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.

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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.”

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[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.

Who’s in charge?

An analysis of Indo Barometer’s recent survey on the Indonesian public’s preference for Soeharto over SBY.

An analysis of Indo Barometer’s recent survey on the Indonesian public’s preference for Soeharto over SBY.

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Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (Indonesian President's Office: Abror Rizki)

Indo Barometer’s recent survey on the evaluation of 13 years of Reformasi and SBY-Boediono’s government have caused quite a stir. One of the most intriguing findings is how the Indonesian public favors Soeharto’s rule over SBY’s. Consequently, the Presidential Office were quick to comment on the motives behind the release of this survey. Despite Heru Lelono’s infamous track record, his suspicions are valid, as one must question Indo Barometer’s methodology in the survey and examine the results carefully.  However, one result out of this survey is certain: the public is unhappy with SBY’s performance.

In the first part of the report, the survey firstly asked an open question towards the 1200 respondents of Indonesia’s 33 provinces, over what they think Reformasi is. While 24,2% simply states Reformasi as the existence of “change”, actually a majority of 29,6% of the respondents are clueless or did not have an answer on what is the meaning of Reformasi.

The survey continues to ask which condition is better, is it Soeharto’s New Order or the current condition. It is found that 31% agrees that the current condition is better than the New Order, 28,2% believes that it is actually much worse, while 27,2% are indifferent about it.

If you simply add-up the numbers of 28,2% who believes that the current condition is much worse with 27,2% who thinks the old Soeharto days is just as bad (or as good – we don’t know for sure) in comparison with today’s Indonesia, we end up with 55,4%, which can be implied that the majority of Indonesians believe that the changes of Reformasi fell short from what has been promised.

This is related to the next part of the survey, in which I think is the most intriguing of all the findings: in general, 40,9% of Indonesians prefer the conditions under Soeharto’s New Order. An Indonesian layperson feels that the New Order condition is superior in terms of economy and security, while it is only slightly better in terms of politics and social conditions. The only thing that is better in the current condition, albeit a little, is Indonesia’s legal condition.

Public Perception on Which Regime is Better

I have my own arguments on why Indonesia’s legal condition is better now, but one thing that is apparently missing based on the public’s perception, quoting from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid”.

Many economists agree that Indonesia did well on the last 2008 financial crisis. While many countries slumped, Indonesia’s economy was stable and it can be considered as one of the factors why SBY was re-elected in 2009. Little do the public know that Sri Mulyani Indrawati – who was the Finance Minister and one of the backbone to the decision-making on the economy – resigned (or politically ousted by SBY, as some rumors among Indonesians suggested) in May 2010 over the issue of the Century Bank bailout, which has not yet been resolved until now. This is among the early addition to the list of disappointments over SBY.

Corruption is still rampant, taxpayers are wary of Gayuses and don’t know where their money is going, minorities are being physically harassed, illegal logging of forests are still ongoing and infrastructure is problematic. These are just a small part among Indonesia’s long list of issues, but the institutional-building process that is needed in the government is moving very slow.

Without strong institutions and an efficient government, the economy will not grow as fast as it is needed. Even with Indonesia’s current economic growth and its G20 status, the economic pie is not yet distributed equitably because only the few elites can enjoy it.

My fear is that those elites who reminisces the glory days of Soeharto are still in the system and have not yet been swept by the tides of reform. Yet, they establish themselves as Neo-New Orders posing as reformists, but still act on the basis of collusion, corruption and nepotism while the practices of honesty and meritocracy is not yet applied. These, unfortunately, cannot be unveiled by surveys alone.

Indo Barometer’s survey seems to imply that Reformasi and SBY’s regime are of the same creature and the public’s disappointment to SBY is intertwined with the failure of Reformasi. That is why in the survey, Indonesians prefer Soeharto over SBY and why the New Order regime is seen to be better than the current conditions.

I question whether the respondents in the survey know consciously in their mind, or whether they were at least informed by the researchers, that Soeharto’s authoritarian rule span for over 32 years while Indonesia’s transition to democracy after Reformasi had only been for 13 years, under the leadership of four presidents: BJ Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati Soekarnoputri and SBY. The process of “change” is not instant and therefore, one can argue that comparing New Order and “current condition” was never a fair comparison to begin with.

It is unfair to shoulder the failure of Reformasi on SBY’s shoulder alone. However, it should be noted that SBY is the first re-elected President of Indonesia thus he has the opportunity to ensure that Indonesia’s reform made progress and not regress. SBY’s current leadership is more of a shadow of his first presidential term and the public is disappointed due to his lack of firmness in action. He himself has nothing to lose, since legally he can’t run again for presidency in 2014.

President SBY, if the survey tells you anything, is that you have three more years ahead of you and you should focus on your programs and policies – that is if you have any. If your programs and policies are effective, it’s more potent than building your political image and any advice that your PR consultancies have offered to you.

The Indonesian public simply demands your leadership to be in charge of this country.

Judicial Corruption in Indonesia: Authoritarianism & the Weakening of the Judiciary

According to the 2008 Public Sector Integrity Survey conducted by the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission, among other public services in Indonesia, the Supreme Court’s integrity value have ranked among the lowest, which translates that the public sees the Supreme Court as one of the corrupt institutions in the country. The fact that the public does not see the Supreme Court as the harbinger of justice, and instead perceives it as a part of the rule of law problem, provides a serious challenge to good governance in Indonesia. In a country where it has been under an authoritarian regime for more than three decades, this essay will assert that such regime have deliberately weakened the Supreme Court, which led to its inability in providing professional judicial services and subsequently led to its systemic corruption. This essay will also argue how Indonesia’s transition to democracy have helped to shape its legal reform process.

According to the 2008 Public Sector Integrity Survey conducted by the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission, among other public services in Indonesia, the Supreme Court’s integrity value have ranked among the lowest, which translates that the public sees the Supreme Court as one of the corrupt institutions in the country.[1] The fact that the public does not see the Supreme Court as the harbinger of justice, and instead perceives it as a part of the rule of law problem, provides a serious challenge to good governance in Indonesia. In a country where it has been under an authoritarian regime for more than three decades, this essay will assert that such regime have deliberately weakened the Supreme Court, which led to its inability in providing professional judicial services and subsequently led to its systemic corruption. This essay will also argue how Indonesia’s transition to democracy have helped to shape its legal reform process.

Continue reading “Judicial Corruption in Indonesia: Authoritarianism & the Weakening of the Judiciary”

Democracy: Friend or Phở*?

Viet Nam’s 1992 Constitution expresses that it is a state “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. However, on January 20th 2010, a court in Ho Chi Minh City sentenced Le Cong Dinh and Nguyen Tien Trung to prison terms of five and seven years for advocating multiparty democracy.[1] The Communist Party of Viet Nam (CPV) claims to represent the democratic aspirations of the Vietnamese and have established itself as the vanguard party enshrined in the Constitution, thus making political opposition illegal. Although political expression are in certain degrees allowed, the retain of the state’s control over the media and society gives little room for organized critical voices towards the government. Reforms for a market-oriented economy undertaken during the Đổi mới (renovation) in 1986 have contributed to Viet Nam’s rapid economic growth, but questions rise to what extent will Viet Nam further liberalize. This essay would argue why Viet Nam might not liberalize its political sphere in anytime soon, but why in the long run Viet Nam should.

Democracy: Friend or Phở*?
A Case for Political Liberalization in Viet Nam

Viet Nam’s 1992 Constitution maintains that it is a state “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. However, on January 20th 2010, a court in Ho Chi Minh City sentenced Le Cong Dinh and Nguyen Tien Trung to prison terms of five and seven years for advocating multiparty democracy.[1] The Communist Party of Viet Nam (CPV) claims to represent the democratic aspirations of the Vietnamese and have established itself as the vanguard party enshrined in the Constitution, thus making political opposition illegal. Although political expression are in certain degrees allowed, the state’s control over the media and society gives little room for organized critical voices towards the government. Reforms for a market-oriented economy undertaken during the Đổi mới (renovation) in 1986 have contributed to Viet Nam’s rapid economic growth, but questions rise to what extent will Viet Nam further liberalize. This essay would argue why Viet Nam might not liberalize its political sphere in anytime soon, but why in the long run Viet Nam should. Continue reading “Democracy: Friend or Phở*?”