Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 02:02 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 02:02 | SYDNEY

Indonesia: Frustration and fantasies

11 October 2011 11:13

Greta Nabbs-Keller is writing a PhD at Griffith Asia Institute on the impact of democratisation on Indonesia's foreign policy.

I visited Indonesia recently, buoyed by its success. After all, Indonesia was experiencing impressive economic growth rates, spreading its diplomatic wings and consolidating its democratic gains.

But I returned with a more sober view about Indonesia's progress and unsure of how to reconcile conflicting narratives about Indonesia.

The resoundingly upbeat international assessments of Indonesia's economic fundamentals, regional leadership capacity and vibrant democracy do not seem to be matched by sentiment on the ground. Cynicism in Indonesia about domestic politics is palpable.

Indonesians' sense of disillusionment has been borne out by recent survey results which reveal frustration with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's (SBY) 'weak' leadership and even a degree of nostalgia for the Suharto era.

Clearly, SBY's legitimacy is in steady decline and Indonesia's democracy remains deeply flawed. Thirteen years after the end of authoritarian rule, the government seems incapable of delivering on many of the promises of democratisation.

Based on survey results, many Indonesians, for example, believe that the government has failed to deliver on clean and effective governance, defence of individual liberties and the delivery of basic needs for those 180 or so million people who do not comprise Indonesia's middle class.

Even in the foreign policy realm, there are quiet doubts in some quarters about Indonesia's ability to steer the strategic readjustment necessary between the US and China that will ensure autonomy and stability for Southeast Asia. And there is discomfort among some former diplomats about Indonesia's promotion of a liberal normative agenda in ASEAN, given its own backyard is hardly exemplary.

On the economic front, concerns remain about Indonesia's systemic weaknesses — pervasive corruption, regulatory impediments and inadequate infrastructure to support economic expansion.

Disenchantment about Indonesia's domestic politics may well be a product of democracy itself. Indonesians are fed on a daily staple of high profile corruption cases involving politicians, bureaucrats and business figures, through a plethora of media outlets. The media commentary is overwhelmingly negative about the SBY government, most of it justifiably so.

The key questions then, are whether disillusionment with the SBY administration is translating into disillusionment with democracy more broadly, and whether ongoing domestic weakness, based on economic and political inefficiencies, will undermine Indonesia's regional leadership capacity and economic fundamentals?

The answer is probably 'no' to both questions. There is still substantial support for democracy in Indonesia, according to a 2009 analysis by Stanford University academic, Larry Diamond. He found that support for liberal values was 'surprisingly high' compared with other Southeast Asian states.

In foreign policy terms, there appears to be a consensus that Indonesia should play a pivotal role in the 'power shift' occurring in the Asia Pacific and can have a positive influence, through inclusive and non-punitive diplomacy, on authoritarian states like Myanmar. Economically, Indonesia is tipped to become the world's fourth largest economy by 2040, according to a recent Citibank report.

There are clearly conflicting narratives about Indonesia. One holds a highly positive prognosis of Indonesia's economic, political and diplomatic potential. The other is deeply pessimistic about the true nature of reform in Indonesia and its capacity to live up to expectations. The latter is a valuable counterpoint to the 'success narrative' found largely in international analysis.

Photo by Flickr user e-magic.