The Jakarta Post
Mercantilism is an old idea. It is the earliest form of ideology, which despite its role as the primary ideas behind the growth of nationalism in Europe, was quickly superseded by liberalism.
It is easy to conflate mercantilism with nationalism for its crude promotion of national interests; that in order for a nation to win in competitions with others, mostly through wars, it must ensure that the government could achieve a high degree of security or self-sufficiency, especially as regards to food supply, raw materials for essential industries, as well and funding and equipment needed to wage the war.
Global capitalism should have rendered this idea irrelevant, but once in a while, politicians and military generals take a second look at this moribund idea and adopt it if it suits their political and military outlooks.
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has long been known for his nationalist credentials. He has made numerous speeches about his intention to safeguard the territorial integrity of the nation, and his aggressive posturing against what could be deemed as a territorial encroachment has frequently made headlines.
In recent months, he adopted the idea of mercantilism a bit too literally. When he saw that his generals had strayed too far overseas to look for weapons, he was swift in reminding them that the weapons they needed could be found domestically. When Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto stepped up his effort to buy weapons from China and Russia, Jokowi quickly hit the brakes, demanding his erstwhile rival in the 2019 presidential election to procure weapons from local arms manufacturers.
Jokowi may have sincerely believed that his decision to grant Prabowo the authority to oversee the development of the national food estate program was consistent with his mercantilist outlook that food security could boost the country's defense capability.
"What we call defense isn't only about Alutsista [primary weapons defense system], it's also about resilience in the food sector," Jokowi said in a statement earlier this week.
The problem with the outlook was that it would run counter to the norm of a democratic society. Beyond the technical questions, such as does the military have the skill to grow food, or governance question on whether such a proposal could spawn corrupt practices, we have to go back to basics: In a democratic society, to which the post-New Order Indonesia now belongs, the military should have no role whatsoever in affairs that should exclusively be within the civilian domain.
Regardless of the fact that Prabowo used to get involved in agricultural affairs as chairman of the Indonesian Farmers Association (HKTI), his current post requires him to craft a national defense system and ensure the well-being of about 400,000 Indonesian Military (TNI) soldiers, among other jobs.
Following the sweeping reforms in 1998, the TNI carries the mandate of defending the country from foreign threats and its role in dealing with domestic security problems should only be seen as ancillary.
Food production, even for defense purposes, should fall under the territory of the Agriculture Ministry and other relevant civilian authorities.