Social Services and Political Islam in Southeast Asia: Two Failures

By Thomas Pepinsky, Cornell University

* This memo was prepared for the “Islamist Social Services” workshop, September 23, 2014. 

Social service delivery is an important component of Islamist party and movement strategies in the Middle East and North Africa. It is also believed to be successful: Not only do parties and movements use social service delivery to build movement and electoral strength, they are also successful in doing so. In the Muslim majority states of Southeast Asia, however, social service delivery is not nearly as important to Islamists, and when employed, it is not as effective. The purpose of this short essay is to offer a Southeast Asianist’s perspective on these differences and to suggest some explanations for the “failures” of partisan social service delivery in Muslim Southeast Asia.

Background: Parties and Movements

The two relevant Southeast Asian country cases are Indonesia and Malaysia.[1] There are a number of Islamist political parties in Indonesia today (there were others prior to 1957). The two key Islamist parties are the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the United Development Party (PPP), which together have about 15 percent of the vote. Another 15 percent goes to the National Awakening Party (PKB) and the National Mandate Party (PAN), two political parties that are rooted in large mass Muslim organizations (Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, respectively). I do not consider either PAN or PKB to be Islamist, however, given their decisive choice not to embrace Islam as their party foundation after 1998.[2] The figure below shows the relative seat shares for Islamic parties, non-Islamic (or “Pancasila-based”) parties, and “Mass Islam”-based parties (PKB and PAN) in the four post-New Order legislative elections.

Pepinsky Fig1


The dominance of non-Islamic parties is clear, as is the relative parity between Islamist and “Mass Islam” parties.

In Malaysia, there is only one Islamist party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). It tends to run in districts with large ethnic Malay majorities (in Malaysia, all Malays are Muslims by law). Moreover, it is most likely to win in heavily Malay districts, which tend to be in the rural northeastern region of peninsular Malaysia. Other Malaysian parties are either ethnically defined, or are multi-ethnic and multi-faith parties based on liberal or social democratic principles. The figure below shows parliamentary seat shares for PAS as well as other opposition parties and for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition for every parliamentary election since 1978.


Pepinsky Fig2

PAS’s fortunes vary by election, and it sometimes (e.g., 1999) finds itself the largest party within Malaysia’s opposition, but PAS’s real threat to the BN at a national scale comes only as part of a multiparty coalition, one that necessarily features broad participation from non-Muslims.

The number of movements and organizations in Indonesia and Malaysia is far greater than the number of parties. The two largest organizations in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, have tens of millions of members each. But although there are historical linkages between NU and PKB, and between Muhammadiyah and PAN, neither mass organization is a political party, nor does either aspire to be.[3] PKS has a movement base. Originally known as PK, it was organized as a cadre-based party from the moment that Indonesia democratized, growing out of Indonesia’s tarbiyah movement and drawing on movement repertoires from the Middle East.[4] PPP has no movement base. It is hard to know how to classify Malaysia’s PAS. Organizationally, PAS resembles PKS in Indonesia with its cadre-based system, but it is worth noting that this is a recent development.[5]

Social Services

With this background on the relevant parties and movements, we can now understand the two failures of social service delivery. There are two important clarifying points to make here. First, social services are very important to organizations like NU and Muhammadiyah. Beyond dakwah and inculcating Islamic and humanistic values, NU is heavily involved in education and strives to promote inclusive development and equality of opportunity.[6] Muhammadiyah, for its part, has a dedicated “Council of Social Services” (Majelis Pelayanan Sosial), and its leaders stress the importance of education, inclusive development, and other social goods.[7] Tens of millions of Indonesians go to NU or Muhammadiyah schools, seek treatment at hospitals and clinics, enjoy basic financial services from their credit cooperatives, and so forth. But such strategies have not translated into political power, either for them as movements or for the parties (PKB and PAN) founded by their leaders. Instead, social service provision is by NU and Muhammadiyah is probably best understood as helping to increase their organizational membership, and complementing their organizational goals of spiritual and social development among Indonesian Muslims.

Second, there are some Islamists in Southeast Asia who do employ social service delivery to win voters and supporters. The prime example is Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). Writes Hamayotsu (2011),

As the party has become involved in competitive and expensive electoral politics, PKS has increasingly emphasized welfare services to recruit and mobilize supporters. The provision of welfare services such as religious schooling and health care was packaged in “Islamic” terms as an essential component of the dakwah movement to build a caring, just society. These comprehensive programs have expanded for the most part in urban areas but also have grown, slowly, in rural areas to expand community networks. Disciplined and adaptable organization was key to developing a range of services and programs while keeping their recipients loyal to the movement. PKS has not only expanded a disciplined, cadre-based party machinery staffed with skilled and dedicated young men and women but has forged strategic coalitions with various Islamic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to expand service operations. Unlike other Islamist movements in the Middle East that cater mainly to a narrow class interest, PKS mechanisms have worked to cut across class boundaries to forge a link between the party elites and the masses.[8]

The last sentence is important: Hamayotsu contrasts PKS’s broad class efforts with “narrow class interest” of Islamists in the Middle East, citing Clark (2004).[9] I am not enough of an expert in the Middle Eastern cases to evaluate this contrast, but I do know that PKS’s party platform stresses inclusive development, just like every other Indonesian political party.[10] It is worth noting, however, that PKS supporters tend to be urban, especially from around Jakarta.

With these two caveats in mind, the failures of social services for Islamists are failures in a relative and narrowly political sense. They are failures not in raw numbers, but in political power: No mass Muslim movement in Indonesia has been as effective in using social services as part of a mass mobilization strategy as was the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) prior to 1965, and Golkar (New Order’s official vehicle for mass organization) under the Suharto regime.[11] Moreover, what successes PK/PKS has had since 1998 have been dwarfed in electoral terms by the appeal of nationalists and populists. To be sure, social service provision has probably helped PKS in district-level and provincial-level races, especially in the greater Jakarta region, but for a party with national ambitions its record in national politics remains disappointing. In Malaysia, only the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party has been truly effective in using social service provision to secure political power on a national scale. PAS’s success – especially in those Malaysian states where it has won state-wide office – is not easily linked to social service provision, but is probably best explained by its consistent ideological message, its deep roots in the rural northeastern Malay states, and its willingness to partner with other reformist parties.

Explaining the two failures of social services in Southeast Asia is not straightforward. Additionally, there may be different explanations for these failures in Indonesia versus Malaysia. But there is one similarity between Indonesia and Malaysia that comprises an important background condition when understanding how and when Islamists uses social services as a mobilizational strategy: successful developmentalism under non-Islamist rule. To highlight this similarity in the broadest possible terms, and to contrast it with the experiences of the Middle East, the figure below plots rolling averages of annual growth in per capita gross domestic product for Indonesia, Malaysia, the developing countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and all middle-income countries. (Data from World Bank 2014.)[12]

Pepinsky Fig3


The critical period for Islamist mobilization in the Middle East was from the 1970s to the 1990s, an era of stagnant development.[13] During the same period, Indonesia and Malaysia were enjoying rapid and robust economic growth – even if that growth ultimately proved to be fragile. The data above show just how exceptional the growth experiences of Indonesia and Malaysia were during this period, relative both to developing countries in the Middle East and North Africa (green line) and relative to all middle income countries (black line). During the early 2000s, Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s growth performance fell to a level comparable to other middle income countries in the MENA region and elsewhere; since then, however, patterns have diverged once again, driven by a further collapse in growth in the MENA region.

As I have recently argued, one consequence of relatively consistent economic growth in Muslim Southeast Asia is that Islamists there cannot access a mobilizational frame based on the failure of non-Islamist regimes to provide material prosperity.[14] As a result, social service provision probably does not have the same mass political appeal there that it does in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, or Yemen. This may help to explain why social service provision has not been widely embraced by Islamists in either Indonesia or Malaysia, and why it has proven relatively unsuccessful as a national project for PKS in Indonesia.

But there are specific dynamics within the broader context of each country that likely matter even more for explaining the political failure of social service provision. I advance these as hypotheses; further research is needed to probe their ability to explain the nuances of these two important cases and also to tease out their comparative implications. In Indonesia, the depoliticization and subordination of NU and Muhammadiyah under the New Order allowed them to build broad infrastructures for social service provision. They could do this because they were not competitors to Golkar. Upon the collapse of the New Order, when the tarbiyah movement entered politics, it confronted a landscape of social service provision that was already densely packed with Islamic social organizations. Indonesians viewed NU and Muhammadiyah as doing good work, and the two groups had no organizational interest in entering politics. PK and PKS would only make political inroads using social service provision as a mobilizational tool in places where NU and Muhammadiyah were relatively ineffective.[15] PPP, the other influential Islamist party in Indonesia, was created to “represent” Islam under the New Order. This freed it from any need to develop deep movement roots or independent organizational capacity, and ensured that it remained subordinate to the New Order political machine. Today, it is a legacy party.

In the Malaysian case, the sheer capaciousness of the Malaysian state and its direct embrace of pro-Malay redistributive policies, mean that social service provision from opposition parties or mass movements is simply not necessary. The close links between Malayness and Islam are important for understanding the Malaysian case, for nearly the entire constituency for an Islamist party or social movement already benefits tangibly from social services provided by the state. In fact, the strategic problem facing PAS is to convince Malays that they will not lose their ethnic privileges under non-BN rule, or alternatively, to convince Malays that they should not want ethnically-based redistributive policy. Neither of those messages would fit easily into a political strategy that uses social service provision to compete politically against what is already a formidable provider of social services.

Concluding Remarks

The benefit of considering the cases of Muslim Southeast Asia in any discussion political Islam and social service provision in the Muslim Middle East is that the Southeast Asian cases remind us that the use of social service provision as a mobilizational strategy for Islamists is neither obvious, nor always effective. Indonesia and Malaysia are not exactly “non-cases” because social services matter in Southeast Asia and some Islamists there do provide them. But they are cases where social service provision does not readily translate into political power, either because Islamists have little incentive to use these strategies or because those providing social services do not seek political power. Theoretically, this discussion highlights the importance of considering party and movement strategies within the context of the broader ecology of political competition and state capacity in Muslim states.

Thomas Pepinsky is an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Government Department at Cornell University. He is the author of Economic Crises and the Breakdown of Authoritarian Regimes: Indonesia and Malaysia in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2009).




[1] Brunei Darussalam is also a Muslim-majority state, but data on Islamism and Islamists there is scarce. As I am unable to comment knowledgeably about this case, I will not address it here.

[2] Pepinsky, Thomas B., R. William Liddle, and Saiful Mujani. 2012. “Testing Islam’s Political Advantage: Evidence from Indonesia.” American Journal of Political Science 56(3), 584-600.

[3] Nahdlatul Ulama was a political party in the 1950s.

[4] Machmudi, Yon. 2006. Islamising Indonesia: The rise of Jemaah Tarbiyah and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). PhD thesis, Faculty of Asian Studies, Australian National University.

p>[5] Noor, Farish. 2003. “Blood, Sweat, and Jihad: The Radicalization of the Political Discourse of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) from 1982 Onwards.” Contemporary Southeast Asia 25(2), 200-232.

[6] See,public-m,static-s,detail-lang,id-ids,1-id,11-t,tujuan+organisasi-.phpx and,public-m,static-s,detail-lang,id-ids,1-id,14-t,lembaga-.phpx, for example.

[7] See and, for example.

[8] Hamayotsu, Kikue. 2011. “The Political Rise of the Prosperous Justice Party in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia.” Asian Survey 51(5), 971-992.

[9] Clark, Janine A. 2004. Islam, Charity, and Activism: Middle-Class Networks and Social Welfare in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[10] See, for example, Partai Keadilan Sejahtera. 2008. Memperjuangkan Masyarakat Madani: Falsafah Dasar Perjuangan dan Platform Kebijakan Pembangungan PK Sejahtera. Jakarta: Majelis Pertimbangan Pusat Partai Keadilan Sejahtera.

[11] The case of PKI is not an exact parallel of the kind of social service provision that NU and Muhammadiyah today engage in, but it was undoubtedly the most consistent advocate for the poorest Indonesians under Sukarno. In mobilizing supporters, the general strategy of the PKI was not to provide services that the state did not provide, but to organize groups (workers, peasants, etc.) to make demands on the state for those services. However, some of the PKI’s tools in doing so—literacy campaigns, for example—can be understood as a kind of non-state provision of public goods. There are, moreover, some examples of actual provision of social services and public goods; see e.g. Hindley, Donald. 1964. The Communist Party of Indonesia, 1951-1963. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. (See 174-176 on peasants and 193-194 on youth).

In the case of Golkar under the New Order, Golkar itself did not provide social services. As the regime’s own party, though, it championed the accomplishments of the state in social service provision, and served as a conduit to official patronage.

[12] World Bank. 2014. World Development Indicators.

[13] Khoury, Philip S. 1983. “Islamic Revivalism and the Crisis of the Secular State in the Arab World,” in Ibrahim, ed., Arab Resources: The Transformation of a Society. London: Croom Helm, 213-36.

[14] Pepinsky, Thomas B. forthcoming. “Political Islam and the Limits of the Indonesian Model.” Taiwan Journal of Democracy.

[15] One important question—beyond the scope of this short essay—is why NU and Muhammadiyah have not sought to capitalize on their organizational strengths for political purposes, and instead maintained an arms-length relationship with PKB and PAN.

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