Thursday, January 05, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, August 14, 2005


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

Indonesia's Six Years of Living Dangerously: From Habibie through Gus Dur to Megawati, Will Yudhoyono Succeed?J.F. ConceicaoHorizon Books, Singapore, 2005 111 pp

While foreign observers of social and political issues in Indonesia usually hail from Western countries, Indonesia's Six Years of Living Dangerously: From Habibie through Gus Dur to Megawati, Will Yudhoyono Succeed? is distinct, as it is written by a former ambassador of one of the country's closest and most important neighbors, Singapore.

Joe Conceicao served in Indonesia and witnessed the social and political upheaval throughout successive presidencies, from Habibie to Megawati, and meticulously documents his personal observations in Indonesia's Six Years of Living Dangerously.

Conceicao gives detailed stories of how events unfolded in the succinct, 26 chapters of the book. The first chapter focuses on Habibie, whom he describes as a failed president with "too much IQ ... and not enough EQ", for failing to control the powerful military.

In the ensuing chapters, the writer praises Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid for his liberalizing policy toward minority groups, while regretting his erratic style.

Megawati's uneasy relations with her vice president, Hamzah Haz, who was so preoccupied with canvassing his Islamic credentials, is also examined. And for current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Conceicao borrows the Javanese maxim menang tanpa ngasorake -- winning without celebrating -- to depict Susilo's gentle attitude towards the obviously disgruntled, outgoing Megawati.

As for terrorism, Conceicao thoroughly examines the dilemma faced by the government in tackling this issue, such as a possible backlash from its large Islamic constituent. What is more intriguing is his assessment of the allegation made by some military generals who initially threw their support behind militia groups like Laskar Jihad and Front Pembela Islam (FPI), but soon distanced themselves from such groups as terrorism steadily fell under the international spotlight. Likewise, he attempts to connect the past role of former New Order information minister Ali Moertopo in breeding similar groups to counter communism to the present military's ugly habit of supporting militias.

Conceicao seems, if at all, to have little appreciation of the democratization process and instead, seems keen to parallel the Indonesian situation to that of the former Soviet Union, which collapsed due to its rapid march toward democracy. On the one hand, the writer is no doubt correct in warning that we might have become disillusioned with democratization, and that many are now longing for the New Order's style of stability.

This reviewer, nevertheless, cannot help but note Conceicao's pragmatic anxiety regarding the propensity of instability in a democratic Indonesia and sense an expectation that the country would once again become an effective stabilizer in the region, with or without democracy. Conceicao recalls that Indonesia was relatively more prosperous with a centralized system under the command of a single military figure; and this guarded expectation seems to be placed upon Susilo's presidency.

While something thought-provoking was expected in the chapter dealing with Indonesia-Singapore relations, virtually nothing new was presented.

Conceicao discusses thorny but important issues such as the extradition treaty, sand mining and the differences in Singapore's representation trade with Indonesia. Unfortunately, no concrete solutions are proposed, nor is bilateral trade analyzed comprehensively, with only two paragraphs devoted to the subject -- the remainder focuses on antiterrorism cooperation and Singapore's economic assistance.

Overall, the book effectively sums up the complexity of Indonesian politics: The "cultural shock" of key players in behaving painfully in a new but abrupt political freedom; the disturbed national cohesion exacerbated by ethnic and religious conflicts; and certainly, the acute and pervasive corrupt mentality within the ranks of the political elite.

Conceicao's vast knowledge of players in the military, religious, political and human rights sectors -- even prominent figures of the past -- is amazing, but is still not free from error. For example, Conceicao mistakenly writes that Hamzah Haz was formerly the head of Muhammadiyah, although Hamzah actually hails from Nahdlatul Ulama. To give the author credit, he admits that the book "comes not from any expert pen or that of scholarship."

In writing Indonesia's Six Years of Living Dangerously, Conceicao appears to have benefited greatly from the new trend toward openness and the free press that were thriving during the reformasi era, some things that are still a rare luxury in most ASEAN countries.

While the book consists of stories that are not so new for many informed members of select circles, it still speaks volumes of the importance of relations between the tiny yet prosperous Singapore and its giant but troubled and impoverished neighbor.

Indonesia's Six Years of Living Dangerously, in its perceptiveness, somehow reflects hope and expectation through the Singaporean lens for the path of change that Indonesia has chosen.

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