Wednesday is Indonesia’s Independence day. Monday was India’s. Only two days and two years set the two countries apart. Writing from New Delhi this week, I can’t help thinking about the similarities between these two countries, tied together by a myriad of strands. The similarity between the two anniversaries is coincidental. But the real similarities between these ancient Asian cultures don’t just go back thousands of years, they are surprisingly the same in so many ways even today.
Two ancient cultures threw away their colonial yokes only six decades ago. Both spent the years after independence meandering through different ideological struggles, both joined the world stage together as champions of the Non-Aligned Movement, and finally in recent years, both found their place in the global free market. Both are among the biggest secular democracies in the world today, are thriving economies attracting investments, driving poverty down and employment up. The good news is almost endless, even as much of the developed world flounders. As one, the people of both nations have much to celebrate this Independence Day: leaders and voters, employers and employees, old and young alike.
But the good news cannot be allowed to erase the bad news. This is an appropriate time for all to set some time aside for introspection. More importantly, for real action against the evils that impede growth, that stand in the way of social justice.
Here in New Delhi, as the flag was raised on the parapet, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh repeated his promise to fight corruption now endemic across the country. Minutes later, members of an increasingly popular civil movement announced their intention to start a hunger-strike in the center of the capital, in defiance of all barriers placed before them by civil authorities. Their purpose is to press home their demand for anticorruption legislation that will have real teeth, a system from which no one can escape. The fight isn’t going to end any time soon. But opinion polls clearly illustrate that civil society is winning, the government is losing. The pressure is on.
In Indonesia, the results visible in the Good Governance Monitor for the quarter ended June 30, 2011 are none too flattering. More than ever before, more Indonesians from across the country believe “corruption is one of the major problems facing this country”. The worry claimed 91 percent of the population, up 3 points from the previous quarter. This is a vibrant young democracy, with a vibrant young population. There are very few economies in the world with so much promise. Blessed with incalculable bounty, this is a rich country with poor people. In the struggle to lift the quality of life for all, in the fight for social justice, there are several challenges. But of all the impediments before the nation, corruption appears to be the biggest hindrance of all. Nine out of 10 Indonesians say so. They cannot all be wrong. Male and female, young and old, urban and rural, all share the growing concern.
“Democracy is working in Indonesia” still remains a conviction shared by 74 percent of the population. Up by 1 percent from the January-March quarter, this is yet another illustration of good news among the bad. Perhaps the biggest demonstration of democracy at work is the good work done by the free press in bringing the most damning stories to the people, day in and day out. Equally, the government needs to be congratulated for allowing the press corps to enjoy the unfettered freedom it enjoys today. It is obvious that the occasional blunders by the authorities in condemning one media player or another are quickly understood and corrected. Democracy carries with it its own baggage, often slowing down the speed of necessary change. Like most people everywhere, Indonesian voters are patient too, perhaps more so than others.
Despite the opinions of big-city folk, more people from around the archipelago felt “the government is doing a good job running the country”. Up by 2 percentage points from the previous quarter, 67 percent agree. This is no small achievement for the coalition. Around the world, crushing debt and high fuel prices have wrought havoc on consumer confidence. Indonesia, like India, is among the few major economies still swimming against the global tide. The average citizen recognizes and applauds the men and women at the helm.
The government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has always enjoyed the trust of the majority. Despite the shenanigans exposed in the April-June quarter, fewer people said “I don’t trust the current government”. The score went down by 4 points, with a minority of 40 percent agreeing with the statement. By global standards, this is both noteworthy and laudable. Conversely, the inability of the government to use this bank of trust more forcefully remains a conundrum to many well-wishers, both within and outside of Indonesia. Today’s government cannot be held responsible for the culture of corruption it inherited. But the history books will record its inability to combat this social malaise, for allowing it to continue with seeming impunity. Corruption is, without doubt, keeping many more people “dependent” on Independence Day.
The Good Governance Monitor is conducted in the Top 21 cities, smaller cities and towns as well as many more villages in the rural hinterland, reflecting all of Indonesia. 6206 men and women aged 14 and over were randomly selected during the April-June quarter of 2011.
The writer can be contacted at [email protected]