Fri, 27 Jun 2003

Patience and the attainment of democracy in Indonesia

Leng C. Tan, Visiting Fellow, Soegeng Sarjadi Syndicated, Jakarta

If the pace of reform is slow, the patience of the populace begins to fray. It is an ironic feature of the Megawati government's success, in delivering a measure of macroeconomic and political stability to Indonesia, that it has helped to make possible this surge in social demands.

It is also a misfortune that the government is facing the people's frustration as her tenure comes at the tail end of a period marked by the presidential terms of her predecessors, B.J. Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur). But, as the English saying goes, the devil takes the hindmost.

The violent turn taken by some of last month's demonstrations saddened an Indonesian scholar friend of mine, who said this did not augur well for next year's general election. The protesters have demanded that the heads of state resign from office. A coalition of social forces drove Habibie out of office. Ditto Gus Dur. Is it going to be ditto for Megawati too, as was attempted in January over the utility price hikes? He asked what all those dramatic summary dismissals of presidents before their time said about institution-building or democracy in Indonesia.

There is only a year or so to go before the next presidential election. Would demonstrators, he asked, allow it to go on record that the lawful, presidential tenure of the Megawati government held to the end of its term, as the law stipulates? That finally the rule of law would have prevailed -- if nowhere else -- at the executive branch of the government, where the law governing the stable tenure of the presidential office stands?

And, most of all, that the office of the presidency was institutionalized, whatever might be the flaws of its incumbent? The electorate has made its choice and must live with it.

A life-long democratic reformer himself, I asked what did he do when his despondency got the better of him. He said he turned to the early democratic history of America and remembered the following: "Complaints are everywhere heard -- that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice -- but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing party."

The words came from James Madison, a founding father of the U.S. constitution, in Federalist Papers No 10.

So, those who feel discouraged that the reform movement has gone nowhere after five years can perhaps seek some solace in the early beginnings of American democracy and draw strength from it to carry on their struggle. This current paragon of democracy in the U.S. also had its travails in the early days of democratic growth.

No one is suggesting here, in looking at the 200-year democratic history of America, that Indonesia's evolutionary journey toward democracy should take as long as that. The patience of a people is finite, and that is how it should be. But democracy needs stability, too, in order to grow undisturbed, and that vital condition has been delivered by the Megawati government.

For a country that has undergone much political turmoil in its recent history, that is no mean achievement.

American democracy was the result of more than a two-century- long quest by courageous people who fought for the improvement of their society, which saw its apotheosis when the black community was enfranchised by the Johnson administration in the 1960s. And that was only about 40 years ago.

It came about via the civil rights movement in the 1950s. So, American history is littered with social movements, big and small, seeking to improve the workings of democracy. Indonesia's contemporary history must do no less.

My scholar friend turned to contemporary American corporate history and cited the example of the new CEO Samuel Palmisano, who is returning IBM to the greatness it once was. He read in BusinessWeek that Palmisano, unlike his predecessor, Gerstner, took several million dollars from his own 2003 bonus and gave it to his top executives, based on teamwork.

"You have to walk the talk, right?" He also dissolved the powerful corporate executive committee because bureaucracy could inhibit excellence. In its place, Palmisano created three management teams: for strategy, operations and technology. And instead of selecting only high-level executives for each team, he picked managers and engineers most familiar with the issues, in order to gather their know-how -- "deep process insights". There are useful lessons here for the new government to draw upon.

The new president next year can signal to the nation that it is not going to be business as usual, but everyone's interests will be accommodated to a certain degree within the spirit of gotong-royong (mutual self-help). There needs to be some kind of national reconciliation that we are all citizens of this nation and are all in this together.

So, let us do our utmost to lift the economic tide of this nation so all our boats can be lifted; those of the rich and the poor. In this era of globalization, we should not be fighting each other but helping each other to wage the external competition better: That under this new presidency, there will be such IBM-like changes that will bring hope to the people again. And that, above all, the change will be carried out gradually, to give people time to adjust to the new reality.

Can such a presidency come to pass? Much has been said that in Indonesian culture, if the leader can lead by example, the people will follow. So, my friend remains hopeful as long as the slate of presidential contenders is all men and women of honor, who stand by their words and act accordingly.

There was too much talk in this country, he said. There was a dire need for the national leadership to walk the talk. The people were waiting for deeds. Once they saw that good leadership was on board and acting in good faith, there would be little need to protest and demonstrate. Patience could then become a true watchword because, this time, there would be something to watch: A government that was for the people.