Mon, 11 Jun 2001

Is silence still golden?

It is not often that one hears Megawati Soekarnoputri -- our Vice President and the person most likely to replace President Abdurrahman Wahid if, and when, he loses his job -- speak out in public on the myriad problems the nation is currently facing. That is why Indonesians were rather agreeably surprised when late last month the Vice President spoke out quite strongly against absolute power in leading this country towards modernity.

Indonesia needs a new vision of power to lift itself out of the present crisis and to prevent it from becoming the sick man of Asia, the Vice President said in a speech addressed to the National Resilience Institute (Lemhanas), a government think tank in Jakarta. "The highest priority for reform is our vision of power. In a world that has become interdependent there is no place for the concept of absolute power," Megawati said, emphasizing the fact that Indonesia had no choice but to adjust itself so as to become a constructive force in the new world order.

Furthermore, according to the Vice President, "in this modern world all power is relative and must be accounted for, both to the people as the repository of the state's sovereignty and to the civilized world." In this new vision, she said, the measure of success for a leader is no longer the amount of power that he accumulates, but how far his power can benefit the people.

Certainly, those are reassuring words, coming from a leader who commands the unquestioning loyalty of millions of zealous supporters. Frankly, many among the better-educated Indonesians fear that the style of governance of the popular but taciturn eldest daughter of founding president Sukarno would in fact bring back, at least to some degree, the autocratic style of government this country has known for so many decades. Such a style was first experienced under the "guided democracy" regime of her father president Sukarno and later under the New Order autocrat Soeharto.

To many of these middle-class Indonesians Megawati's silence, even sometimes under dire circumstances, is not very reassuring and is a reflection of an inborn tendency to view events occurring around her with an attitude of regal aloofness. Megawati remained typically silent during the rather critical political developments of the past week, when President Abdurrahman Wahid appointed a new deputy chief of police -- a job that legally does not even exist -- and declared the chief of police "non-active". In the wake of her non-attendance of a Cabinet meeting, the public was left to infer that this was her way of indicating that she refused to take responsibility for policy decisions taking by Cabinet ministers, the appointment of whom she was not consulted.

Nevertheless, considering that Megawati gave one or two excellent speeches in the past -- one as chairperson of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle and another during her installation as Vice President of the country, it seems absurd to assume that she lacks any talent of expressing herself well, or even most eloquently. The wording of her recent hint to executives of the Association of Young Indonesian Businessmen (HIPMI) that "political stability and certainty will prevail by the Aug. 17 Independence Day" also seems to support this belief.

To be sure, circumstances and the position in which Megawati now finds herself placed dictate that she be careful in what she says. However, there are times when silence is indeed golden. At other times, however, Megawati would do well to remember one of the dictums of her father, Sukarno, turning an old Indonesian proverb on its head. For Sukarno it is not sedikit bicara, banyak kerja (talk little, work hard), but banyak bicara, banyak kerja (talk much, work hard).

For Sukarno, who was famous for his oratory skill, that may be appropriate. For most people, though, it may be exaggerated. But certainly there are times when leaders are duty-bound to explain themselves to the public. The public has a right to know where and by whom they are being led.