Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Dumbing Down of Indonesian Voters: A Scholar’s View

Vedi Hadiz is a prolific scholar who has produced a number of academic works on several subjects, including political Islam and political economy. He has been particularly well known for his works on Indonesia, a subject he has been researching for more than 30 years.

Among his notable works are Workers and the State in New Order Indonesia (1997), Reorganising Power in Indonesia: The Politics of Oligarchy in an Age of Markets (which was co-authored with Richard Robison, 2004), Empire and Neoliberalism in Asia (2006) as well as Localising Power in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia: A South East Asia Perspective (2010). Reorganising Power has become a classical textbook for students learning about Indonesia.

Hadiz conducted his PhD thesis under the supervision of Richard Robison at Australia’s Murdoch University. Robison is a leading political economist who initiated a political economy approach in understanding the New Order and post-New Order Indonesia in late 1970s. Having taught at the National University of Singapore (NUS) for many years, Hadiz is currently at Murdoch University. In Indonesia, some of his works had been published by Prisma magazine of LP3ES.

The humorous professor shared some of his views on this year’s presidential election, the candidates and the voters to Magdalene.

Magdalene: How do you assess this year presidential election? Is it a decisive election for the future of Indonesia as compared to other elections after the New Order government?

Hadiz: I think this year’s election is a continuity of previous elections rather than a big change. At best, it will show that political patterns that have existed in Indonesia for years have been intensely formalized that there has been no contestation on its legitimacy.

However, from the point of view of power taking charge in the election process, what we have seen is a continuity. Will it be decisive for the future (of Indonesia)? I think it will not be more decisive than previous elections, because basically the existing election format does not give a lot of opportunities for alternative powers to be involved in the political contestation in Indonesia. So, if it is said that (this year’s election) will determine the future of Indonesia, I would say that it will, at best, only show that Indonesian elections for the next 10 years will remain like this.

You appear to be supporting those who opt not to vote this year since they also mentioned the same reasoning.

I can actually sympathize with those who will not vote, but I do not expect a significant number of Indonesian voters will do it because I believe no matter how imperfect democracy in Indonesia is, no matter how frustrating it is, it remains far better than going back to authoritarianism. I think it is not good for everybody in Indonesia, if some people insist to challenge this election process and result or consider it illegitimate because it will only lead to some nostalgic ideas to go back to the past. Although I do not think this year’s election will be able to bring in many changes, I prefer to have not much change than having a change that will bring Indonesia back to New Order era.

Both pair of candidates has historical links to the New Order. In contemporary Indonesia today, why is the New Order still considered a problem?

There are several issues of the New Order. The most notable one is that it is the New Order that had institutionalized corruption practices, which propagated the crime everywhere and made them seem like a norm. I believe it is the New Order’s biggest sin. A lot of attempts to fight corruption actually face interests pertaining to corruption practices that have been institutionalized in the New Order period.

Second, the New Order has left behind a trail of human rights abuses that is definitely incompatible with democratic values. Since our democracy has opened the door for the emergence or strengthening of questions over human rights, we have automatically stepped back to the New Order.

Third, the more intangible sin of the New Order has been developing “pembodohan” (stupidization) of the people. Through education, mass media, ulemas, anything, the New Order has systematically accustomed Indonesian people to obey, not to think critically and to consider Indonesia incomparable to other societies because it was presented as unique. For example, since Pancasila is considered a unique product of Indonesia culture, Indonesia is unable to compare its democracy, economy and values to other societies. I think such thinking has killed Indonesia young generation’s creativity because creativity comes from the ability to understand us by comparing it with those outside ourselves. Only this way can we create new ideas that suit our needs for our betterment.

If urban, middle class voters still buy those superficial campaigns, I would say it is their own mistakes. Voters should look into the track records of the candidates to see if their programs make sense or not.

How do you assess the programs offered by both candidates?
There is nothing special in the vision and mission or program or manifesto or whatever they call it of both candidates. Both contain very general programs. For me, they contain a bunch of statements combined with some hopes without showing us how the candidates will make those hopes a reality. If X becomes a president, his government will reduce unemployment rate to zero. There has been no question on how he actually will do it. Jangan-jangan para penganggur nanti dibunuh (Does it mean all the unemployed will be eliminated?). If A becomes a president, he will eradicate poverty. How will he do it? Jangan-jangan orang miskin diculik? (Does that mean the poor will be kidnapped?). The track records of both candidates fail to convince me how they will actually achieve their programs.

But, I haven’t seen significant challenges to their programs. Maybe it’s because voters do not demand more on such limited statements, not challenging them enough to explain more programs. I haven’t seen voters challenge a candidate significant enough that he will explain what he was doing in May 1998.

The candidates won’t give more because voters do not demand more. They can get away with it because voters are too easy to please with what the candidates said so far. Why don’t the voters ask for more? Does the program make sense? Are they achievable? How will the candidates achieve it? Why do the candidates choose to do this, instead of others? There are so many questions that voters could ask to the candidates. But, they did not raise such issues. Indeed, such tendency has been a result of New Order’s influence in today’s Indonesia.

Then, what does it take to become informed voters in today’s highly mediated election campaign?

It is very difficult because there has been no strong institution that plays decent roles in political education. Therefore, individuals or voters must look for information themselves in sufficient manners to understand the contemporary political condition.

Voters must be willing to look for data and source information themselves. It is actually easier to do today than it was before with the presence of the Internet and other technology. Middle class voters have more than sufficient access to accurate information sources. They could look for accurate hard news that was not modified about what was happening in Jakarta in May 1998, for example. If today’s voters hear or read criticism against a candidate, they could re-check the accuracy of the criticism. Look for news about the criticized events or performance of the candidates.

Middle class voters, who understand English, could get sources from English publication widely available on the Net if they’re worried that local publication were biased. The point is voters have to be active. There are no reasons for voters today, especially the middle class, to be fooled by crafted campaign issues.

Election campaigns today have been characterized by personalization. What’s wrong with making a decision to vote based on appearance, style or things like that?

Look, middle class voters have no reason to be fooled by superficiality. It is their own laziness to look for information that may fool them. It may be a different story for voters who are poor or live in rural areas or have to work on their paddy fields all day long.

If urban, middle class voters still buy those superficial campaigns, I would say it is their own mistakes. Voters should look into the track records of the candidates to see if their programs make sense or not. Could we trust a candidate’s vision and mission if they are against their own track records? Of course, we should not be obsessed with the past. But, we should also not be fooled by it. The track records of the candidates are very important to voters to make a judgment whether the candidates could deliver what their promise or not.

It is such a shame that voters are not critical. But, it also links to the fact that the majority of Indonesian media have been carried away with the election campaign circus. It may link to the fact that the media are owned by those who have political interests in this election. It is a part of the New Order’s legacy to “stupidize” people.

Will you vote?

Unfortunately, I haven’t registered…(laughing). Joking aside, I won’t vote but I will not encourage others not to vote.

About Muninggar Sri Saraswati

Muninggar is a chauffeur, cook, nurse, guard and preacher, as well as a playing and sleeping partner of her daughter Ariadne Hartanto. In between, she is a full time stalker of Twitter and Facebook accounts of politicians, which tests her sanity to the limit in return of a PhD degree.


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