Wider horizons

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2007, 12:00am

Instead of making snide and mostly inaccurate remarks about democracy, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his ilk might do well to expand their travel itinerary to include some large countries in Asia other than the Chinese mainland. Some manage, despite poverty levels similar to those on the mainland, to combine social pluralism, an elected government, a thriving cultural life and acceptable if unremarkable levels of economic growth.

He could start with Indonesia, the third-largest nation in Asia and fourth-largest in the world. Of course, Mr Tsang would have to prepare himself to face the questions that a free media would ask him. One would be why his government so consistently fails even to try to enforce its own laws in respect of domestic helpers - in particular Indonesians, who are the most exploited in Hong Kong due to their relatively low standards of English and education.

But he might be able to tolerate a few days there if he received an invitation from Indonesia's trade minister, Mari Pangestu, whom he must have bumped into at the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum summit in Sydney. Dr Pangestu is an ethnic Chinese and a Christian. She would doubtless be able to remind Mr Tsang that there was overt discrimination against Chinese under the authoritarian government of president Suharto. He massively enriched a few comprador Chinese businessmen to whom he gave monopolies on the understanding that they would stay clear of politics and provide him with cash to fund his regime. Meanwhile, he outlawed Chinese newspapers and other Chinese ethnic and cultural manifestations.

The discrimination was ended when Indonesia became democratic, following Suharto's downfall. Particular credit for this must go also to a Muslim cleric, Abdurrahman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur, who was president for two years. He was an incompetent administrator but his inclusive, liberal attitudes on religious and social topics were to be far more important to Indonesia than any amount of Donald-Tsang-style, 'we-know-best', bureaucracy. Indeed, the diversity of interpretation of Islam itself in Indonesia is an example that should be followed not just by the promoters of the blinkered versions in the Middle East. The equally blinkered communist and Christian ideologues in Beijing and Washington could also learn from the example.

Looking a little further back into history, Mr Tsang might be reminded, too, that the bloodshed which traumatised Indonesia in the mid-1960s was, in part, sparked by the efforts of the Beijing government to use ethnic Chinese in Indonesia as a spearhead for communism in that nation.

Mr Tsang might also note that the democratic government in Indonesia has been able to resolve at least two of the separatist issues that had been gnawing at it for decades.

However reluctantly, it allowed East Timor to secede and negotiated a real and democratic autonomy deal that has put an end to a long-simmering war in Aceh. It has also made at least some progress, through democratic decentralisation, in containing separatist aspirations in Papua. All these may have some relevance to Tibet , Taiwan and Xinjiang - problems which cannot be solved by authoritarian attitudes and mindless slogans from Beijing.

Indonesians experiencing only moderate economic growth may look with some envy at China's 11 per cent growth. But, then again, they may not. Foreign investors complain that labour laws in Indonesia deter investment. Maybe so. But democracy has ensured a degree of protection for workers, at least in the urban sector.

Indonesia may be just as corrupt as China, and its bureaucracy far less efficient. But even in Suharto's latter days, high-level gouging was at least partly exposed to the public. Contrast that with the goings on in Beijing and the extraordinary secrecy with which Mr Tsang's masters conduct their deliberations, or assemble their wealth through under-the-table privatisation of once-communal assets - and then gamble it away in Macau.

By comparison, Indonesia is a weak state but it is one where local cultures thrive, religions mostly co-exist and, rainforest destruction apart, environmental considerations receive plenty of attention. Income disparities are growing, but far more slowly than in China, thanks to voters' pressure on the government and the decentralisation which has shifted resources from the capital to the provinces.

Taking a 40-year view, Indonesia has done as well as China, and may even do better in the future thanks to its resource base and superior demographics. A gradual reduction in the birth rate was achieved without strong-arm tactics and without creating the gender gap which is such a shocking indictment of social attitudes in China under communist rule.

Indonesia has many problems, perhaps most notably a very corrupt judiciary. But it has also given lessons from which others can learn, particularly those with rigid authoritarian systems, inflexible state dogmas and notions of ethnic identity which are both contrary to modern science and dangerous for Asia.

Being non-western is no longer a viable identity today: Asia must live with its own ethnic diversity.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator