Indonesian disconnect – it works both ways

SBY - pusillanimous?

The credibility gap between the image Indonesia promotes of itself abroad and the realities at home seems to yawn wider every day.

Check out President Yudhoyono’s condemnation of the crazy US pastor’s threats to burn the Koran. You’d think he was Nelson Mandela by the tone he used to demand action from President Obama and admonish those intolerant Americans on behalf of the pluralistic utopia he leads.

Given the sad recent incidents of religious violence by Muslim extremists against Christians, foreigners and members of the Ahmadiya Islamic sect, it was worse than hypocritical.

The hypocrisy has not been lost on thinking Indonesians. Here’s local journalist Desi Anwar in The Jakarta Globe:

The attack on a Christian pastor (outside Jakarta) on Sunday was a natural consequence of a festering problem that the state has not been willing to resolve — the protection of minorities and the practice of pluralism as the country’s basic principle…

Obama is sticking his neck out to protect Muslims in America. Where is Yudhoyono’s effort to protect Christians in Indonesia? His pusillanimity has only escalated the problem.

The government needs to understand that when it comes to matters of religion and minority rights, even in democracies, it should not be left for the majority’s overriding sentiment to decide, but for the state to protect.

For it is in a country’s ability to protect its minorities that the integrity and legitimacy of the government lies.

In Muslim-majority Indonesia, the freedom of religion and other rights guaranteed under the constitution only extend, in practical effect, to Muslims. And even then they extend only to Muslims from the curious Sunni tradition Indonesians have invented for themselves (which most Arab Sunnis, in turn, would regard as deviant).

But forget religion – after all, who is not a hypocrite who claims to be able to cast religious stones in the way Yudhoyono did last week?

Greenwashing is another case in point. Yudhoyono is fond of making sweeping pledges about the environment, especially when he’s abroad seeking millions of dollars in grants for conservation projects. Then he becomes mysteriously mute as soon as he returns home and activists point out the rampant illegal logging and alleged corruption that is happening in Indonesia’s forestry sector under his watch.

To be fair, it’s been happening since the 1980s under Suharto, but Yudhoyono deserves particular criticism because he has won two elections on the back of promises to get serious about fighting corruption.

The disconnect between the real Indonesia and the one presented on the world stage isn’t the work of Yudhoyono alone. He gets a lot of help from Western market analysts and investment gurus who are more than happy to ignore the country’s myriad problems and talk it up as an an “investment Shangri-La”.

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One Western analyst, in an article on September 1 singing the praises of Indonesia as a destination for foreign investment, claimed that “the (Indonesian) government has apparently been effective in finally tackling corruption and nepotism and the economy is growing at a strong pace”.

Well, he’s right about the economic growth but the idea that this government has brought corruption under control is ludicrous, to put it mildly. Good luck to any investor who belives that – they’ll need it.

The IMF last week warned that investors could bail out of Indonesia just as quickly as they jumped in, citing improvements to transparency and the rule of law as vital to long-term confidence.

A new report from the Harvard Kennedy School concludes that little has changed since the cleptocracy of the Suharto decades:

The reformasi [post-Suharto] era inherited a deeply entrenched legacy of economic oligarchy and “collusive democracy” from the Guided Democracy and New Order periods. Economic oligarchy and political collusion are maintained through high barriers to entry in a wide range of industries, a dysfunctional legal system, patrimonial politics, disempowered citizens and an attenuated sense of national citizenship. Oligarchy and collusive democracy have left Indonesia ill equipped to respond to the challenge of globalization. Like a marathoner carrying a twenty kilogram pack, Indonesia can see the competition pulling away but is powerless to pick up the pace. The country’s institutions are designed to protect wealth and privileges, not to promote competition…

The state must be transformed from a vehicle that provides favors and facilities to the rich and powerful into a “rule of law” state that works to realize the rights of all citizens regardless of income, region, gender, ethnicity or religion.

In other words, don’t believe the hype about Indonesia’s “golden era” of democratic reform and economic growth.

Lately it seems the “Buy Indonesia” campaign has some willing and powerful cheerleaders in the US State Department. It’s no doubt part of Obama’s increasingly ham-fisted efforts to reach out to the Muslim world and step up Washington’s engagement with East Asia in the face of the challenge to US primacy from China.

The latest bit of Indonesia-related propaganda on the department’s website is about science cooperation. Yep, you guessed it, we’re supposed to believe that Indonesia is a leader in scientific research and medicine.

This is the country of “Blue Energy“, lest we forget.

F. Gray Handley, of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is quoted as saying he’s “very excited” about the prospect of collaboration with Indonesia in research into infection diseases. Forget the fact that the previous such effort was shut down by Indonesia amid crazy allegations of espionage and biological weapons programmes. No, we won’t even mention that.

F. Gray Handley

Handley adds: “Indonesia has outstanding, well-trained physicians and nurses, outstanding institutions in the public and private sector and very well-developed medical schools.”

This is simply preposterous. Indonesia’s health care is notoriously bad – so bad that Indonesians and foreigners who can afford it fly to Singapore, Australia or the United States for treatment. Every Indonesian is appalled by the sub-standard treatment they have to endure in their atrocious hospitals. Poor mothers have to SELL THEIR BABIES to pay the delivery costs.

Time correspondent Jason Tedjasukmana wrote earier this year of his experiences with Indonesia’s “outstanding” physicians.:

I never thought I would let the grim stories I’d heard about Indonesia’s health care system turn me into one of those expats who left the country at the slightest hint of a sore throat. I may have been skeptical of undergoing any major procedure in the country where I’ve been living since 1994, but I was pretty confident local doctors could handle a run-of-the-mill condition like vernal conjunctivitis. I was wrong.

He goes on to describe how, after being repeatedly misdiagnosed by Indonesian doctors, he nearly went blind in his right eye from a common and easily treated form of conjuctivitis. Eventually his eye was saved by a doctor in the United States. Tedjasukmana quotes Dr. Kartono Mohammad, former head of the Indonesian Doctors’ Association, as saying: “We have no health system”.

This is the situation in the third-fastest growing economy in G20 last year.

And despite the billions of dollars in foreign aid and investment flowing into Indonesia, it doesn’t look like improving any time soon, judging by the standards of education. None of Indonesia’s 1,500 universities made it onto the 2010 QS World University Rankings of the top 200 higher education institutions in the world for overall performance, announced this month.

Far from sharing Handley’s banal optimism, The Jakarta Globe noted in an editorial about the failure of the country’s education system: “Indonesia is desperately in need of a more qualified and creative work force, as well as professionals who can lead large organizations”.

Again, the Harvard Kennedy School:

An Indonesian child is now nearly three times as likely to die before his or her fifth birthday as a Vietnamese child. Progress in providing access to clean water and sanitation has been slow. Nearly one third of children suffer from moderate to severe stunting, and nearly one fifth are underweight. Mothers in Indonesia are more than three times more likely to die in childbirth than Vietnamese mothers. These basic
indicators of well-being are the most direct measure of government effectiveness. Reducing child and maternal death requires the creation and maintenance of basic public health care systems that are capable of delivering quality services to even the poorest households. Successive reformasi governments have failed to achieve this modest objective.

The US government (and others like it, such as Australia’s) would do a lot more for its image in this part of the world if it openly and honestly confronted the corruption and abuse of power that leads to such breakdowns in public services, rather than patting Indonesians on the head and patronising them with false praise.

(Images courtesy of Indonesian and US govts, and UN)

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