IO – May 21 marked twenty years since General Mohammad Soeharto, often referred to as the Smiling General, stepped down from power after more than thirty years of rule. Most Indonesians celebrated in the streets, and for ostensibly good reasons. Democracy was no longer a distant dream, and the university students who led the charge for what is commonly referred to as reformasi in the midst of an economic meltdown and political chaos held high hopes of not only a free society but also a more prosperous future.
Two decades later, the question of why Indonesians protested, at times violently, and demanded Soeharto be removed from office is slightly academic. It is still worth asking, nonetheless, as a means of gauging whether or not the aspirations of those who clamored for an end to what was known as Soeharto’s New Order have been achieved.
For sure, Soeharto’s legacy was a mixed one, a classic case of the ‘good, bad and ugly’. The good side was primarily one of stability and economics. Taking power in 1965, Soeharto managed, albeit with an iron fist, to restore a sense of national unity and public order, no small feat considering Indonesia’s demographics and vast number of ethnic groups living on 6,000 islands over an expanse the world’s largest archipelago.
Soeharto was also the man credited with stewarding a long period of economic development that benefitted many poor Indonesians. Undoubtedly one of his main assets as a leader was his ability to select Indonesia’s more talented men and women to join his cabinet; most notable was the doctorate-degree bearing members of his economics team, also known as the ‘Berkley Mafia’, who helped Indonesia reach dramatically high growth rates that eventually catapulted the economy into becoming part of the larger narrative known as the Asia Miracle.
Farmers from the Soeharto era remember the transformation of Indonesia from being the world’s largest rice importer into a net exporter. In the late 1980s, blue-collar workers in Indonesia cities could feel the effects of Soeharto empowering his economics czars to implement far-reaching reforms that quickly placed Indonesia into becoming a favored investment destination for producing exportable manufactured goods. Indonesians living under his regime also benefitted from expanded education and health care. Small wonder, then, Soeharto was also known as the Father of Development.
But while Soeharto’s economics legacy is indisputable with millions of Indonesians lifted out of poverty and experiencing an improvement in their quality of life, there was a dark side, as well. Soeharto’s autocratic reign was recognized as being marred by massive corruption and human rights abuses. Transparency International once described him as the most corrupt leader in the world, estimating his family’s net worth in excess of thirty billion dollars. Human rights activists and NGO’s look back with disdain on the Smiling General’s heavy-handed ways of dealing with street crime and political dissent.
In the final analysis, Soeharto was a product of his times. Asia until the latter part of the 20th century was renowned for breeding corrupt and iron-fisted regimes. Yet he certainly was not the equivalent of a Marcos or a Pol Pot. History will be kinder to Soeharto than those who harshly judged him in his final days in office.
Now, twenty years since Soeharto left the presidential palace, there is a growing sense of nostalgia for a return to the past. A meme that frequently appears on t-shirts, billboards, buses and the internet features Soeharto smiling with the caption “How Y’All Doing? Wasn’t it better during my time?”.
Many older Indonesians coming of age during the Soeharto era might tend to agree that indeed, life was better in those days even if there was no democracy.
Looking at other transitional democracies around the world, the question of why people tend to look back upon their autocratic pasts as being the ‘good old days’ is an interesting one. In Eastern Europe, in particular, former communist states have recently had a resurgence of authoritarian leaders winning the popular vote.
We believe it is a grave mistake to become nostalgic. Thinking democracy is the cause of our ills, like many voters tend to think, is simply wrong-headed. The root cause of people looking backwards is pure economics. If wealth generation is reasonably shared and parents believe their children have the prospect of a better life, then a democracy will remain legitimate. Conversely, if a government fails to deliver on the promise of a good society, where all classes are treated fairly and equitably, then there will always be the temptation to pay their respects to Soeharto’s ghost.