Sunday, May 26, 2013

15 Years After The Reform...Piye Kabare?

I've told you once, May is the month that will always remind me to be grateful. Now I'm telling you why.

May 1998, was a month that changed the whole face of the country, Indonesia. Every Indonesian may have different memory on what they can recall those days around the day when Presiden Suharto finally stepped down, but the world and the history books noted that it was a fundamental milestone that changed the fate of the nation. The 1998 Reform, the decision to take democracy as the new national consensus replacing authoritarianism (whatever the Orde Baru defenders call it), I believe should be one reason for me to be grateful today.

However, some other Indonesians disagree. These people think that Suharto's New Order is better compared to the current era. They started to put on this banner/posters/murals, with Suharto's fatherly smiling face, waving his hand as we all can remember, captioned with these sentences: "Piye kabare? Enak jamanku, tho?" . Two sentences, literally translated as: "How are you? My era is still better, isn't it?" Few days ago, a former finance minister from Suharto era convincingly argued on TV talk show that the majority of Indonesians today would opt for Suharto's era rather than today's so-called democratic era. His arguments were mostly anecdotal, such as premanisme, worse quality of public service, gini ratio, the quality of infrastructure and more news on corrupt and lavish bureaucrats and politicians.

I choose not to stay silent on his argument.

I have mentioned here that democracy has been the safeguard of many positive changes in Indonesia. And until today, I haven't changed my mind.

Although it is still far from ideal, nobody will disagree if I say that we have so much more freedom nowadays that in Suharto's era. And wouldn't you agree that freedom is one of quintessential sources of happiness for every human being? Even in Islam, freedom is cited to be one of 3 most fundamental blessings given by God Almighty (see it here).

Freedom has improved in various fields of life: freedom of speech, freedom to choose in elections, freedom to celebrate our identities, freedom to critise the government, and so on and so forth. Indeed, problems still emerge here and there, particularly related to the freedom for the minorities to express their identities. But really, we should remind ourselves that few years ago, saying something like "duduk, diam, dengar, duit" (a criticism to the legislature who simply became the rubber stamp for government's policy) in the House of Representatives would instantly cost you your life. Your very life.

Is it true that the quality of public service today is generally worse than in Suharto's era as argued by that former finance minister? I wonder how many examples of public service samples that he analyze to come to this conclusion. It seems that either he's been lock inside a closed ward for several past years or he simply picked the failure E KTP project as the only supporting argument. Clearly, there seems so many problems, and there are indeed sooo many problems regarding the quality of public service in this country, but it is largely due to the freedom of speech where the people now can voice their complaints, critiques, and frustration to the public service. As for the quality of public service itself, I'm pretty confident to say, we have improved, as you can see innovations are emerging along with the decentralizing governments and in response to the more "demanding" customers, a.k.a the people.

Speaking about the public service, I often consider myself as a real evidence of the difference between the two eras. I did not pay any cent to get into the public service, nor I knew anyone in the ministry. I doubt that this could happen if there was no 1998 reform movement. I believe that the public service recruitment system is something that will continuously improve.

As for the former finance minister's argument on infrastructure, gini ratio and the very loud noises on rogue bureaucrats and politicians, we have to admit that to certain extent they are real problems. Less authoritarian government often take longer to take decision that may result in slower physical infrastructure progress. But hey, consultation with more stakeholders are often necessary for a better decision, no? As for the gini ratio, I'm not an expert on this. Maybe it is true that the economic disparity in our society is widening...but please keep in mind, that the authoritarian regime of the new order were very good in manipulating numbers and data for no one were able to hold them accountable for what they said.

The critics of democracy also often argue that democracy hampers the economic development. Well, I have(i think) a good counter-argument for this that I've coined on a BBC debate that you can see here (part 3). An essential consequence of democratic system is the bigger guarantee for peaceful-non violent political succession through elections. Do you remember that we had two bloody political transitions caused by the authoritarian regimes in 1965 and 1998? Please kindly compare with the 1999, 2004, and 2009 elections. Maybe the elected president sucks and the legislators are dumb by your standard, but the number of violent incidents were so much lower compared to 1965 and 1998. I believe the stability resulted from such process is more likely to guarantee the economic development.

On the the news on corrupt politicians and bureaucrats...the former finance minister actually brought a very interesting point, that there are increasing exposure on these corruptions. Which is to some extent good. Why? Because in the past the situation was probably equally ugly, or even worse, but just because there was no freedom of press or freedom of information in general that the public did not know what happen.

This is also what Pandji underlines in his book, Berani Mengubah. We often think that the current post reform situation is so much worse than the New Order era just because we hear and see so many bad things on the news, but often forget that the New Order government were so (much more :p) manipulative, AND there was no freedom of press
in Orde Baru.

I still remember what my Conflict Resolution lecturer said few years ago. The people in Aceh and North Sumatra know exactly the different between the Suharto's era and the current era. He said that in Suharto era, it was impossible to drive at night from Aceh to North Sumatra. You would surely be killed. While in post Suharto era, particularly after Helsinki process, people could travel safely from North Sumatra to Aceh, even at night. Did you, especially the Indonesian people living in the island of Java, know about this? I did not know either. And I believe that we should not leave the judgement on which era or system is better to those who live around the center of power.

Finally, I would like to note what one of my favourite foreign ministers said. Hassan Wirajuda once said that we often underestimate what we have achieved from the reform movement in 1998. The changes that I've mentioned above are the sources of recognition in the so-called "pergaulan internasional", of course minister Wirajuda knows best about this. I've read his speeches in the UN General Assembly, that reflected how much the international perception have changed on our country. From a country that once was considered as authoritarian, human rights violating country, to so-called "the next Balkan", potentially-failed state, into finally the third largest democracy, an emerging economy. Many countries are queuing "to learn" from the Indonesian experience. An Indonesian diplomat told me that now they have so much lighter burden in doing their tasks, as they no longer need to lie (as much as in the past :p) about the human rights violations and many other things about their country. (If you're interested in this issue, please read this book :D).

I want to conclude this post by reinforcing my argument. Anyone who thinks that the New Order era is better and more preferable than the current era should really think twice. Do you really have the idea of living under the government who will not hesitate to kidnap, torture or kill you when you disagree with them? Our frustrations with our "homeworks" should not be enough reasons to return to the darkness that we could only imagine as a better place. Oh, and thank God, another person invited to the talk along with that pro-Suharto former finance minister said that actually a survey said that the bigger percentage of Indonesian people still prefer for the current era. Hah!

Echoing what former minister Wirajuda said, we need to be grateful for what we have achieved this far. On the other hand, being grateful does not mean that we have to stop thinking critically. We are on the right track, but we have to struggle to stay on the right track and to be better.

So, happy 15 Tahun Reformasi, my fellow Indonesians. This poster below sums up the whole point of this super-long (but i hope not boring :p) writing. This is a brilliant response to the original Suharto poster mentioned above. For you who doesn't speak Bahasa Indonesia, it says: "How are you? My era is still better, isn't it? Everything was cheap...including YOUR LIFE!"

Just brilliant.