FOCUS ON INDONESIA
Post Editor-in-Chief Michael Hayes visited Cambodia's fellow Asean member state Indonesia for two weeks recently. He spent time in the capital, Jakarta, as well as the West Java provincial capital, Bandung, interviewing a variety of individuals to try to get a picture of where Indonesia is today.
What follows is a snap-shot, five-part series of articles. Part 1 looks at the big picture in Indonesia after 10 years of a historic reform process; Part 2 examines Indonesia's attempts to fight corruption; Part 3 looks at the historic 1955 Asia-Africa Conference held in Bandung and its connection to Cambodia; Part 4 looks at the state of the media in Indonesia; and Part 5 explores the weightier side of shopping in Jakarta, Southeast Asia's largest city, which has a population of between 14 million and 17 million people depending on what time of day it is.
- Population 237,512,352 (July, 08 est.)
- Population growth 1.175%
- Area-land 1,826,440 sq km
- Geography Archipelago of 17,508 islands (6,000 inhabited)
- Natural resources Petroleum, tin, natural gas, nickel, timber, bauxite, copper, fertile soils, coal, gold, silver
- Life expectancy at birth (total population) 70.46 years
- HIV/Aids - adult prevalence rate 0.1%
- HIV/Aids - people living with 110,000 (2003 estimate)
- Literacy (total population) 90.4%
- Education expenditures 3.6% of GDP
- Religions Muslim 86.1%, Protestant 5.7%, Roman Catholic 3%, Hindu 1.8%, other or unspecified 3.4%
- GDP (purchasing power parity): $843.7 billion
- GDP-real growth rate: 6.3%
- GDP-per capita: $3,600
- Labor force: 109.9 million
- Labor force by occupation: agriculture: 43.3%, industry: 18%, services: 38.7%
- Unemployment rate: 9.1%
- Population below poverty line: 17.8%
- Public debt: 34% of GDP
- Exports: $118 billion f.o.b
- Imports: $84.93 billion f.o.b.
- Reserves of foreign exchange and gold $56.92 billion
- Telephones - land 17.828 million
- Telephones - mobile 81.835 million
- Internet hosts 559,359
- Internet users 13 million
- Military expenditures 3% of GDP
Source: CIA-The World Factbook. www.cia.gov
The changes that have taken place in Indonesia in the last 10 years since Suharto resigned under pressure as president in 1998 are nothing less than monumental.
Most importantly, they are changes that have brought more press freedom, more freedom to associate and form political parties or civic organisations, less corruption, greater governmental decentralisation and budgetary accountability, freer and fairer elections, substantial economic growth, and greater stability to Asean's most populous member state.
In many respects Indonesia has, for the time being, beaten the oddsmakers.
After 32 years of Suharto's iron-fisted New Order, sceptics worried in the late 1990s that the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation was on the verge of widespread civil unrest and possibly a complete breakup.
There were fears that separatist elements in the northwestern Sumatran province of Aceh would succeed in splitting away from the rest of the country, setting an example for other remote parts of the country to follow suit.
There were concerns that sectarian tensions would rip apart communities in a bloodbath of religious fury.
When the Asian currency crisis in 1997 hit Indonesia particularly hard, observers feared that the economic downturn would further inflame anti-Chinese sentiments, causing widespread chaos and extensive capital flight.
And there were alarm bells after the Bali bombings in 2002 and Jakarta bombings in 2003 that extremist Islamist elements would capture the disgruntled imaginations of marginalised sectors of the population, resulting in an ever-widening atmosphere of terror and violence.
While tensions have flared, demonstrators have taken to the streets with violent consequences, sectarian friction has resulted in gruesome killings, and the country continues to wrestle with levels of extreme poverty amongst broad swaths of its population, none of these things have significantly derailed ongoing systemic reforms.
On the contrary, Indonesia has drawn attention for its political, economic and societal developmental successes.
In a recent editorial titled "Indonesia's Democratic Miracle", Singapore's former ambassador to the United Nations, Kishore Mahbubhani, writes: "Indonesia, the world's most populous Islamic country, has emerged as a beacon of freedom and democracy for the Muslim world."
The US-based Freedom House, which monitors democratic developments around the world, determined in 2005 that Indonesia had moved from "partly free" to "free", making it the only country in Asean to be classified as such.
In a May 2008 report titled "Seeing Indonesia as a normal country" written by Andrew MacIntyre and Douglas Ramage and published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the authors conclude:
"Indonesia in 2008 is a stable, competitive electoral democracy, with a highly decentralised system of governance, achieving solid rates of economic growth, under competent national leadership, and playing a constructive role in the regional and broader international community."
The authors predict that during the next decade, "In the absence of radical disjuncture - always a possibility, but not currently expected by observers inside or outside the country - Indonesia will be a middle-income developing country making slow headway in lifting living standards and consolidating democratic governance".
"It's a remarkable achievement, underappreciated by the outside world," says Gordon Hein, vice president of the Asia Foundation, a San Francisco-based NGO that operates in Indonesia.
"If you'd said ten years ago that Indonesia would have hundreds of free elections, steady economic growth, survive economic crises, and that political Islam would be successfully accommodated in the political system - that would have been a bold prediction."
None of this means that Indonesia is a bed of roses or that contradictory views are not in play.
The big picture is good, but it shouldn't blind people to the warts.
As Sydney Jones, senior adviser in Jakarta with the International Crisis Group and an individual who has followed Indonesian affairs closely for more than 25 years, said: "The big picture is good, but it shouldn't blind people to the warts."
With the opening up of Indonesians' ability to express themselves publicly and in the media, there are plenty of pessimistic and cynical views available.
"After 2009, the disintegration of the nation will become very bad," says Dede Mariana, a professor in the Faculty of Social and Political Science at Padjadjaran University in Bandung, reflecting on the long-term chances of success for the peace agreement in Aceh, Indonesia's westernmost province.
Both internationally and domestically, the Aceh peace agreement signed in August 2005 was hailed as a major achievement for the government of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
The deal ended nearly 30 years of conflict that had cost almost 15,000 deaths.
"I'm very pessimistic," said Mariana. "If the local party in Aceh wins (in 2009 elections), it will impact the rest of the nation."
Another Padjajaran professor, Arry Bainus, echoes these sentiments but sees other threats as well.
"We have decentralisation, but now we have ethno-centralism," says Bainus. "They (local leaders) have become like little kings. We have a structural problem. Now we are afraid of being disintegrated."
Bainus adds: "We are still struggling. This democracy is still owned by elites. It's the old elite for a new order."
He says that democratic reforms have only strengthened the power of businessmen as they are inside the system and that because business is so heavily dominated by ethnic Chinese the potential for conflict is high.
"We have a time bomb regarding Chinese in Indonesia," says Bainus. "Every time we have a problem, the Chinese are victims, but they dominate the economic life here."
It's not hard to see why some observers are concerned about the state of affairs in Indonesia and don't see an easy road ahead.
As the fourth most-populous nation in the world, many of the republic's roughly 240 million citizens struggle to make ends meet. With so many people, the pressures on resources, land use and public services are enormous.
Consider this: Java, the world's most densely populated island and where the nation's capital Jakarta as well as Bandung are located, has a population of about 130 million.
If Cambodia had a population density the same as Java, the Kingdom's population would be about 177,000,000, give or take a few hundred thousand (compared with the actual figure of about 15 million).
During the last three decades, overall gains in per capita income - currently at US$3,600 (purchasing power parity) - have reduced the percent of the population living below the poverty line to about 18 percent, or roughly 42 million people. However, massive income disparities between the rich and the poor mean that many millions more are living just above the poverty line.
The simple fact of life, at least in Java, is that it is impossible not to see people eking out a living almost everywhere one goes.
Moreover, Indonesia, like most developing countries, has a population bell curve that indicates half of the country's population is below the age of 26. And if there is one characteristic that can generally be used to define a nation's youth, it is that they are impatient.
While obviously not a statistical sample, several students interviewed in Bandung who are members of a left-wing organisation called the National Student Front (Front Mahasiswa National, or FMN) reflect this restlessness.
"I won't vote (in the 2009 presidential elections)," says Andi Nurroni, arguing that the entire system was corrupt and that he preferred "to struggle to make our dreams come true by demonstrations".
Dewi, a fellow FMN member, said that she supported "national democratic liberation to fight colonialism, capitalism and feudalism in our villages".
"We don't like any of them," she said of the various political parties who will contest the elections in 2009. "They are criminals against humanity. They have the same master; they are the puppet of America. Since Suharto until now, those appointed to take power are the tools of the capitalists."
It should be noted that the FMN members are particularly extreme representations of the electorate. Voter turnout in parliamentary and first-round presidential elections in 2004, at 83 percent and 78 percent, respectively, was among the highest in the world among nations without compulsory voting.
But one issue that is especially contentious is what the World Bank calls the phenomenon of "jobless growth".
While the economy has maintained a reasonably healthy growth rate during the last ten years, averaging between five percent and 6.5 percent since 1999, job creation, not unlike the situation in Cambodia, has not kept pace.
In 2002 the unemployment rate was 9.1 percent. With some movement in the intervening years, it was still at 9.1 percent in 2007.
According to one economist, since 1997 20 million people have been added to the job market but during the same period economic growth has only created three million "productive jobs". Moreover, of the 300,000 undergraduates who enter the workforce every year, most end up underemployed or unemployed.
Efforts to solve these problems may bear fruit, but the ongoing and increasingly widespread global economic crisis gives serious cause for concern.
With plummeting oil and commodity prices, many existing forecasts on the near-term developments of the Indonesian economy can be thrown out the window.
Heavily dependent on commodity and garment exports, as well as tourism, the Indonesian economy is already suffering from the unfolding subprime mortgage crisis and the attendant liquidity crunch in the US. Share prices on the Jakarta stock exchange have plummeted and the Indonesian rupiah has lost value.
Will the ever-widening recession in the West bring about a "radical disjuncture" mentioned in the MacIntyre and Ramage study cited above?
It is not just for the fact that a young Barack Obama lived in Jakarta from 1967 to 1971 that many Indonesia analysts have their eyes fixed on the new US president-elect.