The beginnings of Suharto’s downfall in May 1998 occurred some twenty years ago as the Asian Economic Crisis unfolded. Students lead the initial protests in Indonesia, but their cause was intrinsically inward looking: the rising prices of basic commodities. With him gone, reformasi began, but it meant different things to us all.
As the new President, Habibie undertook numerous political reforms. No longer strictly limited to three political groupings, some 48 political parties competed in the following year’s parliamentary election. Habibie’s government passed the Regional Autonomy Law which devolved many central government responsibilities to the provinces. Perhaps only those who were already stalking the corridors of power realised the scale of personal enrichment that was now possible.
Some of us applauded the freeing of the press, little realising that the newly enfranchised politicos could now control public opinion through the building of local and national media empires.
The emerging internet was, however, initially beyond control. News, via emails, could be widely dispersed, and the first ‘social medium’, web-logs, appeared. For a while here in Indonesia they were a power for good. The Guardian newspaper included this blog in its daily digest, and in the immediate aftermath of the Aceh Tsunami, the Indonesia Help blog was set up to circulate information, as well as requests and offers of help and funds. It was also of value in the aftermath of subsequent earthquakes and tsunamis in Java and Sumatra.
For a few years following the dawn of the current millennium the Indonesian blogosphere was a vibrant ‘community’ of writers exercising their right to express opinions in reasoned language. Reformasi also saw the rise of a generation of novelists, notably ‘chick lit‘, which encouraged reading, in itself a new found freedom.
But then came the cell phone, initially a status symbol. Later, with instant messaging and internet connectivity it became the ‘smart’ choice: its apps and the ever evolving social media allowed all and sundry to provide instant non-nutritious snacks, such as Spam, rather than food for thought.
The ability to communicate beyond immediate responses and selfies, to read beyond this point has diminished, and the rakyat enjoys being barely literate.
“Societies that do not practice literate behavior are often squalid, undernourished in mind and body, repressive of human rights and dignity, brutal, and harsh.”
Source: Jakarta Post 12.3.16
However, it’s not just those in the lower social strata who have gaps in their intellects. The elite who’ve kept Indonesians in the dark uneducated world, are still here perpetuating their lofty colonial mindset, one that breeds corruption, extremism and environmental degradation.
John Coast spent much of 1947-1949 assisting the nationalist movement in the war for independence. In his book Recruit To Revolution 1, originally published in 1952, he wrote that “those colonized do actually feel themselves to be ‘inferior’ because they have been unable to stop themselves from being subdued.”
That is one explanation. Another is that empathy for the wider community has been diminished and self, or the search for it, is now the driving force in Indonesia’s society.
In 2014 many of us looked forward to a new era when Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo was elected President. He was a ‘man of the people’, having risen from being the mayor of Surakarta (Solo), and then becoming Governor of Jakarta. Few of us considered his background as a local businessman, or that he was a protegé of Jusuf Kalla, SBY’s first Vice President, nor that his sponsorship by PDI-P, ruled by ‘she-who-must-be-obeyed’ former president Megawati, gave him little leeway for any radical changes to the nation’s mindset.
What we have witnessed is a return to faux nationalism, and been told that little good can come from foreign influences.
“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
– Dr. Johnson (1709 – 1784)
“Golkar Party chairman Aburizal Bakrie agreed that Indonesia needed a long-term development plan set by the MPR based on recommendations from the public, so the government did not have to seek advice from foreign financial experts who could discredit the country.“
Presumably he was referring to himself, and it was his way of shielding himself from this: The Bakrie Group does not enjoy a clean reputation. A number of Indonesian companies under its holding are linked to fraud practices (e.g. tax evasion) and other scandals (e.g. the mudflow in Sidoarjo, East Java.)
Several film stars have been named, but not, to my knowledge, Leonardo di Caprio. He recently visited Leuser National Park in Aceh, North Sumatra. Afterwards he said that the “expansion of palm oil plantations is fragmenting the forest and cutting off key elephant migratory corridors, making it more difficult for elephant families to find adequate sources of food and water.”
An oil palm businessman from Aceh, Asmar Arsyad said, “He should be campaigning for environmental conservation in the Amazon jungle that is being depleted by soy oil plantations.”
So it’s ok to wipe out elephant populations, Asmar?
Finally, an outrageous piece of condescension, although I’m not sure by whom.
Actor Jeremy Irons remembers asking the mayor of Jakarta why they didn’t give people bins so they wouldn’t chuck stuff into the river.
And he said: “Because people would live in them.”
And I said: “Ah, I see your problem.”
1 Recruit To Revolution was republished last year by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS). To my knowledge it is not yet available in Indonesia.
2 Having an offshore entity is not illegal. However, as the companies can be used to avoid payment of taxes in the ‘home’ countries, the named companies and directors now have to face intensive inquiries.