The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, November 13, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

A couple of years ago I had a verbal tussle with an Australian academic. She’d been employed by a publisher to scan the typescript of a book I’d written on Indonesia, and was critical of a passage about former president Suharto.

I claimed that while the educated city elite anguishing over human rights and the rule of law might despise him, he was still much admired in the countryside.

The checker said I’d got it wrong. As an expert on Indonesia she knew the man who’d ruled for 32 years was on the nose almost everywhere for his cronyism, corruption, exploitation and neglect of the nation’s infrastructure.

Like Suharto I stuck to my guns, though eventually made concessions. Now, after a weeklong spin through the backblocks of East Java interviewing farmers I know my observations are right. Maybe not then, but after President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s first two years in office they’re spot-on.

It’s no surprise that the one-time dictator will never be brought to court. SBY has heard the unwavering voices of his country’s rural folk, and knows these are more politically potent than the mutterings of metro mopheads.

Yet the reasons for loving Suharto are perverse. Farmers certainly felt the butt- end of his policies. Many were forced by bureaucrats backed by the military to plant new high-yielding varieties of rice.

The government’s Green Revolution policy boosted yields, but at the expense of time-tested farming practices and cultural ceremonies. The result was fractured communities and poisoned paddy.

Growers who refused the imported hybrids, fertilisers and chemical pesticides could have their crops trampled or burned by soldiers. Those who persisted were labelled ‘Communists’ and threatened with jail. Or they’d just disappear.

So why would anyone who’d been subject to this awful treatment still look back on the past with misty-eyed nostalgia?

The reasoning runs like this: Suharto was the father figure, a great man with good ideas. But these were badly implemented by his underlings. The New Order government was a generally peaceful period. Few demonstrated. (They didn’t dare.) The country fed its own people. Rice, fuel and other basics were affordable. If you didn’t get involved in politics you’d be left alone.

Now rice is being imported. There are high prices, demonstrations and disasters, like the Aceh tsunami, the Yogya quake and the Lapindo mud eruption. None of these things would have happened had the old man stayed in office.

For a Westerner such reasoning seems bizarre. The need to import rice has more to do with a rising population, bad planning last century and shrinking farmland than SBY’s policies. Whatever his faults, he can hardly be blamed for the slippage of sub-sea tectonic plates and bad drilling.

But it’s not like that in the minds of traditional Javanese farmers. They have little interest in the doings of democracy and researched facts, but much time for the idea that Suharto was Ratu Adil, the Just King as predicted by the 12th century seer Joyoboyo.

The present president is often criticised for his good-news photo opportunities, the apparent triumph of style over substance. The administration wants to be seen as modern and efficient. That might work with the chattering classes, but it leaves rural rustics cold.

If SBY really wants to displace Suharto in the heartlands of Indonesia he should get his minders to become mythmakers. (Maybe they already are - but let’s not commit lese-majesty, which is apparently still an offence.)

The spin-doctors could push stories of the president meditating in caves, squatting on summits (the mountain variety), having inexplicable experiences involving kris (wavy-blade daggers) and communing with the supernatural world.

Forget he’s an urbane politician with a PhD and fluent in English; just spread the word that he’s really a raw rural lad from a humble home with a mud floor – though born at the right moment in the cosmic cycle.

A trawl through flaking Javanese texts scratched on lontar leaves should surely reveal a prediction that a man with a name like an airport code is destined to be chosen by the people.

It might give the president the mystical legitimacy he seems to lack in the backward looking hamlets of the Republic. Or should that be his kingdom?

(First published in The Sunday Post 12 November 06)



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