Sat, 01 Apr 2000

More public involvement

Nearly every piece of new legislation or government policy draws public protest as soon as it is announced. In a fledging democracy like Indonesia, this is somewhat expected. People who feel their interests will be harmed by a new law or policy will try their best to prevent its implementation by taking full advantage of their right to free expression, which is guaranteed by the Constitution.

Some policies have drawn larger protests than others because they affect a wider spectrum of society, like the planned increase in fuel prices and power rates which drew large protests this week. Laws or policies which affect specific groups in society have drawn smaller protests, like the action by Bank Indonesia employees against the appointment of Aulia Pohan as a director of the central bank. Low-ranking government workers made themselves heard this week by protesting against the planned hike in structural allowances for upper-level civil servants.

While these protests seem perfectly acceptable in a democracy, they could have been avoided or at least minimized if the public had been given more time to air its views before the new laws and policies were introduced. These protests indicate the public has not been involved as much as it should be in the decision-making process in this country.

The government and the House of Representatives seem to have neglected one basic principle of democracy: public participation. It is such a simple rule that it is too often forgotten. The best way of ensuring the widest-possible public support is by involving it in the process.

No decision, no matter how thoroughly discussed, is perfect. But this is not an excuse for not holding public hearings in drafting new laws and policies, especially if they affect the interests of many people. Neither should deadline pressures, whether in the name of efficiency or imposed by external forces, deprive the public of its right to be heard. The decisions to increase fuel prices and civil servants' allowances, and the appointment of Aulia Pohan, were all made too swiftly. The protests that followed were evidence that the public was excluded from the decision-making process.

The fact that the House withdrew its support at the last minute for the hike in fuel prices and the increase in allowances for top-echelon civil servants also indicates this body's gross shortcomings. The legislators may have been democratically elected, but they have fallen short of expectations in acting on behalf the people. Their hasty and noncritical endorsement of government policies indicates the House is not far removed from its past role as the government's rubber stamp.

This could be an indication of the poor skill, or lack of experience, of the legislators. It could also be an indication of a political system that requires politicians to put party loyalty before everything else. Or it could be an indication of money politics at play. Whichever the case, our representatives need to put their House in order.

President Abdurrahman Wahid had the right idea when he promised shortly after his election in October to try and touch base with the people by holding regular dialogs. He may have lived up to this promise, but one cannot help but feel that the dialogs have not been effective, especially in light of the protests opposing his policies. It would probably help if the President were to open these dialogs to a wider section of society. It also would help if the President did more listening and less talking at these meetings. This, incidentally, is also an advice that all politicians should heed.

The protests we have seen these past weeks, and the protests that will occur in the coming weeks, are symptomatic of a young and fledging democracy. They also come with security risks, as these protests could easily turn violent. It will take a great deal of wisdom on the part of the country's leaders to ensure the public's right to freedom of expression is maintained while not risking peace and order in the country. The government's commitment to democracy is now being tested by these protests.

Holding more public hearings could well ease the tension and reduce the risk to security and order. And if the government and the House were sensitive to the people's aspirations, they could fine-tune laws and polices accordingly to make them more palatable to the people.