Asia’s Toothless Tiger: Ambivalence about Democracy in Indonesia

Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy, but many young Indonesians are ambivalent about democracy in their country. As someone living in Indonesia for an extended period, I had the opportunity to speak to several young people about their satisfaction with the government. The biggest themes that arose from those conversations were corruption and ambivalence about democracy.

In the last several weeks, Western media has used Indonesia as a stage for speaking about American relations with the Muslim world via coverage of the country’s recent slew of natural disasters and a visit by President Barack Obama on November 10. However, less coverage has been given to some of the deeper issues in Indonesia’s dysfunction, including protests of President Susilo Bambang Yudhono’s presidency and Indonesia’s embarrassing corruption rankings.

According to Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perception Index (CPI) 2010, Indonesia scored 2.8 out of 10, the same as last year. The country ranked 110 out of 178 countries. In 2009, it was 111 out of 180 countries, indicating that Indonesia has made little progress in addressing corruption over the last few years. In a recent state-of-the-nation survey, nine out of ten Indonesians believe that corruption is the biggest problem facing their country. Putu Candra, a 28-year-old reporter from Denpasar, believes that Indonesia faces a proliferation of corruption due to the lack of legal certainty. A common phrase is “in Indonesia, the law is made to be broken. As long as there is money, anything can be accomplished.”

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Indonesia earlier in 2009, she said: “If you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity, and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia.” But the story does not end there. Yogi Paramitha, a 23-year-old law student from Denpasar, believes that Indonesia’s relationship with democracy is mixed. “The positive side is that Indonesia has become more open in terms of democratic politics. However, there are negative aspects about direct election that I don’t completely accept. Direct elections are likely to be used as a tool to seek advantage by unscrupulous politicians.” She believes that while democracy is better than the dictatorship, democratic institutions by themselves cannot eradicate Indonesia’s corrupt individuals who work within the government.

In fact, only 70 percent of Indonesians believe that democracy is working in their country, which is a four point decrease from last year, according to a recent state-of-the-nation survey.

“Direct election allows politicians to focus on differences to distract the people from real issues,” Says Paramitha. She believes that Indonesia will remain the same if rogue elements of government continue to exist in its democratic system. “Throughout Indonesia, people still distinguish religion and race. If these elements continue to exist in politics, then it will be difficult to move forward.”

In a country where 90% of the population is Muslim, Indonesia is lauded for its secular constitution and its commitment to “unity through diversity”. However, Islamic politics has infiltrated the country’s laws in a way that oppresses minority cultures. One example of mob rule is Indonesia’s pornography law that was passed in 2008, thanks mostly to Parliament’s religious parties. The law prescribes that women wear full dress in public. “But if you go to the villages in Bali, elderly women still walk the streets topless. In Bali, the economy runs on tourism. According to this law, there would be thousands of Balinese grandmothers and tourists in jail. In Papua, it is traditional to not wear full dress. According to this law, much of Papua would be in jail,” said Paramitha. Since then, Indonesian civil society groups have filed a review on the law saying that it played upon narrow definitions of morality and failed to consider the country’s diverse cultures, customs, and religious interpretations.

Candra, who is also the leader of a youth group in his free time, believes that elective democracy is a poor substitute for the protection of minority rights. He believes that “democracy is possible thanks to the inclusion of interest groups or organizations which are most dominant. Minorities are oppressed by the central government, which favors the majority without thinking about the value of democracy and human rights.” When asked if Indonesia should serve as an example of good governance and democracy to other South East Asian states such as Myanmar, he said he would feel uncomfortable with the idea, given Indonesia’s own record of human rights abuses. Speaking to the legacy of Indonesia’s dictator and president of 30 years, Suharto, Indonesians are afraid to speak out, even in a democratic society. Candra reminds us that “there were hundreds of political activists who were killed during the 1965 genocide. Witnesses are still alive today and they are only now starting to speak. But in history books, it is talked about as a communist scheme to subvert the progress of the country.”

Yet many remain positive about the future. Tika Gurry, a 24-year-old insurance company employee, says that Indonesia is a democratic country because the people are united thanks to its great diversity. She has seen democracy improve in her lifetime and like many, she is optimistic that things will continue to improve.

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