25 years after the fall of Soeharto, Indonesia is much better off

The writer says that despite all the imperfections of Indonesia, the nation can still proclaim proudly that it is on the right track toward a resilient and prosperous nation.

Kornelius Purba

Kornelius Purba

The Jakarta Post


University students protest against the revision of the Criminal Code (KUHP) in front of the House of Representatives' compound, on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. (JP/Donny Fernando)

May 22, 2023

JAKARTA – Today, 25 years after Soeharto stepped down on May 21, 1998, following nationwide protests and riots and against the backdrop of devastating economic and political crises, our nation is much better off than we were in the past. Therefore, it looks unlikely for the people to let the corrupt and authoritarian regime return.

Despite all the imperfections of Indonesia today and the fact that many bad practices characterizing Soeharto’s rule remain, we can proclaim proudly that we are on the right track toward a resilient and prosperous nation.

Between 1999 and 2002, we amended the 1945 Constitution four times to ensure democracy prevails and people have the right to directly elect their leaders at national, provincial, city and regency levels. The amended Constitution limits the presidential term to two times and separates the police from the military, with the former in charge of security and order and the latter in national defense.

From time to time, memes of a smiling former president Soeharto with the caption Piye kabare, enak zamanku toh? (How are you, my era was better, right?) circulates on social media or pops up on side streets, especially prior to general elections. Such a phenomenon indicates that there are people who romanticize, if not glorify, “the good old days.”

For me, the sentiment of people who miss Soeharto is just like my longing for my father who died in 1991. I always want him to be alive again. But when it happens and my awakened father approaches me, I will run away and scream, “Help, a zombie is threatening me!”

Many have also heard the joke of a conversation between a young man and an old villager about Soeharto. The young, energetic man asks the villager if he would choose to live under the era of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo or Soeharto’s.

“Definitely, it was better under Soeharto,” the old man answered. When asked why, he responded, “Because during Soeharto’s era my wife was still young.”

People close to Soeharto, including his children, will understandably defend him. Months ago his second daughter, Siti Hediati “Titiek” Hariyadi, said corruption was much more rampant under President Jokowi than during her father’s 32-year-iron-fist rule. She forgot that among the people’s rallying cries to demand her father’s resignation was the greedy attitude of the former first family and their cronies.

But the criticism of the former wife of Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, is in fact shared by many.

I am not a defender or spokesman of President Jokowi. I have no intellectual capacity to fend off Titiek’s argument from an economic point of view. I only follow common sense.

Under Soeharto, alleged perpetrators of economic crimes, a monopolistic economy and massive corruption were mostly Soeharto’s family and cronies. That is my first argument.

Now we experience the “democratization” of corruption and abuse of power, meaning everybody stands an equally great chance of committing corruption and abusing power. That is my concluding response.

A year after Soeharto’s fall from grace, Indonesia held its first democratic election on June 7, 1999. Political parties mushroomed as a reflection of political freedom. As many as 48 parties were eligible to contest, with only 19 winning legislative seats. The Golkar Party, Soeharto’s political vehicle, finished second behind the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

Starting 2004, Indonesia directly elects the president and vice president, while direct election for governors, regents and mayors began one year later.

From one election to another, vote-rigging, vote-buying and black campaigns were reportedly rampant, which is probably true. In a young democracy like Indonesia, such violations are difficult to eradicate. But as our democracy grows mature, we can expect fair and fraud-free elections.

Democracy in the country is still a work in progress. According to a senior journalist, the increasing polarization of society, the rise of identity politics, the return of corruption on a massive scale and the erosion of some of our freedoms today pose a daunting challenge to our democracy.

But it was also because of our aspirations for democracy that we amended the Constitution to order the military to return to the barracks. The military no longer served as a tool to oppress the people or even kill those who dared to criticize the government.

In 2004, Indonesian Military (TNI) Law No. 34/2004 was enacted as the legal basis for the military’s function as defender of the nation from external threats. TNI officers could serve in 10 ministries and government institutions that were related to military affairs, unlike in the past when the military held many civilian posts as Soeharto wished.

The TNI’s proposal to revise the 2004 law has sparked a public debate as it seeks to extend the list of civilian posts that can go to TNI officers and to have autonomy in managing its budget.

You can say that I oversimplify the situation, but the fact shows that Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy after India and the United States, with all its imperfections. Critics may argue that Indonesian democracy does not follow universal, or perhaps Western, standards, but people are free to criticize the government.

Indonesia has also proved democracy and Islam, the religion of the majority population in the country, are compatible and complementary. Indonesia is definitely the only predominantly Muslim nation whose Constitution guarantees the right to elect their leaders directly.

Do not forget that Indonesia is also a member of the prestigious Group of 20 and last year hosted its summit in Bali, which means the country’s economy is growing and, hopefully, will continue to show its strength in managing shocks that in 1997 and 1998 plunged the nation into a calamitous crisis.

The offspring of Soeharto may try to come back in politics, but barely receive support from the people. In 2009, one year after the death of his father, Hutomo “Tommy” Mandala Putra, the youngest son of Soeharto, tried to win the chief post in Golkar, but to no avail. He then established the Berkarya Party to contest the 2019 election, but was unable to meet the parliamentary threshold of 4 percent. The party also failed to qualify for the 2024 election.

I am assured that Indonesia has improved a lot after the collapse of Soeharto’s government in 1998. Some people may have longed for his return, which is permissible thanks to democracy, but we should not worry about it as it is just romantic nostalgia.


The writer is senior editor at The Jakarta Post

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