Can Indonesia afford to go back to authoritarianism?

This is a continuation on the debate whether a Soeharto-style government is going to be beneficial to Indonesia or not. My fellow blogger Erwin has argued that without that kind of authoritarian government, Indonesia will not move forward. I argue otherwise and below are my explanation.


This is a continuation on the debate whether a Soeharto-style government is going to be beneficial to Indonesia or not. My fellow blogger Erwin has argued that without that kind of authoritarian government, Indonesia will not move forward. I argue otherwise and below are my explanation.

Soeharto’s Good and Bad

Firstly I would like to acknowledge Soeharto’s role in Indonesia’s nation-building process. Soekarno and Hatta may be our founding fathers, but without Soeharto, the much needed control for unity of the “united colonies of Netherlands Indies” under the new nation “Indonesia” would have not been possible. Many dissent and separatist movements were successfully silenced, leading to Indonesia’s growth, although the means are often violent and the repercussions of those actions are only felt now.

During Soeharto’s authoritarian regime, the legislative assembly was pretty much the president’s rubber stamp and the judiciary is deliberately weakened to serve the president’s interests. All the veto power in policy making went to the president and of course we had a strong presidential government because no system of checks and balances were in place. In addition, cronyism and favoritism is accepted as the norm while corruption and patronage systems are rampant.

[Read more: Judicial Corruption in Indonesia: Authoritarianism & the Weakening of the Judiciary; Much Ado About Emails]

What Soeharto lacked compared to Lee Kuan Yew, both authoritarian in their regime, is the lack of attention that Soeharto gave towards institutional building of Indonesia’s state institutions and the missing values of meritocracy and honesty embedded in our governance system.

Can we correct Indonesia’s democracy?

Here’s another thing that we should learn from Singapore: be pragmatic. We don’t need to achieve western-style democracy, but we need a system that works, where the government is responsive and accountable to its people. Too much attention is going out on the debate of democracy but too little effort is concentrated to make the much needed governance reform in Reformasi.

[Read more: An Enlightened Indonesian on the Singapore Elections]

What I’ve mentioned in my earlier post, is that Neo-New Orders are still in Indonesia, local patronage systems are still rooted in our decentralization process and to top it off, as cliche as it is, there’s no political will to change the status quo!

What we see lacking in SBY – a strong leader with a vision and the will to get things done – we then substitute it with our fond memories of ‘development’ under Soeharto.

[Read more: Who’s in charge?]

So, is going back to the old way of authoritarianism like Soeharto the way to go for Indonesia? No.

Authoritarianism might have worked in the past, but for Indonesia’s current condition, with its diverse 238 million population, putting too much authority in the president will be detrimental to the development of the country. As Lord Acton famously said, “power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”


[Update, 26 May 2011]

Here’s data from the World Bank on Indonesia’s GDP Per Capita (current US$). The point of this graph is, if 13 years of democracy is so bad for the economy, why is the data stating otherwise – when our economic growth went up significantly after Soeharto fell down? My comments are below, but since I can’t embed the graph in the comment box, I’m putting it up in the post.

8 thoughts on “Can Indonesia afford to go back to authoritarianism?”

  1. Exactly because its diverse, we need authority. Its a diverse population with SELFISH mindset. Democracy just give them the chance to actvselfish. Proof: look for the past 12 years

    1. Hi Niko,

      How do you ensure that the single person (or the single political party) that has that authority is not SELFISH himself/herself? We’ve had “guided democracy” under Soekarno, which was a facade of authoritarianism and it didn’t turn out good either.

      I would argue that for the past 12-13 years, people still have the New Order mindset, bureaucrats needs to be serviced by its citizens and not the other way around. Is this selfish? Indeed, but it takes time to change and (real) democracy gives us a chance to voice out our critiques to those people who are selfish. I reckon if I was living under another authoritarian regime, my critiques about DPR and SBY in this blog would be silenced now.

  2. Dear Fika,

    1)If I may suggest your title should be: Can we afford to keep this Democrazy for more time?

    2)An outbreak of miss-Pak Harto syndrome emerges because people see 13-year democrazy giving no result at all covering prosperity, security and dignity.

    3)Democrazy doesn’t fit the bill for this still-formatives years nation. Pak Harto, (and Lee Kuan Yew, Deng Xiaoping, Mahathir) knew this wisdom well. To some countries, only with heavy-handed government (and economy matters prevails, not politics), a country can make prosperity. And after retaining prosperity, democracy can be implemented. According to Fareed Zakaria, the watershed income per capita is USD 6000. Below that point, democracy might fail.

    4)You keep telling us democrazy fails because Neo New Order still exists. Oh, no blame game please. Pak Harto developed this country relatively from scratch. No significant legacy from Old Order in terms of economy. After approximately 13 years of New Order, he had achievement of rice self sufficiency and after 13 years of Democrazy, we had Gayus.

    5)History repeats, and some Indonesians have forgotten the past. In Old Order when we embraced this kind of democrazy (when politics is put before economy), we utterly failed. And now some people hope different result of the same kind democrazy.


    1. Hi Erwin,

      Thank you for taking the time to respond. I would disagree, however, that the 13 years of democracy did not bring any prosperity, security or dignity. I’m not sure about the definition of these three variables that you’ve mentioned, but here’s my argument.

      On the point of prosperity. See below some macroeconomic data from the World Bank, on Indonesia’s GDP per capita (current US$):

      Notice how in the 13 years of democracy we have experienced amazingly fast economic growth compared to the days of Soeharto? Of course, we can’t give the credit to democracy alone, but then the same argument can be used as to we can’t give credit to Soeharto either for prosperity during his days. He made a bubble economy, giving fuel subsidies to make everything cheap on the expense of the government’s budget and it was going to burst anyway – and apparently it did during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

      If we step back a bit outside the debate, Soekarno combined authoritarianism with planned economy (as he was a socialist), Soeharto combined authoritarianism with free market economy and in Reformasi we decidedly to embrace democracy and a free market economy.

      So I don’t understand why you hate “democrazy” so much when the matter is, the economy is doing fine, at least quantitatively. I have doubts whether our economic pie is distributed equally, but this has been the problem since Soeharto and up until now. It’s just that now we can voice out our concerns, while back then under his rule, we can’t. How to fix this inequality gap, I don’t have the aswer yet.

      On the point of security, are you talking about the Islamic hardliners? Yes, I’m frustrated with that too, I wonder why the government is not doing anything to curb it. But do I agree that we should go on and pursue these vigilantes and kill them straight away? No, because an eye for an eye makes the world blind. We must follow the rules and prosecute them under the existing law, albeit how naive that it may sound. We aspire to be a country that upholds the rule of law – we can’t go on killing or silencing people by the sake of internal security.

      On the point of dignity, what are you referring to? Yes, I’m not proud of my government, they need to improve on their performances; but I’m proud of my country and it’s up to the people to make our mark in this world.

      Look, I get it, our democracy is not perfect – and I don’t know whether there is such a term as a perfect democracy. I don’t like it either. But I’m determined that we stick with it because without it, these kind of conversations we’re having now wouldn’t have existed.

  3. As I have argued before, Indonesia is stuck. Sixty plus years after independence, and it still hasn’t figured out what it wants to be: Secular, multi-confessional or Islamic; democratic or authoritarian;. I hope yo’ll figure it out soon cuz the world keeps on spinning, and it waits for no one…

    Here’s another view of the earlier graph to better inform your assessment of the New Order, and the so-called “Father of Development”

  4. Dear Fika,

    1. In fact, in terms of economic growth New Order era outperforms Democrazy era. During 1991-1997 the average growth is 7.8 % and 2000 – 2007 is 4.9%. (Lanskap Ekonomi Indonesia written by Faisal Basri based on Ministry of Finance data)

    2. I accept the data that according to World Bank the income has risen rapidly to USD 2,349, but why then do people dissatisfy with democrazy regime belying its higher income as if they aren’t grateful?

    3. The very institution also put forward that 50% of people live under USD 2 per day. It means half of Indonesians live in poverty.

    4. Democrazy era does raise income for few people, but leave majority in still-low incomes. The income per capita is constituted by small number of super rich. It happens because its growth barks up the wrong tree. In contrast with tradable-sector-led (mainly agriculture and manufacture) growth of New Order, democrazy regime emphasizes on non-tradable-sector-led (mainly transportation, telecommunication, trade, service and finance) growth.

    5. You might dispute why people respect Pak Harto, even dubbing him Father of Development, given the fact that the income per capita under Pak Harto is smaller.

    6. Pak Harto has cut a swath through the real problem besetting Indonesians: poverty. Poverty didn’t disappear during Pak Harto’s heyday, but according to World Bank during 1970-1987, the rate of poverty eradication of Indonesia is the world’s highest (World Development Report 1990 – Poverty). And during democrazy era (1999 – now) the rate move down at a snail’s pace. (See Lanskap Ekonomi Indonesia, Faisal Basri).

    7. And in democrazy era Indonesia’s industry sees lower growth and even unprecedented deindustrialization. Industry sector grows only average 4% under the average all-sector economic growth. By comparison, in Pak Harto era (1987 – 1996), industry grew remarkably 12% on average (Kompas editorial, May 21, 2011). And for Indonesia development, tradable sector must be put in the first place because it absorbs more workers.

    8. So it leads two things, namely (i) rate of poverty eradication and (ii) rapid industrialization differentiating between New Order and Democrazy.

    9. An that‘s also an account of why democrazy economic growth seems to bear no fruits to majority and people feel discontent. It doesn’t eradicate poverty significantly and it doesn’t absorb more workers either. It is confirmed by ILO Report

    10. Morever, nowadays GDP is not a single factor describing well-being. Pundits replaced it with Human Development Index (HDI) which combining GDP, health and education factor. UNDP has published the trend of HDI of Indonesia covering New Order era to democrazy era in

    11. From that HDI trend, in 1980s (equivalent with 13 years of democrazy era) Indonesia’s prosperity had been in line with regional development (East Asia and the Pacific), but in 2010 Indonesia lags behind amid vibrant regional development which has surpassed world development.

    12. During 1970 – 1980, no blame game of Old Order legacy, with strong government Indonesia succeeded to catch up the region development, but during 1990 – 2010, your blame game of Neo New Order scapegoat aside, with democrazy vehicle Indonesia failed to do this.


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