The 26th Southeast Asian or SEA Games will officially kick off on November 11th in Indonesia, where they are to be co-hosted by Palembang in South Sumatra and Jakarta. Just as in Laos two years ago, and as the auspicious opening date (11/11/11) was chosen to imply, the games are supposed to tell a story of national progress and regional amity. In Indonesia, moreover, organisers consider the event a unique opportunity to reassert the country’s traditional leadership role in ASEAN. But, also as in Laos, these narratives have been displaced by tales of woe. This has been equally true, it seems, in Indonesian- and English-language coverage.

For anyone unfamiliar with the issues, Asia Sentinel provides a terrific summary (reproduced in The Irrawaddy) of the scandal and controversies that have threatened to derail the event. A couple of paragraphs sum up the tone of this and other reporting:

With hardly three weeks [now just one] to go before the Southeast Asian Games are to open in Indonesia, they are turning into the wrong kind of symbol for a country supposedly coming into its own as a regional powerhouse.

Instead of a source of national pride, the games have become a national embarrassment riddled with corruption, delays and mismanagement that has nearly wrecked President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party and brought down a host of other officials and politicians.

At the centre of the controversy has been Democratic Party treasurer, Muhammad Nazaruddin, who is accused of accepting $US3 million in bribes on tenders for the construction of the athlete’s village in Palembang. What has made the whole affair so gripping, and so devastating for the games and many Indonesians, has been the dramatic and public way in which it has played out.

Nazaruddin not only absconded the day before a travel ban was to come into effect, but in 75 days on the run proceeded to make accusations of his own, via Skype and other social media, including some against the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). Then, after being tracked down and arrested in Colombia, he was flown back to Indonesia, at considerable taxpayer expense, by private charter. He then, predictably perhaps, stopped talking all together. Days out from the games the press continues to track every detail of the Nazaruddin case. Having taken flak for allegedly giving Nazaruddin preferential treatment, the KPK says his case will go to trial soon.

The result has been political soap opera of the highest order. The mainstream press, to say nothing of the online world, has thrived on it. If ordinary people had paid little attention to the SEA Games prior to Nazaruddin’s global jaunt, they certainly knew about them afterwards. Since then, moreover, the games have stayed in the news with preliminary prosecutions in relation to the athlete’s village deal and the ongoing drama surrounding Nazaruddin.

Added to this have been more routine problems concerning government funding, the readiness of venues, and – ironically, given the problems associated with the village – the lack of accommodation in Palembang for athletes. According to some reports, Palembang’s hotels are to be used, leaving few beds for visiting spectators. Last minute supplementary plans to use cruise ships to plug the gap have been ridiculed, at home and elsewhere in the region, where the problems had until recently been largely ignored.

What does all this mean? Certainly it is a mess, as the Asia Sentinel article suggested. But there is also much more to it than this. Just as in Laos two years ago, the controversies surrounding the SEA Games speak specifically to the big domestic political issues of the day. In Laos, opposition to aspects of Chinese investment in the country, particularly shady government deals and migrant labour, was brought to life in popular opposition to an opaque land deal brokered by the government in return for Chinese developers building the new National Stadium. In Indonesia, the dramas of the SEA Games embody the anxieties and controversies afflicting the post-1998 political landscape.

Context is critical here. Within Indonesia itself, the country is often considered, for reasons of size and history, the “true leader of ASEAN”. These SEA Games – the first hosted by Indonesia since 1997, when Suharto was still in charge, and coinciding with Indonesia in the chair of ASEAN – were to put “Indonesia back on map” as regional leader. With early plans to share the games among many provinces, this was to be a truly national celebration of the country’s return to form, to use a sporting metaphor, after the calamities of the Asian Financial Crisis and the upheaval of the transition to democracy.

Instead, the games were curtailed to just two provinces, raising questions of why South Sumatra and Jakarta were chosen over other deserving hosts, and the lead-up has been dominated by the athlete’s village imbroglio and delays. Far from rejoicing, the Indonesians I have spoken to question the “ability” and “integrity” of the government to host the SEA Games successfully. More than simply embarrassed, they are proprietarily concerned that the Indonesian government will “fail” – not only in the eyes of the region but in view of Indonesians themselves.

Like the Olympic Games they derive from, the SEA Games, particularly the opening and closing ceremonies, are above all an exercise in spectacle, specifically political spectacle. The spectacle of the event – including its size, rituals, and audio-visual technologies – seeks to construct a regional community, one that also respects and reifies the nations that make it up. From their conspicuous pride of place in the VIP box, or box of honour, the host country’s national leaders watch over the grand ceremonies and the sporting events that follow. All going to plan – even if the reality is always more complex – the splendour of spectacle and athleticism reflects back onto them, simultaneously displaying and augmenting their symbolic power.

Given the scandal, the voracious mainstream media, and booming social media, the theatre of this year’s SEA Games has so far projected a very different political reality: the fragmentary political culture of the post-Suharto era. Since 1998, patron-client relations have, paradoxically, fragmented and intensified parallel to the emergence of neoliberal economic frameworks. As ANU political scientist Ed Aspinall argues, “one illustration of the way that these two seemingly irreconcilable forces fuse in the new Indonesian political economy … is in the proyek, or project” – a self-contained, collaborative and funded activity with designated outcomes and, officially at least, a competitive tendering process.[1] As the proyek has become a ubiquitous element of post-1998 political and economic life, hunting projects (mencari proyek) has become a chief means of hunting patronage, corruption scandals surrounding such deals have become rife, and the KPK has become on eof the country’s highest profile institutions. In the most basic sense, the SEA Games are one such proyek, albeit one that is particularly large, unwieldy, and riddled with controversy.

Ironically, perhaps, the fragmentation of political life, a natural and expected consequence of the transition to democracy, has undermined the leadership and even the moral authority of national leaders. The Asia Sentinel article quotes a poll by the Indonesia Survey Circle finding that only 12 per cent of voters believe today’s politicians are doing better than those who ran the country under Suharto. For Indonesians I have spoken to, the problem is one of strength. SBY is regarded as “weak and indecisive” and thought to “think too much”. This encourages nostalgia for Indonesia’s “strong” leaders of the past, dictators Suharto and Sukarno, who, according to this view, would not have allowed corruption to proliferate, or would have crushed it mercilessly.

The lead-up to the SEA Games, and the theatre that has accompanied it, has thus given expression not simply to Indonesia’s corruption, but more elementally to the country’s perceived deficit of leadership. For a country seeking to reassert its leadership on the regional stage, this is clearly problematic.

Still, a couple of caveats are in order. First, perceptions in Indonesia and elsewhere in the region may differ significantly. Notwithstanding the Asia Sentinel and Irrawaddy reports, the games scandals do not seem to have been overly prominent in regional reporting. For most fans and officials in the region, the most important thing is simply that the SEA Games take place, so that their own teams may compete and, of course, win medals, particularly against erstwhile rivals. The leadership issue, in other words, may principally be a domestic one.

Second, and most obviously, the opening ceremony is still a week away (although the football started yesterday). Two years ago in Laos – and one also recalls various Olympics and Asian Games in this context – the games were largely written off before they began, only to result in a widely heralded success for organisers, the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, and the country as a whole. Time will tell, but the same might still occur for SBY in Palembang and Jakarta.

[Image from official SEA Games website.]

[1] Edward Aspinall, “A Nation in Fragments: Toward Identifying a Deep Architecture of Indonesian Politics”. Paper presented to the Association of Asian Studies Conference, Hawaii, March 2011.