The 26th Southeast Asian Games kicked off on Friday night with an impressive opening ceremony in the Indonesian city of Palembang, which is co-hosting the event with Jakarta. As the auspicious opening date (11/11/11) was chosen to imply, the games — involving Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia — are designed to tell an uplifting story of national progress and regional friendship.

Indonesia also sees the event as a unique opportunity to reassert its traditional leadership of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — a hope reflected in the Games’ slogan, bersatu and bangkit (united and rising) and in the opening ceremony’s evocation of the ancient maritime kingdom of Srivijaya, which was centred in the vicinity of modern-day Palembang.

But in the lead-up to the Games — just like in the lead-up to the previous Games, two years ago in Laos — these claims of past and future greatness were overwhelmed by tales of woe. As preparations entered their final month, the Hong Kong–based Asia Sentinel summed up the controversies that threatened to derail the event under the unambiguous title “Indonesia’s Games Mess”. “Instead of a source of national pride,” the website reported, “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 the Democratic Party treasurer, Muhammad Nazaruddin, who is accused of accepting $US3 million in bribes on tenders for the construction of the athletes’ village in Palembang. Other senior officials, including the secretary of the Ministry of Sports, have also been suspended or arrested. The first prosecutions have already taken place, resulting in prison terms for two business figures. The corruption, alleged and proven, has provoked much anger and embarrassment; but what has made the whole affair so gripping, and so devastating for Indonesians and the Games, 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 during 75 days on the run proceeded to make accusations of his own, via Skype and Twitter, against the Corruption Eradication Commission and senior figures in his own party. Then, after being tracked down and arrested in Colombia, he was flown back to Indonesia, at considerable taxpayer expense, by private charter and, predictably perhaps, seemed to lose his memory and stopped talking all together. Having taken flak for giving Nazaruddin preferential treatment, the commission says his case will go to trial soon, and has flagged the possibility of charging another high-profile politician.

The result has been political soap opera of the highest order. The mainstream press, to say nothing of the online world, has loved 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, the Games have stayed in the news as the preliminary prosecutions in relation to the athletes’ village deal and the drama surrounding Nazaruddin have played out.

Added to this have been more routine problems concerning government funding and the completion of venues. Games funding promised by the central government failed to materialise until it was almost too late, leading to a last-minute dash to finish venues, roads and beautification work in Palembang. Ironically, given the problems associated with the village, the lack of accommodation in Palembang, particularly for athletes, has caused further embarrassment. According to reports, athletes were to bed down in many of Palembang’s hotels, leaving little space for visiting spectators. Last-minute plans to use cruise ships to plug the gap were ridiculed at home and elsewhere in the region.

What does all this mean? Certainly the lead-up to the Games has been a mess, but there is also much more to the dramas than this. Just as in Laos two years ago, the controversies reflect the big political issues of the day. In Laos, latent misgivings about booming Chinese investment were brought to life in opposition to a secretive government land deal with Chinese developers building a new national stadium. In Indonesia, the dramas reflect the anxieties and controversies of the post-Suharto political landscape.

Within Indonesia itself, the country is often considered, for reasons of size and history, the “true leader of ASEAN”.’ These Games — the first hosted by Indonesia since 1997, when Suharto was still in charge, and coinciding with Indonesia in the chair of ASEAN — were designed to put Indonesia back on the map as regional leader. With early plans to share the venues 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 restricted to just two cities, inevitably raising the question of why Palembang and Jakarta were chosen over other possible hosts, and the lead-up has been dogged by the athletes’ village imbroglio and delays. Far from rejoicing, Indonesians I have spoken to question the “ability” and “integrity” of the government to host the Games successfully. More than simply embarrassed, they are concerned that their government will “fail” — not only in the eyes of the region but also in the eyes of Indonesians themselves.

Like the Olympic Games, the SEA Games, particularly the opening and closing ceremonies, are above all an exercise in spectacle — and especially political spectacle. From their conspicuous place in the VIP grandstand, 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 complicated — the splendour of spectacle and athleticism reflects back onto them, displaying and augmenting their symbolic power …

*Simon Creak is an associate professor in the Hakubi Center and Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University. Read the full article at Inside Story.