Indonesian Elections: Dreaming of Gajah Mada in a Modern Democracy

By Farish A. Noor

While doing fieldwork on the island of Madura last week, I stopped for a while to do one of those necessary things we all need to do sooner or later: get a haircut. My colleague and fellow academic Toharudin and I stopped by a small, somewhat forlorn barber’s shop in Sumenep and set down on the rickety chairs as we were shaved and made to look semi-civilised at least.

In due course, the conversation with the barber turned to politics and the recent elections of 9th April. Pak Sulis, the barber, opined thus: “I am happy that the Partai Demokrat (Democratic Party) won the highest number of votes for the Parliamentary elections, and I hope SBY (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) will be elected as the President. He has done so much for the country: brought peace to Aceh, fought against corruption, and he needs another term to consolidate and build the country further. We need continuity now; the five years after the fall of Suharto were too traumatic for people like me.”

Pak Sulis’ opinion was matched by the electorate who gave the Partai Demokrat the highest number of votes and consequently seats at the recent elections. But what was interesting for me was how this man – who admitted that he was semi-literate and whose education stopped at the age of 11 – was more concerned about actual political results than empty rhetoric. Pak Sulis, like millions of ordinary Indonesians, want to see their democracy succeed. And to make their point the Indonesian people voted for the three main parties whose ideologies were secular, nationalist and development-oriented. All in all the sectarian nationalist parties and the Islamic parties that were seen as being religiously sectarian were ousted.

For analysts like Dr Mohamad Nur Ichwan of Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University in Jogjakarta, the results were clear: “The electorate has shown that the Islamic parties cannot win simply by talking about Shariah and making sectarian claims for Muslims alone.”

Indonesia, which had for too long been run down in the international press as a country tottering on the verge of collapse and diagnosed as a failed state, has made a comeback in no uncertain terms. While the governments of other ASEAN countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Burma/Myanmar continue down the path of measured authoritarianism, with dominant strongmen like Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew still pulling the strings, Indonesians have taken their fate into their own hands and said goodbye to the bad old days of military-backed, iron-fisted authoritarian rule.

The secret of Indonesia’s success is that this is a nation that was willing to give democracy a chance. Successive Indonesian leaders made their share of mistakes, but they also helped to pave the way for the reform process we see today. In particular some credit has to go to Abdurrahman Wahid (popularly known as Gus Dur) for removing senior army leaders like General Wiranto from cabinet, and crucially, opening up the public domain for debate. Gus Dur also performed the landmark gesture of fully and unreservedly acknowledging the place and role of the Chinese minority in Indonesia and insisting that they were fully-fledged Indonesians; thereby reversing decades of anti-Chinese racism that had become normalised during the Suharto era.

Pak Sulis’ love for President Yudhoyono, however, betrays the Indonesians’ love for their country and their past. “You know why I like him so much? He is like the great Prime Minister Gajah Mada during the glorious days of the Majapahit kingdom. The man is huge, tall, proud but soft-spoken, polite and well-mannered. He has never uttered a racist remark, never hurt the feelings of anyone. A true gentleman that we need.” Indeed, Yudhoyono’s political campaign was singularly free of all scandal, abuse or insults against his competitors.

Perhaps in the end this is what a mature democracy looks and feels like; where people can vote freely and live in a country with a free press and open society without fear of being attacked or arrested according to the whim of a despot. The other leaders of ASEAN should take note, and give Indonesia the respect it deserves. For in this corner of Southeast Asia at least, democracy is growing fast and will blossom soon.

  1. #1 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 16 April 2009 - 8:30 am

    So if Indonesian barber Pak Sulis praised Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) and looked nostalgically back to Prime Minister Gajah Mada (translated, the Elephant General) during the glorious days of the Majapahit kingdom (1290-1364), to whom (which leader present or past) our Malaysian barber or taxi driver should look at for hopes and inspiration in such despondent times? Hang Tuah, Bapa Malaysia, Tun Hussein Onn, his father Datuk Onn Jaafar or (to some) Tun Dr Mahathir???

    Though Gajah Mada’s rule is commonly viewed as a golden age in Indonesian history, the other side of the Elephant General which taximan Pak Sulis probably didn’t know of was his treachery and ruthlessness and Machiavellian disposition.

    Our Elephant General became well known as a royal body guard who helped King Jayanagara suppress a rebellion in 1319. Jayanagara named Gajah Mada patih (minister) for his loyalty. However Gajah Mada later turned on Jayanagara when the king took Gajah Mada’s wife for his own. When the sick king later went for surgery, Gajah Mada ordered the surgeon to kill Jayanagara, and, once the surgeon had sone so, Gajah Mada had the surgeon executed.

    So whats the moral of the story especially in a country not short of such characters at the helm of leadership positions ? Is it a person of ruthless, plotting, vengeful murderous character could yet be a great Prime Minister adulated by his countrymen 700 + years later as a great glorious leader?

    Could moral (or rather immoral) characteristics of a leader be separated – and considered a thing apart – from his potential to achieve great and glorious things for his country and country men?? And what’s use a leader of humble, gentle and affable disposition, who plotted nothing against others but just waited patiently and got anointed to the top post and then later suffered others to plot against and oust him from power with no achievement in between except talk? So why are Malaysians so obessed with swirling rumours and political baggage of their leaders who might if given time yet prove to be another Elephant General ???? :)

    Politics – and politicians – are about perception : perceive a person good, does not mean he is really good (vice versa) or that the country is really getting better just because leader, like SBY, is popular, with a few successful prosecution of corrupt chieftains at provincial levels and political will to prosecute the Bali bombers.

    By the latest survey of foreign business executives by Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (“PERC”) on March 2009 [based on more than 1,700 responses from 14 Asian economies plus Australia and the United States (for comparison)], Indonesia was still perceived the most corrupt country, graded 8.32 in a grading system with zero as the best possible score and 10 the worst; Thailand the second most corrupt with a grade of 7.63, Cambodia was seen as the third most corrupt country with a score of 7.25, followed by India with 7.21, Vietnam with 7.11 and the Philippines at 6th position from bottom with 7.0. A grade greater than 7.0 indicates that a “serious” corruption problem exists, PERC said. A score between 4.0 and 7.0 indicates a “moderate” level of corruption. Malaysia scored 6.70, Taiwan with 6.47, China with 6.16, Macau 5.84, South Korea with 4.64 and Japan with 3.99. (Singapore again topped the survey as Asia’s least corrupt country with a score of 1.07, followed by Hong Kong with 1.89. Australia scored 2.40 to be in third place followed by the United States with 2.89).

  2. #2 by taiking on Thursday, 16 April 2009 - 9:02 am

    A curious thought struck me. Change (both political and economical) seems possible in indonesia when it has a population in excess of 230million. Change also seems possible in thailand – a country with a population of 60+ million. China has changed tremendously. India too is on the way – slow but sure. And these two countries are true giants. How come we cannot change? We are after all a nation of 25 million only. I wonder if any of those countries has super-size political parties like umno. With a membership of 3million, the party in fact makes up a good 12% of the population. Ruling a political party of such size is like ruling a small nation like singapore. This comparison may not be accurate or proper but it serves to illustrate one point which the complexity a large political party would bring. In my view size in this case is a weakness. And ironically by sheer size it could dominate the political scene and by its sheer dominance it could then rule the country. Isnt it daunting to think of a country which is being led by a weak but huge political party? An engineer would tell us that a huge structural element would fail under its own weight. Fortunately for all of us, there are now signs of such failure within umno. The failure will break their dominant power and level the political field for the good of the nation.

  3. #3 by ibrahim on Thursday, 16 April 2009 - 9:15 am

    I was in Jakarta before, during and after the April 9 elections. Right throughout the city, there were banners reminding Indonesians that \menang kalah adalah perkara biasa, persaudaraan mestilah tetap dijaga\. This indicated to me that the political parties recognise that (among other things) after the elections Indonesians will still have to live with each other, and therefore, candidates and parties are reminded to be civil in the manner in which electioneering is to take place. Right there and then, my respect for the political process in Indonesia sky rocketed. Do you see BN being this noble??

  4. #4 by HJ Angus on Thursday, 16 April 2009 - 9:18 am

    Who said we cannot change?
    I believe most Malaysians want the federal government to be out of the BN’s control in the next GE.
    Unless there is a military takeover or massive fraud in the meantime, we can expect change by 2013.
    Of course the BN can undergo a drastic makeover and behave like a proper government.
    But between the 2 events, it will most likely be the voters who opt for the change.
    I was in Indonesia during the elections and their system has some merits compared to ours.

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 16 April 2009 - 9:22 am

    Whilst on this topic, yes businessmen/investors may like S’pore & HK because when interfacing with civil service and bureaucracy, they get things done fast, licenses, approvals and exemptions obtained without having to bribe and given the run around.

    However what big opportunities and markets are there in some of these so called corrupt free places like (say) S’pore, Australia etc ?

    Depending on nature of business, businessmen/investors will still go and look for opportunities in places which, according to PERC, a “serious” corruption problem exists : eg Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia (if you were in good books of Hun Sen) India, Vietnam and the Philippines!

    Businessmen/investors are there for opportunities to make money – not promote good governance, democracy or nuture good morality in these countries!

    They are realistic; they don’t mind “sharing on win win formula” a euphemism for bribing if that were necessary to bring results ie get the job/contract over and above other competitors, where mark up could be more due to relative monopolistic situation to cover the additional costs of kick backs.

    Corruption and need to bribe to oil the cogs of business machinery is not the problem – it is as old as the other so called vice Prostitution – because businessmen/investors could do their costing, forecast and Return on Equity and Return on Investment as against turnaround/breakeven point calculations!

    The important thing is to know who to bribe and the certainty that bribe would procure results! Corruption in China and increasingly in Indonesia is becoming decentralised, which is bad for the “Giver” as he is unsure of who and how many tiers (local municipal, provincial, national) he has to bribe to get things done. One is done for if he has bribed the guy whose authority is overridden by other guy bribed by a competitor!

    If it were centralised (say) in a ex general (say) in Cambodia or even Burma, well the Giver knows exactly who to give – provided the Taker (say a minister in position to make decisions) is “honourable” in the sense he has the political clout/leverage to effect delivery, enforce his decisions downline, and does not waver ie change his decision midway against the interrest of businessmen/investors.

    What is important to businessmen/investors is stability of politics.

    Never mind it is not a democracy. It can be an autocracy and dictatorship. What is important is that one can deal with the right leader who is powerful and could deliver his part of the bargain in consideration of the bribe. The Civil service must fear such a guy. If not his executive decision to award the contract to his crony will not be carried out.

    No point if place of business were a democracy especially the street kind in Thailand or Phillippines in which the leader with whom one has a deal and arrangement is every now and then changed and new guy comes in with a pre-existing arrangement other crony businessmen/investors!

    It is political stability that counts. Right now this is one of the factors by which Malaysia loses out (in terms of attractiveness to outside businessmen and investors) more than just corruption per se.

  6. #6 by HJ Angus on Thursday, 16 April 2009 - 11:30 am

    I guess the flip-flop of the AAB admin would have caused many investors to look elsewhere.
    SBY has quite a stable persona on TV whereas AAB appeared dithering at times.
    Najib appears calm and confident but the perception and baggage is not too healthy. As for his deputy, well after his blast at the Chinese media, the team appears weak.
    Quite surprising for 2 guys who have played this political game for so long.
    Or maybe Malaysians are now more demanding of their leaders. Even Obama apologised quickly after a crude remark on a talk show but MY chose to accuse the journos.

  7. #7 by FWO on Thursday, 16 April 2009 - 3:29 pm

    As an Indonesian, I would say that I am proud of what my country able to achieve for now. However it is true that we could not take for granted that our elected leaders will do good for the country instead for themselves.
    I think Jeffrey got the point that SBY was not proved to be a good leader yet. Not with corruption still took place in front of the public eye; and while efforts have been made to eradicate that, this fight has not been won by people yet.
    Many still needs to be done to improve Indonesia condition. However, I believe a fair and free election would be a step to start that and as Indonesian cast their vote-despite the errors during the poll process-I see people is beginning to believe in their voice; that their voices is matter no matter how small it is.

  8. #8 by ctc537 on Friday, 17 April 2009 - 5:24 pm

    A successful Indonesia would mean political dominance of the 150 million Javanee who live on less than 10% of its total land area over the rest of the population living on the islands of the huge archipelago. There are potential problems like the separatist sentiments in regions like Acheh, Papua and Maluku. It has to spend huge amount on building expensive infrastructure linking the major islands of Sumatra and Java
    Several years ago, TDM lamented the fact that there is no Islamic country that has the potential to rise to become a super power capable of challenging US global hegemony. Even if Indonesia were to fit Mahathir’s dream of such a reality, a superpower Indonesia will probably be a staunch American ally together with Japan and India. It would not chooe to lead the Islamic world although it is the biggest Muslim nation on rth. I base this opinion on the fact that a rising and anti-West Muslim Indonesia would be nipped in the bud like what the US has been trying to do on Iran.

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