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Looking forward to true democracy

Still dizzy with hope for the democratisation of Indonesia, I wrote this when I was concerned about the possibility of the experiment failing. I’d probably be even more cynical today.

In 2009, as the presidential elections approach, Indonesia is confronted with choice among presidential/vicepresidential tickets. Each of the three offers a retired New Order eneral who wielded military power during the reign of Soeharto. Quite a choice.

It is reminiscent of Henry Ford who offered a choice of Model Ts. You could get one in any colour you wanted as long as it was black.

Published in The Jakarta Post (

Democratic government provides people with freedom of choice

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta Mon, 05/10/2004 7:12 AM Opinion
Patrick Guntensperger

When people are tired of instability and uncertainty in government, there is a natural tendency to look towards figures of authority for solutions. For people without a long tradition of liberty, there is a wholly predictable periodic inclination to look back affectionately on times that, through the filter of the passage of time, seem to have been safer and more secure. During the inevitable periods of volatility that follow the democratization of a country, stability and security are conditions that assume a new importance in people’s minds.

That period of nostalgic affection for security is a dangerous moment in a country’s growth curve. If it is allowed to dominate, it can throw a fledgling democracy back to a condition that is even more repressive than the one recently escaped from. In Indonesia, we must be aware of an inclination to revert to a period devoid of freedom, but blessedly unburdened by responsibility. For that is the nature of the ambivalence we have: Authoritarianism on the one hand and freedom on the other.

Democracy, or any other system that promotes freedom of the people, is not a gift that comes without strings attached. No system is perfect, and very few are perfectly evil. There are some benefits even to a totalitarian system. As has been noted about the Fascist governments of Europe in the mid 20th century, at least they had the trains running on time. Under a completely authoritarian system, there may be very little street crime, pollution can be legislated to manageable levels, government services might be provided reliably and education may be broadly available.

Nonetheless, history has shown that people will not accept government control over every aspect of their lives indefinitely. Sooner or later, human beings will object to the level of control over their lives that is an inseparable part of totalitarianism. People will rise up violently and demand their autonomy if it cannot be achieved through peaceful means.

Once achieved though, the people cannot simply sit back, enjoy their newfound freedom and expect that every detail of their lives will be taken care of. If the authorities were enforcing the train schedule, those authorities cannot be eliminated; they must be replaced if the trains are to run on time. With freedom comes responsibility. Democracy demands, by its very nature, participation.

A country that has escaped totalitarianism and then quickly reinstates it because running the country was much harder than anticipated is demonstrating immaturity as a nation and as a people. While it is proper and admirable that people should rebel against too much authority, to do so and then whine that nobody is taking care of them is like a teenager who wants no part of his parents but still wants to eat and sleep at home, use the family car, and get a generous allowance.

Having acquired freedom entails having acquired power. Being free means that a wide selection of alternatives exists where before, the will of the government was paramount. A sovereign and independent nation has the power to decide on a course of action. And as Peter Parker’s wise Uncle Ben pointed out, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

That responsibility means that a mature nation needs to stop depending upon the military to impose order on their day-to-day life. That responsibility means that it is time to recognize that we are grown up and stop expecting bapak to take care of everything for us.

While democracy thrives under strong and caring leadership, to place our futures, our destinies, and our lives in the hands of a figure of authority is to abdicate our responsibility as human beings. There is no question that facing up to the adult responsibilities of the real world takes courage. That’s part of being grown up. It also takes a lot of other human qualities that come with maturity. To be a sovereign people as opposed to an oppressed populace requires perseverance, tolerance of differing viewpoints, compassion and willingness to compromise.

But one of the hardest traits to develop is the habit of putting the needs and best interests of the one’s fellow citizens ahead of one’s own narrow self-interest. And that means taking an active part in the processes of government. That means not just waiting for an authority figure to take care of business for us.

Now that we are a free people, it is time to accept our roles as participants in, not victims of, government. If we want the trains to run on time, it’s up to us to create and manage an infrastructure and civil service capable of delivering what we want; we mustn’t simply whine that things were so much better when that was all done for us.

We must, at all costs, avoid the temptation to place old-school figures of authority in positions that would permit authoritarianism to creep back in. That temptation will come, not because we see them as better leaders, but because we are too apathetic or lacking in self-confidence to take on the responsibility of running our own lives.


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