Sunnis, Sukarno and Soccer Pt II

For part I of Sunnis, Sukarno and Soccer, please click here.

It is easy to make the mental leap that Indonesia is “more Muslim” than its sibling Malaysia is. But if that is the case, why are Koranic prayers read at before Football matches in Malaysia and not in Indonesia? The answer perhaps lies in the path to independence of both modern nation states.

It is something of a sour point to the Chinese and Indian Malaysians that Islam, a faith that is entirely foreign to them, has been chosen as their state religion. Yet in a country where ethnicity is a factor that influences your legal rights and civil status, the Chinese and Indian Malaysians are somewhat used to playing second fiddle.

The British shipped their ancestors into their Southeast Asian territories in the 19th century to satisfy an enormous thirst for low-skilled labour. The land we now call Malaysia has therefore been heavily diverse for a solid two hundred years. However, many “Bumiputera” ethnic Malays regarded their Chinese and Indian compatriots as mere guest workers on the Malay Peninsula, as this was how their presence was justified to them by the British at the time. Upon granting independence to the Malayan Federation” as it was originally called, the British therefore undertook a social engineering project that constitutionally prioritised the rights of the ethnic Malays as a quick-fix solution to peace in this new nation.

Malaysian Football culture

Pasir Gudang stadium

In spite of this, in 1963 the Malay Bumiputeras collectively saw themselves as the lower class, often resenting what they perceived to be the greater access to capital of the Chinese merchant middle class. Thus, they had no qualms whatsoever inheriting greater political control in the Malaysian Federation from the British. The complicated relationship between Malaysia’s leading ethnic groups tarnishes domestic politics to this day. The United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) has dominated the political arena for decades, and the de facto faith of the Malays has dominated religious practice in the young federation in a similar way. While practice of other religions is reluctantly permitted, Islam is Malaysia’s official state religion, no questions asked.

It is possible to drink alcohol in Malaysia. You can gamble if you like. One can purchase and use contraceptives, with discretion. But Islamic doctrine influences many aspects of everyday life in Malaysia, including professional Football matches, where a Koranic prayer is read before every single game.

The Republic of Indonesia compensated for the Malaysian Federation‘s relatively peaceful path to independence with outright bloody carnage. Independence was hastily declared in 1945 before it was bitterly fought for over the following 4 years. The British aided the Dutch in their attempts to hold onto their valuable colonies, but to no avail. A Javanese government claimed victory and inherited all former Dutch possessions in Southeast Asia.

Persija fans Persib

Graffiti PSIM Jogjakarta

The curious thing about Indonesia is how young it is as a concept. The name is first believed to have been coined in 1853 by British navigator George Windsor Earl (originally as “Indunesia”) who tried to apply a single label to the 17,000 islands that comprise the nation we know and love today. Somewhat appropriately, the country’s motto is “Unity in Diversity”, given that Indonesia’s size is perhaps only outdone by its diversity. From the fanatically pious peoples of Banda Aceh in the far west to the inhabitants of Papua’s steamy jungles in the far east, the vast range of languages, traditions and ethnicities peppered across this young republic is often a cause for celebration for the extroverted young traveller- but a cause for headaches for governments in Java.

Born in 1901 in Sumatra but a fierce Indonesian nationalist, President Sukarno remains a very popular figure in Indonesia today. The face of the man who spearheaded the Indonesian fight against Dutch rule can be seen on bank notes, in shop windows, on printed t-shirts and on works of graffiti. While his bullish and uncompromising negotiating style did not help make international allies, his tangible charisma made him an idol in Indonesia, though perhaps this has more to do with the relative successes of his administration’s domestic policy and less to do with sheer force of character.


Indonesian fans pyro

The Sukarno administration deliberately and pragmatically chose to use Jakarta as the seat of governance in post-independence Indonesia, thanks to the city’s advanced infrastructure and to Java’s central location in the archipelago. Java, the most populated island in the world, has developed something of a cultural monopoly within Indonesia. Residents of Timor, Sulawesi, Bali, Papua, Flores and Ambon for example are far more familiar with Javanese customs and traditions via the media than the Javanese are with the native culture of these islands respectively. It can often therefore feel to residents of lesser populated but no-less valuable islands of the Republic that the “Javanese ways” are imposed on them by government in Java that only cares about Java. Many would argue that the Dutch empire was simply replaced by a Javanese empire.

The Sukarno administration recognised that they had to play a clever balancing game, holding onto the reins while satisfying its far-flung subjects enough to convince them Indonesian nationality was worth having. A dialect of Malay, the archipelago’s ancient lingua-franca, was elected as the official “Bahasa Indonesia” national language instead of the grammatically complex Javanese. And the “Pancasila”, the five core principles around which the Indonesian constitution was written, explicitly grants religious freedom. If those darn pesky Papuans were going to be discouraged from fighting for their own independence, Islam, the religion synonymous with Java, could not be forced upon them.

Malaysian Football

Persija Curva Nord

The two very different experiences of independence from their respective European colonisers have caused the paths of Malaysia and Indonesia to diverge. Both are very diverse demographically and share much common history, but Malaysia’s top-down social engineering begun by the British but continued by the Malays has facilitated the introduction of Islam as a state religion, whereas Indonesia has had to uphold religious freedom in order to appease its many citizens, even though Islam remains the country’s most practiced religion. At Football matches in the latter, this is most clearly visible in the absence of Koranic prayers which are performed prior to matches in the former.


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