The chaos in Indonesia may suggest
that a new president is needed. However, any likely alternatives are
worse than the inclusive, liberal Gus Dur. And the economy and law and
order are not so bad as to preclude investment and tourism. SCMP
by Philip Bowring
Few countries are currently generating more bad news than Indonesia.
Almost daily there is communal bloodshed in some corner or other of
the archipelago. The blind President is widely ridiculed, attacked as
corrupt and threatened with impeachment. The economy remains mired in
local and foreign debt. The government is publicly at odds with the
IMF. The banking system is barely functional and the currency oscillates
uneasily, with another plunge always a possibility. Graft is taken for
granted. Religious tensions lie close to the surface. The President
is often absent overseas and not above using the threat of his loyal
mob against opponents similarly willing to take their political struggles
to the streets.
Surely a country in need of a new leader. Surely a country for tourists
to avoid. Surely no place to invest. Not at all.
First, the presidency. Abdurrahman Wahid (aka Gus Dur) has created
many problems for himself. He has stuck up for the prerogatives of the
presidency in the process offending parliament, which has responded
by making a relatively minor graft issue into a threat to impeach him.
Born to power as head of the Nahdatul Ulama religious organisation he
is naturally autocratic, not the best quality to lead a new democracy.
His formidable intellect and internationalist outlook have bred an arrogant
contempt for his critics.He is an incompetent administrator who has
failed to delegate and whose pre-occupations with political maneuvering
have distracted him from governing. Reform of the system has almost
stalled and policy implementation is feeble. So far so bad.
But look at what he has to work with. Firstly, a parliament in which
his own party has only a small number of seats. Secondly, a parliament
which is trying in effect, if not formally, to shift the constitution
from a presidential one giving the president, elected for five years,
wide executive authority, with parliament only making laws, into a half
way house to a parliamentary system in which the head of government
is constantly answerable to it.
Next, he is supposed to be reforming the system and jailing corrupt
crooks and human rights violators from the Suharto era. But the aforesaid
parliament is full of old era people as it is of his new era political
opponents. Worse, the bureaucracy and the judiciary in particular are
corrupt and choc-a-bloc with appointees from the past who have scant
interest in reform. The IMF and World Bank sing their songs about reform
meaning more bankruptcy and similar legislation but the fact is that
law enforcement is extremely difficult.
The same applies to efforts to resolve corporate debt problems, attract
back capital and get businesses functioning normally. The process is
going slowly partly because of nationalist political and bureaucratic
opposition and partly because deals are in many cases impossible without
forgiving sins as well as debts. Justice and economic needs are at odds.
The basic fact is that for all his faults Gus Dur is a better bet
than anyone else now available. He remains the most inclusive figure,
a Muslim leader trusted by Chinese and Christians and genuinely liberal
in belief. He has a global outlook and, in so far as he is interested
in economics, favours open markets and distrusts state enterprise. He
has at least tried, in the face of military opposition, to find non-military
solutions to separatism in Aceh and Papua and pressed ahead, albeit
chaotically, with decentralisation. He has reconciled most Indonesians
to the loss of East Timor.
Look at the most likely replacement, Megawati Sukarnoputri. She may
be no worse an administrator than Gus Dur, but that says nothing. Her
party has scant platform. She herself expresses few views but is naturally
to a significant extent guided by the memory of her father. In current
terms, this translates into a much more nationalist economic agenda,
a unitary state, no quarter for separatist movements, a bigger role
for the army - all things which would put Indonesia more profoundly
at odds with the outside world than is now the case.
She would also be more divisive internally. She may have the largest
party in parliament but would be almost as vulnerable to parliamentary
machinations as Gus Dur. In particular, he leadership could result on
the now badly split Muslim parties ganging up against her. The downfall
of Gus Dur would likely result in a shift among the Muslim parties towards
more overtly Islamic agenda as represented by the devious Amien Rais,
speaker of the MPR, the assembly which elects the president. The nation
would divide more clearly along ideological lines than is now the case.
Down the road, new possibilities may emerge, democratic or not. The
military may well stage a comeback - but for now it remains weak, discredited
and unkeen to take on a monumental task. Golkar under Akbar Tandjung
may manage a comeback as a centrist technocratic force. Another election
would probably solve little, though a change in the voting system towards
geographical constituencies could alter the composition of parliament
and reduce the influence of an elite which has changed only marginally
Combining reform and punishment of Suharto era crimes is proving incompatible
with stability and democracy. For now, a desire for compromise is still
winning most of the time, to the frustration of reformers and those
hankering either for a return to the past or a move to a more radical
But is this is a safe place for tourists to visit. The answer is mostly
yes. There are almost certainly more people being killed daily in civil
conflicts in India - Kashmir, Assam, Bihar etc etc - than in Indonesia.
But the public, local and international, take little notice. For foreigners,
most of Indonesia remains a very cheap, cheerful and friendly place
to visit with more monuments and as much attraction for the beach, sex
or diving tourist as Thailand.
As for investment, there are indeed many problems not least of which
is the uncertainty that regional autonomy is bringing to mining and
plantation businesses. But for those prepared for high risk, the rewards
may be huge. Capital may be reluctant to return but there is enough
working capital, cheap labour and spare industrial capacity so that
exports and consumption have all been expanding faster than most people
assumed possible - and probably faster than the statistics suggest as
so much trade goes un-invoiced or unrecorded. It's a reasonable bet
that Indonesia's GDP this year will grow at least as fast as the average
of Thailand, Philippines and Malaysia.
At some point Indonesia will need new capital, will have to resolve
debt issues, will have to resolve its de-centralisation problems if
the current growth rate of 4% is to be sustained, let alone raised.
But for all its complex of troubles, which will take years to be resolved,
Indonesia is neither a failed state nor a dysfunctional economy. Nor
does it need more political turmoil as implied by the demand to remove
an inadequate Gus Dur until a clearly better alternative is on offer.
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