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

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Looking on the bright side

According to the political pundits Anies Baswedan has got The Right Stuff to be a future President. He comes from a famous family with a creditable past – his grandfather A R Baswedan was an independence activist.

He was raised in Yogyakarta, the cultural centre of Java, the son of academics. His wife Fery Farhati is a psychologist. He’s overseas educated, unafraid of criticising the government and isn’t squeamish about attacking Islamic hardline violence.

Dr Baswedan is young (41), personable and ably articulates a future Indonesia where its well-educated citizens stand tall and proud, achievers yielding to none. His speciality is lambasting the merchants of gloom.

“Let’s stop saying Indonesia is a poor country,” said the rector of the Islamic Paramadina University with some passion. “We must stop asking the government for help. Why do we feel so inferior? In 1945 we didn’t sit around and ask the Ministry of Defence to kick out the Dutch – we all worked together to do it ourselves.

“We’ve become a nation of complainers, sitting down in five star hotels that didn’t exist a few years ago, worried about a nation that in 1945 had 95 per cent illiteracy – now almost all can read and write.

“ Be grateful. Don’t curse the darkness, light a candle. The question is: How do we facilitate the principles of Pancasila.” (The State philosophy designed by first president Soekarno.)

Before he can put himself forward as a candidate for the Republic’s top job, the upbeat US educated Dr Baswedan has a few chasms to cross and bonds to tie. He needs powerful friends with deep pockets and the right connections.

In New Zealand at the invitation of the government to cement ties with the Victoria University of Wellington he was introduced as a ‘prominent political analyst … not affiliated with any political party or group.’

However in Indonesia he’s been associated with the ambitious media mogul and former Golkar heavyweight Surya Paloh who formed the National Democrats (Nasdem) last year. The academic often appears on Paloh’s Metro TV.

“I’m not in anyone’s pocket,” he said “I’m just one of the 45 who signed the (Nasdem) manifesto. (This rejects a vision of democracy lacking proper concern for the people’s welfare).

“Democracy is not incompatible with Islam, and it’s not a Western import. In fact in its early period Islam was a pioneer in democracy holding elections in Medina. But after 39 years the Sultanate system took over – and that was a mistake.

“We do have traditional democracy and we want to get it back. Democracy is not just about free elections and the media, it’s also about input and output.

“I’m worried that the failure to reform the legal system and bureaucracy means the government has failed to reach the objectives that democracy promised. We’re now in the third five-year period where the government must deliver. Foremost is education.”

The other factor is violence against religious minorities. “This is challenging the very foundations of our society,” he said. “I am truly worried. If my home is attacked the police will come. If the thugs use religious names the police won’t intervene.

“There must be zero tolerance and the police must be given political protection to uphold the law.”

When he became the youngest rector in the Republic back in 2005 aged 36 he inherited the position formerly held by the late Nurcholish Madjid. Also known as Cak Nur the liberal scholar became famous for his statement ‘Islam, yes – Islamic parties, no.’
Dr Baswedan has become best known for his TV commentaries and adjudications, and his ‘education should be an escalator’ campaign to get major changes in the Indonesian education system.

He wants higher quality well paid teachers keen to enter a profession with status, working in the regions and then being able to use their experience in other jobs. He urged Indonesia’s 60,000 overseas students to return to their homeland, but not apply for government jobs. Instead they should approach private enterprise with entrepreneurial ideas.

The New Order government flooded schools with thousands of unqualified teachers. Many are still employed and can’t be sacked. Dr Baswedan said that the government’s intentions were best illustrated by the reality of the statistics – 144,000 primary schools, but only 26,000 secondary schools.

His proposal involves major companies helping the best and brightest, especially those who are poor, denied the opportunities the rich can buy, whatever their abilities.

This raises the question of why Indonesia’s taxation system isn’t functioning efficiently to capture and redistribute wealth. To this he argues that the system is getting better, but in the meantime nationalistic philanthropy should plug the gap.

Before he gets to become a candidate with a chance, Dr Baswedan has to have the military on side. He doesn’t see this as a problem, arguing that Indonesia still needs the presence of a strong institution to combat fears of internal armed insurrection.

He said the Western idea that the army should be kept in barracks and used only for external threats doesn’t apply in a nation where mass uprisings could be too big for the police to contain. “Democracy allows for peaceful protests but not violence.”

Even if Indonesians buy Dr Baswedan’s line that democracy is an Islamic ideal he still has to deal with the slur of being a brainwashed US-educated neo-liberal infecting Indonesia with Western values.

His defences have been well polished.

“Most Indonesians who go to the US end up being critics of the country,” he said. “Democracy doesn’t require secularism. The separation of church and state is not universal in the West. In Britain the Queen is the head of the Church of England.

“France which is supposed to allow religious freedoms has banned Islamic headscarves in State institutions. Several European countries have government departments of religious affairs.

“You talk about a united Europe arising from the ashes of the Second World War and comparing this with the progress in Indonesia – but Europe has no common language as we do. That’s a remarkable achievement.

“Indonesians are becoming more pious – but that doesn’t translate into votes for Islamic parties.”

So will he seek the nation’s top job? Like any able politician Dr Baswedan frequently sidesteps direct questions, substitutes his own, then answers. But he did rule out standing in the 2014 election - because he’s too young.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 March 2011)


Response to Ruby Murray's article 'Invisible Indonesia'

The fault is not wholly ours. Indonesians have much work to do before their country becomes a safe destination. Most people are friendly and welcoming though rip offs are prevalent. The rule of law doesn't operate. Nationalism is growing and it's hostile to outsiders. Corruption rules everywhere, city pollution is a serious threat to health, poverty is gross - particularly outside the cities. Education standards are the lowest in Southeast Asia. As the travel warnings say - Indonesia is not always a safe destination. Far from struggling daily with asylum seekers the evidence shows Indonesian officials have been actively helping these people take the dangerous journey to Australia. Careful visitors who are well prepared can have rewarding experiences in the archipelago, but the hazards are real. Let's be frank about Indonesia - it's our resource-rich neighbour and critically important in defence and trade. It could become a major and stable player in world affairs, but it's also on the cusp of collapse if the government doesn't deliver the promises of democracy. That includes ensuring safety for visitors and locals - particularly those in minority religions.

Posted 19 March 2011

There’s a disquieting Pollyanna tone in many comments that do a disservice to Indonesia – and the original story. The debate needs to be lifted above ‘lovely people’ and ‘developing nation’ responses from people who’ve had only superficial contact with the archipelago, - some hiding their identity and further devaluing the credibility of their observations.

Indonesia was born in the ashes of World War 11 along with modern Japan and the European Community, and had the potential to equal them. Instead the great natural wealth and talent has been squandered by decades of corruption, oppression and mismanagement, a tragedy for the people whose health, education and lives have been blighted by evil administrators.

Now the lawmakers are allowing thugs to commit serious crimes in the name of religion and abuse the Constitution. This is creating widespread concern about future directions – and warping the nation’s image.

Australia can and should help by providing thousands more scholarships so young Indonesians can build their skills and see for themselves that Western democracy is not a nest of godless vipers. At the same time more Indonesians (particularly Javanese Muslims) in Australia should help lift local ignorance, provided they’re made welcome.

Posted 20 March 2011

Tuesday, March 01, 2011


Better ways to help Indonesian kids.

In February Opposition Leader Tony Abbott proposed cutting Australia’s overseas aid budget to pay for the Queensland floods, rather than impose a levy on taxpayers.

Specifically highlighted was the $AUD 400 million allocation to build schools for Indonesian kids. Many commentators found this abhorrent, stressing that education is critical to lift standards in Indonesia. However the benefits are more imagined than real – there are no figures available showing how many children are going to school who would otherwise have stayed home as a result of the aid programme.

Nor is there any information on the curricula being used in these schools – that’s something that Australia cannot control.

Of course education is important, and as an advanced nation Australia has a duty to help its neighbours. But building schools is a totally flawed policy.

It’s the Indonesian government’s job to care for its citizens; the responsibility is in the Constitution. That means providing the teachers, buildings and equipment.

If Australia does the job that releases local administrations to divert funds to other less worthy causes. These tend to be opulent government complexes, officials’ mansions and lavish places of worship.

There’s no way Australian agencies can control cash used for capital works which require suppliers, manufacturers and builders. The opportunities for graft are limitless, meaning Australian taxpayers’ money will fuel corruption.

The idea that the locals will recognise Australian generosity and change their attitudes is na├»ve. It assumes people will notice a plaque acknowledging AusAID and consequently stop despising unbelievers. On the contrary – the fundamentalists will use these programmes as proof that the West is trying to ‘Christianise’ Indonesians.

Far better to use the money so teachers can study in Australia, boost their skills and expand their horizons. There are some scholarships – but too few. When the teachers return they can push their governments to build better classrooms and equip these with modern technology. They can also tell their students that the West is not peopled by the devils conjured up by the narrow-minded ill-educated people who often run pesantren.

(First published in East Asia Forum 26 February 2011)