Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Religious Bandung II: The champion arrives

Bandung’s civic improvement program continues after its patron is imprisoned 

 Agus Ahmad Safei and Julian Millie

Public morality programs, sometimes legally formalised through perda syari’ah (regional shariah regulations), have been implemented in many of West Java’s municipalities and districts in the wake of Indonesia’s autonomy reforms. The Islamic texture of these programs has attracted wide attention, drawing both favourable and unfavourable evaluations. An article in Inside Indonesia‘s 100th edition (April-June, 2010) described one such program, labelled by its founders ‘Religious Bandung’.

Today, life has changed for Dada Rosada, Bandung’s mayor at the time, who was the major patron of the program. In 2014, he was sentenced to 10 years’ prison in connection with a bribe paid to a judge hearing a case involving his subordinates and the misuse of social assistance funds. Almost two years after Dada Rosada’s imprisonment, it seems the attitude of Bandung residents towards overtly Islamic civic programs has changed. Disappointment about Dada Rosada’s misbehaviour is only part of that change. The new mayor has put in place a new public program with a civic vision and accountability that Bandung residents have found appealing. Programs come and go, but the recent changes suggest the time for overtly religious programs has passed in Bandung. 


Rosada’s successor as mayor, Ridwan Kamil, better known as Kang Emil, is an architect who holds degrees from the Bandung Institute of Technology as well as UC Berkeley. He has moved away from the Religious Bandung label, having rebranded the city’s action program ‘Bandung Juara’ (Champion Bandung). This tag resonates with West Javanese because the word ‘juara’, frequently used to describe experts in traditional martial arts, suggests a spirit of determination and achievement. For Kang Emil, the term expresses his resolve to succeed where previous mayors have failed. This change has not formally terminated the public religious program, but appears to mark a real commitment to delivering meaningful results in governance. Accountability and transparency are on the public agenda in substantial ways.  

Kang Emil is going to extraordinary lengths to show the public that he is working hard on their behalf. He has established two subprograms that allow him to communicate directly with Bandung’s citizens. One is Ngabandungan, a Sundanese term meaning ‘to give attention and consideration to something’. These are public forums where audience members bring their concerns directly to the mayor. The second is Sapa Warga, meaning ‘to greet citizens’. This is a weekly activity where Kang Emil rides a bicycle to sites in the city, joining Bandung residents as they go about their affairs, and learning about their problems in the process. Images and reports of these visits are uploaded to the city’s website. 

Public events showcasing governmental commitment to Islam are commonly held in Bandung, such as this regular ‘meet and greet’ between Islamic and political actors (Silaturahmi Ulama Umaro) held at the Mayoral residence - Agus Safei
Public events showcasing governmental commitment to Islam are commonly held in Bandung, such as this regular ‘meet and greet’ between Islamic and political actors (Silaturahmi Ulama Umaro) held at the Mayoral residence - Agus Safei

The Bandung Juara program has produced tangible results. Many of the city’s public spaces, previously dilapidated and underutilised, have been transformed into attractive recreational spaces. Thousands of people now frequent Bandung’s alun-alun (civic square) in the late afternoon. A park for senior citizens in Cisangkuy has become a popular morning destination where old and young alike participate in fitness activities and relaxation. The program has also provided funds for community-based drain-clearing projects, alleviating flooding substantially in times of heavy rain.

The program does have its opponents: mainly poorer residents relocated from the city’s slums against their will. These people question whose interests are served by redevelopment – those of Bandung residents or companies and wealthy individuals who stand to benefit from such ‘improvements’. But ‘big business’ has also put up serious opposition to Kang Emil’s plans. The advertising industry, for example, is threatened by his efforts to reduce the number of large billboards and other unsightly advertisements crowding Bandung’s streets. 

Nevertheless, Kang Emil’s ability to make changes that his predecessors could not has strengthened his public approval. His role in the recent commemoration of the Asian–African congress added to his favourable public image. It was Kang Emil who read aloud the ten principles of the 1955 conference before the international delegations. He then joined the commemorative walk from the Savoy Homan Hotel to the Freedom Building, the path followed at the original conference, alongside President Jokowi, the prime minister of Malaysia and the president of China. Kang Emil is enjoying a positive public image.

Islam in public life

The Bandung Juara program may not be motivated by explicitly religious aims; but Islam is certainly not off the public agenda. Although the mayor’s background is in architecture, he also has claims to Islamic credibility, having designed mosques in Indonesia and abroad. A floating mosque designed by him will soon be completed in Gede Bage, located to the east of Bandung. 

Furthermore, Deputy Mayor Oded M Danial, known as Mang Oded, has a strong Islamic profile. He represents the PKS (Prosperous Justice Party), a party with a strongly Islamic political vision, and before taking office he was a preacher and Islamic leader in Tasikmalaya. Mang Oded still frequently delivers Friday sermons in Bandung’s mosques.

There is widespread disillusionment and cynicism about public religious programs among Bandung dwellers. It’s not that Bandung’s citizens would prefer a secular public sphere. Rather, they are wary that religious programs may be exploited to serve political interests. Dada Rosada, for example, did not come from an Islamic background but felt a need to accommodate the city’s Islamic elite who frequently urge the government to elevate Islam in public life. Critics point out that Rosada used the Religious Bandung program as a tool to distribute money reserved for social welfare in order to gain political support.

Even though the Bandung Juara program places less priority on the involvement of Islamic actors, efforts to formalise Islam in public life are continuing. The enforcement of Perda Diniyah, a regional regulation on religion passed during Dada Rosada’s mayorship, is still on the agenda. The law seeks to increase the Islamic competencies of Bandung’s young people, especially in reading the Qur’an. The idea is to free Bandung from ‘Qur’anic illiteracy’. 

For members of the Islamic elite who want the municipal government to make Bandung more Islamic, the revelation of Rosada’s corruption has not made much difference. They believe religion-based public morality programs are what the public wants and that Rosada’s mistakes were but the actions of an individual. Indeed, the public are cynical about public morality programs, not because they do not support their goals and potential, but because of the opportunistic political behaviour that motivates their implementation. 

If the moment for an overtly religion-based civic program in Bandung has passed, can the same be said for other areas of West Java? Could developments occurring in the pluralistic environment of Bandung be a template for other municipalities and cities in the province? The rise in public accountability for civic management might be an important trend in the post-authoritarian period.  Even in Dada Rosada’s vision for a ‘Religious Bandung’, the basic focus of the program was on civic improvement; all those behind that program agreed that it was to be about civic amenities as well as individual morality. The public in other regions may well take their cue from Bandung and also turn to increased accountability as a necessary ingredient for the improvement of civic life.


Dr Agus Ahmad Safei (agusafe@yahoo.com) is an author and a lecturer in the Dakwah and Communications Faculty at Sunan Gunung Djati State Islamic University. 

Dr Julian Millie (julian.millie@monash.edu) is a researcher in the Department of Anthropology at Monash University.


Inside Indonesia 124: Apr-Jun 2016{jcomments on}

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