By: Philip Bowring / International Herald Tribune

The Invisible Giant of Southeast Asia

JAKARTA: ‘We have to be brave enough to ask: What would the world do without Indonesia?” When she recently posed this question to her compatriots, Indonesia’s trade minister, Mari Pangestu, had in mind the country’s role as premier global supplier of various important commodities.

But the question could as well have been asked about Indonesia’s wider relevance to the world. Boastful it might sound, but the remark offered a counterpoint to the nation’s extremely low international visibility, a result of the mix of deference, inward looking politics and persistent lack of leaders willing to make an articulate stand on the world stage.

Indonesia is about to become the president of the UN Security Council. That is unlikely to alter its international profile, but it does provide occasion to look at why Indonesia is rather more important than it usually appears, and at why it fails to leave much of a mark.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation, the largest predominantly Muslim country, the third largest (after India and the United States) democratic country, a 3,000-mile-wide archipelago dominating key international waterways – the Malacca, Sunda Lombok and Makassar straits.

But Indonesia is not taken very seriously as a Muslim country. Though the Muslims of the Middle East and Arab world in particular have much to learn from the tradition of religious tolerance at the heart of the Indonesian state, the Muslims of west Asia, and the Arabs who claim some special status as source of the religion, have scant interest in learning from the East.

While the outside world gets excited over the economic rise of China and India, it seldom stops to notice the equally remarkable transformation of Indonesian politics in the 10 years since the downfall of the 30-year authoritarian rule of President Suharto.

It now has the most open, extensive, decentralized democratic system in all of Southeast Asia, achieved possibly at some cost to economic growth but with little localized disorder, and with settlements of the Aceh and Timor Leste issues to its credit.

It is also a remarkably plural society to which the position of Pangestu, a woman, and ethnic Chinese and a Christian attests, and a cultural vitality that puts much of a money-obsessed region to shame. It is of course not without communal tensions and occasional bloodshed. But it provides a salutary contrast to its small higher profile, wealthy neighbors, Malaysia, a country of growing religious intolerance and deepening racial divide and Singapore, a state whose social and political development lags far behind its foreign investment-driven economy.

Yet despite its attributes and size, Indonesia’s influence is slight. Its efforts at being a player have been half-hearted, and even its national airline does not fly to Europe. It should be the natural leader of Jakarta-headquartered Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), this year celebrating its 40th birthday. But Indonesia’s diplomatic voice is almost silent.

If any Asean country has a chance of persuading the Burmese junta to change its ways, to democratize gradually without falling apart, it should be Indonesia. It has made such a transition, albeit from a very different and more successful type of authoritarian government.

Unlike Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, it does not have local commercial interests dictating policy to Burma. But a reluctance to stand up, to divert from a Suharto-era doctrine of “non-interference,” to seize Asean leadership rather than be player in a leaderless team, has left the running on Asean’s approach to Burma to the likes of Singapore, home from home for the Burmese generals and their wives.

Likewise with its economy. Indonesia may never has been a “tiger” economy and suffered more than any country from the Asian crisis. It may still have more problems with corruption and bureaucracy than its major Asian competitors. It even has had the temerity not to succumb to every foreign investor demand by providing levels of employment protection unheard of in China. Nor does it enrich its politicians as does China’s Communist party. On a longer view, the 40 years since China and Indonesia were both traumatized in the mid-1960s, it has done creditably.

Foreign eyes may be on China and India. But looking ahead natural resources are likely to be scarcer than the cheap labor of those two countries. It is also less dependent, at least than China, on Western demand for Asian manufactures. Indonesia’s mix of resource, base, attractive demographics, vibrant culture and domestic demand potential have mostly gone unsung, not least by a government so focused on domestic issues and local politics.

In short, Indonesia and the rest of the world could benefit much from knowing each other better.

October 29, 2007

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