Mon, 03 Jan 2000

How to become maritime nation

JAKARTA (JP): President Abdurrahman Wahid has urged that the country become a seafaring nation in view of its geography and history. Historian Merle Ricklefs, a professor at the University of Melbourne and director of Asian Studies at its Melbourne Institute of Asian Languages and Societies, recently agreed to an e-mail interview with The Jakarta Post on the subject, on which he has conducted extensive research.

Question: What is your understanding of President Abdurrahman's concept of Indonesia as a maritime or seafaring nation?

Answer: The Indonesian archipelago is the largest archipelago in the world. Over its recorded history the seas have been the "highways" which have connected one part of the archipelago with another. In Western geopolitical thought, seas are things which divide states, peoples and cultures. But in the circumstances of the Indonesian archipelago, it is the seas which have brought peoples and cultures together, making possible the modern state of the Republic of Indonesia.

What are the consequences of the concept when turned into reality?

The principal consequence is that great attention must be given to sea-lanes, maritime commerce and communications as being among the main sinews which hold the nation together. The Dutch understood this, for the KPM shipping line was a major element in the way they held Indonesia together when it was the Netherlands East Indies. But it is probably true that the governments of independent Indonesia have tended to give priority to the major populations centers -- that is, to land areas -- and particularly to Java, rather than to the waterways which connect those population centers with each other.

Some experts have blamed the Dutch colonial government for cornering a number of strong maritime kingdoms in the mountains, thereby losing their control of the sea and with them their culture -- seen as being open-minded, dynamic, having an internationalist outlook, entrepreneurship, etc. Do you agree with this view?

There is some evidence to support this, but also evidence to the contrary. Two major cases of entrepreneurial maritime trading states being destroyed come immediately to mind. One took place on the Java coast in the early 17th century. Those trading states were destroyed, not by the Dutch, but by Sultan Agung (1613- 1646). The second was Makassar/Ujungpandang, which was indeed seriously damaged by the VOC in the late 17th century.

The VOC was, among other things, a trading company. While it was sometimes in competition with indigenous trading centers and did do damage to local traders, at other times it worked in alliance with maritime traders to their mutual advantage. In the early 18th century, the Javanese coastal states preferred to be under Dutch control rather than under that of the Javanese state, and their shared interest in trade was probably the reason.

In the 19th century, the development of trade in such items as rubber and tobacco in fact offered many opportunities which were taken up enthusiastically by Indonesian smallholders. So the historical record is in fact quite a complicated one.

Past Indonesian leaders Sukarno and Soeharto tried without success to turn Indonesia into a maritime nation. What was done in the past and why did the efforts fail?

This is a complex question, requiring serious research of a kind not yet done. My own belief is that inadequate attention was given to the appropriate technology for Indonesia's shipping fleet. For example, there is no reason why some bulk items can't continue to be shipped by sailing boats, lowering the cost and saving on fuel and pollution and to the port facilities, etc. which that fleet requires. In fact, this was just a part of a general pattern at most times of neglect of the needs and priorities of the islands outside of Java.

One of the more obvious obstacles is the mental switch from an agrarian society into a maritime society. What does it take to make such a transformation a success?

In this as in all things, a combined approach is needed. Education, legal frameworks, infrastructure projects and the general distribution of resources between the center and regions all need to be addressed. And the ideas and experience of Indonesia's sailors need to be utilized. The present political circumstances of Indonesia may encourage fresh thinking about what holds the nation together and about the role of the islands outside of Java in the nation.

Given the vast sectors involved in the concept of a noted maritime nation which dictates a standard of excellence in, among other areas, shipping, fishery, mining, telecommunication, nature preservation, tourism -- how should the government approach this transformation? Do you have a rough time frame on when all this could be achieved?

The time frame can only be defined in terms of the resources available to carry out the strategies. Again, a combined strategy is needed. A multisectoral task force will probably be needed to mobilize resources. I would suggest, modestly, that such a task force might do well to engage the advice of one or more of Indonesia's historians who have worked on the maritime history of the archipelago and who understand the longer term dynamics.

It seems strange now that the present government is uneasy with the concept of regional autonomy while former coastal sultanates like Tuban, Pasuruan and Gresik practiced autonomy with considerable success. How do you see this issue?

The precolonial Javanese state was one which recognized much regional autonomy -- largely because it had to. Given scattered population groups divided by uninhabited and dangerous country, poor communications, limited infrastructure, a poorly developed bureaucratic structure and a generally low level of institutionalization, these states had to acknowledge regional autonomy, so long as those regions in turn recognized the overlordship of the central state, paid some taxes and provided men to fight when required.

It may be that states -- especially those which lack well- established democratic traditions -- will normally seek to centralize power if they can, and that the New Order state of Soeharto was able to do so because it had the means to do so: better communications, higher levels of institutionalization, a better bureaucracy, the military, etc. But circumstances in Indonesia now are quite different, at least for the time being, so the possibility of reconsidering this issue certainly exists. (hbk)