nara then was responsible for countering this attack by simply pointing the finger in the other direction: Jokowi and Basuki themselves would have created those incidents in order to defame Fauzi Bowo.

Interestingly, the teams usually tried to portray their defamations and allegations as “objective facts” supported by “evidence”. This can be nicely seen in the Anti-Jokowi flyer displayed here. The content of the flyer is translated in the separate document below.


In the early morning hours of the last day of campaigning before the final election supporters of both teams assemble at Bundaran HI, the large central roundabout and landmark in Central Jakarta. All of a sudden the campaign song of Jokowi and Basuki starts to play really loud. A small group of dancers performs a choreography telling the story of the campaign song. After 3 minutes of their performance the audience of about 3500 people suddenly starts to join in the dancing and pull off their jackets and shirts, revealing the iconic checkered campaign shirt of Jokowi and Basuki below. The song plays over and over again and the masses keep dancing, celebrating their candidates, who had just arrived at the scene.

This Flashmob had been organised during the previous two weeks via the social media. Somehow the organisers managed to get several thousand supporters informed and prepared for the performance, while keeping it a relatively well-kept secret. The opposing team did not know about this in advance, neither did many of the journalists covering the campaign events. This being said, it was of course made sure, that enough press, especially TV, was gathered in the right places to get good shots of what was going on. The event immediately went viral over the web, and TV stations broadcasted it over and over again for the whole day. (In the video section below you can see a video of this event and read an English translation of the song’s lyrics).

Therewith, it marked the peak of Jokowi’s and Basuki’s election campaign and sent a final key message to voters: Campaigning and politics can be done in a creative and positive way AND to make this work you should get involved and participate voluntarily to support who or what you believe in.

As if to provide a final counter evidence supporters of Fauzi Bowo and Nachrowi Ramli went around distributing flyers with anti-Chinese hate speeches directed against Basuki right at the same time and place (in the less crowded background of the photograph to the left).


Loosing the entire Chinese vote of the first election round to Jokowi-Basuki came as a shock to the team of Fauzi and Nara. Despite their aggressive anti-Chinese rhetoric no one had expected this. At least the rich and influential Chinese business community had been expected to be on the side of Fauzi Bowo.

Despite this defeat the anti-Chinese mobilisation grew even more aggressive in the second election round, as it was a crucial element to their dominant campaign strategy: the intensification of negative and black campaigning in order to weaken the enormously positive image of Jokowi and Basuki.

This type of campaigning was mostly aimed at a rather poor and uneducated Muslim electorate and based on widespread anti-Chinese stereotypes such as the corrupt and rich Chinese entrepreneur. It also built on a taboo from Soeharto times (Indonesia’s authoritarian leader from 1965 to 1998), stipulating that Chinese Indonesians cannot be in politics. This was paired with a radical Islamic demand not to accept a non-Muslim leader.

However, this does not mean that Fauzi Bowo and Nachrowi Ramli would be anti-Chinese, Muslim fundamentalist radicals. This approach certainly needs to be regarded as a tool in the face of lacking alternatives. Five years earlier during his first election into office Fauzi Bowo himself campaigned on an open and pluralist platform in order to counter his only rival – a Muslim hardliner.

In this context it also needs to be seen that the educated Chinese community of Jakarta was expected to dismiss this black campaigning as mere election rhetoric and not perceive it as a real threat. Accordingly, in this picture you see Fauzi Bowo on one of the last nights of campaigning before the final and determining election: He speaks in front of several hundred rich Chinese Indonesians assembled in a luxury Chinese club in the Chinese-dominated area of Glodok.

He stands at a distance of about 50 m even to the first row, alone, on a huge and empty stage. As forlorn as he seems up there, as forlorn was his attempt to gloss over the public discrimination in the face of the Chinese community: Five days later at least 93 % of Jakarta’s Chinese Indonesians voted against Fauzi Bowo a second time.


Of course the citizens of Jakarta did not solely get soaked up in campaign activities for one candidate or another. Many NGO’s from Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), over the Independent Committee for Election Monitoring (KIPP Komite Independen Pemantau Pemilu) to the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem Perkumpulan Untuk Pemilu dan Demokrasi) were active in observing the ongoing process. They monitored the work of the local election commission (KPUD) and the state-directed committee for election supervision (PANWAS) and reported critically to the media, when necessary. They organized numerous political debates for the public, held trainings for the municipalities’ administrative staff involved in the election process, and put large efforts into voter education.

One prime example of their efforts is a public awareness campaign organised and supported by a number of local, national and international NGOs in cooperation with several groups of Jakarta’s street artists. In a number of strategic places in the city graffities addressing election related problems were put up under the title Street Art Peduli Pilkada Jakarta (Street Art Care About Jakarta’s Local Election). The three examples in the photographs from Central Jakarta read:

Vote carefully, so you don’t regret it later.

Don’t you bribe the citizens with that money to vote for you.

The third example is difficult to interpret correctly as it contains several double meanings. It was not included in a digital street art catalogue along with the other pictures. Quite likely this is because both depicted figures wear traditional Betawi clothing and the traditional Muslim headcover peci, the figure to the left has some resemblance with Fauzi Bowo. Both symbolism and text contain references to Satan. The sentence in the bottom reads “Together, let’s destroy Jakarta!!!”. The combination of these details seems rather radical and not quite in line with the ambition of the project to use art as an educational tool against the negative excesses of the campaigns.

Serrum – an art forum dedicated to use art as educational tool and main organiser of this street art campaign – kindly sent us their digital catalogue containing the remaining street art pieces. Previously this catalogue had also been exhibited online on Serrum’s website Now you can view the pdf document here:

Catalogue Street Art Peduli Pilkada Jakarta


In the following campaign videos you can get a final impression of how contrasting the approaches towards these two campaigns really were.

The first video by the Indonesian band Cameo Project is an adaption of the hit song “What makes you beautiful” by British boy band One Direction. The song was already highly popular in Jakarta at the time of the campaign. Cameo Project then rewrote the lyrics to tell about the problems of Jakarta and their hope in the candidates Jokowi and Basuki to overcome these. The music video depicts the narrative of the song. The story goes that the band had done this voluntarily and on their own initiative. Only after the song had become famous the campaign team started to officially use it for their purposes. This version of the YouTube video features English subtitles, which underlines that it was even successful enough to obtain some international interest. You can also read both the Indonesian lyrics and their English translation here:

It is the same song that was used for the flashmob performed by about 3.500 supporters of Jokowi and Basuki on the last day of campaigning, described earlier on in this article.

Following the initial success of this song, the campaign team also produced a short TV spot, in which Jokowi and Basuki perform together with Cameo Project, who are singing one of the campaign slogans Jakarta Baru, Harapan Baru, Wajah Baru (New Jakarta, New Hope, New Faces).

Again, the most widely spread campaign videos of Fauzi Bowo and Nachowi Ramli revealed a quite different picture. In the one-minute TV spot Jakarta Masa Depan (The Future Jakarta) you can witness a very professional and expensive animation of what a future Jakarta under Fauzi Bowo would look like. On the last day of campaigning (at the same time with Jokowi’s Flashmob and in parallel with handing out anti-Chinese campaign flyers), the team of Fauzi gave out DVDs with a more than 20!-minutes long version of this supermodern, extravagant, utopian and highly expensive vision of Jakarta.

The videos entitled Foke-Nara INSYA ALLAH Nomor 1 untuk 1 Putaran and Fauzi Bowo Nachrowi Bersatu Jakarta Indon.Subs also serve as typical examples of Fauzi Bowo’s campaign spots. All exactly one minute long, they were designed as costly TV spots, not as low-cost social media virus. And they bear the handwriting of one of Indonesia’s most successful advertisement gurus / new political marketing experts – Ipang Wahid. As mentioned earlier on, in the first of those two videos you mostly see scenes skillfully cut together from the largest campaign event of the first election round in order to create the impression of large crowds of supporters. However, both videos are generally rather similar in terms of music and imagery: they both contain passages where the Fauzi is speaking in a soft and friendly voice; they both contain references towards Allah in the song lyrics; they both contain images of a united Jakarta population living happily together and celebrating their candidates Fauzi and Nara. These videos were specifically designed to counter the negative image of Fauzi Bowo as an arrogant, distant and stiff person, short tempered, impatient, unfriendly and rarely smiling.

Ironically, their professional outlook might have partly worked against their very purpose, if you compare them with another campaign video by Jokowi-Basuki. In Bukan Putera Dewa (Not the Son of a God) both the lyrics and the imagery portray Jokowi with the humbleness and unpretentiousness, he is famous for. Most of the scenes are taken from “real” campaign events, meaning they were not shot specifically for this video. Generally, they appear to be more genuine and less constructed in direct comparison with Fauzi’s videos. The technically much less sophisticated filming and cutting techniques actually underscore the message meant to be send.

Looking back into Fauzi Bowo’s videos, they seem neither humble nor completely authentic, not least because of their polished, professional style.


By now you might have wondered what all of this costs. Just to provide you with a brief insight, in the last two pictures you can see the summary page of the two teams’ official campaign budget reports. These legally required budget reports only need to cover the two-weeks official campaign phase during the first election round. The law does not explicitly require a campaign budget report for the second election round.

Hence, these figures cover about two weeks of legal campaign expenses for each team. The figure for Jokowi-Basuki reaches 16,089,431,757 IDR (approx. 1.7 million US$ at the time of campaigning). The figure for Fauzi-Nara reaches 61,874,182,486 IDR (approx. 6.5 million US$ at the time of campaigning). They both do not include any expenses during the months leading up to this short official campaign phase directly ahead of the election on 11th July 2012 – let alone for the more than two months to follow before the second election on 20th September.

Moreover, these figures only cover expenses directly related to campaign activities (such as stage events, face-to-face campaigning, TV debates) or campaign material (advertisements in print media, TV and radio, posters, stickers, shirts etc.). They do not cover any service-related expenses, such as payments for any of the dozens of official campaign team members involved full-time for several months, or the expensive services provided by the numerous political consulting and survey companies in the field. Needless to say they do not cover any of the illegal or “grey area” campaign expenses, such as for vote-buying, “motivational encouragement” to make the members of the nominating parties go out and do their work as foot soldiers of the campaign, getting parties and other organisations or celebrities to support the candidate in the first place, financial or logistical support for any of the hundreds of volunteer networks mushrooming across the city, bribing influential newspaper editors to give a final touch to the articles, paying journalists to provide insider information, financing the black campaigning in the social media, and so on and so forth.


Now, what do these two election campaigns and their results tell us about the state and the future of Indonesian politics?

The fact that Fauzi-Nara still obtained 46.18% in the second election round – under different circumstances a quite respectable result – suggests that traditional strongman politics still work very well, particularly if there is simply no convincing and strong enough alternative candidate to challenge this kind of politics and campaigning.

However, Jokowi’s success with his campaign style (and his previous performance as Mayor of Solo) has already turned out to be much more than just a one hit wonder of one electoral competition. The “phenomenon Jokowi” – as it is called in Indonesia by now – has triggered the imitation of parts of his campaign style all across Indonesia. Candidates even go as far to try to portray themselves as the Jokowi of regency X or Y. The Indonesian term merakyat (to mingle with the common people) has almost become synonymous with him. For many months already, he is heading in nationwide surveys for next year’s upcoming presidential election. His own and even rival parties, who had been attacking him until recently, now slowly open up to the idea of nominating him as their presidential candidate. At the moment it merely seems a matter of strategic timing when his candidacy will be announced.

If he will really run, his chances of winning are very high, because with his approach Joko Widodo hits the nerve of a population that is tired of being treated as “floating mass” – the passive subjects of the state’s agency – something which has not fundamentally changed with Indonesian democratisation 15 years ago. If he succeeds to transform his campaign style into realpolitik, of course, is another matter and needs to be discussed elsewhere.


By Vera Altmeyer, Associated PhD Student, NIAS.

I would like to thank my colleagues at NIAS, who not only sparked the idea for this exhibition, but have also been enormously supportive throughout my research process and preparation of this exhibition. NIAS and NIAS Linc are also the sponsors of the physical exhibition accompanying this online version at the Faculty Library of Social Sciences, University of Copenhagen, Gothergade 140, 1123 Copenhagen K, room 01-1-11. It will run from 30. May to 31. August 2013.

Vera Altmeyer is PhD candidate at the University of Hamburg, Germany and associated PhD candidate at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS), Denmark.

For her PhD project she focuses on election campaigns as the core arena of political power contestation in a democracy. The research aims to investigate how recent changes of institutiones and actors involved in campaigning influence the power relations between key actors in the national and local political sphere of Indonesia. More broadly it should also be considered how this affects the wider political economy behind election campaigns and ultimately impacts on the democratisation process of the country.

For this particular case study Vera has done field research from May to October 2012. All the photographs shown in this article are taken by the author. Copyright belongs to Vera Altmeyer and if you want to use any of the pictures please contact her at

Of Lions and Men: Pakistani Elections and Feline Symbolism

This spring six museums in Copenhagen exhibit collections of art and handicraft depicting flowers. As a visitor to the museum called Davids Samling – which houses the most exquisite collection of Islamic art in Denmark – one learns that in the Indian subcontinent prior to 1707 flowers were often depicted naturalistically. However, when in that year Aurangzeb ascended the Peacock Throne, a more stylistic representation of flowers came into vogue. Thus we are given to understand that when strict Islamic beliefs began to assert themselves, artists moved away from nature and closer to a standardized ideal. The museum also notes the exception that proves the rule: Poisonous plants continued to be depicted naturalistically even in times of Islamic reassertion.

But does this pendulum swings theory of art history set between the stern Islamic renderings of the living world and naturalistic renderings of the same world tell the whole story? Perhaps this generalization should be supplemented to include a third rendering of nature, which is neither stylized, nor naturalistic.  The recent elections in Pakistan would seem to indicate that even in the Land of the Pure, baroque and quasi-naturalistic forms of art asserted themselves in the space between science and religion.

This was evident in the campaign of Nawaz Sharif, the winner of the elections.  Both before and after the elections, Nawaz Sharif was virtually lionized as his party and followers played heavily on royal symbolism equating their chosen leader with the top predator of the natural world, i.e. the lion.  Equipped with the “fair, unused hand[s] of a wealthy Kashmiri-Punjabi” (Sethi 2013), the chubby rotund Nawaz Sharif hardly resembles a clawed feline predator. Nevertheless, in the streets of Pakistan and at party meetings his followers greeted him holding aloft lion toys or they painted themselves and their vehicles in feline stripes to give substance to their collective representation. Those fortunate enough to be invited to Nawaz Sharif’s garish palatial Punjabi home in Raiwind close to Lahore were treated to the sight of two stuffed lions guarding the staircase. The lions (imported from Zimbabwe) serve as the party symbol, and – said the granddaughter – as symbols of Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, whose term as Chief Minister of Punjab helped Nawaz secure an electoral victory (Sethi 2013).

Lions were not the only predators with which the Sharif brothers were equalized. Tigers and leopards, too, were indiscriminately held forth as the symbol of the brothers and their party. All of this would seem to be an instance of a popular political culture throwing Islamic cautions to the winds by neglecting the call for stylization, while also not heeding the scientific call for the accurate identification and portrayal of the species found in nature. Tigers, lions and leopards are all big cats and top predators. As such they seem to be equally good to think with and hence they are evoked interchangeably in popular political imagination. Tellingly, the word sher is used for two of these species, i.e. for the lion and for the tiger (Madsen 2007). Altogether, the feline symbolism that infused the election campaigns exemplifies the powerful ways in which nature is widely used as a metaphor for human society (Madsen 2004-5).

The Pakistan Muslim League (N) won a resounding victory securing 35% of the votes and winning 45% of the seats in the National Assembly. In Punjab the party gained 49% of the vote securing an impressive 78% of the seats. Had not Imran Khan (the cricketer whose luxuriant mane more obviously entitles him to be considered the true lion of men) been around to challenge Nawaz and Shahbaz, the Muslim League might have won 60% of the votes in Punjab ( 2013).

For sure, the lions had it in the worlds of the humans, but that did not mean that the real lions and tigers had a field day. During the election campaign, the Muslim League fielded a striking female white tiger. The animal was securely chained, placed on a vehicle and repeatedly paraded around as part of the election campaign. Nawaz Sharif’s own daughter was one of the persons engaging in this stunt. The party had apparently rented the white tiger from “a former PML(N) MNA, Mian Marghoob, who owns a large farm in Mehmood Booti in Lahore” (Khan 2013). This piece of symbolic politics stretched the natural world to the limit. Just before the election day, the tiger was reported to have died, but soon after this tragic-comic news was broadcast, it was contradicted by reports to the effect that the tiger was alive and well and had only suffered a minor ailment for which it had been successfully treated.  As of May 15, it was still not certain whether the animal had survived, but it seemed certain that a legal case had already been filed in the Lahore High Court by animal rights activist and actor Faryal Gauhar against the Muslim League. Wrote Rina Saeed Khan:

“The first hearing has taken place already and the next hearing will take place at the Green Bench in Lahore headed by Justice Mansoor Ali Shah tomorrow. The complainant would like to see a ban on displaying big cats in rallies and improvements in private facility inspections. The Election Commission of Pakistan will be called as well since they are the ones who agreed to awarding the “sher” as an election symbol in the first place” (Khan 2013).

Pakistani is still home to leopards and snow leopards in small numbers, but both tigers and lions are extinct. The only place on the Indian subcontinent where the Asiatic lion survives is the Gir forest in the state of Gujarat (Madsen 2007). The lion population in Gujarat is currently healthy, but in order to ensure its long-term survival it was proposed years ago to move some of the lions from Gir to Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh as a fallback option in case the Gujarat population would come under threat. This plan was resisted by people about to be affected by the proposed translocation. They did not fancy lions in their area. However, resistance proved fruitless and the Madhya Pradesh government has eventually managed to relocate 1,545 families from 24 villages in the Kuno-Palpur wildlife sanctuary to make room for the lions. This human hurdle overcome, one might expect that the translocation of lions would be carried out.  But lo and behold! The Gujarat government did not want to let go of the lions which they consider theirs:

“The Gujarat government argued that the lions in Gir were doing well, they were protected, they had enough food and therefore there was no need for relocation. It went further by arguing that even though it was reasonable to conclude that restricting  an endangered species to one area could lead to its extinction and that the translocation site in MP was a sound choice, the lions of Gujarat were like family and hence decisions had to go beyond ‘scientific reasoning’ . Chief Minister Narendra Modi had personally put his heft behind this argument” (Economic and Political Weekly 2013)

The case came up in the Supreme Court of India which quashed the “anthropocentric” argument in favor of an “eco-centric” argument delinking the protection of lions from the particular site and people who had hitherto allowed them to survive. The court found that the lions were Asiatic lions, not Gujarati lions. The Gujaratis may well claim that they do have a special relation to the lions. After all, nowhere else has the Asiatic lion (which differs only a little from the African subspecies) been allowed to survive (Madsen 2007). But this argument did not persuade the court which ruled in favor of translocation based on scientific and universalistic reasoning, rather than in favor of status quo based on ethnic and historical reasoning.

Now that Nawaz Sharif has already been invited to India in the latest of umpteen attempts to mend the fences between the hostile South Asian neighbors, one might suggest that some lions be relocated to Pakistan, too.  Would it not behoove for India’s likely future Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an act of public diplomacy to let himself be cast in the role of the magnanimous dispenser of symbolic political capital, and would it not be wise for Nawaz Sharif to supplement his human stock of uncontrollable jihadist wards with a few free-roaming feline wards less likely to turn against him?

Stig Toft Madsen

Senior Research Fellow, NIAS


Dawn.Com, “The Election Score”, 16 May 2013,

Economic and Political Weekly, “The Lions in Gujarat. The Supreme Court judgment marks a welcome move away from anthropocentrism”, Editorial, 18 May 2013, p. 8

Khan, Rina Saeed, “The mysterious case of the white tigress”, 15 May 2013, Dawn News,

Madsen, Stig Toft, “Musharraf lets in the lions”, Asiaportal, 29 November 2007,

Madsen, Stig Toft, 2004-5, “Narratives of Nature as Metaphors of Society”, Folk 46/47: 121-141

Sethi, Mira, “Watch the throne: Nawaz Sharif on the cusp of power”, 1 April 2013, Caravan,

May 23, 2013

Japanese politics at the crossroads

At the time of writing, there is every sign that Japanese politics is at an historical crossroads. In December 2012 the Japanese electorate voted the conservative Liberal Democratic Party back to power after a three-year break from 2009. Before then, the LDP had governed the country almost uninterruptedly since the onset of the Cold War. With the help of a highly capable bureaucracy, the party presided over the country’s rapid economic recovery and consequent wealth creation in the 1960s and 1970s. Its long reign, however, has also created a rigid and inward-looking political culture, and a self-serving political class that is unwilling to carry out difficult but necessary reforms if they are deemed to threaten its vested interests. A policy that favours big business, ad-hoc pump-priming measures using public works projects, and various measures that hinder women’s fuller participation in work outside the home, are just three examples of this culture.

In Japan there was a real sense of euphoria when the party was ousted by the opposition Democratic Party three and a half years ago. However, a series of blunders, but also tough policies (such as an increase in the consumption tax, which some specialists asserted was necessary in order to balance the national budget) made the Democratic Party extremely unpopular, and the party was resoundingly defeated by the LDP in the general election of 2012. Backed by its simple majority in the House of Representatives, the LDP is now pursuing an aggressive monetary and fiscal policy, which some pundits regard as ‘a gamble’, and also, more alarmingly, flexing its muscles to revise the pacifist Constitution under the leadership of the hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Nationalistic rhetoric and provoking behaviour by some members of the party, such as their regular ceremonial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo which commemorates the Japanese war dead, are aggravating its already strained bilateral relationships with China and Korea.

Yakusuni shrine

Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. On 23 April 2013, 168 Japanese lawmakers including three high-ranking cabinet ministers visited the controversial shrine to offer prayers for the country’s war dead. Picture by dtpancio

This is happening against the backdrop of a myriad of domestic problems that the country now faces. These include the mounting national debt, the rapidly aging population, and the decline of local industry. All have been aggravated by the recent natural and man-made disasters, the Great Tohoku Earthquake and the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster in 2011, and come with international challenges, such as the rise of China and Korea as strong economic rivals amid unsettled regional security.

Some observers point to a general sense of malaise in today’s Japan, ‘a loss of hope’ as the Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe described it nearly two decades ago, a society which is still wealthy but unsure about its place and destiny. A most worrying sign is that many young people have become even more inward-looking and apolitical than previous generations.

Some fear that the LDP’s aggressive spending policy and its populist and nationalistic rhetoric may be a sign of the party’s reluctance to tackle more fundamental questions. They fear that under the veneer of the determined posture of the party lies the working of an opportunistic and populist group, who are trying to preserve the old-style of politics, an economics-centred, big-business-friendly modern-day policy of ‘Fukoku Kyohei’ (Rich Nation and Strong Army), and to preserve the monopoly of power of a self-elected few. More generous observers might say that they cannot identify persuasive alternatives, so stick to familiar policies on a larger scale. Either way, the LDP’s nationalistic posture may be dangerous, as it may work to agitate and manipulate an already vulnerable population. And if it lasts too long, this belligerent policy is also detrimental to Japan’s further transformation into a fully participatory democracy and to a more open and cosmopolitan society.

At the moment, Japan resembles a boat drifting in a rough sea without a competent helmsman, an image that may conjure up the Japan of the late 1920s and 1930s for more pessimistic observers.

And yet the resources of Japanese civic life seem to remain intact. There are many signs of a more assertive citizens’ politics, as demonstrated by the large numbers who travelled to the quake-hit areas to help recovery operations, and by citizens’ anti-nuclear movements in the wake of the Fukushima Disaster. Shortly after the disaster struck, a group of citizens began to stage regular anti-nuclear demonstrations on Fridays in front of the Prime Minister’s Official Residence; these continue to this day. More importantly the Japanese judiciary, the heart of the Japanese politico-legal system, which has long been criticised for its inaction, has also begun to produce some noticeable rulings which are more in tune with the spirit of the Bill of Rights. As ever, however, progress here is slow.

At present Japanese democracy is facing one of its hardest tests, which has to be borne by the generations who have no first-hand experience of the major events that have shaped modern Japan, namely the Second World War and its aftermath, to say nothing of the remote, epoch-making, yet still crucial transformations and aspirations of the Meiji period (1868-1912).

At a time of such uncertainty, history is often a useful guide to gauge the present. It is high time to examine Japan’s democratic legacies (it is one of the oldest democracies in Asia) and to measure the strength of its foundations so as to judge where it is heading. What therefore were the major mistakes that the country made in the pre-war years that led it to war? What were the alternative paths that Japan could have taken so as to avoid it? How, in the past, did individuals learn to confront the state, and what principles sustained them in criticising their own government and society?

My forthcoming monograph, Power and Dissent in Imperial Japan , juggles with these questions with a deep concern for the present and future of the country. The Japanese tradition of dissent may also be relevant to other Asian countries which are also pursuing their own democratic futures. The claims of the rule of law, parliamentary politics, and individual rights, are intensely relevant to divided Korea, Burma, and elsewhere, too. The Japanese experience the book tries to recover is full of cautionary tales, but it can also provide inspiration and hope for a better and fairer future, both within and outside Japan.

Hiromi Sasamoto-Collins


BIO DETAILS: Dr Hiromi Sasamoto-Collins is a former lecturer in modern Japanese history at Durham University, and is currently a tutor in Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her monograph, “Power and Dissent in Imperial Japan: Three Forms of Political Engagement“, will be published by NIAS Press in August.

Who can meet the expectations of the majority?



Malaysia’s thirteenth general elections (GE13) will be a battle of the coalitions, pitting the world’s most successful ruling coalition – the 13 party Barisan Nasional (BN/National Front) against the 4 year old, three party Pakatan Rakyat (PR/People’s Pact/People’s Alliance).

It is not easy to categorise the two opposing coalitions and its members as they are disparate, complex, and, with multiple agendas, often fractured. This is primarily the outcome of Malaysia’s recent history. The disparate regions and people that make up Malaysia today are, after all, an artificial construct whose only common denominator was that they were all subject to British Imperial power. A peninsular with 9 Malay kingdoms at the end of Asia’s land mass whose citizens were populated in majority by a polyglot of people from the Malay Archipelago, the Chinese and South Asian subcontinents, with a sprinkling of Arabs, Turks, remnants of past colonialists, various unique groups that were created through inter-marriages, and not to mention the many indigenous peoples aggregated together with two geographical entities on the island of Borneo, that is separated by 800 kilometres of the South China Sea, and whose people have greater cultural affinities with the peoples of the Philippines and Indonesia, and who themselves are disparate in culture, ethnicity and language.

However, all these societies did have one feature in common – feudalism. This was buttressed by British efforts to violently suppress progressive elements in the Malayan polity, preferring instead to hand over power after independence to conservative elements, primarily as a means to protect British interests. The feudalistic nature of these societies gave rise to what has become a very successful model of politics practised by the ruling coalition since the first elections before independence in 1955: Consociational politics, where the elites bargained and struck a deal where each group – first three, then rising to 14, now 13 political parties – had some share of political and economic power under the hegemonic power of the Malay and increasingly Islamised United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). This system has served BN well, chalking up electoral victory after victory at the past 12 general elections.

More importantly, the BN and its predecessor, the Alliance, were able to monopolise power because they were able to forge a ‘syncretism’ in their style of government i.e. governing via a variety of ideological orientations and political practises. The BN was successful not only because of its competent stewardship of the Malaysian economy but mainly because they were able to straddle competing (social, economic and political) interests within their coalition as well as address competing interests outside it by either co-opting them into BN, stifling them through draconian measures or skilfully manipulating these competing interests. The opposition parties and coalitions of the past were not able to successfully mount a challenge to the Alliance and BN partly because the electoral process and system was stacked against them, but also because the opposition parties could never successfully find a way to manage the competing interests that they each represented.

In the past decade or so, especially since the sacking of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and the East Asian Financial Crisis of 1997/98, the BN appears to have lost this unique ability to straddle the competing interests of its members and the communities they represent, while the opposition, led by, ironically, the sacked former Deputy Prime Minister, appears to be increasingly adroit at managing these tensions.

Therefore, one big question at GE13 is how the two coalitions are projecting themselves as true representatives of the people’s wishes, and how they go about addressing the key challenges that Malaysia as a country and Malaysians as a people face, in a way that satisfies the myriad competing interests.

The key reasons for widespread dissatisfaction with the present situation are manifold, but the key issues that both coalitions have to address are the rising living costs, demographic change, rapid urbanisation and increasingly uneasy race-relations.

The BN, in the past, has been very successful with their politics of development and key among these has been the reduction of absolute poverty to below three per cent and shaping Malaysia into a middle income economy by 1994 on the back of a low-cost, export-oriented economic model whilst at the same time creating a Malay middle class, primarily through the expansion of the public sector and government linked corporations (GLCs) jobs that is financed primarily through Malaysia’s revenue from non-renewable resources.

However, this particular model has two unintended effects: widespread relative poverty and high income inequality. The low-cost model has seen wages for 80 per cent of Malaysian households stagnate over the past three decades. These households earn less than RM3,000 (around AUS$ 1,000) a month in a country where the average monthly income is RM4,025 (around AUS$ 1,250). More critically, the bottom 40 per cent of households earn on average RM1,440 a month (around AUS$ 450). Most shockingly, the vast majority (71 per cent) of people in the bottom 40 per cent are bumiputeras – literally sons of the soil, a designation that includes Malays and a range of indigenous groups – despite 40 odd years of affirmative action for this group. Indeed, their well-being is and has been the raison de être of UMNO, the backbone of the ruling coalition.

People have been able to get by in spite of rising living costs, because they have been kept at bay by infusing government funds into basic social services, food staples and a fuel subsidy. The last especially has proven effective, but any attempts to rein in costs have been met by popular resistance as a motorised populace has become addicted to cheap petrol.

There is also a significant demographic change in Malaysia. 71 per cent of Malaysians are under the age of 40 with 34 per cent aged between 20 and 40. They face a major challenge. Malaysia is in a middle income trap and must either develop or procure high quality human capital as a pre-requisite to transition into a high income economy. However, Malaysia’s poor quality education has not prepared them for the necessary challenges of a knowledge intensive economy. International benchmarks and surveys shows that the quality of education in Malaysia, at all levels, is no match to the successful East Asian economies that Malaysia has chosen to emulate. 80 per cent of Malaysia’s labour force has no more than the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM – equivalent to year 10 or O’levels qualifications), and the 57 universities and the more than 500 colleges are producing large numbers of graduates that the Malaysian labour market deems unsuitable or poorly skilled. This in an economy experiencing full employment since the late 1980s, and severe skills shortage since the early 1990s. Ironically, unemployment among graduates was highest. In 2007, graduates accounted for more than one-quarter of those unemployed, while unemployment among new graduates was 24. 1 per cent in 2008. With limited employability, mediocre wages and loans to be repaid, young Malaysian graduates end up saddled with enormous debt. The bloated civil service and GLCs, which are also perceived to be inefficient and a fiscal drag on the economy, are unable to provide the expected middle class jobs for bumiputeras long accustomed to getting them as part of a perceived social contract with UMNO.

However, perhaps ironically, it has been rapid urbanisation, that has brought these once disparate communities closer together. While many urban areas are still stratified by race and class, the sheer density has increased the interaction. 71 per cent of Malaysia is now urban. Only Kelantan, Pahang, Perlis, Sabah and Sarawak have rates or urbanisation below 55 per cent.

Better infrastructure, especially information communication and telecommunications, in urban areas have also provided a platform for dissatisfied Malaysians to hear alternative views and to connect with each other. 65 per cent of Malaysians were using the internet in 2010. As the internet largely remains uncensored, the opposition coalition and civil society movements have used it effectively to mobilise support for their causes. These groups have used social media, technology and the internet to also penetrate into rural areas through free radio, websites, but also the audio-visual recording of government scandals in DVDs, and other forms. While the ruling party has also joined the information technology revolution, the opposition has been quicker and more able to marshal support online despite being out-resourced by the ruling coalition.

These developments, whose impacts were first experienced at the 2008 general election, have impacted the coalitions in different ways, and have prompted different reactions. It appears that the BN continues to rely on its tried and tested race-based, trickle-down economic growth, and welfarist approach to policies while PR sensing that the ground has shifted, appears to focus on class-based and rights-based policies.

The BN possibly believes that it is best to straddle the competing interests among ethnic, religious, cultural and regional groups by addressing their needs individually, while PR appears, in general to address issues more holistically.

In the BN, the president of UMNO and Prime Minister of Malaysia now takes precedence over the other political leaders in the coalition. Different interest groups today, do not go through their “representative” political leaders or parties to seek government support, but approach the Prime Minister directly, who then, channels the support to these communities through the “representative” political parties. This, however, applies only to Peninsular Malaysia, and not in Sabah and Sarawak which have different dynamics.

PR’s approach is markedly different. Although Anwar Ibrahim is the leader of the opposition coalition and is most likely to be the Prime Minister should PR win, several factions in PAS have indicated some misgivings, preferring their own candidate. This suggests a more equal distribution of power in the opposition coalition members. But most significantly, Anwar Ibrahim is the first mainstream Malay politician to persuasively argue for the dismantling of the race-based affirmative action and has committed to it in the PR manifesto. This alone stands in contrast to BN’s continued reliance on continuing and expanding affirmative action for bumiputeras (although the Prime Minister has made contradictory statements on this).

PR also appears to be moving towards depoliticising contentious issue such as education and language issues. While BN has made side payments to vernacular schools on a piece-meal basis, PR have promised to embed these into government budgets should they come into power. While BN has demonstrated inconsistency in its language policy in primary and secondary schools, PR has been consistent in promoting the right of communities to use their preferred language in education in vernacular schools. This was in the context of using English in the teaching of Science and Maths, that former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed introduced, and which has since been reversed succumbing to strong popular protest.

Both coalitions however have resorted to populists strategies. PR’s strategies such as free education, removal of excise duties on cars, etc. all show that they are targeting the young and lower and middle income earners, much like the BN is doing now by handing out cash bonuses to Petronas (the national oil company) workers and through its many 1Malaysia initiatives, one of which provided a cash payment to low income earners to purchase a smartphone.

Handouts and their associated media attention are economic and visual reminders of a party in trouble and a party seemingly still able to resource its mass redistribution of wealth according to the principle of affirmative action and poverty reduction rhetoric. The former has been shown to have benefitted those in power (the now infamous 1 per cent) much more than the majority it is meant to aid. The latter, too, has been critiqued, especially in Sabah and Sarawak where poverty rates remain high.

And yet, BN has maintained a strong showing in polls and a support base that does not wish to change the way Malaysian society, economy or politics is structured. The status quo is highly reassuring for many who have yet much to gain from it as well as those who deeply believe in it. And belief is crucial in a country where mosque sermons are written by politics, ‘race’ is used as an everyday descriptor of ethnic background and ‘class’ is not uttered since the crackdown on the communists in the 1950s and 1960s. Who will Malaysians believe come the next elections? Personal attacks against political leaders has been a mainstay in Malaysian politics and lurid stories abound, backed up by court cases, exposes as well as much rumour, gossip and coffee shop talk.

Malaysia today is not the feudalistic society it once was, but the political is still dominated by communal topics such as race and religion and the need to ‘secure’ both against some unknown and often unnamed threat. Many people are willing to move beyond the politics of fear into a brave new world, but will there be a job, a car, cheap petrol and cheap food for them?

Only after the election will we see.

Greg Lopez is a visiting fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University and the New Mandala’s Malaysia section editor, an academic blog hosted by the College of Asia and the Pacific, also at the Australian National University.

Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a lecturer in Anthropology in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland. He has recently published Modern Muslim Identities with NIAS Press.


This article was previously posted on the New Mandela website