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DAUNTING CHALLENGES: Indonesia has two decades 'to get things right'
THIS week saw the first public address by Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, who leads the Gerindra Party of Indonesia, before an audience of ambassadors, scholars and media experts in Singapore. With almost two years to go before Indonesia's presidential election of 2014, Prabowo has already begun his campaign beyond the shores of Indonesia, and what he said to the international community was worth noting.
Asean ought to keep a close eye on what happens to Indonesia in the coming two years, which will see the end of the second term of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, which in itself has been a landmark in many ways. Susilo had governed Indonesia for two consecutive terms, which marks the longest period of relative political stability that Indonesia has seen since the fall of President Suharto in May 1998. In the turbulent period between 1998 and 2004, Indonesia experienced a series of weak governments which in turn presided over a fragmented country torn apart by sectarian religious and ethnic conflict.
Yet as he addressed the international audience on Wednesday, Prabowo noted that Indonesia has a short time window of two decades "to get things right" and to get the country up and running again. The problems and difficulties that stand before Indonesia are real and great indeed. The presidential candidate noted that in 12 years' time the country's oil reserves will be depleted, and in 34 years so will Indonesia's gas reserves finally run out. Indonesia's population of 241 million souls continues to grow while the country's capacity to produce enough food to feed itself remains slowly behind.
Sixty per cent of Indonesia's monetary wealth circulates in Jakarta alone, while another 30 per cent in other big cities, leaving only 10 per cent of the nation's wealth in the countryside. But at the same time 60 per cent of Indonesia's population is rural, and for millions of poor Indonesians more than half of their income is spent on the most basic need of all: feeding themselves.
Faced with these daunting challenges, Prabowo noted that Indonesia has to remain nationalist in its outlook, and to put its own national interests first. He noted that nationalism has been the engine of growth in countries like China, where the need to secure national success has overridden sectarian divisions in society.
Here then lies the clue to how and why we need to understand Indonesia better. Of late, Indonesia's relations with some other Asean countries has been strained by the expression of nationalism that has contributed to popular and populist campaigns against Malaysia, for instance. Yet as I have argued time and again in the pages of this paper, we Malaysians also need to understand that the other side of this coin is the fact that Indonesian nationalism may be one of the few things that can glue the country together, and give it some sense of purpose and cohesion - which is vital not only to the security and stability of Indonesia, but to its neighbours as well. An unstable Indonesia will pose all manner of difficulties for the rest of Asean in the form of other problems, from refugees to illegal immigrants crossing into other territories next door.
Ranked now as the 16th largest economy in the world with a growth rate estimated at 6 per cent, Indonesia is a vital component to Asean and if Indonesia succeeds in its development plans then it will be a boon to the rest of the region as well. In the lead up to the election of 2014 however, we ought to expect periods of turbulence time and again as nationalist forces up the ante and all sorts of demands are made in Indonesia's domestic political arena. With this reality looming over the horizon, countries like Malaysia need to engage more with our Indonesian neighbours and seeks ways and means by which the interests of all parties can be served best. Indonesia needs foreign investment to succeed, Malaysia needs an external market to invest in. As these ties of economic mutual dependency develop, so will the bonds between the countries of Asean grow and strengthen.
For now, it is important to note that for all intents and purposes the next Indonesian presidential race has already begun, and Prabowo was first off the mark. One only hopes that in the months ahead more attention will be given to the country which happens to be one of the closest and most important neighbours that Malaysia has, and that more attention will be given to what the future presidential candidates of Indonesia have to say, about themselves, their country and their vision of Asean's future.