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Paradoxical Indonesia

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31 May 2011 09:16

Linda Quayle is completing a PhD on Southeast Asian regional politics at The University of Melbourne

Greta Nabbs-Keller's 25 May post, highlighting one of the paradoxes of Indonesia's democracy, had me nodding in agreement.

A recent three-month stay in Indonesia, primarily spent learning and teaching in Yogyakarta's university environment, gave me the opportunity for many conversations with politically conscious students and academics, and my primary impression was indeed one of paradox.

Indonesia is an astonishingly successful experiment in democracy. Only ten years ago, many outcomes much, much worse than the current one were being envisaged. Yet observers now routinely point to a vibrant civil society, a free press, and a muscular if raucous Parliament as evidence of a blossoming democratic environment. Indonesia is the only country in Southeast Asia ranked 'free' by Freedom House.

Yet, clearly, there are many problems. The one that tends to get the most press in the Western world is the issue of religious tolerance. But in conversations with Indonesians about obstacles to democracy, religious tolerance was not what cropped up most. Rather, the topic that kept recurring was concern about the economy and justice.

A recent national Indobarometer survey indicated that a majority of Indonesians do not think 'conditions' (broadly conceived) have improved since 1998, when Reformasi began. While 31% thought things had got better since 1998, 55% thought things had stayed the same or got worse. Just over 40% specifically thought conditions were better in the New Order period, compared with just over 22% who opted for the Reformasi period.

The finding that grabbed most headlines was that more than 36% of those surveyed chose Suharto as 'most liked' president, and more than 40% as the most effective president, while the equivalent figures for SBY were just over 20% and 22%. More than 55% were not satisfied with the implementation of reform. The demands judged to have been fulfilled the least came under the headings of the economy and the investigation of corruption.

The validity of this poll has been contested. But its results concur strikingly with what I heard in Yogya. In all my conversations, I came across only one person who thought SBY was doing a good job.

Economically, many people perceived that things had got worse. Prices were higher. Jobs were harder to come by. Underemployment was rife. A certain economic nostalgia for the Suharto era was evident even among those too young to really remember it. Corruption had also discouraged people, and the resultant 'nothing is beyond belief' attitude readily fed into conspiracy theories.

Despite undeniable democratic achievement, then, Indonesians are far from satisfied. One educated person told me he even doubted Indonesia was a democracy, on the grounds that democracy requires both a better implementation of the law and a better economic situation than Indonesia can demonstrate.

This view hardly reflects the textbook definition of democracy. But democracies sink or swim by what their people think of them, and I encountered a strong body of opinion to the effect that Indonesia's democratically elected government needs to care much more about poverty.

This raises two questions. The first is the old conundrum of how governments – within a democratically satisfactory time-frame – can translate high growth rates into real economic improvement for ordinary people. The second is whether disillusionment with democracy is fostered not only by weak governments but by an overly triumphal global discourse that concentrates too much on democracy as an initial goal, and too little on the hard problems and choices that constitute democracy as an ongoing journey.

There was certainly, among some of the people I talked to, an expectation that somehow democracy should 'solve' problems. By comparison, the messy reality – of poor policy, power struggles, and conflicting conceptions of the good – is bound to be a disappointment.

The challenge of being a democracy-still-in-the-making leads to a further paradox, this time an international one. Indonesia has leveraged its democratic credentials to reassert its regional authority and project itself into a global place more commensurate with its economic and geopolitical weight. Yet SBY, the international figurehead of this rise, is hardly a hero at home. The disparity seems positively Gorbachevian.

Likewise, an awareness of daily economic difficulties, corruption and governance problems meant Indonesians I talked to were always ambivalent about the country's international status. Many felt it only natural that Indonesia should be on the path to world power status, as SBY articulated last November.

But the plight of Indonesia's overseas domestic workers is highlighted every day on television. Professional Indonesians regularly face humiliating interrogations at regional borders and generally feel disparaged by some neighbouring countries. A sense of economic vulnerability has been heightened by dissatisfaction with the terms of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement. And even as Chair, Indonesia struggles to herd the cats that make up ASEAN. These aspects combine to reinforce an impression of a powerless Indonesia. The two realities sit, somewhat uncomfortably, side by side.

Asked what role they want Indonesia to play in the global power shift to Asia, students in my class were divided equally between proudly looking forward to seeing Indonesia gain its rightful place on the world stage, and anxiously advocating that their country first concentrate on fixing all the many problems they saw around them. This tension can coexist not only within groups but within single individuals.

These paradoxes – Indonesia is democratically both successful and struggling, internationally both powerful and weak – do not make for easy headlines. Yet it is on balancing these deep complexities that a successful Australian dialogue with its multifaceted and highly important neighbour will depend.

Photo by Flickr user PixelPlacebo.

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