UBUD, Bali - In a country with few clean hands, Goenawan Mohamad has earned a reputation for integrity and fierce advocacy for freedom. Generally recognized as Indonesia's foremost man of letters, Mohamad's work as the founder and longtime editor of newsweekly Tempo has made him one of the nation's most influential writers and thinkers.
The 2004 election of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has coincided with an economic boom fueled by China's soaring demand for commodities and brought Indonesia a measure of stability and widespread praise as the world's third largest
democracy. But sterling economic numbers have masked the lack of meaningful reforms to curb massive corruption, including a dysfunctional judiciary and legislature, burgeoning religious intolerance, growing convergence of business and politics that could set the stage for another 1997-style financial collapse.
With his second and last term set to end next year, there is widespread frustration with Yudhoyono's understated leadership. National elections loom as the economy slows and disappointment with the quality of Indonesia democracy rises. Public service remains a means for enrichment at the public expense, as the gulf between rich and poor widens. The military, to the surprise of many, has stepped away from politics, but every ticket in the last presidential election featured a general under former dictator Suharto's New Order regime.
Against this backdrop, Asia Times Online sought out Goenawan Mohamad for his perspective on the nation's future. Mohamad insisted he's more involved with the arts than politics these days. He resigned as Tempo's editor nearly a decade ago, though he continues to write his celebrated "Sidelines" column on current affairs that concludes its Indonesian and English language editions and regularly raises more questions than it answers.
"I don't like to be involved in politics. In writing, you always find something unpredictable, something novel, and you are used to differences, the strange and even the bizarre. In politics, you have to be effective," Mohamad said. "Everything has to be in order. I'm more of an anarchist, a closet anarchist."
Politics, however, is in Mohamad's blood. His parents were exiled to the far-flung island of Papua by Dutch authorities due to their anti-colonial activities. Like many Indonesian freedom fighters, his father flirted with communism and was executed. Mohamad said his parents shaped his view of his homeland. "Indonesia is a process. It's never a finished idea. It's not an idea, really. It's a promise and a problem. As imagined by my father, it's worth dying for. The problem is when you try to have a single reading of the country," he added.
After authorities closed down Mohamad's Tempo in 1994, he became an outspoken advocate for press freedom in Indonesia and beyond. Behind the scenes, he masterminded the establishment of an underground information network that continued to provide Indonesians with news beyond the reach of Suharto's New Order regime's censors.
His efforts not only helped to spark the reformasi movement that led to the ouster of Suharto in 1998 and the emergence of Indonesia as the world's third largest democracy, his perseverance led to the 2004 rebirth of Tempo as a fierce watchdog against corruption and injustice under the country's new democratic order.
"After reformasi, we have a much larger scope for freedom of expression and political activity," Mohamad, 72, said. "The problem now is that this is such a big country, the cost of politics is so high. The democratic system has turned into an oligarchic system."
After Suharto's fall came Indonesia's second era of living dangerously. New Order loyalists remained in key positions of power and continued to act with impunity. Sectarian violence erupted, aided by elements of the security forces that ignored presidential orders. Fears of a coup formed a backdrop to the debate over holding military, political and business leaders accountable for the human rights abuses and corruption of the Suharto era.
Next year's presidential candidates include retired generals implicated in some of those past crimes. They include Wiranto, accused of human-rights violations during the occupation and 1999 destruction of East Timor, and Suharto's former son-in-law Prabowo Subianto, broadly suspected of masterminding kidnappings of dissident students and attempting a coup in 1998.
Still, Mohamad doesn't think it's important who wins Indonesia's presidential election next year. "We should not rely too much on the president." He cited intolerance, corruption, education and government bureaucracy - "It's almost a creation of Franz Kafka" - as pressing challenges facing Indonesia, regardless of whom becomes president in 2014.
Though he professes to be a pessimist, Mohamad sees signs of hope in the country's electoral politics. "Jakarta and Bandung elected newcomers as leaders, one of them Chinese, who used to be outcasts. Despite the efforts of the oligarchy, they won. So that means there may be a kind of common sense [among the electorate] that can prevail."
At the same time, Mohamad rejects the notion that the military, widely seen as Indonesia's strongest national institution with a vaunted, internationally assisted training system, can provide the nation with the stronger leadership many crave after Yudhoyono's limp rule. "The top graduate was the current president, who can't decide anything. The second was Prabowo, who lacks compassion. The rest are undistinguished," Mohamad said.
Mohamad's comment on Singapore, infamous in Indonesia as a destination for the proceeds of corruption - "It's not a country, it's an intensive care unit" - can be seen as a jibe at commentators who compare presidential hopeful Prabowo with the city-state's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew.
Mohamad contended, "Leadership won't come from the army but from the private sector." He cited the example of Joko Widowo, the businessman turned politician who served as mayor of Solo and was elected as Jakarta's governor last year. Jokowi, as he is commonly known, has earned high marks so far for his performance in Jakarta and is leading in presidential opinion polls, though he hasn't officially declared his candidacy.
His private sector experience, however, hasn't been able to shake up immediately the moribund and inefficient bureaucracy. "In Solo, when Jokowi - who I think will be the next president - entered his office for the first time, he was amazed to see so many people doing nothing. He saw one woman at her desk cutting vegetables. I asked him what he did. He said, 'I let her cut more vegetables. Because if I tried to change it, it would create trouble.'
"The failure of the current government is its failure to reshape the bureaucracy," Mohamad said. "But if I was the next president, I wouldn't know how to do it." Mohamad noted that Jokowi has made his reputation in part through personal inspection tours and partnerships with business that bypass the corrupt and hidebound bureaucracy.
The price of reformasi has included growing sectarianism and intolerance that "flare up" in tandem with democracy. "Intolerance is growing everywhere," Mohamad said. "In the US, you have right-wing Christians, in Europe bigots against Muslims, in Egypt against Coptic Christians, and we have the same thing here. Maybe it's an infection from outer space. It may take years to cure it."
After Suharto's fall, separatists raised their voices across the vast archipelago. Islamist extremists, mostly muzzled during Suharto's authoritarian era, took advantage of new freedoms to increase their influence in the nation with the world's largest Muslim population. Bombs exploded at churches nationwide on Christmas Eve in 2000 and larger attacks rocked Bali and Jakarta, leaving hundreds dead.
As a nominal democracy, Indonesia temporarily teetered on the brink of becoming a failed state. Secularism and Islam have vied for preeminence in Indonesia since independence, and the shift from authoritarianism to democracy has given more space to Islamist extremists. They are cajoled by deep-pocketed external influences. Saudi Arabia's Wahabbi faction, for instance, dispenses great sums of money to export its extreme form of Islam to Indonesia.
Many believe democracy means rule by Muslim majority, which tends to be moderate and tolerant in Indonesia's context. Local governments have tried to impose tenets of sharia law, including alcohol bans, Koran reading requirements for civil servants, and virginity tests for students, in defiance of constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and a secular state.
Fashion, not passion
A dozen years after the first Bali bombings by Islamist extremists, the threat of large-scale terrorism has been greatly diminished through vigilant police work. The greater threat comes from vigilante groups that use intimidation and violence to push an Islamist agenda and Muslim orthodoxy. Targets include churches and supporters of pluralism, as well as Shi'ites and other Muslim minorities.
Mohamad, however, doubts their efforts will succeed. "It's in our psyche not to be totally strict in religion and other matters. There's also so much more modernity, which is the enemy of superstition."
The most visible sign of Islamization in Indonesia is the growing use of the head scarf, known locally as the jilbab. "But when you talk to the women that wear it, they're not extremists. They're just doing it from pressure or for fashion. So I don't think [extremists] are taking over."
Mohamad, moreover, sees a hidden barrier to intolerance. "Indonesia is a country of minorities. They say there's a Muslim majority, but there are many different kinds of Muslims. Javanese may be dominant, but there are lots of different Javanese customs." He sees the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, as a key factor in binding together an archipelagic nation of over 18,000 islands under its national motto, 'unity in diversity.'
Despite democratic reforms and high-profile anti-graft campaigns, corruption remains one of the biggest threats to Indonesia's progress. "You have corruption because we've put the state in charge of so many things," Mohamad says. "The problem with corruption is the distrust it creates. The KPK [Corruption Eradication Commission] is trying to rebuild that trust. It's not crucial to be optimistic, but it is crucial to create hope."
The well-read Mohamad quoted the 20th-century Chinese writer Lu Xun: "Hope is like a country road. Previously there was no such road, but because so many people walked on it, it's there."
No matter who wins the presidency next year, what matters most for Indonesia, according to Mohamad, is coming to grips with corruption and improving education. He pointed out that Indonesia has a favorable demographic bubble with an abundance of young people entering the workforce until 2030.
"If we cannot optimize this with good education, it doesn't matter," Mohamad contended. "Sukarno [Indonesia's first president] said independence was a golden bridge, but it's not a golden bridge. It's full of dynamite, mines, thorns, holes, but it's still a bridge and you still have to pass over it every day…You asked if I love Indonesia. I don't know, but I'm committed."
Former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen told America's story to the world as a US diplomat and is the author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. Find his blog, online archive and more at www.MuhammadCohen.com, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.
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