Sunday, August 15, 2010

Indonesia - 65 Years since Independence and What?

The conventional wisdom among political scientists is that, to a large degree, a nation is defined by what it is made up of and where it stands in the grand and global scheme of things. In Indonesia’s case, it is 17,504 islands that are home to about 237 million people, comprising 10,068 ethnic groups and speaking, at one time or another, 615 different languages.

In the course of time Indonesians have created 300 variations of folk dances and 485 regional songs, according to official figures, and are proudly presiding over the world’s largest archipelago with at least 3,025 species of fauna and 47,000 species of flora in their midst.

Indeed, few nations come even close to matching Indonesia in terms of sociocultural diversity and natural wealth such as oil, gas, coal, copper, timber and just about any other mineral you’ll find on earth.

By the same token, owing to its sheer geographical size and ethnic and cultural mix, few nations are as intrinsically unmanageable as Indonesia.

In fact, such is the diversity of the country that it once prompted a former president to wonder, who or what exactly is an Indonesian?

Remarkably, however, Indonesia has remained intact, defying all the doomsayers who predicted it would soon fall apart after it proclaimed independence in 1945.

Granted, there were the usual rebellions in the regions that accompany any nascent republic’s growing pains.

But, as the US diplomat-scholar Barbara Harvey correctly noted, they were “half-hearted” in nature, and had more to do with the regions’ quest for a greater split of power and wealth with the central government than any real desire to make it on their own.

In the aftermath of the fall of the repressive regime of President Suharto in 1998, Indonesians again confounded those who believed the nation would suffer the same fate as the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Today, after the charismatic Sukarno succeeded in uniting the nation and the enigmatic Suharto established the momentum for development, there is a growing feeling among the intelligentsia that post-reform leaders are at a loss as to how to chart the nation’s future course.

Interest rates are at an all-time low, there has been a 20 percent rise in the stock market since the beginning of the year and gross domestic product is poised to break through the $1 trillion mark within the next five years.

The economy grew by a faster-than-expected 6.2 percent in the second quarter of this year, up from 4.5 percent in the same period last year, and now full-year growth is expected to come in at about 6 percent.

All of these impressive figures earned Indonesia a much-coveted membership in the club of rich nations known as the G-20, a source of justifiable pride for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his economic team.

However, all this means little to the 13 percent of the population who live below the official poverty line of about 75 cents a day and the 7 percent of the population who are unemployed. (If the World Bank criteria off less than $2 a day were applied, then about 43 percent of the population would be classified as living in poverty — close to 100 million people.)

While Indonesia’s economy is the largest in Southeast Asia at $650 billion a year, the country’s social indicators (malnutrition, high maternal death rates, poor access to clean water and sanitation) place it behind less developed countries in the region.

“These basic indicators of well-being are the most direct measure of government effectiveness,” says a recent report from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

This statement confirms the belief of many here that having a well-meaning government, whose leader was re-elected in a landslide, does not automatically lead to improved prosperity for the people.

The government has no qualms, however, in allocating the equivalent of $90,000 for the president’s official attire, $180 million for a new legislative building and $2 million to renovate the fence around the Presidential Palace.

As critics have often pointed out, this is a government with an odd set of priorities, a situation that we will be forced to tolerate for the next four years.

Worse, many people are far from certain that the next government won’t turn out to be a reprise of the present one, given the lack of quality leaders on the political horizon.

More than six decades after independence, many surviving members of “the nation’s greatest generation,” those who helped found the country, often lament that Indonesia, for all its potential, has failed to attain greatness. They have reason to lament.

By Taufik Darusman veteran Jakarta-based journalist.

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