Examining chances for change and the limits of power in Southeast Asia’s polyglot republic.
When Joko Widodo was elected president of Indonesia in 2014, many believed that Southeast Asia’s biggest economy was on the brink of dramatic change. The former governor of Jakarta – known simply as “Jokowi” – was the first president since the 1998 democratic revolution who had no ties to the old dictatorship. In Jakarta he had earned a reputation for rooting out ineffective spending and improving quality of life. Hopes soared that Jokowi – a Metallica fan from the Javanese heartland – would improve infrastructure and education and that his presidency would promote a more open political debate.
But as Jokowi has discovered, Indonesia, which consists of many ethnic groups and more than 17,000 islands, is a tough country to govern. His fragile political majority in parliament complicates matters further. In this complex environment, conservatives in the Muslim-majority nation sometimes push through proposals at the expense of liberties. Extremist tirades attacking gays and lesbians are not uncommon. Nor have all the reforms that Jokowi has managed to pass been well received. Two years into his presidency, the jury is still out.
Some worry about the country’s future. According to Andreas Harsono, an Indonesian writer and human-rights activist “Indonesia will either be a rising democracy or follow Pakistan and become a sectarian failed state.”
Soon after his inauguration Jokowi controversially cut fuel subsidies; the scheme had been popular but was a burden on the country’s coffers. Cutting it freed up about €16bn, much of which is now spent on healthcare and education for the poorest Indonesians.
Critics say Jokowi’s reforms have since stalled. “Management is poor,” says Indonesian political analyst Wimar Witoelar. Though he admits that Jokowi is a great moral leader. “He has a clean political history; he does not abide by corruption.”
Since independence in 1945, Indonesia has pursued an independent diplomatic course. As a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement the country is cautious to maintain autonomy in politics.
Jokowi has a hands-off approach to foreign relations, though he recently chaired a summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The meeting let the president reiterate his support for Palestine’s cause, one of the few foreign-policy issues that strikes a chord among voters. “Indonesia should be
more vocal in global debates, at the UN for instance,” says Natalie Sambhi, Indonesia analyst at the Perth USAsia Centre. “Indonesia could play a role in reducing tensions in the South China Sea where China, regional countries and the US are on a collision course. If Jakarta seized the initiative it could help to broker a code of conduct between China and Asean for these waters.”
Relations with Australia have always been sensitive but turned sour last year when two Australians were executed for drug crimes. Weeks later Canberra cut its aid to Indonesia. New prime minister Malcolm Turnbull visited Jakarta soon after taking office, which was seen as a successful attempt at mending ties.
Indonesia’s economy suffered a blow over the past two years as commodity prices fell. The country relies on the export of raw materials such as iron ore, coal and palm oil to obtain foreign currency.
But there are green shoots. “Some infrastructure projects announced by president Jokowi are taking off, resulting in job growth,” says Richard van der Schaar of Indonesia Investments, a consultancy. Reforms announced last year look promising, he adds. “When and how they will be implemented is still a question mark.”
More than nine million foreign tourists can’t be wrong; Indonesia is a great holiday destination. Bali’s beaches are known around the world but the other islands have plenty to offer too. Yogyakarta in central Java boasts centuries-old culture and architecture, while Sumatra has stunning jungles and wildlife.
Many young women who wear a jilbab (or headscarf) also wear fashionable jeans and tops. The combination is known as the jilboobs style, referring to the part of the body that they accentuate. Muslim leaders have expressed opposition, saying it does not conform with religious guidelines.
Indonesia’s armed forces once saw themselves as chief custodians of internal order but as democracy has taken root, the army retreated to the barracks. It still focuses on internal threats, and mainly terrorist cells. “Indonesia’s anti-terrorism squad is very professional”, foreign policy expert Natalie Sambhi says.
As Islam’s reputation is tarnished by radicals, the majority of Indonesia’s 200 million Muslims practise and preach religious moderation. The country has its radicals, as was demonstrated by the January terrorist attack in Jakarta. However, Islam in Indonesia is commonly seen as tolerant of other religions and cultures.
It’s hard to find a bookshop in Indonesia that stocks a wide range of homegrown literature but Indonesian writers are making their way onto the global stage. Beauty is a Wound, a novel by rising star Eka Kurniawan, was included in The New York Times’ list of 100 notable books of 2015.
“Sometimes there are conflicts between the different minority groups that make up Indonesia. But the people I work with come from all walks of life. Their identities are never an issue.”
Leo Rinaldy, analyst at Bank Mandiri Securities, Jakarta
“The fundamentals of our country’s economy are much stronger now compared to what they were like 20 years ago. Our banks are in good condition and the government’s debt is manageable. If we can improve our infrastructure, Indonesia may be able to grow at more than 5 per cent per year.”
Najib Azca, professor of sociology at the Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta
“In the next 15 years Indonesia will experience its peak ‘demographic bonus’: a big group of young people reaching a productive age. Managing their opportunities is President Jokowi’s biggest challenge. If the transition is controlled well these youngsters can be a great force for the country.”
Money, politics and clientelism frustrate foreign investors and Indonesians alike. Many say corruption is endemic, with even teachers pocketing cash in return for better grades. A corruption-eradication commission tries to root out high-level chicanery but doesn’t always succeed.
Whether it’s a flight between major cities and their clogged-up airports or a taxi-ride in a big town, transport in Indonesia requires time and patience. More than a nuisance, the lack of modern infrastructure has become an impediment to economic activity.
Teachers are underqualified, basic materials and books are often missing and many teachers consider character-building more important than maths or physics. Indonesia should educate its young people better if it is to fulfil its promise as an emerging nation on the world stage.
Located at a crossroads of culture and global trade, Indonesia should reap more from its democratic government and economic potential. President Jokowi is saying the right things but implementation is lacking. However, Indonesia generally succeeds at maintaining unity in diversity and its largely moderate brand of Islam is an antidote to radicalism.
Grade: C-. Must try harder