Opinion

Indonesia: Moving forward,
rectifying mistakes

Our experience has taught us the wisdom of moderation: Optimism needs to be tempered by a sense of realism. We have become more aware of the weight of history.

We make history, but we cannot make it as we please; even revolutionary Karl Marx would have admitted this!

We therefore have to accept the fact that we have to work in an imperfect setting. And, of course, we always have our innate human failings.

The most we can hope for from democratic politics, with its checks and balances, is a process of continual and incremental improvement, not a perfect set of policies. The most we can hope for is a democratic idea of the future that is without the illusion and the impatience of utopianism.

We now understand that democracy is simply an ordered and deliberate system for getting rid of some of the blemishes in government. No longer do we need to resort to violent solutions for change or for resolving differences.

Have we made progress in making democracy work in this country?

I think we have, though still with some qualifications. Let us take the most fundamental element of democracy: Freedom of expression. The present Constitution has unambiguously reaffirmed our freedom of speech and the unimpeded flow of information.

Our press is now one of the freest in the world. Dissenting citizens need not fear reprisal from the state.

I think I am justified in saying that we have managed to undo many corrosive practices of the past. Government policies are now more open to examination.

Today, transparency is increasingly becoming a norm in public life, thanks to the growing public demand for accountability. Monopoly-granting power is no longer entrenched, nor is flagrant nepotism or blatant cronyism.

The rule of law has been improving, albeit gradually. True, corruption remains a malignant cell in Indonesian society. But our law enforcement agencies, including the powerful Corruption Eradication Commission, have been very active in uncovering and pursuing corruption cases.

One important, if underappreciated, achievement is that an increasingly uncongenial atmosphere to corrupt practices is now being created.

Our democracy is consolidating. It is a work in progress and much remains to be done. Let me mention a number of challenges.

Indonesia is known to be a highly diverse society — in terms of cultural traits, social history and religion. This diversity generates some fundamental problems not easily remedied or amenable to a quick fix.

The decision to devolve power to the district level of administration was a good corrective step to break away from the centralistic model of the past. But it does complicate the reaching of a consensus that is often needed to solve long-term national problems.

For instance, we have still to arrive at an appropriate balance in regional development — to what extent should new facilities be in the form of urban centers marked by modern buildings and cars, and how much should they be in the shape of living spaces where children can bike around safely and breathe fresh air.

We still have a long-running debate on how to best to protect human rights and promote religious tolerance. Existing social diversity, income disparities and educational inequalities complicate matters further.

Then there is the problem of developing social capital, a fundamental element in a stable society. We know that adequate social capital can only be generated by a relentless effort that seeks to build trust among members of society. But, again, the existence of corruption, bribery, and other abuses of power complicate that very effort.

But I am not pessimistic about the prospects of solving such problems. Our democracy is certainly not devoid of the possibilities of consensus. Consensus has been achieved at critical times in our history, and subsequently great things have been accomplished.

I would like to think that deep in the Indonesian psyche, there is something that is unexpectedly robust, even forceful — something that has ensured and will ensure the nation’s survival against impending, difficult odds.

That belief is the basis of my vision for the country.

My vision is for an Indonesia that continually moves forward and regularly rectifies its mistakes. An Indonesia that keeps the shared dream for liberty and justice alive, despite our human failings and the legacy of history. An Indonesia that continues to play constructive roles in this increasingly challenging world.

The writer is Vice President. This article is condensed version of his acceptance speech at the conferral of the honorary degree of Doctor of Law. The ceremony took place at the Vice Presidential Palace in Jakarta on Feb. 13, 2013.

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