The Jakarta Post
The latest polemic over a subdistrict head and Jakarta's blunt-talking deputy governor clearly shows the opposite directions taken by the capital's leaders and the nation's regarding regional autonomy.
The polemic lands Jakarta Governor Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo and Deputy Governor Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama at the forefront of local leaders focusing on their mandate under decentralization ' to improve public services by the likes of selecting the best leaders for diverse communities. In contrast, the remarks of Home Minister Gamawan Fauzi show destructive signs from the Presidential Palace.
Controversy brewed when Ahok said Gamawan should study the Constitution in response to the minister's suggestion that Jokowi move a new Christian subdistrict head elsewhere. The minister cited objections by residents who said they could not accept a Christian leader in a mostly Muslim residential area in Lenteng Agung subdistrict, South Jakarta. The rejection of the leader in question ' Susan Jasmine Zulkifli ' could limit her ability to do her job, Gamawan said.
Jokowi and Ahok reiterated Susan was staying put as she had scored the highest in tests for candidates for the subdistrict post under the city's new bureaucracy reform ' an exciting innovation for citizens used to putting up with whoever was appointed to public positions. Other Muslims among the 55,000 residents in the district said they had no problem with her religion ' and several 'locals' turned out to be from neighboring Depok.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is dangerously allowing identity politics to take root via the imperfect rules of decentralization, through his government's policies and inaction in various cases. The manipulation of both ethnic and religious aspirations have long been part of regional autonomy, but the President and his men, in fact all politicians, are making it much worse.
Jokowi and Ahok bring huge relief. We have painfully watched as the nation has free-fallen down the drain of intolerance in the absence of the government issuing urgently needed do's and don'ts of a pluralistic nation. If a subdistrict head has to represent the majority in her community, next time a mostly Javanese subdistrict could reject a Batak candidate, for instance.
Jokowi and Ahok are sticking to common hopes and expectations regardless of citizens' ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds. In choosing leaders, you grade them mostly by performance, not religion or any other background. This is a basic requirement.
But apart from failing to take a stand against local elites abusing minority rights, Indonesia's leaders would have us believe the government should help push Islamic dominance just because former president Soeharto would have none of it throughout most of his rule. In the post New Order era, aspiring politicians seized the opportunity to win votes by catering to previously sidelined conservatives.
Fortunately nowadays, politicians need to look good in issues like public services and good governance - hence the race to free health and education services, particularly where people do not really care about religious identity.
Earlier, local rules discriminating minorities and women in the name of public order, religious devotion or morality abounded, with officials and the courts insisting they were in line with regional autonomy ' including bylaws in West Sumatra initiated by then governor Gamawan. By the time the President ordered that the mayor in Bogor, West Java, heed a Supreme Court verdict that the disputed construction of a church should continue, the mayor would not budge.
Following an attack on the Shia minority in Madura, East Java, the local Shiites and other Muslims finally initiated peacemaking themselves last month. But without clear signals from Jakarta, the families of Sampang still lack guarantees they can return safely. In Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara (NTB), dozens of families have yet to return to their villages after being driven out by the 'majority' almost 10 years ago. Elsewhere, Ahmadiyah mosques have been sealed.
An impudent young official like Ahok is far less harmful than what the President and his Cabinet are doing ' destroying our legacy of living in diversity. In contrast, the signals of Jakarta's leaders are crystal clear ' do what it takes to carry out the mandate of directly elected leaders who are accountable to their voters.
When it comes to the loud mouthed 'majority', scholars say that the past suppression and alienation of Islamic groups has led to efforts among their politicians and supporters to assert this identity and presence as the nation's dominant faith. But Susan's case suggests how Islamic aspirations have been played up by politicians beyond Islam-based parties and anyone intent on sowing disharmony to seek power.
Claims that Ahok was unsuitable for Jakarta, being Christian Chinese, may have contributed to overwhelming number of Jakartans voting for Jokowi, indicating how they were sick of attempts to divide them over identity. They are still struggling daily with traffic, while appreciating and demanding better services.
Jokowi and Ahok are not the first leaders prioritizing their jobs over dangerous politics. But they are the first to openly clash with the palace. So many are cheering them on and would not mind Jokowi for president either. Our young democracy needs leaders with experience, but more importantly, it needs those who do not bow to bullies.
The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.
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