Wed, 03 Nov 2010


in Singapore

A haze blankets the Indonesian city of Batam in Riau province bordering Singapore on October 22. The country's immediate ASEAN neighbours were dismayed that the man-made fires in Sumatra in mid-October were allowed to pose a health hazard to the adjacent areas in Singapore and in parts of Malaysia.

INDONESIA is a rising power within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The recent concerns about Jakarta's increasing disillusionment with the organisation itself do not alter this reality. In a sense, Indonesia has already begun to stamp its geopolitical footprint on the wider international stage. As a member of the Group of 20 (G20), Jakarta is able to look way beyond the ASEAN turf. However, questions about Indonesia's international responsibilities as a rising power have also come into focus in recent times, especially in the ASEAN context.

Indonesia's immediate ASEAN neighbours were dismayed that the man-made fires in Sumatra in mid-October were allowed to pose a health hazard to the adjacent areas in Singapore and to parts of Malaysia. Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo telephoned his articulate Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa on October 22, offering immediate help to put out the fires.

With the massive plumes of smoke from the Sumatran fires spreading far and wide, the quality of air over Singapore had reached unhealthy levels before Yeo telephoned Natalegawa. Malaysia, too, publicly spoke of the health hazard and said Jakarta's problem was Kuala Lumpur's too. Natalegawa acknowledged that the haze problem was a trans-boundary issue. Indonesia would take action to control the fires, he said. The mid-October haze was the worst in the past four years. Unsurprisingly, Indonesia came in for adverse attention among the people of the region for not having acted on the previous ASEAN consensus on the ways to prevent and control such fires. Most of these fires are caused by unregulated land-clearing activities in forest areas and on farmlands in Sumatra.

In some circles, the mid-October haze was seen as some proof that Jakarta was now beginning to act like a less-than-responsible stakeholder in the ASEAN community. On the positive side, though, some inter-state cooperation, especially between Singapore and Indonesia, had in fact helped prevent this annual phenomenon from flaring up as a regional concern in the past three years.

Why should Indonesia, which has made steady if not smooth progress as a rising democracy in the last few years, appear to be wayward in some respects on the international stage? In a sense, the poser reflects a similar sense of dismay in Indonesia's domestic domain as well.

Domestic disenchantment

Around the middle of October, the first anniversary of the commencement of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's second term in office sparked street protests in several parts of the country. Security forces used water cannons and fired tear gas to quell the protest in Jakarta. But the situation did not spiral out of control, from the perspective of either the authorities or the protesters. It was also not possible for the authorities to dismiss the protest as not anything more than the handiwork of Yudhoyono's political opponents. Indonesian observers did detect signs of spontaneous disenchantment with a man, who brought to the country a refreshing perspective on the possibility of economic development through democracy.

A conventional way of assessing the mid-October protest, by no means a mass upsurge against the President, is to view it as the inevitable backlash against incumbency. Yudhoyono, also known simply as Susilo under a local cultural practice, is the first Indonesian leader to have been elected and also re-elected under the country's new system of direct presidential election. While he required a run-off to emerge victorious in the first instance, he gained an overwhelming mandate of more than 60 per cent of the ballot on the second occasion.

His domestic priorities for the second term were packaged in more or less the same first principles of political governance as before. The core priorities he consistently projected were the consolidation of a newly democratic polity, the drive against rampant corruption, the general promise of egalitarian economic growth in a country with a poverty quotient and a proactively vigorous anti-terror agenda.

At a macro-level perspective, during his first term itself Yudhoyono presided over a process of democratic consolidation that has come to be widely acknowledged as a successful exercise. This is not to suggest that no questions linger regarding any finer aspect of the constitutional arrangements now in place for ensuring democratic governance.


Students try to turn over a car during a protest on October 20, on the first anniversary of the swearing in of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The fundamental process of democratisation has not stirred up a huge hornet's nest on the domestic political front despite the cataclysmic effect of these changes on the Suharto-era style of authoritarian thinking.

In essence, the reforms were in tune with the people's general mood favouring representative governance. With democratisation having proved to be a far more resistance-free exercise than might have been expected, Yudhoyono's challenges have been qualitatively different from those faced by democratic reformers elsewhere in the world. Moreover, the post-Suharto democratisation began before Yudhoyono's advent on the scene as Indonesia's chief executive.

The anti-terror campaign, essentially intensive security operations on an extensive scale, has produced some stunning results, according to several Indonesian and international experts. A number of suspected terrorist leaders were killed or arrested. Some were prosecuted and punished as well. For a country not familiar with terrorist threats before the bombings in Bali in 2002, Indonesia has really made noticeable progress. As a result, the mid-October protest against Yudhoyono was not animated by any arguments for a more-intensive or less-draconian anti-terror campaign. He has even received considerable praise for re-integrating Aceh, once a hotbed of insurgency, with the rest of Indonesia.

Yudhoyono did, however, run into storms of protest, at different times, over the direction his anti-corruption drive was seen to have taken. A key issue in the mid-October protest was his alleged failure to carry out his anti-corruption programme without fear or favour at all times. Over a period of time, he has drawn a lot of flak on the grounds of suspicions that he failed to uphold the independence and freedom of action of the high-powered anti-graft commission. At one stage, he even said he did not stop the commission in its tracks when it sought to look at the activities of the father of his daughter-in-law.

For the critics of Yudhoyono's counter-graft record, the prime case was that of the government's bailout of a private bank. This was done at the height of the recent global financial crisis which, in any case, did not affect Indonesia as adversely as some other countries in the region. He was accused of either masterminding or passively allowing the bailout in a fashion that was suspected to have benefited his political friends and associates. There were also allegations that the bailout-generated funds were, in part, used to finance his re-election campaign. Yudhoyono has, of course, stood his ground in the face of such a campaign. His electoral mandate is a vote of popular confidence in him.

On the bread-and-butter issues of direct relevance to the people at the lower end of the development spectrum, Yudhoyono still has a long way to go before he can claim a legacy of success and a place in history.

Whenever the macro-level figures of growth in the gross domestic product, routinely applauded in the West, did not benefit the low-income people, he ordered administrative action to cushion the impact of price rise. But his task on the economic front is still cut out, given the continuing mismatch between actual economic development and the country's huge natural assets.

The apparent economic resilience, partly the result of Indonesia's “inadequate” links with the larger global economy, as also Yudhoyono's anti-terror and pro-democracy agenda, have endeared him to the United States. And, he has indicated his willingness to play tango with the U.S. As a result, foreign policy issues are expected to receive a higher priority as he moves forward in his current term in office.

Foreign policy

Yudhoyono has clearly brought about a dramatic improvement in Jakarta's relationship with Beijing, given Indonesia's Suharto-era policy of a mix of circumspection and hostility towards China. Now, as he moves forward on the foreign policy front, Yudhoyono knows he needs to address the perception that he has been conspicuously slow in improving ties with India in mutually meaningful ways. This is so despite his discourse on democracy as a global value and his efforts at launching the Bali Democracy Forum as an international outfit in 2008 and sustaining it to this day.

On the global stage, he often tries to capitalise on Indonesia's status as the world's largest Muslim-majority nation with no extremist ideology as state policy or popular mantra. Yudhoyono has strengthened Jakarta's links with ASEAN's key partners such as Japan and South Korea. However, a job on his hands is to place Indonesia's relationship with the other ASEAN countries on an even keel again.

Some non-official Indonesian experts such as Rizal Sukma and others have argued that Jakarta has imprisoned itself in the “golden cage of ASEAN” for over 40 years. There is, in their view, a need now for “a post-ASEAN foreign policy” as Jakarta moves forward on the global stage as a G20 member. This view is not necessarily shared by Indonesia's foreign policy establishment, at least not with this kind of political passion. At the same time, the foreign policy specialist Dewi Fortuna Anwar notes, “Indonesia remains wary of China or any other regional power becoming too dominant within an overarching East Asian regional architecture.” The existing East Asia Summit (EAS), likely to be expanded sooner or later to include the U.S. and Russia, will offer Jakarta, as a founding member, varied opportunities to reform or just reformulate its foreign policy.