JAKARTA – Looking around Southeast Asia today is a little depressing for those who yearn for a democratic civil society where honest individuals can strive for the top without fear or favour.
There is one country, however, that does actually inspire hope: Indonesia.
It is the region’s biggest, most unwieldy, most disparate, most unlikely candidate to be a role model for ASEAN. Yet that is what it has become.
Barely a decade after it cast off an authoritarian dictatorship, Indonesia stands as a beacon of political stability, religious tolerance, press freedom and economic growth.
It is amazing, especially since it is the world’s most populous Muslim nation, with more than 230 million people.
Most importantly, Indonesia anchors ASEAN in a non-threatening way.
As the former foreign minister Ali Alatas once told me: “We are not big brother. We have an Indonesian saying: ‘We sit just as low and we stand just as high.’”
Since 1998, when former dictator General Suharto was elbowed out in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis, Indonesia has held free and fair elections for the national legislature and the presidency.
Kevin O’Rourke, a political risk analyst here, told me: “Indonesia’s leaders have responded to public demands for democratisation, press liberalisation, multiparty elections, direct elections for president and regional heads, and a powerful independent anticorruption commission.”
Last year, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the nation’s fourth president since the fall of Suharto, was returned to power in elections that were as well-ordered and peaceful as any in the West.
If only that could be repeated across the region. Instead, there has already been one election-related massacre in the Philippines. Myanmar’s planned polls are a sick joke. As for Thailand, the less said the better. And of course, there are no free elections in Brunei, Laos or Vietnam.
Neither Malaysia nor Singapore has ever witnessed a transfer of power between parties through a free election, and Cambodia’s CPP seems unlikely to lose its grip anytime soon.
That said, although Yudhoyono has wisely focused on increasing economic prosperity, cutting red tape and rooting out corruption, he has not always delivered.
He is routinely belittled for being too cautious and too slow, for lacking vision and dynamism.
However, he does not gratuitously return the insults, nor does he fabricate charges against opponents and have them jailed or beaten up by goon squads. Like his post-Suharto predecessors, he defeats them at the ballot box.
That is the strength of Indonesia today, and that is the weakness of the rest of ASEAN.
Of course, everything is not hunky dory. Last month, Gary Locke, the US secretary of commerce, speaking in advance of a visit to Jakarta by President Barack Obama in June, said: “Economic nationalism, regulatory uncertainty, unresolved investment disputes and the lack of transparency give pause to American companies seeking to do business in Indonesia.”
And although there has been a prodigious amount of reform, Indonesia is still known by many for so-called KKN: korupsi, kolusi dan nepotisme – corruption, collusion and nepotism.
But things are improving even on those fronts, and today corrupt officials and businessmen get exposed in the nation’s vibrant press and end up in jail.
Aulia Pohan, the former central bank deputy governor and father-in-law of President Yudhoyono’s eldest son, was jailed last June for embezzlement. Imagine that happening in elsewhere in the region. Now that would be real progress.