Wednesday, February 28, 2024 | 06:55 WIB

21st Century Challenges to Democracy Part V: Lessons and Conclusions for Indonesia

In looking at problems confronting 21st century democracy and possible solutions, the Independent Observer has spoken with a number of international figures. In Part V, we speak to Marzuki Darusman, former Head of Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission, Bambang Harymurti, former editor –in-chief of Indonesia’s foremost political journal Tempo, former Australian diplomat and political observer Kevin Evans and member of the Indonesian Press Council and a media researcher, Agus Sudibyo.

IO – In four previous articles the Independent Observer looked at some of the challenges facing democracy in the United States. One of the main problems is an acute polarization of American society. Some of the factors contributing to this include the economy, rapidly changing demographics, the cost and quality of education, the internet and its role in the acceleration of fake news and extremism, voting systems and how these can contribute to polarization and the roles of non-democracies like Russia and China. This article attempts to look in turn at democracy in Indonesia in relation to these factors.

If we start by looking at the state of Indonesia’s economy, it may be said to be in a relatively good position. In 2020 Indonesia’s nominal GDP was US $1,1 trillion ranking it the as the world’s 15th largest economy. During the pandemic Indonesia had a growth rate of -2.1%. This was not bad compared to Malaysia’s at -5.6%, Thailand’s -7.7%, Singapore’s -5.4% and the United States’s -3.5%. Indonesia’s public debt to GDP ratio is projected at 42% by the end of 2021 while Malaysia’s is projected at 66.03%, Thailand’s at 57% and Japan’s at 236.57%.

Kevin Evans points out however, that during the last 10-15 years Indonesia has been disengaging from the global economy with both imports and exports decreasing in large part influenced by Indonesia’s efforts at self-sufficiency. “According to OECD figures the size of Indonesian agricultural subsidies is 2.9 % of the national economy, making it the country with the highest agricultural subsidies. (Average agricultural subsidies worldwide is about 1%). This should cause agriculture to be a good contributor to the economy but it is in fact a drain on the Indonesian economy which could have been spent on more productive investments.

With many investors currently leaving China which is being seen as too expensive and also to secure a balanced commercial exposure it was expected that more investors would have turned to Indonesia however, too much bureaucracy and perceptions of corruption have kept investors away. It is hoped that the government’s recently passed Omnibus Law will however help to change that.”

Where Indonesia has a similar problem to America is the economic gap between the rich and the poor which is too large. As Marzuki Darusman, former head of Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission pointed out, “In America 10% of U.S. households own 69% of the nation’s wealth whereas in Indonesia 65% of national wealth is in the hands of 10% of the population. In the United States this has had a detrimental effect on polarizing the nation and is a challenge to its democracy.

Bambang Harymurti, former editor– in-chief of Indonesia’s political journal Tempo comments, “In a nation it is frequently not so much the actual economic situation but often rather how a people feel about their economy. If they feel that there is a promise of greater prosperity in the future, they may not be as dissatisfied with the actual economic situation. It is important that there is not a feeling that your children will not be as prosperous as you.”

Despite Indonesia’s economic gap people as a whole remain optimistic about future economic prosperity. Consequently, it is not seen to be as polarizing an element in Indonesian society as it is in American society.

Some may consider it thinking a little too far ahead but Bambang Harymurti believes that in its efforts to maintain a good economy the government should also be preparing for Industry 4.0. This is when smart manufacturing combines physical production and operations with smart digital technology, machine learning, and big data for companies that focus on manufacturing and supply chain management. “When we move into Industry 4.0 it is projected that 70% of conventional jobs will disappear due to the development of technology, especially artificial intelligence. Our government needs to prepare for this by creating a universal basic income. It is something that needs to be seriously planned for the future. The good thing about the pandemic is that it caused some countries to begin putting it into place. For example, Spain is intending to keep its COVID-19 social benefits even after the pandemic is over. Industry 4.0 will provide humanity with a quantum leap into a better civilization but that leap may also bring about new possibilities including the possibility of a social revolution as was the case when society jumped from an agricultural based economy to an industrial based one. One of the things that emerged was communism. Indonesia like all governments need to be preparing for this as of now as it may well also affect our democracy.”

When looking at demographics it should be noted that unlike the United States or Australia, Indonesia is not an immigrant country. Kevin Evans remarks, “In this respect Indonesia has remained more or less stable for the last 50 years. Only urbanization has increased. On the positive side this decreases dependence on patriarchal structures. However, it can produce moral fright where people turn to religion for stability in what they perceive as a changing world. Indonesia has seen a puritanization and usually this has occurred in urban and suburban areas and amongst the middle class, especially amongst first generation educated people. It has helped to create support for the Sharia based bylaws emanating from certain areas in Indonesia that are seen as detrimental to the plurality favoured by democracy. At the moment the government is in a difficult position to deal with Sharia based bylaws that contravene higher ranking regulations since the Supreme Court issued a decision stating that the Minister of the Interior does not have the authority to cancel such Sharia based bylaws promulgated by regional authorities who obtained office through elections. This means that in order to revoke such Sharia based bylaws they must be brought before the Supreme Court first. However, this is an expensive and lengthy process and as there are hundreds of sharia based bylaws it is not considered a practical means for revoking them. Kevin Evans proposes the creation of an arbitration process consisting of the government as well as representatives of the regional governments to consider such bylaws whether such bylaws do violate higher level national laws.

Agus Sudibyo is a member of the Indonesian Press Council and a media researcher who has written two books on the digital media. He reveals that in Southeast Asia Microsoft has found Indonesian netizens to be the most ill-mannered and that they spread the most misinformation via the internet. They spread conspiracy theories, hatred toward minorities and present things out of context. “However, Microsoft is not taking into account the different political systems in the various countries of Southeast Asia. The people of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand do not have the freedom to express their opinions and criticize their governments that Indonesian netizens have. Indonesia is far more democratic and consequently its netizens dare to express their opinions more openly. This is a consequence of the freedom that democracy guarantees its citizens.

He explains that in the Indonesian elections of 2019 Indonesian netizens spread as much disinformation and hatred through social media as American netizens did in their 2020 elections. However, Indonesia did not experience the polarization of society and attempts at insurrection that American society is going through now. This may be because the opposition candidate in Indonesia, unlike former President Trump accepted the decisions of the court regarding the elections and did not continue to spread disinformation about election fraud. Instead after the elections he formed a coalition with the winning party and became Minister of Defense. In Indonesia, netizens still have more faith in the main line media in newspapers, radio and television then they do in social media. Indonesian netizens read their social media accounts but at crucial moments they still place more faith in the news carried by the main line media.

Agus Sudibyo explains that in the United States there are laws governing electronic transactions but these do not regulate social media content and accountability. There is only one country namely, Germany that has a social media law and the European Union would like to adopt this in the form of a Digital Service Act. Indonesia has an Electronic Information and Transaction Law which regulates and controls digital content including disinformation and hate speech against minorities. However, it only holds the person posting on social media accountable for spreading disinformation or hatred. It does not provide a legal base for holding digital platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube accountable for their content. By contrast, in Germany the social media platform is regarded as the moderator for hate speech or disinformation and is held accountable. There, digital platforms are not considered merely technological companies but are regarded as media companies as well; the same as main line media companies.

He contends, “In fact Indonesia needs a social media act such as Germany has because the disinformation and hatred spread on Indonesian social media could one day also acutely polarize society in the way that it has in America and even lead to insurrection. There is a hesitancy however, in Indonesia to bring such a bill to parliament as there is a fear that such a bill would be changed by either the parliament or the government in such a way as to open the possibility of misuse or even to curtail democracy unnecessarily.”

He believes that it is also important that the monopolies held by digital platforms such as Google and Facebook with regard to digital content, the right to arbitrarily change their systems of algorithms as well as arbitrarily determine the price of advertising be subject to antitrust laws. “They should also be forced to pay taxes the same as the main line media companies are required to do in order to level the playing field and avoid unfair competition.”

Many people in Indonesia complain about the poor quality of members of parliament in Indonesia. Former Tempo editor-in-chief, Bambang Harymurti in fact asserts, “The mother of all political or democratic problems in Indonesia is the financing of political parties as well as the election of regional leaders such as mayors, district heads, the president and members of parliament which produce poor quality candidates. In order to run for office in Indonesia whether for the executive or the legislative branch a potential candidate must either be extremely wealthy or have the support of a super-rich patron. Parties require candidates to pay the honorarium of the party witnesses in each polling booth in their constituency and there may be hundreds or even thousands of polling booths. They are also required to pay for their campaign including television and radio advertisements. Consequently, our leaders and members of parliament are not the best but the wealthiest. The Indonesian Election Commission which organizes elections spends trillions of rupiahs for the elections. That is equivalent to spending millions of dollars on a stadium but only people with the most money rather than the best athletes can compete in that stadium. So, we are spending a lot of money to get rich but mediocre athletes.

Preferably, a party should be funded by its own members however, this is rarely the case in Indonesia where parties are normally funded by the head of the party or by the party’s benefactors who all need to be super rich in order to be able to afford to do so. The result is the creation of a political oligarchy as in America.”

Bambang Harymurti contends that the best would be if Indonesia followed the Scandinavian model where political parties are funded by the government through public taxes. He says, “A party receives funds for each vote that it garners. At present the Indonesian government subsidizes votes at about Rp 1.000 per vote. It would be better if the amount were Rp 50.000 per vote per year. With that amount the political parties would no longer be dependent on super rich patrons. Instead parties could devote themselves to finding good quality candidates. By providing such funding the government would make it possible for good people to come up through the system in places of leadership and as members of the legislature. He says that extremism is born when people feel that the system is against them and that they cannot express their aspirations or frustrations. This would be a way to help deter such extremism.

Kevin Evans agrees with this assessment. While Indonesia’s two-round system in voting for the president and its proportional representation system in voting for the DPR is better than America’s winner-take-all system, it is not as good as Australia’s preferential system of voting in making it difficult for popular extremists to win rather than the leader acceptable to most voters. He remarks, “Indonesia should stop fantasizing about having a two party system and embrace its multi-party system as Indonesian society is simply too pluralistic for a two party system. The question people should rather be asking themselves is ‘why there are no big parties (parties able to capture more than 25% of the vote)?’

Political parties in Indonesia do come together in the electoral process and do not try to destroy one another or have political opponents locked up or assassinated. However, inside the party its leader decides everything. There is insufficient space for alternative or dissenting views or leadership within the party making it difficult for parties to become big because they keep fragmenting.”

Bambang Harymurti considers education another minefield. “The Indonesian Constitution provides that the government must organize and implement a national education system that aims at enhancing religious and pious sentiments as well as moral excellence with a view to upgrading national life. This means that the government must promulgate a law that will interpret this article of the Constitution wisely, in a way that enhances pluralism and human rights. Since 2002 when the education article in the Constitution was amended this has not yet been achieved. Promoting pluralism and diversity is a very important part of democracy which views all people as equal. So, this remains on Indonesia’s homework list.”

To this Kevin Evans adds that it is important not just to consider what is taught but also the way it is taught. Are things being taught in a democratic way? The Minister of Education is trying to promote this way of teaching unfortunately, parliament rejected the regulations regarding reform of the education system in the new Omnibus Law.

He says that while he was in Afghanistan he was once asked what Afghanistan should do to promote development and foreign investment. Evans responded half-jokingly that they should permit 10% of their population to consist of kafirs or non-Muslims. “Just think,” he said, “an Indonesian child comes into contact with people who are Chinese, Arab, Indian and other nationalities and he may go to a Christian school though not a Christian himself. Compare this to an Afghan child who is unlikely to meet anyone who is not of the same ethnicity and religion as himself. As a result, the Afghan would often be more awkward or hesitant in partnering whereas his Indonesian counterpart would be more relaxed and engaging. It would not be surprising therefore if the foreigner felt more comfortable dealing with the Indonesian counterpart. It is important that the education system of a country promotes diversity rather than locking people into living in their own primordial bubble; something made even easier when a child only deals with the internet and has no engagement or interaction with others. Such a child will have no terms of reference in dealing with people who are different from itself.

A good education system should provide and promote experiences with people who are different especially in urban and suburban environments. Ideally, it should provide children with the opportunity to spend some months living with people of another background; so that when those children meet people promoting primordial hatred they will reject it given their actual lived experiences of living with or playing with people of different religious, ethnic or regional backgrounds.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy by the same writer:

Part I of this series discusses the changing demographics, racism, the economy and education and their challenge to 21st century democracy.  Please see:

Part II of this series discusses the internet, fake news and extremism and their challenge to 21st century democracy. Please see:

Part III of this series discusses the role of political structures and systems in preventing polarization and extremism, Please see:

Part IV of this series discusses the roles of China and Russia and their challenges to 21st century democracy. Please see:

Part VI of this series discusses lessons and Conclusions for Indonesia re China. Please see:


Latest article

Related Articles