Governing in Indonesia
Ziad Salim ; A retired international civil servant
JAKARTA POST, 14 Maret 2014
Ask any layman about anything that is not working (or working), the immediate answer or explanation will almost invariably begin with the word “pemerintah” (government) as in “pemerintah did this” or “pemerintah did not do that”. The word sounds as natural as any other word connoting an authoritative aura like a father or God. That person may be working for the government and many of its agencies, and yes, its businesses.
There are 141 government-owned and government-run businesses (BUMN) in the country, which have a combined income (Rp 128 trillion or US$10.66 billion in 2012) that accounts for 13 percent of the national income.
Government assets dot the country and their employees are visible everywhere. Their number of more than 4.7 million (2012) is almost 2 percent of the total population, much larger if you include regional employees and military personnel. If you put all of them in one province, they would fit in West Nusa Tenggara with a population size more or less the same as Singapore. Their salaries alone (totaling Rp 180 trillion) swallows almost 20 percent of the national budget and could be the gross domestic product (GDP) of a small country.
In fact, the Indonesian economy itself owes more than 10 percent of its GDP to government expenditures.
While the dominance of government is universal, the extent of government domination in Indonesia is unrivaled by other countries short of those with totalitarian governments. Why? One must look into the history of how this country began and the roles of public figures (lawyers, teachers, intellectuals and of course civil servants) in nationalistic struggles. Indonesia’s independence was secured with the blood, sweat and tears of its military personnel.
Hundreds of years of colonialism may also have set the stage for an excessive reliance on authority, especially as Dutch dominance was superimposed on local monarchies and sultanates. So, the attachment to and acceptance of the huge role of the government in our everyday lives is not surprising.
Conceptually, only in a totalitarian system is the word or concept of government as a dominant and domineering entity considered legitimate even if not fully acceptable. In a democracy, however, the government is only a “service provider” (to use computer jargon): Its service is called “public service” and its employees are “public servants”.
And this goes all the way up to the highest level: Hence a president or prime minister of any functioning democracy is called a public servant too, not immune to public criticism. Even their terms of office are limited, constitutionally or electorally. In terms of size, democracy is synonymous with small government, with limited power (as power is in the hands of the people), so, even if the government is “shut down” (like in the US a few months ago), democracy functions and the people go on their merry ways.
But Indonesia is unique: A democracy but with a huge pemerintah, from the root word “perintah” or order or command, so a pemerintah is someone who gives orders or commands. A holder of any bureaucratic position is either a “bapak” or an “ibu” and again, you do not disrespect or disobey your father and mother.
In fact, the president is not regarded (or accepted) by anybody (including by the incumbent) as a servant of the people either: he is “Bapak Negara” (or father of the nation) or a “Lambang Negara” (symbol of the country). Coupled with the trappings of power (uniforms, badges, big offices, big cars, big desks), no wonder the word “pemerintah” in Indonesia spells absolute awe in the people.
In other (functioning) democracies, there is no such mix-up and the word government means just that, to govern or to regulate. Even the word “ruler” (which has a certain connotation of authoritarianism to it) still means to rule according to the rules. In other cultures similar to that of Indonesia (e.g. Malaysia and Brunei), because they are monarchies, their governments are called “kerajaan”, a misnomer in the Malaysian case, because it is a constitutional monarchy, where the one that rules or runs the country is not the “raja” or the king but the prime minister.
In Arab countries, the word for government is, ironically, an enlightened one, i.e. “hukumah”, which comes from the root word “hukum” or law (ironically, of course, because it is in these countries, even after the Arab Spring that the rule of law is often neither the rule nor the law).
In Indonesia too, the government is sometimes called “penegak hukum”, but its governments (now and in the past) have often been busier “menghukum” (to punish) than “menegakkan hukum” (uphold the law). In fact, in Indonesia, whatever the government does is often regarded (even by people with impeccable democratic credentials) as lawful too.
It almost seems that the government can do no wrong even if it can do no right. (So when the Corruption Eradication Commission [KPK] seizes a suspect’s property or wiretaps people without proper warrants, people accept them with equanimity: “hukum” is whatever the “penegak hukum” does, in a kind of convoluted tautology).
The policy of the government is also called “kebijaksanaan pemerintah” or “kebijakan pemerintah”, both of which mean “the wisdom of”, which implies the government is always “wise” in all its policies. Government “actions” are called “tindakan”, which implies “decisiveness”, and its “decision” is called “keputusan”, which implies “finality” as the root word is “putus” or “cut off”.
Further, the people are expected to be “taat” (obedient), “tunduk” (bowing or supplicating to) and “hormat” (respect or salute) all government orders, implying that obeying them is patriotic and a form of filial piety. Being a Muslim-majority country, this is not hard to do because they are consistent with not just Islamic values but also with most cultural traits.
So, it is about time the government and its millions of agents begin to change their convoluted mind-set with regard to the concept of governing and the government: begin to “mengatur” (regulate) and stop giving orders or ordering its people around; stop “menghukum” indiscriminately and start “menegakkan hukum” fairly and justly; start enabling them and unlocking the energies of its people and stop blocking their ways with millions of tiny “perintah”; and last but not least, start serving their people rather than being served by the people or Indonesia will continue to be a country run by the government, of the government and for the government. ●