Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Missing Suharto Yet?

The dust is still settling over last week’s legislative election in Indonesia. Pundits are still mulling over the “whys” and “hows” of the results. We can all agree though that — the lack of a decisive winner aside — Indonesian democracy is still in rude health.

As we await the official results (although it’s fairly clear that the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) has won a plurality) I’d like to share some of the observations I gleaned when I — as always — hit the road to watch the campaign unfold.

One thing that particularly struck me was the undeniable nostalgia for the certainties of the Suharto era among ordinary Indonesians, especially those in the rural areas. I was surprised by the amount of times I came across people wearing T-shirts bearing the image of the cheekily-smiling general with the caption: Lebih enak jamanku kan? (“Weren’t things better when I was around?”) Foreigners may find this surprising: wasn’t Suharto’s “New Order” a quagmire of corruption and human rights abuses? Didn’t Indonesians rise up to get rid of him in 1998? How on earth could they miss him?

Well, for one thing, post-Reformasi Indonesia has not been great for everyone. Corruption has not abated. Red tape has worsened. Competition for jobs and resources has intensified. Of course, civil liberties and political freedoms have improved dramatically. These are real achievements but the lack of economic social justice has made them somewhat hollow.

Furthermore, Indonesians are also yearning for what they consider to be “decisive leadership.” The outgoing administration’s policy flip-flops have had a significant impact on rural families as the prices for everyday commodities, from onions to rice to beef have ricocheted uncontrollably.

His many failings aside (and there were many), Suharto’s New Order gave Indonesia a taste of stability and progress. After assuming the presidency in 1967, Suharto managed to lower Indonesia’s poverty rate from almost 60 percent to just 13 percent before the economic crisis hit in 1997. Access to education and health care also improved significantly. Under him, the Indonesian economy enjoyed 6.5 percent annual economic growth between late 1960s and 1997. Hyperinflation — at 660 percent in 1966 — was reduced to 19 percent in 1969.

Suharto — through controls of the economy — protected Indonesians from the worst excesses of capitalism. This hasn’t occurred with democracy and perhaps that is why Indonesians miss him, even though it was those controls which messed-up the economy in the first place.

It’s unsurprising therefore that the Golkar Party, under the business magnate Aburizal Bakrie, has tried very hard to capitalize on the so-called “SARS” ( Sindrom Amat Rindu Suharto , or Missing Suharto Syndrome). The party used Suharto’s image heavily in materials and even got his daughters to campaign for them. This has been moderately successful. Golkar is projected to win just 14 percent of the popular vote, which is more or less status quo for them.

To be fair though, it still puts them in second place and it’s proof that Bakrie’s controversial business history hasn’t really scared off Golkar’s faithful. Still, it could also be a sign that Indonesians aren’t backward-looking. Or rather, that urban dwellers won’t easily forgive or forget the abuse of power and circumscribed democracy of the Suharto days. But no one can deny the depth of Suharto’s achievements. For better or worse, today’s Indonesia is his creature. Love him or loathe him, you cannot dismiss his legacy.

Last week’s results show that while many yearn for stability and security Indonesians aren’t willing to give a carte blanche to those who wish to turn the clocks back.

But would-be leaders and their followers alike would do well to remember a Javanese saying Suharto often quoted: Ojo gumunan, ojo kagetan, ojo dumeh, or “Don’t be easily impressed, nor easily shocked and certainly not arrogant.”

Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.

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