What’s Wrong with Contemporary Indonesia?

Mar 05, 2012

An old leftist looks back at his career in politics, and at the state of Indonesia today.

No-one used to talk about becoming rich, now everyone does. It used to be a taboo

Harsutedjo is particularly scathing of the inequities that a capitalist system produces and the emphasis on private enterprise over public facilities. He writes ‘if we travel around the big cities of Indonesia, especially Jakarta we will see shops, huge malls, new offices and hotels being built, all competing to be the highest and most expensive building. When will we see the building of a new university complex, a public library and other facilities? Where is there a public library that is good enough?’ (pp. 252-53) Reflecting his background as a lecturer, he reminds his readers that education is the key to the development of a nation, yet Indonesia’s human development index remains low. It is ranked 107 out of 168 countries.

He laments the standards of Indonesian schools and the facilities they have. He blames this development on the New Order which ‘made education into an effective and massive instrument of selection, control and the socialisation of values, knowledge and skills so as to legitimate its power and to mobilise labour’ (p. 253.) This is the system that Indonesians have inherited from the old regime. Further to this, in 2008 the government passed laws to support the privatisation of education. He predicts that soon universities will erect signs saying ‘poor people are barred from entry’ (p. 254).

In the 1960s, the PKI founded people’s universities to encourage greater access to education, and there were more scholarships for poor students. Harsutedjo was one of those poorer students who received a scholarship, including a living allowance from the government. Thousands of trained teachers were killed or purged from schools as part of the anti-PKI pogrom in 1965-68. Harsutedjo notes they were rapidly replaced in the late 1960s with people with inadequate qualifications who would willingly implement the regime’s ‘new style’ education.

Looking forward

Harsutedjo has no immediate solutions to the conundrums of contemporary Indonesia. He would prefer tighter controls on foreign ownership and prevention of environmental destruction. He would like to see leaders protect the human rights of all Indonesians, especially the poor. The tone of nostalgia in many of Harsutejo’s recollections, of longing for a ‘purer’ past, is common to many survivors of the 1965-68 violence.

Yet Harsutedjo is more balanced than some in looking back on this past. He recognises, for example, that there was also corruption in the 1950s and 1960s and that it involved not only members of the military, but also some on the left. He is committed to an honest re-evaluation of Indonesian history.

In our interview, he commented that the young generation ‘must know Indonesian history what the PKI, Sukarno and Suharto were or they will not be able to evaluate why the contemporary situation is in such disarray and how we can move forward.’ In order to understand how Indonesia has gone so far in one direction, one must understand what kinds of ideas were discarded when the left was destroyed.

Katharine McGregor is a historian of modern Indonesia and works at the University of Melbourne.

This article was first published in Inside Indonesia.