Thursday, December 24, 2009

‘Ordo Ab Chao’ — Order out of chaotic Indonesia

The Freemason motto ordo ab chao (Latin for “order from chaos”) — recently made famous by Dan Brown’s best seller The Lost Symbol — best describes Indonesia in 2009. But whether a greater degree of order (dare I say, a new order?) follows in 2010 will depend on how the national leadership steers the country through the current turbulent waters.

For Indonesia, the past year has certainly been chaotic in many respects, both economically and politically, but it was not a complete disaster.

In fact, Indonesia can still brag about its decent economic performance when most other countries around the world experienced severe contractions, and in spite of political turbulence that always comes with general elections, the nation can still take pride that it was by and large a peaceful democratic process.

Some semblance of order emerged from the chaos that prevailed for much of the past year. This has not only given some hope as 2010 begins, but also defines the challenges the nation faces, and what its leaders must do. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, reelected for a second term in 2009, has his work cut out for next year.
Indonesia must not beat its chest too much for its better-than-most economic growth rates in 2009. It did not suffer as much as neighboring Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, largely because of its low dependence on exports to fuel growth, instead relying mostly on its huge domestic market of 240 million people.

We won’t be laughing so much on our way to the bank once the global economy recovers, as other countries are much better positioned to tap into export markets and will soon outpace our growth. Our lack of competitiveness, more than anything else, spares Indonesia from a deeper economic recession. How pathetic can it get?
Mass poverty remains a huge challenge for Indonesia with more than half of its population living on less than US$2 a day (the conventional poverty line). This figure hardly budged in 2009 simply because the growth was not good enough.

A 4.5 percent growth may seem impressive against the negative growths of our neighbors, but it is hardly sufficient to absorb the domestic labor market which swells each year by as much as 4 million newcomers.

The official jobless rate of less than 9 percent conceals the fact that 40 percent of the work force is underemployed.

The macroeconomic indicators do not tell the social and psychological stresses created by rampant poverty and prolonged unemployment of the masses. They don’t tell you the consequences to crime rates and the overall national and political stability. The picture at the grassroots is not as rosy as the aggregate numbers suggest.

Still, Indonesia enters 2010 with a deep sigh of relief that it will not have to contend with a general election for at least four more years (however there will be local elections at the provincial, district and village levels throughout this period).

The 2009 national elections have not only been divisive, but have also been so chaotic that at one stage the entire democratic process threatened to unravel. Although millions of people were deprived of their voting rights, cool heads luckily prevailed and the losing parties accepted the result, albeit grudgingly.

Although there was no kiss-and-make-up between the contestants after the elections, Indonesia must still count itself lucky there were no violent protests against the messy way the elections were administered.

Three peaceful, free and fair elections since 1999, however, do not automatically make Indonesia a democracy, not at least in terms of the behavior of its political elite.

The conflict between the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) on the one hand, and the National Police and the Attorney General’s Office on the other, suggests that Indonesia has some way to go as far as judiciary and bureaucracy reforms are concerned.

There are even fears that President Yudhoyono, buoyed by his landslide election victory and the overwhelming majority of his coalition in government, has become too confident for his own good and is backtracking on his democratic reform commitments.
The mess over the Bank Century bailout has eclipsed his entire First 100-Day Program and with a special panel of the House of Representatives looking for possible irregularities in the bailout process, the issue is likely to drag on well into 2010 with no clear prospects of when and how it will end.

One possible scenario will be for either Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati or Vice President Boediono, or both, losing their jobs at the end of the inquiry, because they were the two people most responsible for making the decision to bail out the bank in November 2008.

While this may be a plausible outcome, it will be disastrous for Indonesia as it could throw the nation into a political turmoil. Could this mean there is more chaos than the order many hope to see?

Having just gone through a chaotic year, many have come to hope 2010 will be a time of consolidation; for the new government to settle down, roll up its sleeves, and do some real work and deliver some tangible results for a change.

After three democratic elections since 1999, the people rightly feel they are entitled to see some of the democratic dividends in the form of greater prosperity.
If it isn’t forthcoming, and if Indonesia remains in perpetual chaos as it was in 2009, do not be surprised if more and more people are rethinking whether democracy was worth it, if it fails to provide them with guarantees of enough food on the table, access to inexpensive healthcare and the ability to send their children to school.

Indonesia begins 2010 like a ship drifting aimlessly because chaos prevails onboard, with many clamoring to take control but none succeeding. It is a ship waiting for someone credible and trustworthy to take charge and steer it through the rough waters. Now, will the real captain please rise? By Endy M. Bayuni chief editor of The Jakarta Post.

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