The Future of Democracy in Indonesia in a Post-COVID-19 World: Interview with Dr. Ilham Habibie, Chairman of the Board, The Habibie Center

January 19, 2020

Dr. Ilham Habibie is the founder and chairman of the board for The Habibie Center, an independent think tank in Indonesia that seeks to support a democratic society through research and advocacy efforts around human rights, democratization, and innovation. Dr. Habibie spoke with SPF about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the future of democracy in Indonesia, challenges posed by social divisions in the country, as well as his vision for Indonesia and the region looking beyond the pandemic.

How has Indonesia been contending with the COVID-19 pandemic and what is the situation in the country right now?

I think Indonesia is going through a very similar if not the same process as many other countries in the world. There is a conflict between managing the health situation and the economy, and the government is always flip-flopping between what is more important. There's a lot of complaints in the country that people will they lose their jobs and lose livelihoods. Because of that, the leaders compromise on making the best for the health situation without compromising the economy. In the end, Indonesia is a democratic country, so the leaders are worried about the health situation and they're doing the best they can. At the same time, they are trying to massage the economy in a way that it doesn't lose everything. 

The situation in Indonesia right now is that because of that, the numbers of infected people per day has not been decreasing. It has been slowly going up to a level which is relatively high. I think more than 4,000-5,000 people are being infected per day in the whole country. Indonesia is a very large country not only from a population dpoint of view but also from a size point of view. There are parts of Indonesia which are very isolated. There are some cases here and there, but they're very small. The hot spots are the big cities, and the hotspot of the hotspots is where I live in Jakarta. Jakarta as a city is actually a megapolis, or a city surrounded by other cities. We have almost 30 million people living here, so you're talking about managing a country, but in the context of a big city, so it's very difficult.

Right now I think the hopes are pinning on the forthcoming vaccines that that will bring a lot of relief the situation. I'm not quite sure how fast it will be since we have so many people to inject. There's first of all an organizational problem, a logistics problem, and then a money problem. The government has set aside quite large funds. The Indonesian government has never been so much in debt as it is right now, but all of that has gone into either measures regarding overcoming the health challenges right now related to COVID or economic stimuli that help counteract the economic weakness.

As you bring up, the coronavirus has had huge impacts on Indonesia not only from the individual health and well-being of the of the residents, but also economic impacts that have brought about a recession for the first time in several decades. These large shocks also come on top of some increasing polarization that can be seen in Indonesian society and politics, with some deep divides emerging particularly in recent years. From your perspective how do you think the pandemic will impact these societal challenges in Indonesia and how can the country overcome these divisions and move past these challenges?

I think that the second question is easier, how can we overcome it? That is something where I think Indonesia is particularly strong. There is a sense of togetherness that Indonesians show to one another no matter what kind of background you're coming from. Indonesia is traditionally not a particularly discriminative society when it comes to race, religion, or gender. That's not typically Indonesian. Yes, you're right we have seen increasing activities to divide what is there in order to gain politically. We're talking about the impact of identity politics and that is something that we see in many places and has not left Indonesia out. 

Indonesia happens to be a society that is traditionally deeply religious, so religion is automatically an identity that people basically exploit in order to gain something from it. Whether it's politically or ideologically or even materialistically, this trend persists in Indonesia and has been growing in recent years. But when it comes to the very basic behavior toward something spontaneous, Indonesians tend to be very generous people to one another, trying to be not only helpful but proactive to help people's challenges no matter what their background is. 

I blame more the current global trend of identity politics and identity attitude rather than the true character of Indonesia itself. I think we have to realize the true character and nature of Indonesia and basically reinforce that rather than be swayed away by something that comes from outside and has sometimes gone particularly deeply into Indonesia’s fabric. 

Indonesia is of course a large country and it's very strategically important. There was an article that I read with great interest in Foreign Affairs talking about Indonesia as one of the decisive so-called democratic swing states in the world. We've gone through some ups and downs as well, but a country like Indonesia is very important for democracy itself, regarding how democracy can find a stronger footing in the world.

Frankly speaking, I think the face of democracy will be very different in the future. We see in Indonesia and other countries that there's always the question of divisions. There’s a divide in many societies and a sense of being left out in many societies that are democratic. The future of democracy needs to be more inclusive and needs to take care to bring everybody more to the middle with no divide, whether it's economic, education, health, or political. 

I think that we have not yet seen the future shape of democracy. Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum is planning to gear the next session toward the "great reset," which is the opportunity to rethink democracy, rethink capitalism, rethink liberalism, and rethink everything in the context of what we have seen right now, which has been exacerbated and amplified by the current situation. It's a good opportunity to go back and see what really works and what doesn't work and how we should move toward the future. That also is valid for Indonesia.

Democracy has been a central component of the cooperation between the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and The Habibie Center, including most recently a report that looked into civil liberties and democratization in Indonesia as well as other countries in ASEAN. How do you see the pandemic impacting these ongoing dialogues about civil liberties and democratization in Indonesia? What are your hopes for continuing to promote democracy in Indonesia, or what do you see as the future of democracy in Indonesia if the face of democracy is set to change?

In the end, every individual on this planet, including Indonesians, will always say "okay democracy is fine, but what's in it for me? What does it mean for me? Do I really get something out of it or not?" I think the Indonesian people feel very empowered because you see that the participation in elections is overwhelming. We have 80%, 90% participation. Nobody's forcing people to go to vote, but they like to participate. They see that their vote matters and I think that shows a certain enthusiasm for democracy in terms of empowerment.

On the other side, many people see that they're not moving ahead in their lives. They are economically, educationally, or health-wise impacted to the degree that they say "okay, this so-called democracy is really good for me because I feel that I have some power, but in the end my life doesn't really change." I think democracy needs to deliver certain things that people really feel, which starts with rules and regulation. Following that, it's important that the implementation and the application of that is efficient, transparent, fair, and just. 

The partner of a democracy is a market-based economy, right? If you have a democracy politically, then the economic system that fits with that is a market-driven or a market-based economy. If I compare Indonesia to other countries where you can see polarization in the politics, you see polarization in the economy. In politics you see that the winner takes it all and takes care of the voters that voted for him or her. But what about the others have not voted for them? Are they basically not to be supported in what they need or what they want? If you become president, you're the president for the whole country not just for the people that voted for you. It's the same in the economy. Interestingly, in many sectors of the economy, it’s also winner takes all. Basically, what is hampered here is innovation. 

I think it is the democratic institutions that need to be repaired in every country, including Indonesia, to prevent polarization to that degree. In the United States like Indonesia, I would say we have to strengthen antitrust. If there's something that's dominating too much, it cannot continue like this has to be split up in more than one company. In democracy, it's also the same thing. It shouldn't be monopolized. There needs to be a healthy competition and there needs to be a choice for people. I think that the pillars of democracy need to be upheld and they cannot be compromised. 

In Indonesia right now, we have certain cases in particular regencies, the districts that come below the province level, where you have only one candidate because there's nobody else wants to do it. People cannot afford to run as a candidate. It's the money question. If it's like this, then the market is only for the ones that raise the money or people who have enough money to be able risk it. This is not the type of democracy we should have. Democracy should be about the best that we have and they need to be supported by a system that doesn't look at their economic background in terms of whether they can afford it or whether they can raise the money. 

The other question is more difficult. You mentioned the discussion between civil liberties and democracy. In a pandemic, we have another example here that is not democracy but autocracy, which has shown us clearly that for situations like this, democracy might be actually weaker. I'm not saying it's bad, but weaker. 

As I said in the beginning, right now many governments flip-flop between doing the right thing for public health and doing the right thing for the economy. In autocratic countries, some of them they just do the right thing regarding public health from the beginning and tell everybody to stop their normal daily life. People complain, but they have no say so they basically do it and then they really become healthy and then they go and they go on with their life. 

The challenge and the ongoing discussion should be about what's actually the best system to deal with this kind of problem. This is also something like a war, a war with a virus and a war with an enemy that we cannot see. Maybe we need another system here. The virus is not something that stays in one place. It travels around the world because of globalization, so I think the world needs to come together and decide together that this is something we have to treat together and we should do it all together in the same way and overcome. 

What is your vision for the future of society in Indonesia or in ASEAN post-COVID-19?

Indonesia is the silent giant in ASEAN. About 41% of ASEAN's economic output is Indonesia alone and the other 9 countries account for the remainder of 59%. The future of Indonesia is not determining, but is impacting ASEAN's future to a very large degree. Indonesia, because it's so big, is actually more concerned about itself. It's focus is more domestic rather than international. It's now slowly but surely waking up in order to put its weight on the political balance for global challenges and global matters, but this is only something that has been happening in the recent years.

I have a vision of an Indonesia that is formed by what we have domestically, historically, and what we need in the future. The question is, how do we grow into that wihtout leaving the traditional and cultural values that we have behind. I'm talking about the communalism, about the sense of caring for other people to the degree to make sure that that nobody is left out. That is I think very typically Indonesian, and that pertains to ASEAN very much. I think that is something that I would say is very valid from for most if not all ASEAN countries.

At the same time, we cannot basically close ourselves from external impacts that will be seen in the future system in the world, like the balance between the two superpowers and some countries aligning with those. With the U.S. and China, there's something that our society will learn and the future will be basically like a mélange or a mix of that. 

One more thing, the ability to innovate is something that is crucial for all societies around the world because we never know what the future challenge is going to be. Also, when you talk in an economic context, we have now been living in an age of disruption. This disruption means that there's nothing you have already that can deal with what's there in front of you, so you have to innovate by the very nature of things. I am a true believer that this pace of disruption is going to increase and not decrease. 

We're going to see more and more innovations and some of them are very good, but I want Indonesia to be productively participating in this. This innovation should not leave anybody out. Not everybody is an innovator, but I think people should gain a better life because of the innovation that has been created. I think the future of Indonesia, because it’s is so big, is also very much determined by the ability of us to innovate and find solutions for our challenges in the future. 

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For more from the Asia Peace Initiatives Department, visit the program page.

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