Insight: Presidential speech: The return of development as a platitude
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The timing could not have been more unfavorable. The day President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono delivered his annual state address (Aug. 16) was just three days before Idul Fitri, the end of the Islamic fasting month. People’s routines had been abandoned and public attention was fixed by then on the throng of mudik travelers heading to their hometowns. Perhaps only a rousing presidential speech could have made politically concerned people pause.
Alas, the speech was unable to surmount the pressing immediacy of Lebaran. Two things were readily evident in the speech: One was the president’s political propensity and the other the idiom by which the state of the nation was presented.
First, it was unmistakable throughout the speech that the President was intent on claiming his success on the international stage, which in turn can be seen as continuation of his presidency’s preoccupation. There is nothing wrong with this disposition. Every national leader is instinctively keen on being applauded and respected by the international community. Although worthwhile, this point has nevertheless reached such an alarming level that the government seems more concerned with its image in the eyes of international circles than with its legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens.
This, of course, is not to say that international approval is unimportant — “to contribute to the establishment of a world order based on freedom, abiding peace and social justice” is part of the constitutional mandate. But a preoccupation with international image can easily obscure the principal task of the government, whose accountability rests solely with its citizens and their well-being.
If, in the process of pursuing this mission, the government gets international plaudits, let’s take it as a bonus. However, a penchant for chasing the international limelight in an attempt to camouflage the sacred mission to its citizens is prone to vanity, to say the least. A vain country, like a vain person, is one incessantly craving sedative and salved endearment from others to compensate for its vacuity.
Second, what is projected on the international stage should not be used to rate the state of domestic affairs. There is no doubt that Yudhoyono presented himself out of goodwill and his speech was couched in inclusive terms. As expected, the speech on domestic affairs was less buoyant with no prophetic insights and depth. This could easily be taken as a signal of his leadership fatigue.
With six domestic challenges rightly presented, it was unmistakable that the theme of the speech revolved around the centrality of development. Even at the end, the President urged the whole nation “to reassess our perspective in pursuing development”. This was the much-awaited agenda, but the way the notion of development was employed in the speech seems to have become tired from overuse.
Why does the conduct of development need reassessment? The idea of development has been thoroughly poisoned. “Development” is meant to be concerted civilizing efforts for the betterment of a shared life. What has poisoned it? During the Soeharto regime, the notion of development was closely tied to the conduct of authoritarian rule, while today it has deteriorated into the misconduct of rent-seeking. In many respects,
this makes an old story strikingly contemporary.
Rent-seeking involves many features, one of which is the plundering of state budget resources by businesses, politicians, government officials and other connected parties, which has become commonplace now. When Yudhoyono described corruption as an “extraordinary crime” that was “multiplying and magnifying”, he struck at the heart of the nation’s problem. But what he hardly conceived seems to be that his clamor for more genuine development has been fatally undermined by widespread rent-seeking that has made up part and parcel of the very notion of development in today’s Indonesia.
As such, what is widely claimed as development has sadly degenerated into a series of projects to distribute commercial contracts to the business sector, especially to those connected with government officials, politicians and their profiteering cronies. It is clear that all the recent cases of colossal graft and corruption involve the conduct of rent-seeking in the form of state budget plundering.
It is against this backdrop that the first step of recasting the development perspective, rightly expounded in the speech, cannot but involve a crusade to eradicate rent-seeking in the form of state budget looting. Of course, this first step is only a precondition. In the end, it is not only “our perspective of development that warrants reassessment” but it is the doing of development itself that needs a radical overhaul. This second step is what is to be acted upon — otherwise the term “development” is simply a platitude.
These two tasks need to be pursued by the present government in its remaining term. The President rightly called attention to six challenges, three of which were corruption eradication, bureaucratic reform and good governance and infrastructure construction. But what for? We need them not primarily for the cliché of a business-friendly climate but to rescue the nobility of development from its current rent-seeking damnation.
Indeed, if Indonesia is a person, she is now an unhappy person when it comes to development. The only consolation is that it is unhappiness that looks to the future with a dream of respectable improvement.
The writer is a lecturer in the postgraduate program at Driyarkara School of Philosophy, Jakarta.