In a lot of ways my experience of living in Indonesia shaped a lot of my political thought. In my previous post I talked about what nationalism had contributed to Indonesia. In a nutshell, it provided the national cultural consciousness that held the country together as a relatively stable polity. This is quite a feat, because all its various peoples had just about nothing in common except being colonized by the Dutch.
But that kind of nationalism, so quickly created and so quickly accepted, more or less as a real idea, isn’t easy to do. And there is no form of government which finds it easier to force people into doing things than authoritarian ones, so I think we should discuss it.
A lot of us are probably used to living in relatively liberal democracies, and we take for granted that this is a good thing, and it generally is. There are great advantages to democracies over dictatorships or authoritarian states, not least for the maintenance of individual human rights and so on. We generally too see a clear line of almost Marxist progression of society and governments: We go from feudal monarchies, to imperial colonialism, to democratic capitalism. Marx takes it further to the “true democracy” of socialism, but we need not talk about that.
But again, my perspective is flavoured by having lived in Jakarta, particularly during the transitional period of the late 1990s, when in 1998 they deposed their dictator and implemented a freer political system. So I was, in a way, able to see both sides of the coin.
One of the most common questions in many circles back in 1999 or so, was “Is Indonesia ready for the responsibility of democracy?” People asked this because it had lived so long under a dictatorship, which held sham elections every 5 years, that perhaps people didn’t understand how the process worked. It seems like an insult to the political maturity of the Indonesian people, but the question actually has pertinence in general when it comes to figuring out why democracy fails in some countries and succeeds in others.
I think Nigeria is a good example, here, of democracy failing. Nigeria is a west African country which you can probably actually compare to Indonesia in terms of its demographics. It has a very diverse populace in terms of ethnicity and religion, and is also very resource rich, particularly in oil. It too was made into a colonial province in ignorance of traditional ethnic boundaries.
When it became independent in 1960, Nigeria had quite a few advantages over other post-colonial countries, not only in its rich natural resources but also in having an educated elite and its own parliament. So where did it go wrong?
I read in Meredith’s “The Fate of Africa” that Nigeria suffered from intensely partisan politics, because its main political parties represented specific ethnicities which also tended towards specific faiths. Therefore all the MPs tended to only argue for benefits towards their own people and not attempt to cooperate for collective national good. This is part of what led it to the Nigerian Civil War, whose effects are still apparent. The point is that the concept of being Nigerian was not nearly as important as it was to identify as Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa.
This is understandable in the sense that the whole concept of “Nigerian” is foreign-made. Britain drew the lines on the map and named the place. So the idea of being a “Nigerian” was still completely alien to people, while their ethnic loyalties were still strong due to old tradition.
This, again, contrasts with the Indonesian example. Sukarno was a puppet leader under Japanese occupation, but while he read out pro-Japanese propaganda, he was simultaneously promoting a collective Indonesian consciousness. This is his lasting contribution to Indonesia. He wasn’t an effective president, but he was very much the founder of the Indonesian identity, which is surprisingly generally accepted despite being, also, a new concept.
Sukarno was deposed in by Suharto in the 1960s, but in several ways Suharto would take that nationalism further, not always in a positive way. It would be under Suharto that the Chinese community in Indonesia would be crushed and forced to integrate. They would lose their Chinese names and take Indonesian ones, be banned from printing Chinese newspapers, opening Chinese restaurants, and basically be forced to abandon their Chinese-ness. This integrates them into the larger nation, thus partially avoiding some of the problems of multi-ethnic Malaysia, but is still a very heavy handed approach.
Similarly, Suharto would clamp down hard with the military in Aceh, which wanted independence, and under his direction Timor l’Este was annexed just days after it was granted independence from Portugal in 1975.
This, you can argue, is also a dictator doing what really only dictators are able to do: maintain national cohesion by force.
Suharto did some good things, though. He’s regarded by many as a relatively ideal dictator, aside of course from the secret police and military repression of independence movements. While his family would grow famously corrupt, the man himself was the kind of dictator whose means of power security was mostly not force, but economic development. By inviting foreign investment, he developed industries for Indonesians to work in, build infrastructure from the taxes and fees from that investment, and took a highly underdeveloped country in the 1960s to one of the booming Asian economies of the 80s. Under him, Indonesians had access to schools, secular government, electricity, roads, and all the things that make a big difference to standard of living, not to mention life expectancy.
When the first real Indonesian elections rolled around in 1999, everyone was really afraid that the voting centers would be mobbed, that there would be demonstrations and fighting, that there would be chaos. This wasn’t the case. It was the most orderly first election I’ll ever remember. Indonesians took their responsibility seriously, and while some people tried to make trouble here and there, other voters would reel them in and keep things in order. It was, to me, powerful evidence of political maturity, and the memory still moves me emotionally today.
But they might never have gotten to that point, if they hadn’t had Suharto. In an odd sort of way, an underdeveloped people and country needed strong government to provide them with the infrastructure and basic education with which they could later take responsibility for themselves.
We can see this lesson repeated in Singapore, which is an amazing success story for a small city state which still has a not-actually-democratic system today. Singapore was incredibly lucky that the people who ruled and administered it were pretty competent and not particularly corrupt.
Suharto himself might not have been too bad, aside from being oppressive to people who were against him, but his family was wildly corrupt. Altogether the estimate for the family as a whole is about 6 billion USD in laundered money. And that basically describes one of the main problems with dictatorships.
Let’s say that you have an exceptional political leader. He is principled, competent, intelligent, and gets things done to the benefit of the people he rules and serves. This happened, too, in several monarchies. Dictators and Kings wielding absolute power sometimes get things done that democracies can’t, and often enough it could well be to the betterment of their people. People see decisive change and celebrate it.
But what about their sons? Are their sons incorruptible? Very often not. And very often, fathers want their sons to carry on their legacies and have a way of reserving the spot for them afterwards. And people don’t have a legal choice in the matter.
This is pretty much why dictators shouldn’t stick around for too long, even if they meant well. Power is useful, but often corrupting. Even if the country is ready to move on, they themselves as rulers might not be, and that’s when you get Syria, or Russia.
The complex thing about Syria though, is that a lot of people really do support Assad, at least earlier, because they saw him and his father as the real founders of the modern state of Syria. They did a lot of good things, along with some very bad things, along the way. So I can understand why people would continue to support him.
One of the interesting things about Sukarno, the founder of Indonesia, is that he got caught up in his own dreams. He created the concept of Indonesia which formed the basis of Indonesian culture, which hardly existed before that. But he was also prone to delusions of grandeur. He wanted Indonesia to encompass and represent all Bumiputra peoples, including the former British colonies that we now call Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, and when that didn’t happen he sent saboteurs and paratroops to stir up trouble in those places.
It was, again, the kind of thing a delusional dictator would do. Suharto, by comparison, was a breath of stability.
Probably the greatest problem with dictatorships is just that you don’t know who you’re getting, and you have no choice in the matter. You might get a competent if ruthless bastard, like Syngman Rhee in South Korea or Suharto. You might get grandiose and delusional dreamers, like Sukarno or Kwame N’Krumah. You might get intelligent administrators, like Lee Kwan Yew. You might get a total nutcase, like Pol Pot or Muammar Qaddafi.
These people tend to assume power without any sense of public legitimacy. No one from the people chose them. They keep power through force, propaganda, and rarely through competence. But I’d argue that sometimes a competent dictator is better than too much freedom too early in a new nation’s political and national consciousness.