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Published: Tuesday April 15, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday April 15, 2014 MYT 6:45:26 AM

Missing Suharto yet?

Nostalgia mounts in Indonesia as democracy fails to protect Indonesians from the worst excesses of capitalism.

THE dust is still settling over last week’s legislative elections in Indonesia. Pundits are still mulling over the “whys” and “how’s” of the results.

We can all agree though that – the lack of a decisive winner aside – Indonesian democracy is still in rude health.

As we await the official results on May 7 (although it’s fairly clear that the opposition PDI-P has won a plurality), I’d like to share some of the observations I gleaned when I – as always – hit the road to watch the campaign unfold.

One thing that particularly struck me was the undeniable nostalgia for former President Suharto among certain ordinary Indonesians.

Indeed, you can’t walk through a Jakarta street without being confronted with T-shirts bearing the image of the cheekily smiling ge­­neral with the caption: “Lebih enak jamanku kan? (Weren’t things better when I was around?)”

Foreigners may find this surprising: wasn’t Suharto’s “New Order” a quagmire of corruption and human rights abuses?

Didn’t they rise up to get rid of him in 1998?

How on earth could they miss him?

Well, for one thing, as I’ve mentioned before, post-Reformasi Indonesia has not been great for everyone. Corruption has not aba­ted. Red tape has worsened. Competition for jobs and resources has intensified.

Of course, civil liberties and political freedoms have improved dramatically. These are real achievements but the lack of economic social justice has made them somewhat hollow.

Furthermore, Indonesians are also yearning for what they think is “decisive leadership”.

The last administration’s multiple policy flip-flops suggested a weak decision-making process, something you could never accuse Suharto of.

His many failings aside (and there were many), Suharto’s New Order gave Indonesia a veneer of stability and progress.

After assuming the presidency in 1967, Suharto managed to lower Indonesia’s poverty rate from almost 60% to just 13% before the economic crisis hit in 1997.

At the same time, access to education and healthcare improved significantly.

Under him, the Indonesian eco­nomy enjoyed 6.5% annual economic growth in the three decades between the late 1960s and 1997. Hyperinflation – at 660% in 1966 – was reduced to 19% in 1969.

Suharto – through controls of the economy – protected Indonesians from the worst excesses of capitalism.

This hasn’t occurred with demo­cracy and perhaps that is why Indonesians miss him, even though it was those controls which messed up the republic’s economy in the first place.

It’s unsurprising, therefore, that Golkar, under business magnate Aburizal Bakrie, tried hard to capitalise on this so-called “Sindrom Amat Rindu Suharto (SARS, or “Missing Suharto Syndrome)”.

The party used Suharto’s image heavily in materials and even got his daughters, Siti Hardijanti Rukmana (“Tutut”) and Siti Hediati Hariyadi (“Titiek”), to campaign for them.

This didn’t really pay off – Golkar is projected to win just 14% of the popular vote, which is more or less status quo for them.

To be fair though, it still puts them in second place and it’s proof that Bakrie’s controversial business history hasn’t scared off voters.

Still, it could also be a sign that Indonesians aren’t backward looking.

Or rather, their urban dwellers aren’t willing to forgive or forget the abuse of power and rigged elections of the Suharto days.

Of course, Indonesia isn’t the only country debating the legacies of its past leaders.

There has been some nostalgia here in Malaysia for our former longest serving premier – Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad – especially in light of recent economic doldrums and other troubles.

Like Suharto, Dr Mahathir usher­ed in stability and growth but brooked no opposition.

For better or for worse, the Indonesia and Malaysia of today are their creatures. Love them or loathe them, you cannot dismiss their legacies.

What shape will the future lea­dership of our two countries take? It’s hard to say.

But would-be leaders and their followers alike would do well to remember a Javanese saying Suharto often quoted: “Ojo gumunan, ojo kagetan, ojo dumeh,” which means, “Don’t be easily impressed, nor easily shocked and certainly not arrogant.”

Karim Raslan is a regional columnist and commentator. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, Karim Raslan

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