Will the real civil society please stand up?

A group of young ladies in tight-fitted white shirts and short pants demonstrated outside of KPK’s office holding “I Love Banggar DPR” and “Don’t Slander Banggar” posters. Are they an example of civil society in Indonesia? I argue why they are not.

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A group of young ladies in tight-fitted white shirts and short pants. No, it’s not the latest advertisement for a clothing company, but instead a group of demonstrators (for the lack of a better term) outside of the Corruption Eradication Commission’s office holding “I Love Banggar DPR” and “Don’t Slander Banggar” posters.

Banggar is an acronym for Badan Anggaran, the Budgetary Body of the Indonesian Legislative Council (DPR). However, some of the ladies thought that Banggar was, in fact, a person.

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Anti Corruption Princesses - Photo by Seto Wardhana/TEMPO

One would really question the sincerity of the message these demonstrators are carrying out, whether they are truly voicing out their opinions as a part of the civil society, or are they simply just paid models/actresses hired by other actors to mobilize certain issues up front on the national agenda.

To be honest, paid demonstrators is not a new thing in Indonesia. I know some people whose job is to mobilize groups of people protesting on various issues and usually it involves with a price – let’s say the minimum would be providing a lunch box and transportation for each of these so-called “demonstrators”.

For a long time under Soekarno’s and Soeharto’s authoritarian regime, people who go to the streets and actually protest were considered brave and their messages are seen to be meaningful, because if you voice out an opinion not sanctioned by the government, you would’ve been ostracized.

Fast forward to today, freedom of speech and expression are one of the privileges that Indonesians are entitled to after our transition to democracy post-1998. Some say, we have taken that right too far.

Now, if you look at the case of paid demonstrators, it is not a case of democracy gone too far, but it’s just that the culture of democracy – in which how to express those rights under the due process of the law – is not yet understood by the people.

I would see that in the case of paid demonstrators, they themselves as individuals are not lacking the capacity to organize themselves, but they lack the determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another (as in Immanuel Kant’s Enlightenment).

In the words of Ernest Gellner, “no civil society, no democracy”. Paid demonstrators are not what I define as civil society and therefore, as much as Indonesia would like to call itself as a liberal democracy, it is not there yet – or perhaps it is not where it is heading.

J.S. Mill stated that “the worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it” – in other words, society should be seen as a classroom for future governance.

Only after our civil society has matured it can truly balance the power of the state. If Indonesians are willing to be paid for voicing an opinion that they don’t truly believe in – as we assume in the case of these young ladies – then it is no surprise that we now see our elected officials speaks not on behalf of the interests of the people , but on behalf of monetary interests.

Ironically, the message that these young ladies are carrying out exemplifies exactly why the DPR’s Budgetary Body is problematic.

3 thoughts on “Will the real civil society please stand up?”

  1. I fully concur, kak. The only real ‘opponent’ of the government is the society -which is, on my opinion, being self-determined by the media as the society’s guard of truth -.

    A failing government portrays a failed society (or vice versa, don’t really know). Then again, a failing government cannot secure a better living for a better civil society. Hence, the vicious circle

  2. Counter-productive eh?
    People are people. These things happen and are most likely to happen in any democratic system. You can’t rely on people to act on good faith all the time.

    And besides, this is the logical conundrum of democracy. As democracy allows for every member of society to voice their opinion and influence government (however slight that influence may be), this same rule also allows for certain people to voice (or defend) their opinion through a larger megaphone (also known as several easy-on-the-eyes women shouting another person’s opinion).

    It’s all legal and allowed.

    I believe that true civil society can never manifest. There’s always going to be “ye olde” deviants in the system (or in any other system).

    In a society which is growing civil, a good educated reaction would be to just move along when the dog barks aloud.

  3. Perhaps the best thing that can now be said of the the DPR is that it’s a great place for cuci mata…

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