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)

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