Ma’ruf Amin is a name few Australians would recognize. Before his election last year as Indonesia’s vice-president, the hard-right Islamic cleric showed minimal interest in his southern neighbour. Suddenly he wants Australian aid.
Amin, 77, is the former head of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Council of Islamic clerics) and no friend of moderates. Before elevation to the Palace he was best known for issuing fatwas (religious prohibitions). His targets included pornography, gays, and Muslims greeting Christians with ‘Happy Christmas’.
Amin now says he regrets testifying against Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in a 2017 blasphemy hearing. However the religious elite’s words, along with his presence at a rally of more than 500,000 demanding a trial (and some a lynching), helped put the ethnic-Chinese Christian behind bars for two years.
Ahok was convicted on the basis of a speech where he condemned politicians who deliberately misinterpreted the Koran.
Last year Amin told Australia to butt out of Indonesian affairs and stop protesting the planned early release from jail of terrorism supporter Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the spiritual leader of the 2002 Bali bombers. The domestic objections were so strong the plan was dropped.
Amin, 77, wasn’t President Joko Widodo’s choice for VP, but was dropped in by Jakarta’s political puppet masters. They saw the older man’s presence as the best way to prove the President’s piety. During the bitter election campaign Widodo was accused of being a covert Christian with Chinese ancestry and his late father Noto Mihardjo a Communist. No proof was offered to back the claims.
Amin’s job is widely considered to be Widodo’s shield, his stand-in at minor functions and little else. Meanwhile liberals pray that Widodo, 58, stays healthy. The VP was entirely educated in local Islamic institutions so little exposure to other faiths, cultures, ideas and values.
Suddenly Amin has found another voice, making a submission to a Federal Government aid review headed by International Development Minister Alex Hawke. The VP reportedly said Australia had made a ‘vital contribution’ to poverty reduction. He singled out programs to reduce stunting.
About a third of Indonesia’s toddlers suffer because they aren’t breast-fed and lack access to clean foods and decent toilets. They don’t grow properly and neither do their brains.
Australia already funds a programme called MAMPU ‘to improve the lives of poor women in Indonesia’ and says it’s ‘empowered’ 35,000. Sounds substantial? About 90 million Indonesian women are in what statisticians call the ‘productive group’ aged between 15 and 64.
The problem doesn’t need more foreigners in floppy hats devising databases. Indonesian health and social workers are competent enough and communicate better. They know stunting can be fixed by properly funded education services. Money is not the issue – it’s the distribution that’s flawed.
Three years ago Oxfam, the confederation of 19 charities fighting global poverty, claimed the wealthiest one per cent (all men) own half Indonesia’s total wealth:
‘Indonesia has the sixth worst inequality of wealth in the world. In 2016 the collective wealth of the richest four billionaires was more than the total wealth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population – about 100 million people.
‘The amount of money earned annually from (one man’s) wealth would be sufficient to lift more than 2.8 million Indonesians out of extreme poverty.’
During the past five years Australia’s annual aid to Indonesia has been slashed from AUD 610 to 298 million. The published rationale is to pay for the Pacific ‘step-up’ policy.
This has been defined by PM Scott Morrison as putting the islands ‘front and centre of Australia’s strategic outlook, our foreign policy, our personal connections, including at the highest levels of government’.
Decoded it means: ‘We’ll use aid to stop the Chinese from getting toeholds in Pacific states.’ Super cynics linked the cut to the 2015 executions of Bali Nine drug runners Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, a suggestion denied by all.
Widodo said the chop was Australia’s business and no tears should be shed: ‘That’s their right’.
Amin’s plea is badly timed and curious. It’s been reported that no other nation bothered to submit, probably realising the review will go nowhere.
Hawke’s review team might also think charity should begin at home. Last October the Republic launched a US $212 million (AUD 343 million) international endowment and development fund called Indonesian AID.
The VP will get a polite ‘your submission has been noted’ maybe plus an attachment explaining the Australian budget is no longer in surplus and the Covid-19 ‘stimulus package’ will drain the Treasury of AUD 17.6 billion. So sorry Sir, no extra aid.
Preferably Amin should be told: ‘Crack down on the oligarchs, tighten your tax take and assume responsibility for your problems. That’s your right’.
Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.