Indonesia - treading a fine balance between democracy and development

Updated On: Sep 05, 2006

It is an age-old debate. Should democracy come first which will then lay the roots for economic development (e.g. RussiaIndia) or should focused economic development be allowed to incubate democratic instincts (e.g. China)?

Indonesia seems to be moving along the former pathway with focus on pluralism and democratic leanings since post-1997 Asian Financial crisis. And it has made some remarkable headway since. Other than democratic political institutions, there are also some civic movements making their voices heard in Indonesia. One of them is the women’s groups. One of the issues which they tackle is globalization.

Women rights leader, Lecturer of political studies at the University of Indonesia Ani W. Soetjipto, also of the Center for Electoral Reform and writer of Politik perempuan bukan gerhana (Women's politics is not an eclipse) opined that globalization is affecting women negatively. In her opinion, “globalization, through opening of labor markets, leads to many women becoming the slaves of multinational companies with low salaries so they cannot support their families”. She also added that “these companies trap women in poverty with limiting access to education and health facilities so that they can keep their salaries cheap.”

Focus on women’s issues are made all the more remarkable given that Indonesia is still making the transition away from authoritarian rule in place till 1997 while still remaining the world’s largest Muslim country facing increasing Islamic fundamentalist movements. Concerns about globalization and minimum wages is an enlightened civic cause, given the fact that it would be given less of an emphasis in Indonesia’s economic rivals, including pro-globalization rising China whose political and social structures prefer to single-mindedly focus on economic development and strong growth for social stability.      

Nevertheless, women issues’ advocates in Indonesia believe they have some way to go, especially in knitting the disparate groups together to foster a more cohesive lobbying strength. According to its advocates, the women’s groups are just taking up too many causes without a central focus. Regional autonomy has also splintered the ability for these groups to communicate pan-Indonesian issues due to emerging local political conditions overriding the priorities of the central government.

Another democratic trend in Indonesia is the advent of free media. Journalists taking part in the Global Inter-Media Dialogue criticized host Indonesia for the absence of an Israeli journalist earlier invited to the forum. This issue began to raise questions about Indonesia’s commitment to media freedom, the very theme of the one-day gathering. This reflects democratic instincts in Indonesia over the need to incorporate a vast array of opinions for the country’s development. Indonesia and Israel have no diplomatic relations although the Indonesian government denies that politics was responsible for the Israeli journalist’s absence.

Again, media freedom is less of an issue for Indonesia’s economic competitors, particularly China which has curtailed and limited the boundaries of media freedom in exchange for social cohesion and unequivocal emphasis on economic development. There seems to be a strong Beijing consensus for limiting the destabilizing forces in the country first in the state’s quest for poverty eradication and narrowing of income gap.

The gap between Indonesia’s approach and that of China’s seems to be a chasm. While pluralism and democracy seems to be alive and kicking in Indonesia, poverty eradication remains a problem. The glaring weakness in the economic report card of Indonesia fuels concern whether Indonesia can manage both political and economic transition simultaneously.  Indonesia’s Central Statistics Agency (BPS) reported that the country's poor population (earning less than US$17 a month) increased to 39.05 million as of March 2006. Even this is considered underestimation by some.

On the other hand, growing at double digits growth for many years, China is now praised by the United Nations on 31 August 2006 for being a model of development for developing countries. The UN's trade and development agency called on poor nations to be more interventionist and to strengthen their national economies in a similar manner to China. "If you look at the traditional thinking in development and macroeconomic theory, and looked at China over the last 20 years, you would find that 95 percent of good economists would come to the conclusion that China is impossible," the agency's senior globalisation official, Heiner Flassbeck explained. "But it is possible and was possible ... because they used more instruments, and the assignment of policies was quite different from the traditional one that was circumscribed by what we called sound monetary conditions," he told journalists.

The debates over the dichotomous approaches will, however, continue, particularly in Indonesia where many people do not want to see a return of Suharto-era where economic development was used to legitimse authoritarian rule.


Number of poor rises to over 39 million: BPS (Jakarta Post, 3 September 2006)

'Women's movement needs to get its act together' (Jakarta Post, 3 September 2006)

Journalists question absence of Israel in Bali (Jakarta Post, 3 September 2006)

Women activists urge end to abuse in name of religion (Jakarta Post, 2 September 2006)

No going back on regional autonomy: Analysts (Jakarta Post, 2 September 2006)

Govt unveils plan to empower the poor (Jakarta Post, 2 September 2006)

UN upholds China as economic model for developing countries (Channelnewsasia, 1 September 2006)