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

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Indonesia has changed in the past decade and so must our attitudes, according to Andrew MacIntyre from the ANU and Douglas Ramage from the Asia Foundation writing in The Age (27 May). Duncan Graham has a different take:

Indonesia is changing – but MacIntyre and Ramage are jumping the gun by saying the country is a stable democracy.

Better to wait till after next year’s general election before commenting on the future of our over-populated and under-employed neighbor.

Apologists urge us to overlook the street protests, the outrageous statements by Muslim preachers and the government’s inability to cope with natural disasters as growing pains. If so they’ve been going on for far too long. Adolescence is overdue.

Jakarta’s chattering classes condemn President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for vacillating – a strange response for a former military man trained to be decisive. But they are not alone; disappointment with the man and his nation’s current experiment with democracy is widespread. It’s not all SBY’s fault. He heads a tiny party and has to juggle the labyrinthine politics of a parliament with a gaggle of opponents running multiple agendas.

Like Canadians he has to live alongside a giant and temper his policies accordingly. In this case it’s Golkar, the allegedly reformed political vehicle set up by the late dictator Suharto.

Vice president and millionaire businessman Jusuf Kalla chairs Golkar and is expected to be opposing his boss in next year’s election, handicapping decision making in the run up to voting.

Former president Megawati who heads the PDI-P party will probably try again for the top job. She’s been invisible since loosing power in 2004. Democracy requires a vibrant opposition offering credible comment and alternative policies, something Indonesia hasn’t experienced. There’s a dearth of bright young altruists seeking office so the same old names from the past get recycled.

In the vacuum rampant nationalism is breeding fast. No problem if it’s kept to culture but a real issue when opposing foreign investment and aid, demanding state controls, subsidies and other simplistic solutions to complex economic issues.

Xenophobia is on the rise and a challenge to Indonesia’s relations with the West. Religious intolerance is destroying places of worship and putting dissidents in jail. For most pluralism is a myth.

Australia has moved on since John Howard infuriated South-East Asia by being portrayed as the regional US deputy sheriff; Indonesia has not, and Kevin Rudd will have to work hard to change our image.

Indonesia has more than 40 million unemployed and under-employed, double the population of Australia. The middle-income class is growing, but not at the same rate as the poor. The gap between the haves and have-nots is obvious, ugly and an awful threat to internal stability.

The government continues to ignore its constitutional duty to spend 20 per cent of income on education. An estimated six million kids don’t go to school and 1.5 million teachers are said to be unqualified. Indonesian education is way behind other Asian countries and slipping fast.

Indonesia has not recovered from the Asian financial crisis of a decade ago. Her neighbors have bounced back. The US dollar continues to sit well above 9,000 rupiah and no improvement is in sight.

Short-term visitors think things are looking up because a few cranes have returned to city skylines. Most are building shopping malls, not improving the nation’s infrastructure. Badly run and poorly maintained transport systems along with an unreformed bureaucracy and a corroded legal system make doing business a continuous struggle. Claims for economic growth need to be considered sceptically: Indonesian statistics are notoriously elastic.

A mud volcano that started erupting in East Java two years ago has turned into a huge environmental and social disaster that has been handled appallingly by the central government.

Corruption has grown since Suharto fell, largely because decentralisation has opened further opportunities for graft conducted openly and brazenly. As the US-funded Freedom House report says: ‘… corrupt relationships between powerful private actors, government bureaucrats, politicians, and security officials infuse the political system and undermine it from within’.

There have been many changes, and some positive. The Indonesian press is the most vigorous in the region, though that doesn’t mean it’s professional, unbiased or widely read. There’s been a book-publishing explosion, but much is low-quality religious tracts and translated Japanese comics. Indonesian literature and film is still decades behind the rest of the world.

Australia has been doing well with training programs in education and administration. These need to be enlarged and expanded to have any impact.

Ensuring Indonesian language and culture are properly funded in our schools and universities is critical. Unless we understand our neighbors, their history and the problems they’re facing, misunderstandings are inevitable.

Australia’s military engagement with Indonesia should be viewed with caution. The Indonesian army has long been used as a political police force suppressing internal separatists; if stories from closed West Papua are true the force is being applied with brutality and demands exposure.

All this is not cause for despair; it should help prod Australia and Australians to work harder using fresh ways to improve relationships. That won’t happen if we think all is well and getting better.

Let’s retain the mystery and magic of Indonesia while deleting the suspicion and fear that affects so many Australians and aggravates relationships. But lets do this from a foundation underpinned by a clear understanding of present reality. The turmoil continues; this is a nation in transition.

(First published in OnLine Opinion 11 June 08)