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.

Of Bajajs and Auto Rickshaws

At the end of June I visited Bangalore, India for a friend’s wedding. It was my first time in India and I’ve heard so much about the country, thus it was an opportunity for me to “taste India”, although I was only going to be in Bangalore and travel around the outskirts of the city. During my week-long stay here, I have come to the conclusion that I should come back here again another day because somehow, India reminded me so much about Indonesia.

At the end of June I visited Bangalore, India for a friend’s wedding. It was my first time in India and I’ve heard so much about the country, thus it was an opportunity for me to “taste” India because I was only going to be in Bangalore and travel around the outskirts of the city. During my week-long stay here, I have come to the conclusion that I should come back to India again another day because somehow, it reminded me so much about Indonesia.

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Picture Credit: http://bacaanmu.blogspot.com/2011/04/fakta-tentang-kendaraan-bajai.html

My journey to Bangalore was through Chennai, so I applied my visa on arrival there. There are only two other airports who provided this service, which is Mumbai and Delhi. Indonesian citizens are eligible for visa on arrival to India that was implemented earlier this year.

I paid Rs. 3000 (not the US$ 60 that they advertised), filled out a form and submitted a passport photo. After waiting for a while, my stamped visa which took two pages of my passport was done, and there I was, a legal tourist in India.

I wasn’t impressed with Chennai airport, because I thought Soekarno-Hatta airport was better (and us Indonesians know what Soekarno-Hatta is like). However, I was very impressed with the modern architecture of the Bengaluru International airport.

I somehow felt that Bangalore got the title the ‘Silicon Valley of India’ for some reason and their airport was the gate of entry to show that off. Coming into Bangalore city, however, this title wasn’t reflected that much, at least on a first glance.

I thought that the city would be filled with skyscrapers, glass buildings and everything modernized, but actually the feel of Bangalore is quite similar to Bandung, Indonesia. The buildings were low to mid-rise, there were a lot of green spaces, the weather was cool and pleasant, and there were plenty of pedestrian paths. I guess it was the urban planning heritage of the once British cantonment.

When I looked closely at the buildings, they were mostly software parks, IT companies, consulting and management firms and the likes. The Bangalore residents whom I interact with, consequently, are either engineers, consultants, also managers of the supporting systems of world renowned financial firms, along with the regular sirs and madams of Bangalore.

The traffic is horrible, just like or perhaps a little less worse than Jakarta. Their auto rickshaws (like the orange bajajs in Jakarta) are literally everywhere. Their cars are small, mostly with the size of a Suzuki Karimun or Hyundai Atoz, because the roads in Bangalore are small too. I am impressed however, with the quality of their buses and their development of the Metro (equivalent to the MRT).

Yes, Jakarta has its own MRT plans but believe me, Bangalore is far ahead from us.

The streets are chaotic, yet streaming with life. The food and its spices tantalized my taste buds, although most were vegetarian. There were no Beefburger nor Big Macs in McDonalds but a McSpicy Paneer or the Chicken Maharaja Mac instead, because Hindus, the majority of the people there, don’t eat beef.

Since I was there for my friend’s wedding, I only managed to travel around Bangalore city, then to Mysore, Belur, Halebeedu and Shravanabelagola. I learned about the Hoysala dynasties, the legacies of Tippu Sultan and the Mysore Kingdom. Perhaps I will share these stories on a later time in my travel blog.

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Apart from the sightseeing and the trivias that I learned during my travel in India, one major take away lesson that I learned from my visit, is to learn about the tremendous amount of diversity this country posses. By also being the largest democracy in the world, I don’t know how it survived.

It’s imperfect, but nevertheless it’s amazing to learn about their culture, history and how the nation came together. I bought a second-hand book on the streets by Ramachandra Gupta titled “India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy” and have yet to read it.

Looking back at Indonesia, we’re also very diverse, and we’ve also been very brave to embrace democracy, albeit after a long authoritarian regime.

I will learn more about India, but I think this should be a note to myself (or any other readers who are thinking along the same lines) that we should not be hasty to import any kind of democratic concepts that India (or any other country) adheres to, in whatever ways that may be. It’s one thing to learn about the practices of democracy in other countries, but it’s a totally different ball game to implement it in your own turf.

We may have once imported the auto rickshaw from India and call it a bajaj. Lessons about democracy? Well, whatever works for the country, what kind of governance model we’re looking into, I hope it’s for the best.

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.”

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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.

An Enlightened Indonesian on the Singapore Elections

After almost a year living in Singapore, I probably went on one of the longest bus ride I’ve ever been in here, from Bukit Timah to Hougang, just to see an opposition party rally for the upcoming Singapore Elections on the 7th of May. Some Indonesians might be cynical that Singapore is not even a democracy, since everything is controlled by the government, and how the people’s voice through media and the freedom of expression is very limited. However, after seeing with my own eyes on how an estimated 15,000 people turned up for the rally, on the contrary, I think Indonesia could learn a thing or two from Singapore on democracy.

After almost a year living in Singapore, I probably went on one of the longest bus ride I’ve ever been in here, from Bukit Timah to Hougang, just to see an opposition party rally for the upcoming Singapore Elections on the 7th of May. Why do I even bother to come, since I don’t vote anyway? Well, I went to the rally in order to fulfil my curiosity, to see what Singapore ‘democracy’ is really like. The reason why I put the quotation mark on the word democracy, is because some Indonesians might be cynical that Singapore is not even a democracy, everything is controlled by the government, and how the people’s voice through media and freedom of expression is very limited. However, after seeing with my own eyes on how an estimated 15,000 people turned up for the rally, on the contrary, I think Indonesia could learn a thing or two from Singapore on democracy. Continue reading “An Enlightened Indonesian on the Singapore Elections”

Yogyakarta: Between Monarchy and Democracy

There’s a recent polemic where the government is planning to uphold democratic elections for the Yogyakarta province in the reformulation of the Law on the Special Administrative Region of Yogyakarta, thus making the position of governor open for contenders other than the Sultan. There was a lot of (in my opinion, blinded) rage over SBY’s remarks, especially from Yogyakarta and the Sultan’s side, that no monarchy system can clash the constitution and the democratic values in Indonesia.

The media always love to take the context out of proportion and make the government (especially SBY) look bad, but let’s look at the issue with a cool head.

There’s a recent polemic where the government is planning to uphold democratic elections for the Yogyakarta province in the reformulation of the Law on the Special Administrative Region of Yogyakarta, thus making the position of governor open for contenders other than the Sultan. There was a lot of (in my opinion, blinded) rage over SBY’s remarks, especially from Yogyakarta and the Sultan’s side, that no monarchy system can clash the constitution and the democratic values in Indonesia.

The media always love to take the context out of proportion and make the government (especially SBY) look bad, but let’s look at the issue with a cool head.

Continue reading “Yogyakarta: Between Monarchy and Democracy”

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*?”