Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Ayes Have It


So the ayes have it: Joko Widodo is the president-elect of Indonesia, the seventh person to hold the title since their independence.

It was a fairly closely fought election in the end. Given Jokowi’s strong popularity, especially amongst the younger voters, I’d have thought he would have walked this election. Furthermore, his challenger, Prabowo Subianto, is a man who has not truly managed to shake off allegations of human rights abuses from the late 90s, whatever he has said about it. Allied with the fairly troubled campaign he has run, my personal opinion would see Jokowi and his running mate, Jusuf Kalla, finish much further ahead. Alas, that wasn’t quite the case, but the first past the post policy means that a victory is a victory, however small the margin may be.

This post, however, is not meant as a comprehensive analysis of the political present and future of both men, as well as Indonesia. What I intend to do is to give a picture as to what it was like being here.

Why? Because…it was a very surreal experience for me.

The first warning signs occurred in class last week. I currently teach journalism at Monash College, and my students asked whether we would be having any session the following week on the 22nd of July. “Of course,” I replied somewhat incredulously. “Why wouldn’t we have any classes?” As it stands, we are already behind schedule by about a week, and I have no intentions of cancelling classes without a proper reason; I already have to make up six hours due to the timing of the actual voting day itself.

“That’s when they’ll be announcing the results of the elections,” she said. “So?” “The election commission is just around the corner,” she continued, “and people say that there might be trouble. All the same, this whole area will certainly be packed.”

I thought about it a bit further. Traffic is somewhat troublesome even at the best of times, but it shouldn’t be an issue, I thought out loud. “If anything, it is a good opportunity for you guys.” After all, the students are supposed to find news events to cover for their assignment. This is a perfect opportunity to do something truly out of the box.

My suggestion that they hang around on the day and bring their camera with them, though, was met with such incredulity that I wondered whether I had offended someone. I was left truly perplexed by this, but as it turns out, that they weren’t the only ones who were seriously concerned.

Simply put, history has suggested that many Indonesians can become batshit mental when things go against them. Being a fairly open society in many respects, the idea of protesting and expressing dissatisfaction is not an alien concept here. Of course, while such things may start out peacefully, the power of mob mentality should not be underestimated.

For example, many have pointed to the riots of the late 1990s as a point of potential reference of what may happen this time around. There were indeed a lot of issues to be considered here, but I figured them to be far-fetched, given the extraordinary circumstances of the time.

Having discussed it further with others, I think the riots of last year, when the subsidy for gas and petrol were reduced, to be of more direct relevance. Then, the government approved for such cuts to be made, meaning that price for petrol went up by a third. Though special subsidies were planned for the less privileged, there’s a lot of them here, and cold hard cash is already hard to come by.

According to the World Bank, more than 30 million people live below the poverty line, considered to be slightly over USD1 day. Double that standard to USD2, and you’re more than tripling the number to over 100 million people feeling more than a slight pinch in their wallets. Predictably, many were not happy, and the burning of a few cars here and there is considered to be a way to placate themselves.

Another, more racial element is also at play here. With especial regards to the 1998 riots, a lot of pent up anger was released, and a lot of them were aimed at the Chinese. Long considered to be largely economically superior, there is a sense of dissatisfaction that their financial strength has come at the expense of more native locals. It’s a funny old story, in a way, as the undercurrent of dissatisfaction against the Chinese is not entirely different from that in Malaysia, though I must stress that it was and is expressed in different ways.

Nevertheless, with the authorities of the day failing to assert themselves, many people went crazy, murdering and raping them with reckless abandon. Buildings owned by Chinese people and organisations were also burned down. This is important to consider in the Monash context, too; not unlike my experiences in Monash University Malaysia, the Jakartan branch also has a strong influx of those from the more upper class, and many of them are of more Oriental origins.

So, having better understood the context, I begin to realise that it’s probably not such a bad idea to at least postpone my classes to another day. In the end, Monash made that decision for me, shutting itself down for the entire day. I was not so sure about that. There’s a strong part of me that wanted to see for myself what the whole day would have been like, right at the very heart of the event itself. There are moments when you feel like history is taking place right in front of your eyes, and this was one of them. The 22nd of this July promised to be one to remember, one way or another.

It came and went without much untoward incident. The most dramatic moments were political in nature. Prabowo Subianto, unable to truly accept the results by the election commission even as the final votes and results were being retallied, declared the entire process null and void, and abruptly withdrew from the race itself. Much debate is taking place as to whether that is even legally possible, and there is talk from his camp in taking the case to the land’s highest courts. However, more of the saner heads in the country have already accepted the results as they were, and the feeling is that sooner or later his political bravado will be reveal itself to be the bluff it is.

More to the point, though, the whole day went by fairly peacefully. I kept as up to date as possible with events throughout the country, and what I detected was not fear or apprehension. There was much of that beforehand, but on the day itself (and allied, it must be said, by strong encouragement from both candidates for everyone to remain clam), there was little of the evidence that people would go crazy and burn down the whole place again. I don't know whether it was true for the whole of the country, but for me, it was surreal, primarily because as I was primed for the worst, the sun shone brightly through the clouds, admonishing much of the negative elements to the sidelines.

At least for now.

This, then, is a strong lesson in how history takes place under very specific circumstances and situations, surrounded by certain contexts that drive them. They are useful lessons to take on board and to consider, but to simply assume that it would repeat itself is to demean mankind and its ability to learn.

This may be sickly sweet, but my primary response is to believe in the good of people. Indonesia is a country that is on the verge of breaking out. Socially, economically and now politically, a lot of the elements are in place for it to push on to the next level. I believe that more faith in the better side of the country and its people is to be considered.

Once again, this may come across as naive, but it is a hopeful position I am quite happy to take up.

Congratulations, Indonesia.

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