The intrusion of religion into politics in Jakarta has given the jitters to moderate Indonesians, and others in pluralistic societies in the region, who know only too well from painful experience that the two are a highly combustible mix. Secular states strive to keep them apart for that reason; political opportunists do the converse because it can yield the results they seek.
This was demonstrated when protests by hardline Muslims culminated in the authorities indicating that Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama would face blasphemy charges - for referring to a Quran verse being misused by opponents to prevent Muslims from voting for a non-Muslim. The Chinese-Christian politician's closeness to President Joko Widodo is another reason why he has become the target of a conspiracy. Various elements want to bring down the government too via protests. There is a social angle as well, as a good number of protesters are facing eviction because of the governor's efforts to clear slums in areas susceptible to flooding. Far-right Islamic activists were quick to offer them support and thus steadily built up goodwill, away from the media eye.
The risks of playing with fire emerged soon enough when mobs rioted and stole merchandise in mainly Chinese neighbourhoods in North Jakarta, a chilling reminder of the racial tragedy of May 1998 which saw deaths, rapes, looting and arson.
Similar flames are being fanned across the Causeway in Malaysia, where talk of an imminent election has fuelled the long simmering tensions along race and religious lines. Parties seeking to shore up their traditional electoral bases appear to be drawing up clear ethnic lines along which sentiments might be stoked to sway voters. Again, the risk to the hard-won peace in a multiracial society is not to be minimised.
The broad implication of these developments has relevance to societies in general where stark social divides have grown and have been often ignored by the elites. A pitch for inclusive societies might rely largely on abstract ideals, whereas religious activists minister to the real needs of the working class alongside pushing extreme interpretations of doctrines. It's little wonder that a "Unity in Diversity" rally in Jakarta paled in comparison to the size of protests organised by hardliners. Identity struggles in times of change are hard to manage but when there's a risk of these turning violent, society must swiftly pull together to avert a crisis.
For Singapore, the lesson to be drawn is the need for relentless efforts to enhance understanding among racial and religious communities, coupled with eternal vigilance against those who would seek to exploit such visceral sentiments for political gain. That way lies social division and discord, which must be guarded against.