Editorial: Do the ‘reformasi’ dance
Heard about the reformasi dance? It goes two steps forward and one step back.
That has been the story of the reform movement in Indonesia during the last 14 years. May 21, 1998 was the day when strongman president Soeharto called it quits after losing all popular and constitutional legitimacy to rule. Through the massive reforms since then, Indonesia has made progress although it has not necessarily moved along a straight line. There have been setbacks, but overall, the nation is moving forward; as it should be.
Today, there are plenty of good reasons to be very pessimistic after a series of events and incidents, which suggest that the nation may be backsliding on reform. Religious minorities may feel that life used to be so much better and certainly safer; artistic and academic communities may lament the loss of their freedom and space and people in general may be frustrated that their prosperity has not improved as much or as fast as it should.
Putting these issues into a 14-year perspective, however, we should regard these as temporary setbacks, the one step back in our dance, and trust that the nation will address these issues and pretty soon return on the two-step forward mode.
There are many more good reasons why we should remain optimistic.
For one, there is freedom of expression. When everything else fails, or when things go wrong, as they often do, we still have the ability to vent our frustration and anger. With the Internet and the explosion in social media, censorship has become a thing of the past. This is the precious little freedom that keeps the nation going, and hoping.
Sovereignty is now fully in the hands of the people, thanks to periodic elections, which may not be perfect, but by and large, they have been as free and as fair as circumstances have allowed. Today, people not only have the right to complain about the failings of their leaders, they also have the chance to replace them. President Megawati Soekarnoputri realized this when she was unseated in 2004 by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Some 70 percent of incumbent politicians learned this bitter lesson when voters did not return them to the House of Representatives in 2009. Those who are frustrated at the current set of national leaders can look forward to the 2014 elections.
The economy has not fared that badly either, growing by more than 6 percent annually in recent years, including when the rest of world was undergoing a severe recession in 2008-2009. Income for most people has steadily improved, leading to the creation of a burgeoning middle class.
Indonesia today is a functioning democracy with a great many challenges. There is the problem of the poorest of the poor whom economic development has bypassed, and there is also the problem of a large proportion of lower- and middle-class people who are still vulnerable to economic shocks. There is the loss of space and freedom, the rise of intolerance encroaching on our civil liberties, rampant corruption, bad government services, poor law enforcement and a lack of firm leadership.
There are frustrations and anger at some of these failings, but thanks to freedom, they are being expressed in the open. If leaders do not heed these voices and the sentiments being expressed, they do so at their peril. In 2014, they face their judgment day before voters.
Indonesia today is far more democratic and free and more prosperous than it was 14 years ago thanks to the massive reforms. Some of us may find little to celebrate in this fact when things are going wrong or are not to our liking. But today is a good day to recall how far the nation has moved since 1998 and renew our faith and our hope.
Don’t ever let the music stop. Keep doing the reformasi dance.
Selected comments will be published in the Readers’ Forum page of our print newspaper.