Sunday, May 01, 2005

Indonesia faces test of democracy


The Business Times
Sept. 29, 2004

Fresh Start: Once elected to the top post, Mr. Yudhoyono will have a challenging time fulfilling the high expectations Indonesians have of him as their hope for a better future
The people have voiced their demand for political change

By THANG D NGUYEN

On September 20, roughly 125 million Indonesians turned out to select their next leader in Indonesia's first direct presidential election.

An exit poll by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute by late Monday showed that General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had 61.2 per cent of the votes, and the other candidate, incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri, had 38.8 per cent.

It will take about two weeks for the final results to be announced, but for now, Mr Yudhoyono looks set to become Indonesia's next president when he is inaugurated on October 20. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that this election has been most significant to Indonesians, as much as it is encouraging to the world.

For one thing, this election was the first election in which the President was chosen directly by the people with their votes, rather than by members of the Peoples' Consultative Assembly (or MPR) as it had been done before.

Despite repeated terrorist attacks, the people of Indonesia did not let terrorism spoil the nation's democratic progress.

The election took place shortly after the Sep 9 terrorist attack outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta that killed nine Indonesians and injured about 180 people.

This election, which was peaceful and democratic, could not have been a stronger testimony by the Indonesians of their desire for a democratic society. This election, following the legislative election in early April and the first round of the presidential election in early July, show that democracy is growing in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

Change over continuity

In other words, this election demystifies the notion that Islam and democracy are incompatible.

With the first presidential election in its history, Indonesia is a rising democracy - the world's third largest one, to be exact. Furthermore, this election shows that the Indonesians, who are actually more mature an electorate than critics think, have a strong appetite for change.

By voting overwhelmingly for Mr Yudhoyono, the Indonesian voters took a chance on him, who is a relatively new figure in Indonesia's presidential politics.

As a career general and security minister under Ms Megawati, his name only popped up as a presidential candidate about a year ago.

He will undoubtedly be on a learning curve once he takes office, but Mr Yudhoyono shows more promising potential for leadership and change than Ms Megawati - the president that all Indonesians know.

The fact of the matter is, Ms Megawati has had her chance for almost four years - the equivalent of a full presidential term - but, unfortunately, she has not succeeded. In all fairness, however, the Megawati administration has done a good job sustaining Indonesia's macroeconomic stability, as indicated in the interest, exchange, and inflation rates.

Nevertheless, many stressing problems remain unsolved, namely: rising unemployment, rampant corruption and rent-seeking, decreasing foreign investment, a chronic lack of competitiveness, a low growth rate, and a constantly inconsistent or uncertain legal system.

Hence, this administration has been dubbed a do-nothing government that muddles through. Moreover, the Megawati government has not cracked down hard enough on radical Islamic Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups, such as the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which was responsible for the Bali bombing in 2002 that killed 202 (mostly foreigners), the J W Marriott blast in 2003 that killed 12 (mostly Indonesians), as well as the recent Australian embassy bombing.

Despite many arrests of terrorists, the Indonesian police and security authorities have not shown a strong sense of effectiveness and seriousness in the fight against terrorism.

A case in point is the incident in which Ali Imron, who is serving a life term for his role in the nightclub blasts in Bali, was taken to Starbucks in the Plaza Indonesia mall by Indonesian police authorities.

'As long as it is for investigation development, it can be done,' said national police spokesman Inspector General Paiman.

'If you are worried about security, well there was security all around him,' he added.

But dealing with terrorism is just one of the many pressing issues that await Mr Yudhoyono, come 20 October. His to-do list will be packed with some other more formidable challenges, namely: unemployment, corruption, and education. To provide 220 million Indonesians, 40 per cent of whom are unemployed or underemployed, with jobs, the Yudhoyono administration will need to bring the growth level to at least 7-9 per cent.

Back to basics

Getting to that level of growth will, however, require a successful implementation of economic and legal reforms that can increase Indonesia's competitiveness, bring about a business-friendly climate, develop infrastructures, and a consistent legal system among other things.

These are the basic requirements for foreign investment that Indonesia does not have, or has lost.

Most of the investment that should be in Indonesia now goes to places like China, Thailand, or Vietnam - hence The Economist's glib report that FDI has now come to mean foreigners ditching Indonesia, as opposed to foreign direct investment.

The Yudhoyono administration will also have to clean-up the civil service.

This will require not only a higher salary for public servants, but also a firm punishment of those, regardless of their positions in society, who are found guilty of corruption.

This is what Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has done since he took office last October, and his anti-corruption campaign seems to have teeth.

Equally, if not more important, is the challenge for the Yudhoyono administration to improve Indonesia's education system.

Indonesian public schools are inadequately funded, teachers poorly trained (if not corrupt), and students non-performing.

As a matter of fact, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reports that Indonesia has the highest rate of elementary school dropouts in Southeast Asia.

In addition to more funding for public schools and teachers' training, the curriculum in public schools must offer students a progressive education, one in which they read widely, learn English and other foreign languages, and build practical skills that will enable them to compete in the job market upon graduation.

Simply put, the future of Indonesia lies in the classroom.

The caveat for Mr Yudhoyono is that the expectations the Indonesian people have for him are very high.

In other words, he is their hope for a better future.

But hope, as Francis Bacon once put it, is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.

If Mr Yudhoyono does not deliver the goods, once the honeymoon period is over, not only will the people be disappointed in him, they will also grow disillusioned and distrustful of democracy itself.

The writer, a former manager for Asia at the World Economic Forum (WEF), is a Jakarta-based columnist. His recently published book is "The Indonesian Dream: Unity, Diversity, and Democracy in Times of Distrust"

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