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Obama Goes to Indonesia: It's More Than a Sentimental Journey

Why should Americans probably be more worried about Indonesia's democracy than its religious orientation?

November 8, 2010

Why should Americans probably be more worried about Indonesia's democracy than its religious orientation?

The sentimental part of Obama's visit to Indonesia will center on his reuniting with classmates during the four years he spent in primary school in Jakarta, from 1967 to 1971. Efforts will be made, however, to downplay the sentiment and emphasize Indonesia's importance as a rising power in the world.

By now it should be clear to Americans how hard the Obama Administration has been working to strengthen relations with Asia. Apart from U.S. military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, China has certainly been the administration's main foreign policy preoccupation. Japan, South Korea and India have also received plenty of attention.

Indonesia, however, remains a country that is largely unknown to Americans despite the fact that its 240 million inhabitants make it the world's fourth most populated country (after China, India and the United States). Moreover, the images of Indonesia that most Americans have tend to misrepresent two of its major features: religion and democracy.

Almost every discussion of Indonesia begins by noting that it is the world's largest Muslim democracy. For most Americans, the Muslim part is a red flag, while the democracy part is comforting. But looking forward, Americans should probably be more worried about Indonesia's democracy than its religious orientation.

It is not possible to do justice to the subject of Islam in Indonesia in one paragraph, but here our intent is to focus on the subject of Indonesia's democracy. The case for not worrying about Islam in Indonesia rests on two observations.

First, Islam came late to Indonesia (in the 1400s) and was layered on top of a long and strong tradition of Hindu-Buddhism in the country's heartland — the islands of Java and Bali — or on animist cultures across the country's more than 1,000 inhabited islands.

Second, as an archipelago nation containing a multitude of linguistically distinct ethnic groups, resistance to any single religious orientation is great, especially orientations that are viewed as radical or non-indigenous.

While Indonesians readily identify with their Muslim brethren in the Middle East, and tend to view the U.S.-led war on terrorism as an anti-Muslim exercise, there is broad public support for their government's efforts since the Bali bombing in 2002 to root out terrorist cells.

In short, Islam in Indonesia is highly diverse and overwhelmingly moderate. It is significant that none of the Muslim-oriented parties in the national elections in 1999, 2004 and 2009 emerged as a leading party.

However, democracy in Indonesia is a story that could go in the other direction. A popular uprising in 1998 forced the resignation of President Soeharto, who had ruled the country for 30 years while forcefully suppressing any significant opposition. Indonesia's transition to a democratic political system over the past 12 years has been remarkable, to the point of making the country a poster child for democracy in the world.

A case can even be made that today Indonesia is East Asia's most democratic nation, more democratic than the much wealthier and more mature democracies of Japan, South Korea and Singapore. President Obama will no doubt praise Indonesia's democracy strongly and often during his visit this week. He is also likely to gloss over some serious flaws in Indonesia's brand of democracy — and these are worth worrying about.

Starting on a positive note, Indonesia's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (known as SBY), was re-elected a year ago to a second five-year term, a significant achievement for this young democracy, which had seen its first three post-Soeharto presidents unable to complete a full term in office.

Winning 61% of the popular vote in the first round, President SBY avoided a run-off and took office with a strong mandate and the support of a broad parliamentary coalition led by his party.

But the veneer of progress was quickly stripped away to reveal the underbelly of Indonesia's democracy.

SBY's vice president, a highly accomplished economist with the single name of Boediono, and his brilliant finance minister, (Mrs.) Sri Mulyani Indrawati, were accused a year ago of orchestrating the billion-dollar recapitalization of a failed bank in 2008 — a failure triggered by the global financial crisis — to provide funding for President SBY's election campaign. Most analysts treated these as trumped-up allegations.

Driving this drama and a series of others involving false accusations and blackmail within a deeply corrupt judicial system is a power struggle between good governance reformers led by President SBY and two groups with sharp knives: business owners who have become powerful due to monopolies and other concessions extracted from the government, and retired generals from the Soeharto era seeking to restore "guided democracy" — a euphemism for authoritarian rule.

They hope to force SBY out of office in mid-term, and they scored a partial victory when Sri Mulyani resigned in May to accept a top-level management position in the World Bank.

The political turmoil in Jakarta reveals three fundamental challenges in attempting to build democratic political systems in countries that have no tradition of democratic rule:

  • Financing political campaigns. In the United States and other Western democracies, core financing for political campaigns comes from relatively small contributions across the electorate directly to candidates or political parties. In countries like Indonesia, voters instead expect to get something from candidates or parties for their votes — at least a t-shirt or a free meal.

    Some candidates borrow money to buy a party's slot on the ballot and then repay the loan with money they receive in brown envelopes. A recent New York Times dispatch reported that a candidate in the 2009 election for a seat in the Indonesian House of Representatives needed to spend more than $300,000 to be a strong contender, up from $10-20,000 in 1999.

  • Enacting good laws. For centuries, political decisions in countries like Indonesia have been based on personal authority. The members of a new parliament have no experience in developing positions on issues. They don't have staff members trained to analyze the pros and cons of alternative policies. The first thing they naturally do is to vote themselves extravagant salaries plus benefits like housing and cars.

    Since being sworn in a year ago, the members of the Indonesian House of Representatives have managed to pass only seven bills, none of which advances the crucial structural reforms the SBY government has been trying to pursue.

  • Making the bureaucracy responsive. The ruling party in a fledgling democracy always faces irresistible pressures to expand the bureaucracy because of the deeply rooted culture of patronage. At the same time, voters oppose raising taxes. As a result, the salaries paid to civil servants are depressed.

    Not surprisingly, to earn enough to support their families, they either moonlight during office hours or they accept "gifts" in return for licenses and permits. Indonesia ranks number 110 out of 176 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index for 2010, well behind Malaysia, China, Thailand and India. It is the most corrupt of all G20 countries except Russia.

    Addressing Indonesia's challenges

    President SBY spoke eloquently about these problems in his keynote address at the sixth biennial assembly of the World Movement for Democracy in April 2010 in Jakarta. He said, "One of the key challenges for Indonesia's democratic development is how to minimize and ultimately do away with

  • More on this topic


    Looking forward, Americans should probably be more worried about Indonesia's democracy than its religious orientation.

    Indonesia has a weaker institutional base to support its participation in global policy dialogues than any other G20 country.

    As President SBY was finishing his first five-year term, it looked as though Indonesia was becoming less messy. Now, in the second year of his second term, it is looking messier.

    A case can be made that today Indonesia is more democratic than the much wealthier and more mature democracies of Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

    Yes, democracy must be connected to good governance to endure, but a U.S.-style democracy is not always the best route to good governance.