What will happen if the young, who will (possibly) greatly influence the policy making of the current World’s Third Largest Democracy, do not believe in democracy? This question has been bothering me in the last two years, particularly every time I was “trapped” in the never-ending discussion with my civil servant peer group in The Ministry. For the past two years, the conclusion of discussion regarding the country’s political issues remains the same. It will usually end up with my frustration, desperately trying to convince them about the importance of democracy, as the safeguard of every positive changes happened in Indonesia since 1998.
According to The Freedom House, Indonesia is currently the only free country in South East Asia. The neighboring countries such as The Philippines and Singapore are even still categorized as “partly free” countries. Considering its 234 million population, it is now also often referred as the Third Largest Democracy, after India and The United States. To make it more special, it is also often referred as a rare successful example of a democracy with predominantly Muslim population. Indonesia was even honored to host the 6th Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy in 2010, and in her opening speech, the Chairman praised the host as “the most vibrant democracy in Asia”.
However, from my point of view as a government official who deals with democratic consolidation as well as a student of political science, not unlike other young democracies around the world, the country is currently facing some potential of the so called “democratic backsliding”. The potential threats to democracy in Indonesia are resulted from the increasing frustration among the citizens, as its democracy appeared to be costly and showing only little concrete contribution to the people’s welfare. This kind of frustration seems to spread among people from various backgrounds, including the highly educated and affluent ones. The lack of understanding on the concept of democracy, a superficial and narrow-minded, past-oriented attitude which often results in the conclusion that the dictatorship in the past was better than the current democracy and are also other source of potential threats to democratic consolidation in Indonesia. Yet again, among all of these possibilities, there is nothing more worrying than a bunch of highly educated young civil servants, who are also potentially influential people, who are competitively recruited in the ministry which is functioned as the hub of the policy-making process and are unfortunately very skeptical in believing that democracy is the best basis for the Indonesian political system.
I believe that democracy is the best among the existing imperfect options. The history, almost anywhere in the world, has shown so far that it is the most fair and benevolent political system. Many of my friends think that democracy is a very westernized concept so that it is not suitable for Indonesian context. I agree that Indonesia has a very different culture and condition, and I can fully understand people’s anxiety about democracy’s minimal contribution toward the level of prosperity. In the context of Indonesia, the democracy is still very young, after all, that it is still far from perfect and satisfying. However, there are reasons and evidence that have shown that democracy compatible for, and is needed in Indonesia.
Democracy, I believe is the safeguard of every positive change that has happened in Indonesia since the 1998 reform movement. Therefore, it is essential to preserve, maintain and nurture democracy in Indonesia to protect all those positive changes. The improving freedom of speech, freedom of expression, free & fair elections, massive war against corruption, respect to human rights, non violent-peaceful leadership succession are among those positive changes I refer to. Before 1998, Indonesia was a dictatorship where people lived in fear and threats and unable to voice their aspirations. This condition was maintained by the Suharto Regime for more than 30 years, until the people power (with the students movement as the main component) changed everything in 1998. However, more recently, for many people including my friends, the post-1998 era is often perceived as chaotic, less-prosperous age that many consider Indonesian democracy has gone too far and in consequence, they want to return to dictatorship era in the past. The media often call this as “longing-for-Suharto syndrome”. However, I believe that those who aspire in such a way are basically people who had lived their life in the central-comfort zone and thus became less sensitive to those who lived far away from the central-comfort zone, in a geographic as well as in a political sense. These people are ignoring the fact that during the dictatorship, there have been some despotic policies exercised against the people that they suffered very much. One important instance of Indonesian democracy’s positive side effects is the Aceh peace process. If there had been no changing regime, the Helsinki peace-accord between the Government of Indonesia and The Free Aceh Movement would never have been realized in 2005.
Decentralization and local autonomy is another important example of change that democracy has brought to Indonesia and particularly people all around the country. As many critics proposed, to some extent, decentralized governance in Indonesia has not achieved its best performance, yet, this changing system has enable people in 34 provinces to elect their government democratically. In regard to the issue of democratic election, I think one of the most important gift democracy has brought to Indonesia is the mechanism of leadership and governmental succession in a non-violent way. History has noted boldly that undemocratic regimes in the past were succeeded by sacrificing civilians’ as well as military’s life. Therefore, Indonesian young and children have to be reminded about the 1960 communist-party related coup d’état and the 1998 civil unrest and chaos in several cities so that they can rethink about how much it cost to take such undemocratic risk, despite the fact that the current democracy is often being criticized as a very costly governmental system, with so many elections take place in one year. In short, I believe that those who consider the past dictatorship age is better for Indonesia than the current democracy is being either narrow-minded. This can be caused by lack of knowledge (for example because they live their whole life in Jakarta, the capital city and never seen the other area of Indonesia), or probably they were the part of the previous regime and had gained so much more from it. After all, it is quite unfair to judge that the current democratic era is worse than the past dictatorship age only because so many bad news such as poverty, hunger, corruptions, and so on appearing in the media. If we think more logically, the REAL situation in the past might have been much worse, with all the political violence committed by the state apparatus, but we never knew about that bad news simply because freedom of speech and the media were circumscribed by the regime.
Having joined a team in the Ministry of Planning whose task is designing and coordinating for Indonesia’s consolidated democracy in 2025 for almost three years, I have found that there are so many different things to do, so many issues to raise, so many problems to be addressed, so many parties to be involved, and so many challenges to deal with. Moreover, in the recent years, I believe that people’s skepticism toward political issues in Indonesia has increased. It is quite understandable, as many politicians behave in a way that makes taxpayers and people in general angry. Corruption among legislators and among elected public officers and money politics during the election processes are the main source of these resentments. It is not surprising that people are getting suspicious and skeptical at politics and everything related to it.
Outside my office desk, realizing my limited capacity to influence people, I have decided to focus on the above mentioned area: my friends, the potentially-influential people of the future. What I have done so far is very little. The first method I have tried was speaking loudly, assertively in basically every opportunity I had, and on many occasions, I ended up impatiently explaining some logical argumentation with historical details as supporting evidence, on why we have to maintain democracy as the nation’s political choice. Did I succeed? Well, in some occasions, I have created a silence in class or a prolonged nodding from some of my companions. Silence in class can be misleadingly understood as agreement as well as ignorance. I never fully investigated the meaning of the silence that I have created. However, on many other occasions, many people considered my attitude as intimidating, and it is worsened by such utopian argument that cannot be accepted by many people, particularly those with low income and education. On one occasion, a senior even told me that I will be thrown away from a rickshaw if I talk in such a way to common citizens such as a rickshaw driver.
Alternatively, I tried to write. I put those writings on democracy and its related issues in my personal Blogspot website which is also automatically imported to my Facebook account. The blog itself was not particularly about democracy, it was an old blog I have been using since 2005, containing a wide variety of writing types, from poems to academic essays. The Facebook notes version, I am quite sure is more popular that the blog version, since I can tag anyone I want in it. There were at least two pieces of writing related to the issue of democracy. I wrote about female candidates in the 2009 legislative elections. This writing argued about the reasons why we need to vote and why female legislators. One of the reasons I strongly emphasize is the logic and the empirical evidence in some other I also wrote about Indonesian democracy status, emphasizing why Indonesians need to be grateful in their country’s 65th anniversary. This writing was actually inspired by one office assignment, explaining that based on Islamic teaching, freedom or independence is one of the most fundamental blessings given by God to human beings. Therefore, Indonesian people should be grateful for being the only “free” country in South East Asia according to Freedom House’s 2010 publication.
Were these writings effective? Well, I cannot tell about it for sure also. Compared to my oral arguments in classes, more people definitely listen to the ideas conveyed in them. Most people’s feedback was positive. One of my friends purchased a plane ticket back to her hometown to vote in the general election. Some clicked their “like this” icon in Facebook. Some people told me that they enjoyed my writings and were waiting for more. Some other thought that the arguments are quite logical and informative.
More recently I also tried to widen my target readers by joining Kompasiana, a network of blogs owned by Kompas, Indonesia’s biggest and most nation-wide daily newspaper. In this network, the writings posted by the bloggers are categorized in different fields. My writing on Indonesia’s democracy status was posted in the politics, law and security affairs category. I remember that I posted it during twilight, and in less than 5 hours the counter hit the number 60 and one reader considered the writing as “useful”. Several people also posted comments on the writing and I thought it was not bad at all for a starter.
Thinking about these reactions, I have concluded some aspects that made combination of writing and social networking as the best personal way to promote democracy in a country like Indonesia. These aspects I think, has also made people like my writings better than my arguments. Firstly, the writings are written in a contemplative sort of tone, instead of provocative ones. Secondly, an article is less emotional, less arrogant, more systematic, more detailed, so that misunderstanding and a sense of intimidation is more avoidable. Moreover, written argument can be packaged in a less serious and more entertaining way. Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, social networking can reach wider audience, much wider than a class of young civil servants. The fact that Indonesia has recently become the third largest user of Facebook is only strengthening my conclusion.
Considering this heart-warming initial result, I consider social networking and a blogging as a better place to campaign in a more contemplative way. Of course, many challenges are being faced in the way ahead. I am constantly facing difficulties in simplifying the explanation of the good side of democracy and thus, the significance of its presence in our daily life. To be honest, I am myself is still in the process of conceptualizing the ideal democracy and in the process of believing it. The other challenges that I need to face is how to make these writings independent, despite my position as a government official. Although on the other hand, the fact that I am a government official is expected to bring positive impact in the government effort to convince people that they are sincerely changing. However, the most fundamental challenge remains how to find a topic related to the issue of democracy, but closely and clearly linked to the very fundamental and concrete aspect in daily life, more particularly for those potential future influential policy-maker friends of mine.
To keep up my spirit and enthusiasm, I keep reminding myself about two success stories of Indonesian social-networkers in contributing to the promotion of democracy. Indonesia’s Facebookers have also recently contributed significantly in determining policy-making and the legal process, notably when the “A million Facebookers support the release of Bibit-Chandra” cause has gained a massive support that contributed in endorsing the President himself to finally intervene in the case. This was about two commissioners of Indonesia’s corruption Eradication Commission who were arrested and suspected for their involvement in bribery. Indonesian public, having known the reputation of the commission and these leaders and the challenge of corruption eradication in Indonesia, believes that this merely a plot involving other authorities and those who are threatened by the Commission’s bold steps in handling corruptions and corruptors. This Facebook cause, has even successfully mobilized the mass to conduct a peace rallies against the plot and in the end, and it had stimulated the Authority to finally intervene in favor of the public aspiration. Another Facebook cause has also played enormous role in preventing Prita Mulyasari from being jailed by a Hospital about which she complained by emails and mailing list. Prita was a housewife who complained about the lack of transparency and poor service of a big private hospital near Jakarta.
These cases were evidence that social networks have played and potentially will play significant roles in encouraging freedom and promoting the value of democracy in Indonesia. I absolutely don’t want to be left behind.
*image : Freedom House world map 2005 from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/69/Freedom_House_world_map_2005.png
** This essay was written around end of 2010, my first term in university, the peaceful days when there was no exams and two essays only...:p