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.

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.

Much ado about emails

It is not just emails, but there are serious problems underlying DPR’s institutional capacity.

It is not just emails, but there are serious problems underlying DPR’s institutional capacity.

During their “study trip”to Australia, members of DPR’s Commission VIII that oversees religious and social affairs made a mishap by stating a fake email address when asked by one of its constituents on how to contact the Commission during their discussion that was held by the Indonesian Students Association of Australia (PPI Australia).

Other IMO Bloggers have posted their story on DPR’s study trip and also on the video capturing the whole commotion. PPI Australia have also made an evaluation of  DPR’s visit here (in Bahasa Indonesia).

It’s not entirely surprising that this pandemonium happened, because this only adds up to the list of “mistakes” that DPR have made. The email incident is just the tip of the iceberg, because I would argue that the problem lies deeper and it has something to do with the dire condition of DPR’s institutional capacity.

Firstly, the much needed institutional capacity building in DPR did not happen during the course of Soeharto’s 32-year authoritarian regime. MPR/DPR were pretty much the President’s rubber stamp when it comes to the government’s policies. While other parliaments in the world have developed themselves as an effective political institution for checks and balances of the executive’s power, MPR/DPR was very much under the executive’s control.

It was only until 1998 onwards, post-Reformasi and Indonesia’s transition to democracy that people realize that DPR can actually do something, that they have an authority that can balance the executive by representing the voices of its citizens. As a result, even though the DPR building exists there for a long time, but inside the building, the process of DPR’s evolution as an institution that truly represents the interests of the Indonesian constituents have only started slightly more than a decade ago.

Second, DPR needs to know that its constituents matter. The real voice of the people matters. Public scrutiny such as the video that was made by students of PPI Australia is a form of feedback on DPR’s performance. Being defensive about this whole incident and not saying sorry just truly show that they are not working for the interests of the people. We would like to know how to contact DPR, but if they don’t have any interaction or a forum of communication with its constituents, how are we going to make sure that they’re doing their job?

Social media, thankfully, has been an effective tool to monitor the performance of our legislators, our government officials, and our political parties, especially since the mainstream media have also been captured by the elite’s interests.

Rather than going abroad, wouldn’t it better that during DPR’s recess week that they go back to their constituents and do their work back home in Indonesia? I know some legislators do this, but unfortunately this is not the norm – only the exception.

I’ve mentioned in my other post that we’re partly to blame because we were the ones who put these people in DPR. Voting matters, but I know most of us randomly ticked whoever name is listed on the election paper based on the party – because we simply don’t know whom to choose. Thus, the biggest underlying problem in DPR is that the process of selecting the best candidate in Indonesia’s political party system is defunct.

If we were given a good candidate, we would’ve voted him/her to be in DPR or DPRD. Alas, the candidate selection mechanism in the party is opaque, not merit-based and it is a common perception that whoever owns the more amount of money can be selected. In the end, the names listed in the ballot paper are unknowns with no credentials – and on the point of emails – it’s people that we can’t even contact with!

It takes good leadership for someone inside DPR right now to make performance evaluation and connecting with constituents as a norm, institutionalize it in the system.

It also takes good leadership for those who are in the top posts of the political parties to understand that people are growing tired of these rhetorics and we want concrete programs and policies with results, because we simply want the best people with the best competence working for our best interests.

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”