Saturday, February 4, 2012

Indonesia must choose its direction in 2012

Indonesians have reason to be both optimistic and pessimistic coming into 2012. The question is: which outlook is more likely to prevail?

In his New Year message, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) requested that all Indonesians work to maintain order. Acknowledging that the country’s political landscape is becoming more heated due to the upcoming general election — scheduled for 2014 — SBY urged Indonesia’s political parties and politicians not to inflame tensions.

Yet, problems in Indonesia are mounting. Hoping not to have more heated situations is not enough; the President is expected to do more. In 2011, many persistent problems were not dealt with, and corruption is still the biggest challenge in the country. Though Indonesia’s rating in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index improved slightly from 2.8 in 2010 to 3.0 in 2011, deep problems remain. Junior bureaucrats were found to possess billions of rupiahs in their savings accounts; wealth which is largely incompatible with their standard salaries. The wife of a former deputy police chief facilitated billions of rupiahs worth of grafts for members of Indonesia’s House of Representatives (DPR). And the head of a public elementary school stole huge amounts of public money which was supposed to be used for the school.

Mahfud M.D., the chairman of Indonesia’s Constitutional Court, in December 2012 noted that many state institutions appear to have been ‘contaminated’ by corruption viruses. Out of the several judicial authorities dealing with anti-corruption legal actions — the National Police, the Attorney General’s Office and the Corruption Eradication Commission — only the latter stands strong, even though it is also under attack by many lawmakers, who wish to weaken it.

In 2012, Indonesia should look to its neighbours, including Singapore and Australia, in its effort to deal with corruption. Indonesia should not feel awkward about learning from other countries. It is better to ‘lower’ the country’s dignity for some time in order to subsequently reach a more dignified status.

Human rights also demand greater attention, particularly after the recent bloody clashes involving citizens, corporations and police authorities. State authorities have been found guilty of human rights abuses in some recent cases, such that national and international attention remains focused on Indonesia. Some progress has been made, with reforms instituted since 1998 increasing the freedom of the press, and the public have also become more critical of human rights abuses perpetrated by the authorities.

This year may also see a possible breakout among the governing coalition parties, with the potential to shake the foundations of SBY’s government. This could be sparked by the Bank Century saga — the bank for which Indonesia’s previous government authorised a large bailout. Even though Indonesia survived the financial crisis — due perhaps to its bailout policy — some politicians in the DPR remain committed to prosecuting the policy makers responsible for the move, of whom are members of the current government. Interestingly, the strongest critics of the policy are members of the Golkar Party and Prosperous Justice Party, which are both members of the governing coalition. Either way, Indonesian politics will undoubtedly become more heated in 2012. Even though the next general election is two and a half years away, campaigning has already started. Some parties have announced their presidential candidates, whereas others are still in a wait-and-see mode.

Internationally, 2012 will be less hectic than 2011, with Cambodia chairing ASEAN after Indonesia’s stint last year. Another issue that may prove difficult for policy makers is the protection of Indonesian migrant workers abroad. Last year, an Indonesian citizen was beheaded by Saudi authorities, to strong public criticism in Indonesia. The government must nevertheless be commended for its ability to save a number of other workers through its diplomatic missions in Riyadh and Jeddah. But others are still waiting to face court proceedings, with many confronting potential death penalties.

One positive from December 2011 was an increase in Indonesia’s sovereign credit rating. Fitch Ratings increased Indonesia’s ranking from BB+ to BBB- with a stable outlook. The upgrade should provide for increased foreign investment, which in the future can create more jobs. This opportunity shall not be missed or wasted, but it is up to Indonesia’s elites to determine the country’s longer-term direction. Indonesia can move forward, or embrace the status quo. But it is also possible to go backward if care is not taken.

By Yasmi Adriansyah PhD student at the School of Politics and International Relations, the Australian National University, and Executive Director of Projecting Indonesia. East Asia Forum

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