What does it mean to be modern? Indonesia’s reformasi
How is a nation born? Otto von Bismarck, with his terrifying
face, his huge body, and his heavy clothes, would answer
“Through blood and iron.” … However, it is also essential to
hold on to myths and even dreams—no matter if the dreams
are a little stupid, or are something called “imagination.”
—Goenawan Mohamad, 1983.(1)
In the days before Indonesia’s national elections this past June, the
foreign observers arrived in Jakarta like package-tour sightseers—always in
groups, always a bit bewildered, always looking as if they had come from another
world. There was a large corps—135 monitors—from the European
Union. Others came from the Australian government, the Japanese government,
New Zealand, the American Chamber of Commerce, and sundry
“civil society” organizations: the International Republican Institute, based
in Washington; the Asian Network for Free Elections, or Anfrel, whose offices
are in Bangkok; and the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections,
or Namfrel, which set up shop in Manila at the end of the Marcos era.
Most prominent was the contingent from the National Democratic Institute-
Carter Center, a hybrid of two American groups. Led by former President
Jimmy Carter, they were one hundred strong.
This is the democracy industry, as a friend among the monitors put it. In
all, fourteen organizations sent more than five hundred people to watch
Indonesia’s first open elections since 1955. Including the United Nations
(UN), they are said to have spent some $90 million as observers fanned out
across an archipelago of 13,000 islands to scrutinize the voting and counting
and recording of results at some small fraction of the 320,000 polling sta-
tions set up for this momentous event. When it was over, all fourteen groups
of foreign monitors pronounced the contests to have been “free and fair”—
those freighted words by which the arbiters of democratic practice dispense
legitimacy across the globe.
This was undeniably a laudable exercise. Here is a nation—with 210 million
people, the world’s fourth-largest—embarked upon a grand experiment.
Indonesians spent 31 years under the repressive, psychologically suffocating
“New Order” of Soeharto, who ran one of the most corrupt regimes that modern
East Asia has yet produced. Now Soeharto is gone—deposed a year before
last summer’s polls—and Indonesians have a chance to make of their country
a democracy. The elections, surely, marked a huge step in this direction. In
the national legislature, 462 of 500 seats were contested. (Reflecting the
military’s established role in politics, it fills the remaining 38 by appointment.)
Long-suppressed political opposition parties were the big winners. And of 130
million eligible voters, nearly 112 million cast ballots—an extraordinary percentage.
Who would argue that this was not an endeavor worthy of support—
an occasion to witness, and afterward to celebrate?
There was an immediate problem. The monitors had not boarded flights
home before the reports of irregularities began. Almost all of the allegations—
bribery, ballot tampering, miscounts—implicated Golkar,
Soeharto’s old party apparatus and sponsor of his chosen successor, President
B.J. Habibie. The monitors ought to have been ready for this: Golkar
is much practiced in such matters. During the campaigns, Golkar and the
Habibie government stood accused of manipulating international food aid
and $800 million in welfare funds to the party’s political benefit. Election
officials eventually found trouble in almost half of Indonesia’s 27 provinces.
Credit must be given: Without the observers, the corruption may
otherwise have been more extensive. But the foreign contingent got it
only half right for all its effort and good will. These elections were free,
but they were not entirely fair.
That lapse in judgment urges a larger issue upon us. How much could the
foreign visitors see as they journeyed through Indonesia with their clipboards
and cellular phones? Were they not confined to the present, a not
very meaningful here-and-now, and then charged with rendering a judgment
made futile because it could have no context and no content—no history,
no sense of the whole? Free and fair, or not: There is something of the
thumbs-up, thumbs-down movie critique in such a verdict. I happened to be
in Bali on June 7, election day. It struck me then that the monitors had to
watch the elections a little as the tourists watched the Balinese dancers at
the beach hotel where I stayed: They could see all the movements, and they
might recognize that there was beauty in them. But they could hardly have
much understanding of what the movements meant, or what it was that
made them beautiful.
Elections such as Indonesia’s once had a particular significance. During
the Cold War decades, they were a kind of admission ticket. In the global
defense against the Communist threat, polls of minimal credibility—and
sometimes not even that—were enough to allow Americans to claim any
number of grim regimes as allies. Soeharto’s was prominent among them.
Like many others, he depended upon an old habit among Westerners, particularly
Americans: the habit of not looking
too closely at the domestic affairs of troubled
allies. Display-case elections that Golkar in-
variably carried by vast margins enabled the
United States to cast Soeharto as a great
modernizer and to support the military apparatus
he needed to defend himself and his
idea of what being modern meant. Soeharto’s
political language, a language of obfuscation
and euphemism, was accepted without much
question. His New Order produced “dynamic
stability,” and few asked what it was, how it
worked, or how it was achieved. Mikul dhuwur mendhem jero, Lift high appearances,
bury problems deep: It was among Soeharto’s favorite Javanese
adages. And the Western world came to like it, too.
The memory of those years was scarcely lost on Indonesians as they went
to the polls this year. That is partly what lent the elections such significance.
They marked the passing of an era for the simple reason that they
counted. And that changed nothing less than everything. The thousand foreign
eyes watching Indonesians vote were ours: They watched for the world.
But do we think our seal of approval had any of the old importance? Are we
stuck in an interlude of history? If so, we are tourists from the past, lost in
the future. The only “free and fair” that truly mattered this time was the
one Indonesians rendered or withheld. And that signals something very new
in the world.
The process now unfolding in Indonesia is complicated and simple all at
once. Reformasi, as Indonesians call it, extends far beyond restoring the democracy
Indonesians once and briefly knew. That would be momentous
enough of itself. But the endeavor is larger, more encompassing. It is better
understood as a matter of national reinvention. There is no revolution near
at hand; no new ideology is about to be revealed. What Indonesians propose
is more daunting still: a revaluation of the very ideals the West urges upon
the world—democracy, liberty, equality, self-determination, modernization,
progress. These ideals are to be remade and understood anew. In all its dimensions—
political, economic, social, administrative, and so on—the
project is the creation of a new ethos by which Indonesians will live in the
It is not so novel an idea as it may seem. The same impulse is evident
here and there across the globe, from Germany to Japan to Nigeria to Iran
to Guatemala and beyond. The task begins with a nation’s idea of itself that
springs from within, not from the way the world has divided itself. “Become
who you are!” Nietzsche once admonished. In Indonesia and elsewhere, it is
not a bad summary of the end-of-century imperative. In no case is there any
guarantee of success. But complete failure is out of the question.
In the age of globalism, Indonesians are turning inward. It is but one of
many paradoxes one finds among them. To understand the political process
now unfolding—to see the project beneath the project—one must also recognize
that Indonesians are finding their way forward by looking back. They
propose a new order by discarding the New Order that was long and widely
accepted by others. Autonomy is a vital issue in Indonesia today. These diverse
people will stay together only if they agree to come apart. Reinvention:
The very word carries within it a paradox. It is just as well, for it should remind
us, the Westerners, that we may soon face one of our own. At issue in
Indonesia today are the uses of universal ideals. Will we who have preached
these ideals for centuries applaud if Indonesians succeed in adopting them?
The New Order Becomes the Old
Among the core concerns of Cold War thinking in the West, none was more
important than the notion of progress. How should primitive nations make
themselves modern? This was a much-posed question in the 1950s and 1960s,
as East-West tensions raged and millions of decolonized people contemplated
the proper way forward. The Western answer was simple: Backward people
became modern people by following the example of Europeans and Americans,
who invented the very idea of progress. With their traditions of rational
inquiry and their belief in scientific solutions, they had built successful, powerful
nations. Success and power came from industry, which provided a measure
of material prosperity unparalleled in human history. The industrial
nations professed democratic ideals, to which others could aspire and whose
mechanisms—constitutions, elections, legislatures—they could adopt. To
modernize, then, meant to Westernize. All that was primitive or traditional—
history itself—was cast in a new light, and would be of little use in this
project. It was not a new idea. But during the Cold War years it assumed a
new utility. In the academy, it was dressed up as “modernization theory.” And
in the underdeveloped world, it had many attractions.2
Until Soeharto took power in 1967, Indonesia had spent its first two decades
as an independent nation finding its feet. Sukarno, Soeharto’s populist
predecessor, wanted nothing to do with modernization theory, in whatever
guise. He was a nationalist, a “politics first” man: His concerns were democratic
government, however messy it would prove, and nonalignment in the
East-West context. It was a common course at the time—a not-unexpected
set of priorities for a leader who spent his formative years fighting the Dutch
colonial power. But by the mid-1960s, Sukarno
had given opponents plenty of reasons to advance
a new course. The democratic experiment—
Guided Democracy, Sukarno had taken
to calling it—was flickering. The economy was
in trouble, and nonalignment was antagonizing
the West. “Go to hell with your foreign aid,”
Sukarno famously told the Americans in 1964
speech. That was typical of the tone.
Soeharto’s New Order, by contrast, was
modernization theory made flesh in many respects.
Of what did it consist? What was it,
It began both badly and rather well. After a coup attempt against
Sukarno in 1965, the army spent more than a year clearing the ground before
Soeharto took the presidency—murdering, by most estimates, something
close to half a million Communists, suspected Communists, and
sympathizers. The Central Intelligence Agency, with a detachment that belied
U.S. involvement, ranked this rampage among the century’s worst
atrocities. Of the many curious facts about this episode, two are worth noting.
First, while there is much to suggest that Soeharto and the army inspired
the coup themselves, its origins remain unsettled in the history books.
Second, Indonesians are said to have paused little after the rivers ran red
around the nation. After the relentless challenges and disarray of Sukarno’s
later years, they welcomed Soeharto’s New Order with alacrity. It would
take only half a dozen years for Soeharto to match the corruption Sukarno’s
Indonesia fell into—and then supercede it by magnitudes. As early as the
mid-1970s, the disillusion was evident. But in the interim, the economy
turned around decisively, and Indonesians thought they had finally found
the best way to make themselves modern.3
Political violence and rampant corruption were never features of modernization
theory, of course. But they were hardly unknown in other underdeveloped
nations that imported the Western idea of progress during the Cold
War era. They were extremes that indicated a pervasive imbalance. Progress
was to be measured in material, not political terms. In the war against the
socialist alternative, the essential thing was industrial advancement. The
appearance of democracy would be enough. Of course, corruption and violence
can always be relied upon to fill the void when democratic institutions
are weak. But these were not the only consequences. To one degree or another,
public man and public space, to use Richard Sennett’s terms, were
obliterated.4 Civil discourse was confined to small corners of society, where
the language of politics became a kind of Latin.
In Indonesia’s case—and in this it was not unique—party politics was replaced
by a form of corporatism peculiar to
our age: corporatism dressed up as party
politics.5 Sukarno was sliding in this direction;
Soeharto got there with giant strides as
soon as he took office, when he pushed the
army into politics. Golkar, its vehicle, was
explicitly corporatist. It takes its name from
golongan karya, meaning functional groups.
The New Order’s complexities are many.
But it offered essentially the same social contract adopted elsewhere and
notably across Southeast Asia: Democracy was exchanged for a kind of police-
state prosperity. In its essence, this is the “Asian values” argument:
Amid great material change, traditional morals and hierarchies—Confucianism
and Islam are the fonts of authority in Asia—must be maintained.
Among the notable things about Asian values is how the West, for all its
criticism of the idea now, so long and so recently liked it. It is how modernization
theory worked out on the ground.
New Order Indonesia is a familiar phenomenon. Anyone who has not
seen it has seen something like it, in person or in pictures. In the ubiquitous
imagery, cognitive dissonance is the running theme: skyscrapers hard by the
houses on stilts, petrochemical plants at the distant end of rice paddies, girls
in sarongs or Islamic cowls at lab tables or assembly lines. That is Soeharto’s
Indonesia: advances amid stasis, great change amid no change. Immensely
rich in resources and ambitious to build industry, its average economic
growth approached 6 percent per annum during Soeharto’s years. But for
many Indonesians, the similarities between the modern economy and the
extractive economy of the colonial era are scarcely debatable. All provinces
serve Jakarta (and the Javanese, many other ethnic groups would argue).
Irian Jaya, with extensive mineral deposits, oil and gas reserves, and chronic
poverty, could simultaneously claim to be the nation’s sixth wealthiest province
and its poorest, depending on how one chooses to count.
When Soeharto was deposed in 1998, a year into the Asian economic crisis,
few were surprised that he chose Habibie as his successor. Though his
reputation among the educated elite is as a bright, squeaky-voiced oddball,
Habibie was Soeharto’s closest confidante for much of the New Order era.
When the moment came for Soeharto, Habibie represented the path of least
retreat: In naming him interim president, Soeharto surrendered as little as
possible of the system he had built over the previous thirty one years. It was
a holding action. Who knew what even the immediate future held? Habibie
could be counted on, certainly, to avoid a campaign of corruption mongering,
Marcos-style—a point that surely figured in Soeharto’s thinking. And
he is a man of the New Order—a man dedicated to the New Order way to
Indeed, among the interesting things about Habibie is how purely he reflects
the model. Educated in Germany, enamored of his Harley-Davidson
motorcycle, Habibie is a technologist with a fervent belief in the uses of religious
values—Islam is the faith of most Indonesians—to maintain social
order. As Soeharto’s research and technology minister, Habibie saw advanced
industry as Indonesia’s salvation. His most famous project was an indigenous
aerospace industry that would design and build jet planes.
Monumentally impractical, it did much to further Habibie’s reputation as an
eccentric. Yet Soeharto let Habibie spend heavily: He had put two designs
in the air before his patron was deposed, and he was planning a third. Amid
it all, and with Soeharto’s blessing, Habibie helped launch the Association
of Muslim Intellectuals, a sort of steering committee intended to guide the
nation toward its idea of how to combine the old and the new.6
Habibie has done well as an interim president this past year. Clumsily,
perhaps precipitously, he put the East Timor question, which had festered
since Indonesia invaded the territory in 1975, squarely on the table. More
broadly, Habibie has released some, though not all, of Soeharto’s many political
prisoners. He has freed the press, unleashing a daily riot of commentary
and political chatter. And he broke the locks on the nation’s political
life. Forty-eight parties fielded candidates in the June elections. Golkar was
among them, of course, but it now has a leopard-and-spots problem: While
the party is still a potent political force, it will have to convince Indonesians
that it can purge itself of an undemocratic past if it is to survive. The corporatist
phase is clearly over, and Indonesians can thank Habibie for that. But
when he declared that he would run for president, in indirect elections to be
held later this year, the country turned against him. “What we all need is a
new government that is free of the elements of the New Order regime,” a
prominent opposition leader said at a campaign rally in late May.7 That
seemed aimed at both Golkar and Habibie. And as the elections showed,
most Indonesians thought it was the logical place to draw the line.
Why there? One need not look far to find answers having to do with politics
and economics. The Asian crisis swiftly revealed how thin and fragile
was the New Order’s prosperity. In two years, it had pushed seventy million
Indonesians, one-third of the population, back below the poverty line which
raised the incidence of poverty to 40 percent. The economy contracted by
almost 14 percent in 1998 and will finish this year somewhere either side of
zero.8 The social contract, the offer Indonesians could not refuse, was broken.
As to politics, who would not wish to push decisively beyond a regime
so repressive and enervating? Indonesians needed to breathe again; it was
natural to crave fresh air. And the New Order
was suddenly old and stale.
But the impulse runs much deeper. This was
clear by the time Indonesians voted last June.
At issue now is not just a new set of faces to
cope with the crisis, or even a new government
to grasp the reins and lead the country back on
track. At issue is a fundamental change of direction.
Yes, history must be squared. Human
rights violations, corruption, and the Soeharto
family’s billions have been of much concern in
Indonesia this year. But one senses this to be more a matter of putting the
record straight so that Indonesians can begin to forget Soeharto. For many
ordinary Indonesians, even his successor has slipped into the past. That is
why the violence that has erupted from time to time already could so easily
return if Habibie is given a new term as president later this year. He no
longer has a place—not in the Indonesia that beckons. The question is no
longer Soeharto or the New Order: It is the path he chose, and the costs of
his choice as measured in things more important than money.
In conversations with Indonesians today—with ordinary people and with
writers, psychiatrists, teachers, priests, social psychologists, and so on—certain
words and ideas recur. Among them are these: pride and shame; dignity
and resentment; cynicism; modesty and greed; fear and distrust, the price of
everything and everybody. This is the vocabulary Soeharto’s Indonesia has left
behind. Everyone was part of the New Order, many Indonesians will tell you.
And the shame and resentment come from what this acquiescence made of
them. While few have yet engaged the New Order’s grim beginning, the coup
and the massacre of 1965-66, it is no longer possible to believe this passage of
the past will remain buried, or that it has not all along been a source of profound
sorrow, anger, and regret among those alive at the time. In the years
that followed, there was nothing that could not be purchased, and nothing
left to be proud of. Distrust corroded discourse until an odd silence prevailed
in a naturally noisy nation. Soeharto made much of tradition—Javanese and
no one else’s—but only to manipulate it to his own ends. No one knew, at the
end, what it meant to be Indonesian. “We forgot that we are a nation.” That
is how Luh Ketut Suryani, a psychiatrist friend in Denpasar, the Balinese capital,
put it. And that is why the nation, as it emerged from the Soeharto years,
seemed for a time to be in danger of falling apart.
Another word one hears frequently is “loss.” It is usually used in connection
with the past and the future. It is a clue to the widespread desire to regain
something of what was once given up as useless, or too ambitious, or
too charged with political energy, or too defiantly Indonesian. If Indonesians
are eager to record the immediate past so as to release it from memory, it is
partly to rediscover another past—something we may call a usable past. “We
look at the past from our current perspective and we create it,” the writer
Goenawan Mohamad said in conversation one day last summer. “The point
is to choose the right past. And the right past is the one that goes well with
the idea of what you want to be.”
Another Way of Being Modern
She is a mystery to many, Megawati Sukarnoputri. And because of the jubilant
enthusiasm she engenders, she seems to make a mystery of Indonesia.
The unpopular Habibie, a puzzled American scholar recently observed, “is
one of the most Westernized figures in Indonesian political history,” while
Megawati is “a lady solidly rooted in the feudal past.” In this he found “a lot
of sense of irony.”9
It is an altogether typical perspective. But it misinterprets Indonesia’s
new dynamic almost entirely. Why has Habibie won so little gratitude for
all his reforms? As every Indonesian knows, they are at bottom concessions
required by the sheer force of popular opinion. It is Habibie, through
his reforms, who is trying to save something Indonesians have decided to
discard. Megawati is given to looking back, certainly. The habit is literally
in her genes: She is Sukarno’s daughter. But in her looking back supporters
see the making of something new of Indonesia. There is nothing “feudal”
in this: In the Indonesian context, that has become a misleading,
even objectionable epithet. For now, at least, Indonesians need to reconnect
with their past more than they need indigenous jet planes and hightech
factories that glint in the sun. Looking back is the essence of the
exercise, but going forward is the object.
There are several common images of Megawati abroad among Indonesians.
In one, she is acknowledged for her modesty and quiet determination.
Here is another: “She is a nice, plump lady,” says Dr. Onghokham, a
historian at the University of Indonesia. “The mother is such a central figure
for the Javanese. Nice-looking and plump—you couldn’t do better.”10
She was a legislator for many years, and she is remembered now for snack-
ing impassively in the People’s Representative Council. As leader of the
opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDIP, she emerged
as a national figure only in the last few years of the New Order. In 1996
Soeharto tried to ban her from politics—which only increased her appeal.
The New Order abused Megawati, as it had abused her late father. Indonesians
Famously, neither Megawati nor her party appears to have many fixed
policy positions. During the campaigns last
spring, she was notably quiet—almost an
enigma. Some liked her because she supported
business and free markets: She was a globalist.
Others were certain she was a statist on the
side oi what the Javanese call ivong cilik, the
Indonesian history. li t t l e people, and would redistribute the national
wealth. On those issues Megawati engaged,
she could run directly counter to
popular opinion. No, she did not support constitutional
revision—an important step toward making a democracy that
works. No, she did not wish to see Soeharto stand trial. No, she saw no reason
to abolish the concept of dwifungsi, dual function, meaning the army’s
place in politics. And no, she did not want to discuss provincial autonomy—
and still less independence for East Timor.
It would be easy to overinterpret all of this. At fifty-two, Megawati may fit
the image of the Javanese mother figure, but there is nothing to suggest she
draws upon it for her appeal. Considering the pitiable role to which Soeharto
reduced the New Order’s lawmakers, eating fruit and crackers does not seem
an unreasonable way to get through tedious legislative sittings. It is easy to
imagine Megawati biding her time—wholly focused on the larger issue. As to
her pronouncements, they seem less a measure of fixed views than a lack of
experience, an awareness of her position, and a desire to avoid early mistakes.
She has already indicated flexibility on the East Timor question. At the same
time, she has been quietly negotiating with General Wiranto, the army commander-
in-chief, as to his political future. Net of all the confusion, the message
seems to be simply that nothing is fixed, a fact Indonesians seem
intuitively to grasp. Megawati is untested, which does not distinguish her. An
entire generation has been left without so much as a political language. That
is merely another of Soeharto’s legacies.
At this writing, in the midsummer of 1999, it is not clear who Indonesia’s
next president will be. He or she is to be elected indirectly this autumn. In a direct
election—a system Indonesians are already discussing—Megawati would
probably win this time by a considerable margin. Even with all the reported
irregularities, the PDIP was the clear victor in the June legislative polls.
But whether or not Megawati gains the presidential palace her father
once occupied, she is unquestionably the most interesting figure in Indonesia
today. She is something of an empty vessel that Indonesians have filled
to the brim. For now that is how she ought to be engaged. What are people
pouring in? What meanings attach to the icon? If she is a shard of history,
then it is true, as Goenawan Mohamad asserts, that Indonesians will have to
learn that Megawati is not her father. It is also true that the memory of
Sukarno alive among PDIP supporters is selective. But that is precisely why
it is worth understanding the Megawati phenomenon.
Sukarno exhausted Indonesians with his exhortations, his enemies everywhere,
and his constant political challenges. One senses that somehow he
believed in too much too soon—as many in the generation of Nehru,
Nasser, and Nkrumah did. Like them, he saw too much of what was possible
and not enough of what was, or that not everyone could keep up with him.
By the end, his public had abandoned him; students wanted Soeharto to try
him (as they are calling for Soeharto to be tried now). And in this we find
the core of Megawati’s appeal. If nearly everyone partook of the New Order,
she is among the few whose hands can be considered clean. To support her
is almost a kind of redemption. It is a way of speaking and remembering after
the forgetting Soeharto urged and the silence he enforced.
What is it Indonesians remember? One immediately plunges into the morass
of manipulated history and memory: They forget what they were supposed
to remember about Sukarno and remember what they were told to
forget. In the forget column, there is a clear tendency to gloss Sukarno’s
Guided Democracy years—the chaos of which Soeharto always stressed as
the New Order’s raison d’etre. In the New Order’s immediate aftermath, Indonesians
eagerly remember the young and energetic Sukarno of the postindependence
era, 1945-59. This is known as the parliamentary democracy
period, and its name speaks for itself. In Soeharto’s careful manipulation of
the past, it is another interlude he sought to obliterate. He called it simply
“the Old Order.”
In the New Order version of the past, the parliamentary period was a detour,
a waste of time, the wrong product imported from the West. It is easy
to imagine the argument as it came from early advocates of what are now
called Asian values: Too much debate led to disorder; competing interests
squandered national energies. There was nothing to be gained from raking
through the remnants. New Order schoolchildren grew up on such ideas. A
revisionist view has been building for some years among Indonesian intellectuals.
Was parliamentary democracy a mistake—or did the error lie in abandoning
the course when the game got rough? In this context, Megawati has
done no more than move this discourse onto the national stage, where it is
One may argue that Indonesians have artificially isolated these years—
that they are bad historians. But that is to miss the point. The parliamentary
period was as confused and frenetically political as the first years of many
post-colonial countries. But amid the necessarily messy experiment,
Sukarno gave Indonesians things they have come to see as precious. The debate
tends to focus on constitutional safeguards, checks and balances, civilian
leadership—all practices and institutions that the New Order wiped
away. But that is an incomplete list. Sukarno is recalled for giving Indonesians
voices in a lively, pluralist polity. Having fought the Dutch, he understood
that unity was an imperative. But he also knew that some things from
the past—even the deep past—are worth saving. Bhinneka tunggal ika, he
said often: Many peoples but one, which he made the national motto in
1950. It gave Indonesians—300 ethnic groups speaking 250 languages—the
first sense of self-possession they had ever known in the modern world.
Sukarno sought to place Indonesians in a new context, one that was neither
colonial nor post-colonial. Whatever one thinks of the Non-Aligned Movement,
his primary role in it during the 1950s created relationships with others
in which Indonesia was a contributor of ideas, not simply unprocessed
commodities. Indonesians had an identity—because Indonesia had one.
There is another, simpler way to express these notions and explain the
appeal of these years today. As they move forward from the Soeharto era,
Indonesians see in them another way of being modern. Grasping that is
probably Megawati’s greatest challenge. It is impossible to say if she will or
whether she will then measure up to it. She cannot, at this early moment,
announce imaginative views on the army, the constitution, and other vital
questions. She is too conscious of the fragile balance of forces that still run
the country. But whoever is made president later this year will have to engage
such issues—sympathetically or severely. A working democracy is still
distant in Indonesia. Surely we know by now that elections or individual
leaders, of themselves, cannot establish it nor guarantee it. But it has begun
to arrive with all the grace of a jack-in-the-box, after three decades of accumulated
pressure. And it is not, for all that, entirely without form. The
nation’s leaders, in some important respects, are behind those who ordinarily
follow. And that in itself is a suggestion of things to come.
Maps that Lead to the Future
If it is possible to bring the process of becoming modern down to the making
of certain choices, then the essence of the project lies in deciding what to
keep, what to modify, what to throw out, and what to learn from others. To
judge by the world’s success rate during our half of the century, this is as dif-
ficult to execute as it is simple to state. Wrong choices and imbalances inevitably
end in excess, if not failure. Yet new choices and altered balances
are daunting, as Indonesians know from the past and are discovering again.
It is another reason, perhaps, for a pervasive preoccupation with Sukarno.
He was starting again, too—inventing a nation. And there are echoes of his
early ambitions in what Indonesians seek as they reinvent it for themselves
now: a more just political system, a better balanced economy, respect at
home among provinces and ethnic groups, and respect abroad. Another way
to view Megawati’s caution and reticence is to consider whether she, more
than anyone else, understands how imposing it will be to take up such a list.
The new Indonesia has so far been concerned primarily with deciding to
make a journey and then setting its course. In many respects it is still in the
map room. That is why the June elections were not contests of rival policies.
Repudiation, cleansing, the admission of regret, the looking back—it is all
prelude to the main movements, the hard, practical decisions. At the same
time, one can hardly say that Indonesians are waiting for some signal that
their moment has begun. As even a brief visit to the country will reveal, the
energy and imagination released since the New Order became old are already
finding direction. What is missing—it could not be otherwise at this
moment—is a sense of limitations and the new balances that will have to be
struck. What we have now are merely new impulses at large. And precisely
because Habibie’s reforms are reactive, they are one early indicator of where
these impulses may lead. The political system has been turned upside
down—from top down, as the phrase goes, to bottom up. Whether it stays
that way is open to question. But that is the pattern all through the nation.
There are several areas where the urgency is evident. Enlarging the political
franchise is the only way Indonesia will build anything that lasts. And
as even Megawati surely knows, any fundamental political advances must
involve constitutional change—in particular to remove the army from the
political fray. Constitutions float like driftwood in the river of modern Indonesian
history. The original document, the constitution of 1945, was drafted
by Indonesians during the Japanese occupation and has much of Axis ideology
in it. Four years later came the Federal Constitution, drawn up after a
cease-fire with the Dutch and under Dutch influence. Sukarno replaced it
in 1950 with a constitution of 146 articles, a detailed set of basic laws that
saw Indonesia through the parliamentary period. It was the best statement
of governing principles Indonesians have ever had. But with Guided Democracy
came a return to the 1945 law, under which Indonesians now
live—and which is the basis for the military’s political role. Once again, the
search for the future leads back to a passage in the past.
Will Indonesia make itself the first nation to pursue a low-growth economic
strategy? One is often invited to think so. Among economic think-
ers, from street-level activists to the academy, there is widespread awareness
of the high price Indonesia paid for its rank among the Pacific
region’s high-performing Asian economies, HPAEs, as the World Bank put
it before the Asian crisis.11 Now it is an LPAE, of course, and this has
given Indonesians time to think. The talk everywhere is of “sustainable
development,” the virtues of modest growth, “doing what we do well,” and
“the people’s economy,” meaning an emphasis on developing human resources
and integrating those too-many whom the New Order made marginal.
“The economic agenda will be rather complex,” says Hadi Soesastro,
executive director of Jakarta’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“But whoever comes to power cannot leave these questions out. For
now, at least, we need to forget about integrated steel mills and petrochemical
Among the large questions there is, finally, Jakarta’s role in running the
nation. This also involves restitching a badly tattered social fabric by reviving
the institutions of a civil society. In one respect, the central government
is likely to grow but in another, decline. How much should government do
to establish and manage a social safety net? The question is being asked
across East Asia, where social welfare has by tradition been a family and
community matter. But the old, informal system can no longer suffice, especially
if the region is to accommodate the kind of economic change the
world urges upon it. Here, the solution is curious: It involves looking inward
and outward, backward and forward at once. If there is a Western model, it
is Europe. But any lessons learned there are likely to be combined with local
tradition—with what has been and what is—to produce a welfare system
made of a mix among families, communities, and the state.
The Habibie government has already passed legislation mandating
greater autonomy from a central government that came, under Soeharto, to
treat outlying provinces like dependent possessions. With independence
movements raging in some provinces and threatened in others, the lesson
has finally come clear: Cohesion lies not in forced or imposed uniformity,
but in the acknowledgment of differences, ancient or modern, along with a
clear commitment to transcend them. Under the new law, the details of
which have yet to be fixed, the capital will retain control over security, foreign
affairs, the currency, and a few other functions. The 27 provinces hope
to take charge not just of revenues and finance—the key issue—but over
the numerous decisions that determine their economies and character: everything
from the kinds of projects they undertake to zoning, education, and
the regulation of foreign investment. Somewhere in the distance, economics
and culture meet: How a province makes its living will often reflect cultural
priorities. In effect, Indonesia is headed for a form of federalism. Oddly, the
nation has a tough time casting its new administrative arrangements in such
terms, because the Dutch employed a federalist structure to divide and rule
the East Indies. But it can read this aspect of its future in that unlikely
chapter of the past.
Even a brief review of Indonesia’s immediate agenda should suggest two essential
features. An old apposition in the New Order’s discourse, between the
traditional and the modern, is dissolving. It is now recognized that being authentically
modern necessarily means having a vital connection with one’s
past. It is not a matter of elevating the traditional and diminishing all that is
contemporary—the stuff of college-campus “movements.” It is to rethink the
choices that modernization requires, to strike new balances. There is no issue
today of Indonesia becoming an Islamic state. But Islam, with its stress upon
community, responsibility, and mutuality, is very likely to leave its print on
Indonesia’s reinvented ethos. And that we will learn to call modern.
This leads directly to the second point: The frame of reference in nations
such as Indonesia is no longer the West. After all the hocus-pocus of the
New Order and its values, Indonesians are now prepared to acknowledge
such things as democracy as universal ideals. But that is no longer to say, as
humanity has for centuries, that these ideals are to be passed on from those
who have them to those who do not. We come to another paradox, one of
great moment: What is universal can be neither exported nor imported;
where it works, its origin is always indigenous.
Lessons for Neoliberals
Indonesians are looking too intently inward now to understand the larger implications
of their endeavor. They have hardly begun to add up the meaning
of all they imagine for themselves in terms of foreign relations and their place
in the world. But the implications are many and large. Atop all the rest, they
will require of themselves a new way of seeing. Even amid last spring’s rambunctious
campaigns, for instance, it was essential to see citizens where they
once may have seen mobs. It is the same for the rest of us. We must learn to
view Indonesia differently if we are to understand what it aspires to become.
The quick judgments of visiting observers will not do now.
There are no immense policy shifts in prospect, and none are spoken of.
Given the severity of the economic crisis—and the fact that it continues despite
talk of imminent recovery—Indonesians have little room for maneuver
at the moment. But reformasi cannot, in the end, stop at the border. A genuine
democracy, provincial autonomy, an economy with a populist tilt—none
of this can be realized without having a direct impact on everything from
environmental and labor law to corporate governance. No Indonesian will
hesitate to assure the foreign visitor that the nation’s commitment to the
global economy remains intact. But it is unlikely to remain the same commitment
the New Order had. Many Indonesians list the debts accumulated
during the Soeharto years—and more broadly, the nation’s relations with
global capital—among the causes of their fallen national pride, another
matter requiring redress. Tempered ambitions in this regard, as in many others,
are more or less a certainty. But it is impossible to imagine any new government
willing to risk dimming hope to the
extent that nothing changes.
The bind is scarcely unfamiliar: domestic
constituents, global imperatives. But the fact
that the equation is repeated today, from
Mexico to Russia, suggests a challenge to market
logic and the assumptions of mainstream
neoliberals that does not seem yet to have registered
in either Washington or New York.
What is globalism, after all, if not a re-render
ing of the old idea, to progress you must be like us? This is part of what we
mean when we talk about seeing anew. It may be upon this very point that a
new Indonesian leader—Sukarno-like but without quite the fire, perhaps—
seeks to put the country back on the map, not merely as an investment platform,
but as part of a larger political force. It is not unthinkable.
Considering Indonesia’s size and evident energy, its potential weight in the
region and the larger world is hardly recognized. In 1995, when the nation
celebrated fifty years of independence, a prominent journalist in Jakarta anticipated
this question with striking prescience. We soared like an eagle at
the beginning, and then we scratched the earth like chickens, he said. “Shall
we continue with the practical, pragmatic approach, with all its excesses? Or
will we strike a balance, eagle and chicken, somewhere in between?”12
For Americans, in particular, the issue of vision extends further than the
reigning economic orthodoxy. It has to do with how we see our past and ourselves,
too. If we are to maintain sympathetic relations with Indonesians, we
will have to change to reflect changes among them. The longtime student,
in the best of outcomes, will become the teacher in a certain respect:
Should we not view the impulse toward autonomy in the provinces as one
worth reproducing in the larger context? In the post-Cold War era, the
point is becoming perfectly clear: Healthy relationships will be those with
sufficient distance to allow for differences that were too long obscured. This
is not only a matter of looking forward, but of looking back, too. Part of the
evolution of our relations will require us to answer to history. This question
is now arising the world over: Too much of the pasts of other people resides
in our national security files. In Indonesia’s case, from the mid-1960s to the
present, there is much to bring to light.
Implicitly at this point, the new Indonesia asks us to recognize that the
Cold War was in important ways a blight even for those sheltered under the
Western wing. It is a case study in how others, by having to choose between
East and West, lost out long before the conflict ended. Vital connections were
severed; processes begun in the 1940s and 1950s, the great era of independence,
were suddenly disrupted in the name of greater matters. Now those
processes are resumed—uncannily, in case after case, precisely where they
were broken off. This presents Americans with an irony one hopes we will
some day be large enough to accept. What is the true fruit of our victory? We
are never going to get away with the notion that history ended when the Berlin
Wall fell. At that moment, Americans made it possible for others to go
their own way again—into their own pasts, into their own futures.
1. Goenawan Mohamad, “Imagination, Not Just Blood and Iron,” Sidelines: Thought
Pieces from Tempo Magazine, trans. Jennifer Lindsay (Jakarta: Lontar, 1994),
pp. 85-86. The original version of this essay appeared in Goenawan Mohamad,
Catatan Pinggir, 2 (Jakarta: 1982, 1989, 1991), p. 426 (excerpts from Goenawan’s
2. Modernization theory, though rarely named outside the academy, has been a powerful
influence since the 1950s. It has more or less defined the way most Americans,
particularly those who now hold a globalist perspective, view and interpret world
events. The most succinct account of it that I know of—its genesis, intent, and
logic—is by John Dower, the noted Japan scholar, and appears in his introduction
to John Dower, ed., Origins of the Modern Japanese State: Selected Writings of E.H.
Norman (New York: Pantheon, 1975), pp. 31-65.
3. For a contemporary text, see Adam Schwarz, A Nation in Waiting: Indonesia in the
1990s (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1994).
4. Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977); The
Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities (New York: Knopf, 1990).
5. See David Reeve, Golkar of Indonesia: An Alternative to the Party System (Singapore:
Oxford University Press, 1985) and David Reeve, “The Corporatist State: The
Case of Golkar,” in Arief Budiman, ed., State and Civil Society in Indonesia
(Melbourne: Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, 1990). I have
also drawn upon conversations with David Reeve and Herb Feith at Gadjah Mada
University in Jogjakarta, June 1999.
6. See V. S. Naipaul, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples
(New York: Random House, 1998), pp. 3-129, in which the author considers
Habibie’s combination of technology and Islam.
7. Jakarta Post, May 29, 1999, p. 1, quoting Alexander Littay, secretary-general of the
Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, in Jayapura, May 28, 1999.
8. See Angus Armstrong and Michael Spencer, “Is Asia’s Recovery Sustainable?” G!obal
Emerging Markets (London: Deutsche Bank AG, May 1999), pp. 1-21.
Armstrong and Spencer predict GDP contraction of 2.6 percent for 1999, a figure
that will probably prove slightly too pessimistic.
9. Seth Mydans, “Indonesia’s Vote: Reformers May Be Disappointed,” New York Times,
June 22, 1999, p. A3, quoting John Bresnan of the East Asian Institute, Columbia
10. David Jenkins, “The Angry Archipelago Goes to the Polls,” Sydney Morning Herald,
May 31, 1999, p. 14. I also thank Jenkins, a student of Indonesia for 30 years, for
his guidance over the course of many conversations.
11. See The East Asian Miracle: A World Bank Policy Research Report (Washington: The
World Bank, 1993).
12. David Jenkins, “The Eagle Comes Down to Earth,” Sydney Morning Herald, August
17, 1995, p. 15, quoting Jakob Oetama, the longtime editor of Kompas,
Indonesia’s leading daily.