Tue, 10 Oct 2000

RI moon-walking to recovery

By Sidhesh Kaul

JAKARTA (JP): Michael Jackson, pop icon and Propagator-in- chief of the dance technique of "Moon-walking", would be mighty pleased with his latest imitator -- Abdurrahman Wahid's government.

"Moon-walking" is a technique wherein the dancer creates the illusion of movement, through a series of complex body movements meant to deceive the audience, but in reality remains rooted to the original position.

President Abdurrahman, or Gus Dur, and his team seem to be "moon-walking" and one can attribute several reasons behind this lack of real progress.

Of course, you have the arguments dished out periodically by the International Monetary Fund and its' cohorts that Indonesia's macro-economic indicators have improved and that the country, should political stability improve (and the IMF is quick to distance itself away from such prickly issues and even feign innocence on the impact that the IMF's policies have on political stability), is just a step behind regaining the mantle of Shangri-La.

But that is what the IMF is all about -- macro economic indicators -- nothing more and nothing less. The IMF's brutal push for macro economic stability has spelt long spells of extremely painful recovery in many countries that have been forced to swallow the bitter "one-medicine-cures-all" macro- economic approach of the IMF.

History is witness to the fact that the IMF indeed was a contributing factor to the general instability of the country (especially in the early days of the economic crisis). So let us, at the very outset, dismiss the IMF's definition of Indonesian recovery as being merely an exercise in self-justification trumpeted out for the consumption of the IMF's cigar-chomping, penny counting Lords and Masters.

Currently there is a general consensus (amongst economists, political and social scientists) that Indonesia is miles away from creating a socio-economic and political environment that would be conducive for real progress.

The creation of a nourishing environment i.e. an environment free from the almost daily nuisance of scandals of earthquake proportions, free from the nitpicking of vested interests, free from corruption and supported by a sound and clean system of governance that enjoys the trust and faith of the masses -- is a task of Herculean proportions.

Given the current plethora of impacting pressure points, to achieve such an almost Utopian state would take time as well as the sympathetic understanding of the ordinary Indonesians. That is precisely what Gus Dur should aim for -- gain the direct trust and understanding of the ordinary Indonesians as a direct forerunner for achieving stability.

I remember my first encounter with Gus Dur (after the fall of Soeharto and before Gus Dur was shackled as the President) and how I had walked away impressed by his excitement for a New Indonesia and his concerns about healing the collective psyche of the ordinary Indonesian.

Those were heady days and idealism was thick in the air as Gus Dur, with almost child-like enthusiasm and the naivete of the uninitiated, rattled on about ridding the country of corruption, about clean governance being a prerequisite for recovery, about fairness and supremacy of the law and about the grave and onerous task of regaining the trust and faith of the masses. Where is that Gus Dur today?

Gus Dur runs the risk of becoming a victim of the system -- a system that the ordinary Indonesian has no faith on -- and this is precisely what he needs to be wary about. Gus Dur has to perform the role of a trusted custodian while new mechanisms are advocated and put in place that could adequately reflect the aspirations of the people.

Today, governance is a play-thing in the hands of a self- serving elite, most of whom are remnants of the New Order, and who are the least qualified to wax eloquent about clean governance or possess the moral back bone to represent public aspirations.

Gus Dur runs the risk of being misled and succumbing to the pushes and pulls of this self-serving elite and of earning the sobriquet of "Compromise King".

The one way of countering the retroactive effects of this dinosaur (because this self serving elite would soon be driven to extinction should the pro-reform momentum not lose its' steam) would be for Gus Dur to periodically go back to the people.

This is not to advocate that Gus Dur adopt a completely populist approach but instead use the people as a reminder, a mere check and balance, not only for himself (lest the roar of the crowds lulls Gus Dur into autocratic dreams) but also to put a shiver in the spine of those forces that do not have the stability of the country at heart.

Gus Dur needs to formulate a temporary mechanism in place where the people could be heard -- in the meantime laying and preparing the ground work to bring in a more formal system that would give the people direct representation in the assembly and bodies of governance. This is a historical chance for Gus Dur and he should not let it pass.

The role of a custodian is not easy and Gus Dur would have to constantly battle the forces of status quo. Weeding out the effects of over three decades of corruption requires moral courage and credibility and the support and faith of the people.

It also requires Gus Dur to be acutely aware of the power of precedence. And credibility or faith or good precedence cannot be built at the altar of compromise. Take, for example, the recently announced Texmaco debt restructuring deal.

The net effect of this deal is to pass the ultimate burden of the crushing debt on to the common man under the guise of protecting about 250,000 jobs and the seemingly nationalistic motive of preserving the company as a national asset.

The Texmaco deal is nothing short of being a bailout for the erring shareholder (who instead walks away with the chance of retaining 30 percent of the company, albeit worse off and in ruins, and a song in his heart and a smile on his lips) and the terms of the deal augur ill for the future.

Lest it escape Gus Dur's memory -- the bulk of Indonesian corporate debt lies unresolved and the Texmaco case has given birth to new hopes in the hearts of defaulting shareholders who see this as an opportunity to obfuscate and delay the recovery process and prolong the agony even longer.

The Texmaco case needs to be reviewed and a fair approach adopted. All this for the sake of good governance and driven by the uncompromising, unwavering and pressing need to set a good precedent and the fear of losing the faith of the ordinary Indonesian.

Healthy politics is all about healthy compromises. However, the particular variety of compromises, especially ones that ultimately impact the ordinary Indonesian, are unhealthy and counter-productive. The government runs the risk of "moon- walking" to the tune of those self-serving elements in the country.

Recent history is witness to the fact that ultimately every unhealthy compromise comes to grief at the people's court sooner or later.

The writer is a regional commentator on political and economic affairs based in Jakarta.