Hamish McDonald

“We have a president,” observed veteran Indonesian journalist August Parengkuan, referring to the now-departing Yudhoyono, “but do we have a leader?” That remark could apply equally to all rulers of our tumultuous northern neighbour since postwar independence.

Hamish McDonald, The Saturday Paper’s world editor, has spent decades trying to fathom this intriguing, frustrating and extraordinarily diverse nation, where “beauty, sensuality, chaos and violence” combine across a vast archipelago, inhibiting the emergence of a truly national character. If anything, his latest assessment points to further and deeper political fragmentation.

More than half a century after Sukarno’s Guided Democracy (which “careered around the international skies like a missile with its gyroscope disabled”), the nation still has not come to terms with the bloodbath that left up to one million communist sympathisers dead and paved the way in 1967 for Suharto. His New Order military regime, supported by both Washington and Canberra, thrived on technocratic slogans – “dynamic stability” and “25 years of accelerated modernisation”. By regime’s end in 1998, the economy had collapsed and more than half the population was below the poverty line. Habibie’s ascension as the “accidental president” may have delivered optimism to the educated elite, and freedom for the long-suffering East Timorese, but elsewhere, “long-suppressed ethnic and religious antagonisms were bursting out”, tensions that remain unresolved today.

Indonesia has always been as politically shaky as the tectonic plates it sits on; McDonald tellingly reminds us that Indonesia and Egypt are not so different in their fabric, and the latter’s recent failed transition to democracy in the social media age serves as a warning to what might still go wrong, with unpredictable impacts on Australia. These days, “once-empty boulevards are choked with cars and lined with high-rise offices and shopping malls”, and there are “more mosques, and their muezzin and prayers broadcast more loudly”; a clash of cultures with hazy outcomes.

Jokowi’s win in this month’s elections consolidates the shift to democracy, but former general Prabowo’s polling shows nostalgia for a Suharto-like strongman has not gone away. McDonald fittingly sums up with an old Jakarta saying: “Anyone who thinks he understands the situation is sadly mistaken.”  NK

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 26, 2014 as "Hamish McDonald, Demokrasi".

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