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  • Dec 26, 2014
  • Updated: 10:03am

Graft still stymies a model democracy after Suharto

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 June, 2010, 12:00am

It was same-old, same-old this week on one quiet, tree-lined street in Jakarta's exclusive Menteng district. Workers swept leaves off footpaths, maids and guards scurried about in giant residential compounds, chauffeur-driven luxury cars passed by.

It's a daily rhythm on this road, Jalan Cendana, that has changed little for more than 30 years. But outside this bubble of entitlement and tradition, Indonesia continues to undergo unprecedented change.

It was on the middle of this street that the country's late dictator, Suharto, lived for most of his 32-year rule, in a private mansion surrounded by the nearby luxury homes of his adult children. From this mansion, he controlled Indonesian politics and its economy, banishing dissenters to remote islands in the archipelago, or tossing them into filthy prison cells in the capital. Suharto's business cronies monopolised the country's industries, compiling billions in wealth even as the majority of Indonesia's 235 million people were half starving.

But those days are over. There was no sign of a commemoration or gathering at Suharto's house on Tuesday, which would have been his 89th birthday. After resigning in disgrace in May 1998 amid student-led protests and mass rioting in Jakarta, the former leader lived in seclusion on Jalan Cendana until he died in 2008. It was a decade in which Indonesia went from a bankrupt, authoritarian basket case to emerging democracy and economic powerhouse.

'The reform story in Indonesia is still one of the undertold stories of the world,' Robin Bush, Indonesia country director of the Asia Foundation, said.

The initial post-Suharto years were beset by sectarian violence, bubbling separatist movements in Aceh and Papua provinces, economic calamity, and international criticism.

But today, Indonesia is touted as a model democracy and an oasis of political stability, as opposed to neighbouring Thailand. It had the third-best-performing economy in the world in 2009, while developed nations such as Singapore went belly up. Then there's the free press, constitutional changes that ushered in direct elections, the establishment of an anti-corruption commission, the end of military involvement in politics, and impressive macroeconomic reforms that enabled Indonesia to join the Group of 20 last year.

'I believe, basically, everything is on the right track: democratisation, participation of the people in politics,' Harry Tjan, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, said. 'And I also believe institution-building is also taking shape on the democratic side.'

One person who didn't celebrate Suharto's birthday was Rama Pratama, a university student organiser in 1998 who led a sit-in at the House of Representatives building that May which was the beginning of the end for the dictator. 'Actually, the goal was not to topple Suharto,' Rama, now a 35-year-old investment analyst, said. 'We chose the [House] building because it was a strategic symbol, like Tiananmen Square. It was not an independent body.'

Then, the president was elected by a supreme legislative body ironically named the People's Consultative Assembly, which comprised the House and regional delegates who re-elected Suharto every five years and rubber-stamped his legislation.

But since 2004, Indonesians have had direct elections for president, and since last year have voted directly for lawmakers and legislators all the way down to the village level.

But institutions - including the judiciary, police, attorney general's office and the House - remain rife with corruption and malfeasance. An international survey released last week showed Indonesia's bureaucracy is among the worst in Asia.

About 100 million Indonesians live on US$2 a day or less. Poor Indonesians are tossed in prison for picking bananas off a tree or writing complaints to newspapers, while wealthy businessmen bribe their way out of jail, or use connections to secure lucrative government contracts.

'When you get down to the nuts and bolts of reform ... it's more difficult. It's away from the limelight and people aren't paying attention,' Bush said. 'And people are still doing things [wrongly] in the old way.'

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