Tuesday, June 13, 2006

When protesting becomes wasteful noise

Business Times
Singapore, 13 June 2006

By THANG D NGUYEN

EIGHT years ago, demonstrations were a part of a movement that forced strongman Suharto out of power and ushered democracy into Indonesia. But now, they have become a nuisance to society and a problem for business in the country.

In the past three months, for instance, Jakarta and other major cities in Indonesia have seen large demonstrations, ranging from support for a pornography Bill before Parliament, to opposition to the Indonesian version of Playboy magazine and a new, pro-business labour law.

To be sure, some of the issues that trigger these demonstrations are about deeply held taboos in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

Let's face it: even though most Indonesian Muslims are moderate, some are under the influence of hard-line Islamic groups that, of course, want Indonesia to become a theocratic state under syariah law.

During the Suharto era, no one could organise a demonstration on any issue, even if it was not a hot, Islam-related one. So for a nation that was under a dictatorship for decades, the right to demonstrate is no doubt a precious one.

But alas, it has become too commonplace.It is even more mundane when protestors in a demonstration are not doing it for a cause, but money! Yes--you read it right--for 20,000 rupiah (S$3.40) a day, there are professional protestors who are willing and able to carry banners, shout slogans and march in Jakarta's heat and polluted air as though they were protesting something they believed in. You can find the same people the next day in another demonstration wearing a different outfit, carrying a different banner, and shouting a different slogan. And they will do the same thing again the next day, as long as they get paid.

But more importantly, demonstrations have become a public nuisance: they worsen traffic jams in Jakarta and other major cities in Indonesia. In these cities, traffic jams are already bad enough. And with demonstrations, traffic in Jakarta and other big cities becomes paralysed.

What is more, some of these demonstrations get violent, and thus public facilities get damaged and, in some cases, private premises--such as the Indonesian Playboy office, for example--get attacked.

As for business, of course, demonstrations are a problem. When demonstrations take place on major streets where business offices are located, most of them are forced to close since their employees cannot get to work.

This is a cost that no one but businesses affected by demonstrations have to bear.

And the more frequently demonstrations happen--and they do seem to be getting more frequent--the higher the cost to the business community.

Likewise, demonstrations worsen the image of Indonesia as a place for foreign investment. When it comes to doing business in Indonesia, foreign investors already have enough issues, such as corruption, labour, regulations, and the legal system; they don't need a business environment that is disrupted by frequent demonstrations.

In today's increasingly competitive world where other countries offer foreign investors, among other incentives, a business-friendly and politically stable environment, disruptive demonstrations are another reason why they avoid Indonesia.

To their credit, though, the Indonesian leaders know about the damage demonstrations do to the nation's foreign investment, which it has been trying hard to increase in recent years.

"It's a shame that the image we have built up has changed again. The perception isn't favourable anymore. It seems pointless for me to travel the world...telling investors that Indonesia is safe and welcomes investors,'' President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in response to a violent series of rallies against the new, pro-business labour law.

So, what can be done? Of course, the Indonesian government cannot prohibit demonstrations. But what it can do is, first, have a zero-tolerance policy towards protestors who get violent and damage facilities, public or private.

Second, the government should take tough measures to keep demonstrations out of streets with heavy traffic. There are parks or other public places where demonstrations can take place and thus do not block up roads and paralyse traffic in Jakarta and other cities. Third, and most importantly, the government should stand by decisions it makes that are right for the country against the pressure from demonstrations. In other words, just because protestors take an issue out to the streets, it does not mean they are always right, and a good government does not always appease demonstrators.

Take the new labour law, for instance. Protestors are against it because it is pro-business. But, as Manpower and Transmigration Minister Erman Suparno puts it, this new labour law is aimed at attracting more foreign investment (read jobs and tax revenue) to Indonesia.

The government's position in this case is sound and, therefore, should be sustained against the pressure from protestors. It might make the Yudhoyono administration unpopular, but because its returns are high and good for the country, it is a position worth maintaining.

Indonesians are proud of their democratic right to hold demonstrations. But when they overdo it, demonstrations become commonplace. And when demonstrations get violent, destructive and disruptive to society and business, they are a problem that should be dealt with properly.

The writer is a Jakarta-based writer.

3 Comments:

Blogger Rob Baiton said...

This theme of protesting and demonstrations ruining Indonesia and being undemocratic is a theme picked up on almost verbatim by Wim Tangkilisan in the January 2008issue of Globe Asia.

The right to protest and demonstrate is indeed a precious one. Yes, I agree, it is inconvenient to a great majority of Jakartans who are often delayed for many hours in getting to work.

The issue of legal certainty and investment are interesting issues to tie to whether investors can feel safe about any investment they might make in Indonesia. The KPPU seems not to have been swayed by protests but rather by money in a recent decision involving the telecommunications sector.

The Supreme Court is renowned for making bizarre decisions with equally bizarre legal reasoning attached to them. The Constitutional Court has decided that it is the highest court in the land and is a law unto itself, and an increasing number of its decisions reflect this.

Most investors understand the democratic right to protest but I think a quick survey of these investors might point to other more pressing issues with regard to investment; legal certainty, facilities on tax and imports, greater access to foreign investment through the liberalization of the negative investment list, as a matter of fact this list could get quite long.

Perhaps if the law and the media provided the recourse demanded by the protesters then there may in fact be other mechanisms at the protesters disposal to get themselves heard.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world so we have to make do with what we have. In Jakarta we have frequent protests and demonstrations.

It is unfortunate that there are professional protesters that will carry any banner and shout any slogan for the right fee (and sometimes just for a feed!!!). But the truth is the capitalistic spirit of this sole entrepreneurs should be an inspiration to investors not a hindrance.

9:51 AM  
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7:44 PM  

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