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Indonesia: Starting Over


Indonesia has been one of the most remarkable development success stories in the last third of the twentieth century. In the mid- 1960s, it was one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita income below that of many African and South Asian countries. It had experienced little economic growth for thirty years, it was on the verge of hyperinflation, it was engulfed in political turmoil, and it had begun to disengage from the world community and economy. Living standards were stagnant and about two thirds of the population lived in abject poverty….

No one at that time would have dared to imagine—much less to predict—that just thirty years later Indonesia would be regarded as a dynamic “tiger” economy, and a member of that most exclusive club, the World Bank “East Asian Miracle Economies.” The notion that Indonesia’s economy would expand six-fold over this period, and that according to World Bank projections it could become the world’s fifth-largest economy by the year 2020, would have appeared preposterous in the gloom of 1964-66. Yet that is precisely what has occurred in these three decades: economic growth has been among the highest in the world, and it has been accompanied, with a lag, by striking improvements in social indicators.”

Hal Hill, May 1997

[Very] suddenly and unexpectedly, everything collapsed [in Indonesia] in the latter half of 1997 …in the onslaught of the Asian financial crisis. The extent of the turnaround is nothing short of astounding. Economic output is expected to contract by about 15 percent, after expanding 8 percent in 1996 and 5 percent in 1997. The single-year collapse in growth is among the largest recorded anywhere in the world in the post- World War period. Millions of Indonesians, many just surviving over the poverty line during the good times, have lost their jobs. Food production has been disrupted…. Prices for many export commodities…have fallen on world markets. Investors, both foreign and domestic, have fled to safer havens. The banking system is moribund and thousands of firms are facing the prospect of bankruptcy and closure.”

Steven Radelet, September 19981

Since Indonesia’s sudden reversal of fortune, globalism interrupted, a great deal more has happened there than capital flight, currency collapse, and a tripling of the poverty rate. The regime has changed twice—the regime, not just the government—once abruptly, in a spasm of violence, once glacially, with troubled and unnerving hesitation. The first time, in late 1998, Suharto, the architect, or anyway the godfather, of both the expansion and the collapse, walked away amid wild disorder—race riots, looting, bloody clashes between students and the army, Jakarta on fire, Surakarta ransacked—leaving B.J. Habibie, his just- appointed crony vice president, haplessly behind to sort through the ruins. The second time, a protracted, vastly complicated, ultimately indecisive, but, so it seems, fair and open national election (ninety million voters, forty-eight parties, seven hundred electors) ended last autumn with the midnight designation, by a half-dozen arriviste kingmakers, of Abdurrahman Wahid as the new president. An ill, erratic, nearly blind religious intellectual, he had been written off by almost everyone as too frail to serve.

In September, the ex-Portuguese enclave of East Timor, half of a very small island out on the edge of the archipelago, was at last allowed to separate after thirty years of on-again, off-again resistance to annexation, only to be laid waste by Indonesian-armed irregulars, whose savagery brought on a worldwide outcry, an Australian-led UN intervention, the human rights attentions of Mary Robinson, and, just possibly, a revanchist problem for the future. Local violence, some of it ethnic, some of it religious, some of it merely criminal or entrepreneurial, has broken out all over the archipelago, from Aceh and Kalimantan in the west to the Moluccas and New Guinea in the east, leaving hundreds dead, thousands in flight, the government at a loss, and the neighbors—Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Australia, who have minorities (and refugees) of their own who might like to see things generally rearranged—worried.

The army, its leadership divided and threatened with prosecution for war crimes in East Timor and elsewhere, is demoralized, resentful, disprivileged, cherishing enemies, weighing possible strategies. The press has been freed and reenergized: books are no longer banned. Suharto, ill and demonized, is housebound, as incommunicative as ever; and the country’s most famous political prisoner, the radical nationalist novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, is out and about, giving interviews, accepting tributes, and counseling the youth. Oil looks good again, inflation is down, exports have recovered a bit, bankrupts are regrouping, growth has advanced to zero.

At the same time, militant Islam, NGO environmentalism, populist xenophobia, neoliberal utopianism, Christian apologetics, and human rights activism have all grown markedly in volume, visibility, and the capacity to bring on mass rallies, mobs, and marching in the streets. Factional party politics have returned with a vehemence and complexity not seen since the early Sixties, when Sukarno’s “guided democracy,” designed to keep him in power for life, collapsed in conspiracy and slaughter. It is a mixed and unsettled, fluctuating picture, without center and without edge—resistant to summary, hard to hold in place. As virtually everything has happened, it seems that virtually anything might; and it is impossible to tell whether all this stir and agitation—what the Indonesians, with their usual gift for verbal camouflage, have come to call reformasi—is the end of something or the beginning of something.

What it might be the end of is the political impulse that set the country in motion in the first place. Along with India, Egypt, and perhaps Nigeria, Indonesia has been a prototype of the “emerging,” “developing,” “post-colonial” country—crowded, splayed, capriciously bordered, and the product of a world-historical shift in the distribution of sovereignty, selfhood, and the power to act. Officially established at the end of 1949, after four years of intermittent warfare against the Dutch, and nearly forty of agitation before that, the country took shape during the heyday of third world nationalism—Nehru, Chou, Tito, Nkrumah, Mussadegh, Nasser; Dien Bien Phu, the Battle of Algiers, Suez, Katanga, the Emergency, the Mau Mau.

By now, this period—call it “Bandung,” after the famous gathering of nonaligned, “emerging forces” leaders that Sukarno (“I am inspired…I am absorbed…I am crazed by the Romanticism of Revolution”) staged there in 1955—is not even a living memory for most of the population. Its concerns are faded, its personalities simplified; the obsession that obsessed it, and to a fair extent subsidized it, the cold war, has been summarily called off. But the doctrines that were developed then, and the sentiments that accompanied them, continue to shadow the country’s politics. A half-century old this coming winter, and just emerging from thirty-two years of business-card autocracy, Indonesia still projects itself as a triumphalist, insurgent, liberationist power.

The question that engages the more reflective Indonesians, and particularly the older ones who have been through it all and seen what it comes to, is of course how far this master idea, with its slogans, stories, and radiant moments, remains a living force among either the country’s elites or its population, and how far it has become just so much willed nostalgia—declamatory, a pretense, worn, and seen through, cherished if at all by West-ern romantics and political scientists. Certainly the history of the country, which has tended to be one of grand promises and grander disappointments in quickening alternation—large plans, large collapses—would seem to militate against the continuing hold of Bandung-size expectations. Neither Sukarno’s “old order” populism nor Suharto’s “new order” paternalism (the differences between them have been much exaggerated by the partisans of both—their contrasts were mainly in style and presentation, and to some degree in disciplinary reach) was able to impress an identity and a transcending purpose on the society as a whole, to make of it an integral community, real or imagined.

The Nationalist Project,” the construction of an aroused and self-aware people moving as one toward spiritual and material fulfillment—“An Age in Motion,” so the tag says—has become increasingly hard to formulate in believable terms, much less to pursue and carry out. The shaken country that was delivered first, faute de mieux, to the unfortunate Habibie in the spring of 1998 (his presidency lasted seventeen months, plagued by confusion and scandal), and then, in camera, to the improbable Wahid, had lost more than its bank balance, its equilibrium, and its international reputation. It had lost the power of its history to instruct it.


The man who is expected to correct all this, to right its economy, calm its politics, restore its confidence, reset its course, clear its conscience, and improve its image, as well as, perhaps, to entertain and distract it, is a fifty-nine-year-old veteran politician whom virtually everyone seems to have met (including me: a decade ago, I spent four days closeted with him and a few of his allies in a rest house near Bandung discussing, no less, the future of Islam in Indonesian politics), most seem to have liked, and almost all seem to have underestimated.

Known universally as “Gus Dur,” his honorific childhood nickname (“Gus” means “handsome lad”), Wahid was born and grew up at the very center of Javanist Islam and Javanist Islamic politics—his grandfather’s famous religious boarding school, or pesantren, fifty miles southwest of Surabaya. His grandfather, a personage and a personality, as well as a renowned Koranic scholar, founded the country’s largest Muslim organization (it may, in fact, be the largest in the world), Nahdatul Ulama, in 1926—in part, at least, to counter the growth of secularist nationalism, and to strengthen the hold of vernacular piety against modernist innovations flowing out of the Middle East. The tolerant, open, somewhat traditionalist, somewhat inward “Javanese Islam” he represented continues to the present as a major social and religious force. Wahid’s father, in the loose, inexplicit sort of way in which power is passed in the pesantren tradition, inherited the school, the stature, the program, and the organization; he was the country’s first minister of religion, and a broker of consequence in Sukarno’s ideological spoils system, distributing jobs to petitioners in the vast and shambling clerical bureaucracy that to this day regulates mosques, marriages, benefactions, and religious courts.

Wahid, after traveling, studying, and getting himself known in Cairo, Baghdad, and various countries in Europe for awhile in the mid-Seventies, returned to become a widely read columnist at Tempo, the country’s leading, and later suppressed, news magazine, and to found Forum Demokrasi, an elite ginger group whose criticisms of the establishment drove the government to near-murderous distraction. He also took over the reins of the Nahdatul Ulama organization, which he then promptly separated from the counterfeit political party (“Development and Unity”) Suharto had concocted to contain it.

If close-up, been-through-the-mill experience, as well as patience, agility, humor, and a refined sense of timing, is what Indonesia needs, Gus Dur, who is the closest thing to a machine politician the country has, could be the man. Compared at various times to Peter Falk’s Columbo, the Javanese shadow-play buffoon Semar, Chaim Potok’s lapsed rabbi Asher Lev, Ross Perot, Yoda, and (by his defense minister) a three-wheel Jakarta taxi, Wahid would seem well equipped to weave his way through the densest sort of lunatic traffic.

  1. 1

    Hal Hill, Indonesia—Industrial Transformation (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1997), p. 1, references removed; Steven Radelet, Indonesia’s Implosion (Harvard Institute for International Development, 1998), p. 1.

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