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Indonesia's extended pre-adolescence

By Duncan Graham - posted Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Indonesia has changed in the past decade and so must our attitudes, according to Andrew MacIntyre from the ANU and Douglas Ramage from the Asia Foundation writing in The Age (May 27). I have a different take.

Indonesia is changing - but MacIntyre and Ramage are jumping the gun by saying the country is a stable democracy. Better to wait till after next year’s general election before commenting on the future of our over-populated and under-employed neighbour.

Apologists urge us to overlook the street protests, the outrageous statements by Muslim preachers and the government’s inability to cope with natural disasters as growing pains. If so they’ve been going on for far too long. Adolescence is overdue.


Jakarta’s chattering classes condemn President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for vacillating - a strange response for a former military man trained to be decisive. But they are not alone; disappointment with the man and his nation’s current experiment with democracy is widespread. It’s not all SBY’s fault. He heads a tiny party and has to juggle the labyrinthine politics of a parliament with a gaggle of opponents running multiple agendas.

Like Canadians, he has to live alongside a giant and temper his policies accordingly. In this case it’s Golkar, the allegedly reformed political vehicle set up by the late dictator Suharto.

Vice president and millionaire businessman Jusuf Kalla chairs Golkar and is expected to be opposing his boss in next year’s election, handicapping decision making in the run up to voting.

Former president Megawati who heads the PDI-P party will probably try again for the top job. She’s been invisible since losing power in 2004. Democracy requires a vibrant opposition offering credible comment and alternative policies, something Indonesia hasn’t experienced. There’s a dearth of bright young altruists seeking office so the same old names from the past get recycled.

In the vacuum rampant nationalism is breeding fast. No problem if it’s kept to culture but a real issue when opposing foreign investment and aid, demanding state controls, subsidies and other simplistic solutions to complex economic issues.

Xenophobia is on the rise and a challenge to Indonesia’s relations with the West. Religious intolerance is destroying places of worship and putting dissidents in jail. For most pluralism is a myth.


Australia has moved on since John Howard infuriated South-East Asia by being portrayed as the regional US deputy sheriff; Indonesia has not, and Kevin Rudd will have to work hard to change our image.

Indonesia has more than 40 million unemployed and under-employed, double the population of Australia. The middle-income class is growing, but not at the same rate as the poor. The gap between the haves and have-nots is obvious, ugly and an awful threat to internal stability.

The government continues to ignore its constitutional duty to spend 20 per cent of income on education. An estimated six million children don’t go to school and 1.5 million teachers are said to be unqualified. Indonesian education is way behind other Asian countries and slipping fast.

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About the Author

Duncan Graham is a Perth journalist who now lives in Indonesia in winter and New Zealand in summer. He is the author of The People Next Door (University of Western Australia Press) and Doing Business Next Door (Wordstars). He blogs atIndonesia Now.

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