Wed, 14 Jun 2000

Indonesians need to learn how to use power wisely

By Mochtar Buchori

JAKARTA (JP): On Oct. 2, 1999 the newly established House of Representatives elected its speaker and four deputy speakers. Akbar Tandjung was sworn in as speaker, while Sutardjo Suryoguritno, Tosari Wijaya, Muhaimin Iskandar and A.M. Fatwa were inducted as deputy speakers.

In his parting speech the former provisional chairman and oldest member of the House, Bapak Abdul Majid, more or less said: "This new legislature is different from the previous ones during the New Order era. Ours is the product of the people's choice expressed through a free election. Unlike the former institutions of the past 32 years, this is not a rubber-stamp legislature."

He went on to say that the House was "very powerful"; all decisions "can and must be made without consent or approval from the executive. All decisions must be made solely for public interest."

According to the 1945 Constitution, he said the House could initiate steps that eventually led to the dismissal of a president, but the president could not dissolve the House.

Given such power, he said, referring to the speaker and his deputies, "Use this power wisely!"

It was a very moving speech with much political weight, being delivered by a senior politician with rich experience dating back to the Dutch colonial era.

At the time I did not realize that his words were actually advice for the entire nation, extending far beyond the new House members.

Amid the solemn atmosphere of the ceremony I forgot that our budding democracy was still under threat from politicians who had masterminded the "bulldozer" nature of the preceding political events. After this speech, I thought, we would all be using our heads and our hearts more responsibly in political deliberations.

In retrospect such thoughts were very naive. Carried away by the nation's euphoria, Lord Acton's quote of "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely" was forgotten.

In a short time friends and acquaintances, who were idealists in the recent past, willing to suffer and sacrifice for their idealism, changed into new authorities abusing their power. Witnessing this I felt depressed, sad and demoralized.

These people may have more faith in William Hazlitt (1778- 1830) who once said that "Power is pleasure, and pleasure sweetens pain."

Thus although such people know that power can easily corrupt our minds, after tasting the sweetness of power they instantaneously become true believers of the maxim that it is very pleasant to wield power and that "absolute power is absolutely delightful". Which brings to mind another saying: "A friend in power is a friend lost."

There are signs which strongly suggest that the inability to use power wisely and responsibly is a shortcoming shared by leaders from all political groups operating at all levels within our political system.

It is not only political leaders at the national level who are plagued by this cultural disease. Many political leaders at the provincial and district levels exhibit the same symptoms.

This is a bitter reality that must be faced honestly and courageously, and which is useless and self-defeating to deny or conceal.

How can we emerge from this political and cultural crisis? How can we revive the notion of "political decency" -- politieke fatsoen as we used to say -- among our present generation of politicians?

Good political conduct characterized by wise and responsible exercising of power depends on two things: the quality of the political and social systems and the quality of the politicians.

Good political systems allow, and encourage even, differing political groups and prod them to check one another. In this system, whoever happens to be in power will be closely watched and systematically checked by those outside.

On the other hand, in a bad political system, the rise of political groups which follow political visions different from the one adopted by the ruling group is systematically suppressed and dwarfed.

Presently, our political system lacks the capability to control the behavior of our ruling politicians. And most, if not all, of our ruling politicians lack the personal wisdom that enables them to exercise self-restraint in exercising power.

Efforts to remedy our political system and to prod and force our politicians to learn to acquire wisdom should start at once. This is the only way to end the political and cultural crises.

A political system willing to accept the notion that being the opposition is not dishonorable will be able to effectively control those in power.

But in a system in which decisions to become an opposition force is looked upon as disloyalty, subversion and even betrayal, the social capacity to control, restrain and dismiss a ruling group will never materialize.

It is true that the opposition role is reserved for the "loser". But it is often forgotten that losing a political election does not imply eternal rejection by the electorate.

It means that the losing party lacks the ability to win the hearts and trust of the people. A good loser will ask itself why -- and it this kind of political vision that must be encouraged.

This vision will make the current practice of coopting all political parties into the government look myopic, infantile and cowardly.

The second thing to be learned is to be more "choosy" in screening and selecting political leaders. Each and every politician coveting leadership positions in society and government should be selected and scrutinized. We should look for signs of personal wisdom in every person aspiring after leadership.

But what is wisdom anyway?

A brief review of definitions of "wisdom" from five languages -- Javanese, Indonesian, Dutch, English and French -- gives the general picture that a "wise person" exhibits seven characteristics: he or she is learned, or has a broad repertoire of knowledge; intelligent; has strong common sense; has deep insight; is discrete or prudent; has comprehensive understanding on norms of truth; and is rich in experience.

Now is this the image of a living human being or one of an angel?

Certainly only a few people would meet these standards, but then leadership positions in any organization or society are always limited. This limited space should be filled by people who really deserve to be there, while "social trash" should be left out.

Only in this way will we ever have leaders who genuinely intend to use their power wisely and responsibly, and are indeed capable of doing so.

It may be the historic mission of the next generation of politicians and political leaders to create a political system that can accommodate a healthy opposition and to prod aspiring leaders to do their best to be wise.

The writer is an observer of social and political affairs.