Presently, a film entitled “Habibie & Ainun” is being screened all over Indonesia, a rather cloying depiction of the life of the former President of Indonesia, B.J. Habibie and his late wife. Quite co-incidentally, the film’s protagonist was also recently the object of scorn heaped upon by the former Malaysian Information Minister, Zainuddin ‘Zam’ Maidin. Habibie, along with the Malaysian Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, was called a “traitor” to his country and “the dog of imperialism” for reasons that are at the very least factually inaccurate, and at worst, mean-spirited and vile.

Habibie was accused of “breaking up” the country by allowing the East Timor to hold a referendum that eventually led to its independence from Indonesia in 1999; hence, he instantly became the most hated figure in Indonesia and subsequently did not get chosen as the President after the first democratic election in 1999. Habibie as the Reformasi President was an utter failure. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact of the matter is East Timor never really belonged to Indonesia. It was forcibly annexed by Indonesia in December 1975 soon after the abrupt departure of its former colonial master the Portuguese, with the explicit approval of the US government (President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were in Jakarta a day before the East Timor invasion). It was only after decades of protracted armed struggle and international campaigns that East Timor finally managed to secure its sovereignty and freedom.

The (s)election of the first post-authoritarian President in 1999 had nothing to do with Habibie’s perceived mishandling of the East Timor issue. He was not chosen as the President simply due to the shrewd power play within the legislative assembly (MPR) that controversially picked Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) over Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose party had won the most seats. Habibie’s party, Golkar, actually received the second most votes in the election, thus negating any association between the East Timor’s secession and the party’s (by extension, Habibie’s) public image as a “traitor” to the Indonesian nation.

But, of course, Zam Maidin and his ilk are not exactly known to be the purveyors of well-researched facts, or even civilized discourse, for that matter. Their interest in the “facts” is to be solely employed as a political sledgehammer against their enemies, bludgeoning them to a bloody pulp (literally true in the case of Zam Maidin’s partner-in-crime, the former Inspector General of Police, Rahim Noor). Nonetheless, what is interesting here is the injection of xenophobia in their otherwise usual ad hominem attacks against Anwar Ibrahim.

Fear of the big and powerful neighbour Indonesia is nothing new in Malaysia, starting with the Konfrontasi in the early 1960s. Indonesia has always been perceived in Malaysia as a bloody mess, sometimes quite literally. This is especially so in the post-Reformasi era (1998 onwards) when there have been spates of suicide bombings by Jemaah Islamiyyah (JI), religious conflicts in Poso and Ambon, ethnic conflicts in Central and West Kalimantan, church burning incidents in Tangerang and Bekasi, attacks on Ahmadiyah mosques and followers in Cikeusik and Sampang, and not to include, the various oft-organized mass demonstrations in central Jakarta and other major cities.

These incidents have been held up by the democratically averse politicians in Malaysia as an example why “unfettered” freedom as accorded by the “Western-style” democracy is detrimental to the country’s economic development and ethnic harmony (Reformasi bantutkan ekonomi, Utusan Malaysia, 29 February, 2012). Democracy – the one promoted by the “West” – only serves to spread hedonism and anarchism as the supremacy of individual rights and freedom unravels the binding social fabric of traditional cultural and religious values and norms (Kebebasan, hak asasi agama baru dunia, Utusan Malaysia, 31 July, 2011). According to their unimpeachable logic, the status quo i.e. the unbroken rule of Barisan Nasional in Malaysia, is by far the most preferable method of governance lest the country suffers the same fate as its chaotic albeit more democratic and free neighbor.

Another “threat” posed by Indonesia, as construed by the conservative forces in Malaysia, is its culture of religious pluralism and diverse Islamic discourse and ideologies. Indonesia has always been seen by the self-appointed vanguards of Islam in Malaysia as the bastion of liberal Islam and secularism, a practice unbecoming of the populous Muslim country in the world (Bahaya pluralisme agama, Utusan Malaysia, 14 December, 2010). Indonesian Muslim intellectuals such as Nurcholish Madjid, Harun Nasution, Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) and others are deemed to be dangerous as they tend to mislead unsuspecting and naive Malay Muslims into believing that Islam is compatible with secularism, that it stands on equal footing with other religions and not the sole proprietorship of one ethnic group. Therefore, the goal of the religious conservatives in Malaysia is never to allow the Islamic faith, as it is monopolistically interpreted and practiced in the country, to devolve and mutate into the variegated Indonesian form.

It is also all too common to hear grumblings among some Malaysians about those “Indon” people: of Indonesian female domestic helpers who steal money and run away from their employers; too unsophisticated to use modern home appliances; too careless with the toddlers; too flirty with their male employer; and the Indonesian male migrants who are often stereotyped as ruthless predators importing criminal values from their lawless, free-for-all homeland and violating the innocence of an orderly Malaysian society (Tetamu mesti akur budaya tuan rumah, Utusan Malaysia, 22 January, 2002). This pattern of demonization is the symptom of a xenophobic disease, the smug sense of superiority over the people who are deemed to be not as educated, sophisticated, religious, prosperous, civilized like us. If the Habibie-Anwar brouhaha is viewed within this context, then the bile that spewed out of the former minister’s gutter mouth is as assuredly expected as the unwanted prospect of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia.

What then explains this xenophobia? One short explanation is the fear of losing hegemony, be it politically or religiously. Malaysia and Indonesia were kindred spirits back during the pre-Reformasi times, as both Mahathir (Zam Maidin’s political master) and the late Suharto were joined at the hips in their visceral abhorrence for democratic ideals and strident support for crony capitalism. It has been almost fourteen years since Suharto was forced to step down by the multi-faceted mass protests that turned the ancien régime topsy-turvy. Survey done in Indonesia shows that an overwhelming 72 percent of the population believes democracy is still the best system of governance despite all its shortcomings (Lembaga Survei Indonesia, May 2006). This result certainly runs counter to the fear-mongering campaign by the status quo proponents in Malaysia.

Parallels can now be drawn with the post-March 2008 political dynamics in Malaysia, and there is a real chance, however slight it is, that the deeply entrenched BN government might finally deserve its long-in-coming coup de grace after the 13th General Elections, to be called within the next four months. The cracks in the political and religious hegemony are already apparent, and the roaring prospect of the democratic wave breaching through this shaky authoritarian wall is simply too terrifying to be contemplated by the supporters of status quo. Instead of riding this wave they remain stubborn in futilely trying to patch the ever widening cracks on the wall. It is not the question of if, but when, the democratic wave will sweep across the Malaysian political landscape, and when it does there will not be enough life jackets and inflatable rafts in Malaysia and Indonesia, so to speak, to save them all.

Azmil Tayeb is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political and Social Change, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.