Book Review: Demokrasi: Indonesia in the 21st Century

Last July, Indonesia went through what arguably was the most successful election it has staged since it became to all intents and purposes a true democracy after May 1998 with the fall of the strongman Suharto’s New Order after 31 years in power. Two candidates, Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, squared off using most of the trappings of electoral politics. Jokowi, as he is known, won. Prabowo, after some bristling threats, stood down and went back to the business community.

The path that Indonesia, with a population of 250 million people from 15 major ethnic groups speaking more than 700 languages or dialects on thousands of islands, took to get the polls was not always a sure thing. Going back to at least 1740, when 10,000 Chinese were murdered over rumors of threats to Dutch colonials, there have been periodic slaughters of startling brutality, including the pogram that kicked off in 1965 and resulted in the deaths of half a million people.

Hamish McDonald, a prize-winning former foreign correspondent whose career started in Indonesia with the Far Eastern Economic Review and who is now a Fellow of International Affairs based at the Australian National University in Canberra, has set out to chronicle the events of the 21st century that got the country where it is today – relatively peaceful, increasingly prosperous although without hiccups, and set to become the world’s seventh-largest economy by 2030, surpassing Germany. McDonald had written an earlier book, Suharto’s Indonesia, which resulted in his being given a hostile reception in the country for decades.

His current book is more positive, somewhat of a surprise given some of the events of the previous century and the warts he describes in considerable detail. In 1998, Suharto was pushed from power “in almost unbelievable repudiation of what had been an almost unbreakable system,” he says. The detritus that Suharto left behind has taken 17 years to clean up – a vast kleptocracy, judicial and law enforcement systems that are almost irretrievably corrupt, universal impunity for the wealthy and powerful, a cadre of ruling families, many of them Chinese, with an almost unbreakable hold on the economic heights, and an agricultural system determined to denude as much as possible of one of the world’s great green lungs.

But “Indonesians today are less and less accepting of the idea that corruption is part of their culture,” he writes. “Dozens of nongovernmental organizations such as Indonesia Corruption Watch and Transparency International are publicizing cases of malfeasance at the local and regional levels, bringing them to national attention, sometimes at great risk to their activists.”

Governmental institutions, he believes, are slowly growing more capable. Much of what is going on today McDonald lays at the feet of Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, the diminutive technocrat who Suharto, in the dying gasps of his reign, appointed his vice president, apparently with no intention of ever having Habibie succeed him. Habibie has been ridiculed by much of the mainstream press corps, which has rarely noted his accomplishments but followed his disasters, including buying the entire East German Navy after that country came apart in 1990. But it was Habibie who, in a moment of high drama, blocked an army-led government run by Gen. Wiranto, and who later prevented Prabowo, then running riot in Jakarta, from becoming chief of staff. He later faced down Prabowo and fired him for insubordination. He devolved power and governmental responsibility to provincial and district polities and set the stage for local elections. He forced the end of the disastrous annexation of East Timor, now Timor-Leste.

“It was decentralization that killed our theory of Indonesia collapsing,” Mohamad Nur Djuli, a key figure in the 30-year war in Aceh Province, told McDonald.

Since the fall of Suharto and the relatively lackluster reigns of his successors, Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri, it has been a long, hard slog to get the huge country onto its feet, politically, socially and economically. Despite the early promise of the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, McDonald says, the widespread feeling is that he ended up, if not a failure, a disappointment. “Powerful ministries continued to subvert or contradict government policies, diverting more resources to nationalist symbols and deterring new foreign investment y by applying conditions that mandated local equity and processing.”

In the long run, however, McDonald writes, “as the Yudhoyono decade came to its end, Indonesians were taking lessons from the failure of a democratic experiment in a nation with which they were often compared. While watching Egypt’s overthrow of a long-running military-based dictatorship, similar in many ways to the New Order, and its return to martial law two years late amid chaos, Indonesians counted their blessings.

The book largely ends with the election that brought Jokowi to power. It is a country, as McDonald notes in a final chapter on the country’s place in the wider world, whose identity is wrapped around an economy that remains in formulation. “Will the educated strata left by the European enlightenment continue to grow and prevail over the authoritarian mentality bequeathed by the harder side of colonial power and the Japanese occupation [during World War II]? Will diversity flourish or will the ‘unitary state’ draw power back to the center?”

After considerable early hope following Jokowi’s presidential election, these questions and others McDonald poses are being asked with considerably more frequency and alarm. There are deep concerns that under Jokowi, the country is turning inward, with leaders listening to complaints that foreigners have taken advantage of Indonesia, causing its people unspecified harm. As Asia Sentinel reported earlier this week, “Nationalist voices from both within government and outside are reinforcing the view that Indonesia increasingly wants to resurrect the now-discredited policies of import substitution abandoned by most fast-growth economies decades ago.”

It is the largest country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with a considerable role to play both domestically and internationally. Many in the international community are watching how McDonald’s questions will be answered. McDonald’s book lays a firm foundation for readers and scholars to turn to as Jokowi’s term in office wears on.