“POLITICS NO, DEVELOPMENT YES” I am quite certain that this slogan is familiar to many of our citizens. During the 32 years of Suharto’s administration, we were thoroughly indoctrinated to believe that development topped everything, including political freedom.
The idea took root easily considering the nation’s economic devastation in 1966 when Suharto took the helm. Inflation peaked at 635 percent that year alone, as poverty and political uncertainty following the 1965 coup joined hands. In addition, Suharto seemed to understand that to get the economy back on track, stability was strongly needed. The regime felt that providing people’s basic needs, giving them a chance at prosperity and freeing them from hunger were the most crucial human rights and would, in the end, contribute to the government’s staying power. Hence, Suharto sought development-based legitimacy.
Under his rule, political freedom was seen as a product of the West that was incompatible with so-called Asian values. This was why Indonesia did not see the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a vehicle to promote political liberties. On a national level, democracy was subservient to development efforts. In Adam Schwarz’s “A Nation in Waiting,” former State Secretary Moerdiono was quoted questioning the benefits of democracy: “Multiparty democracy will not solve the real problems like creating jobs or building schools. So is it for the sake of democracy that we will ruin this country?”
In those days, perhaps only a small percentage of citizens actually thought human rights extended beyond the economic and social sphere to include civil and political freedoms. Indonesia’s rising economy was supposed to be sufficient. The authoritarian regime also tried to monopolize information and present only its version of the truth, a situation we witnessed repeatedly when it came to several cases related to human rights abuses.
However, once people are freed from hunger and their brains are filled with knowledge, they will demand political freedom. And we have learned from our neighbors in East Asia that political freedom can indeed coexist with economic development. South Korea and Taiwan are just two examples.
Indonesia, on the other hand, still faces lingering questions about the effectiveness of its democracy. We have our political freedom in place but not the level of development we want. People still complain about the rising prices of basic needs. A scarcity in the supply of electric power is one example of low-quality infrastructure that hinders growth and investment. Should these problems persist, we may again question the benefits of democracy. The challenge for a new democracy like ours is to deliver the goods.
In post-reform Indonesia, political freedom sometimes seems to expand at the expense of economic development. But we must remember that we demanded political freedom and democracy, and it is our responsibility to see to it that freedom also brings with it economic benefits. We cannot afford to have political freedom trump development, nor can we tolerate the opposite.
In other words, political freedom must also be aimed at promoting economic development. Certainly, we cannot accomplish this while tensions arise between the elite and the larger public. We will not prevail if every political stakeholder pursues his own interest irrespective of the national good. The situation will be made harder should students, who are expected to be the pillars of democracy, neglect the economic rights of the people when expressing their demands. Vandalism against public facilities, as we saw in Makassar during the Anti-Corruption Day rallies two weeks ago, cannot be justified for whatever reason.
How do we ensure that a new slogan — “politics yes, development yes” — takes hold in our culture? For me, civic political education that emphasizes a democratic path to development is crucial. Social fractures are often caused by the actions of people who do not understand or appreciate society’s complexities. The principles of political freedom need to be injected into the foundations of our schools’ curriculum; the more democratically educated the people are, the more likely it is that they will behave with tolerance, reason and compassion. In turn, such attitudes nurture the kind of healthy competition for economic gain that contributes to development.
Hadianto Wirajuda is a PhD student in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a founder of Youth Initiative for Indonesia’s Democracy and Development. Now, he is one of trainee at The Junior Diplomat Training of The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Republic of Indonesia.