Wednesday, March 14, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, March 14, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

Almost a decade after reform began to take place in Indonesia, the country's political leaders still struggle to live out their new-found democratic ideals.

"Political parties are an important element in democracy, but they have failed to conduct a proper recruitment process. Just show me capable people in political parties. Many of them are good in mobilizing masses because they have money. Very few of them have expertise and technocratic capacities," executive director of the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) Saiful Mujani told The Jakarta Post recently.

"And you can see that current capable ministers like Sri Mulyani, Boediono and Mar'ie Pangestu are not from political parties, they are intellectuals from universities," he added.

The recent emergence of a television personality as a candidate for the upcoming Jakarta governor's election is another indication of the failure of political parties, Saiful said.

"Even in the U.S., movie stars becoming politicians is very case-based. But in the first direct governor's election in an important capital, Jakarta? Come on... what have they (the political parties) been doing?"

Opposition parties such as the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle have also failed to take clear stances on important issues, he said.

"They criticize the President, (saying) that he is merely working to `spread his charm', but what is the point of saying that? `Spreading charm' is part of politics," Saiful said.

"They criticize the government over his rice import policy, but they provide no alternative. I even don't know which political parties support or are against the rice import policy."

According to Saiful, whose organization has successfully predicted past election results in the country, including the 2004 presidential election, intellectuals should join political parties, so that when a new cabinet is formed they are ready to be ministerial candidates.

"Political parties should offer incentives to intellectuals... promise them that they will be designated to become ministers if the party wins the election," said Saiful, who is also an associate professor in political studies at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University.

Born on Aug. 8, 1962, in Serang, Banten, Saiful grew up in a family with strong Islamic values and with political inclinations toward Masyumi and Persatuan Islam.

His father, KH Syamsudin, was a religion teacher and member in the management of the second-biggest Islamic boarding school in the province, Mathlaul Anwar.

Saiful spent his elementary education in the boarding school. However, he was sent to Jakarta to study at a state senior high school because his parents wanted him to widen his horizons and knowledge.

Saiful said he suffered from culture shock living in Jakarta.

"Growing up in a community with a belief that its religion holds the absolute truth, I failed to tolerate the religious differences that I confronted in Jakarta," recalled Saiful.

"I had strong determination to convince others that my Islamic path was correct and others were wrong," he recalled.

So he read various books on comparative religion by scholars such as Sidi Ghazalba, Hasbullah Bakri, H.M. Rasjidi, and M. Natsir. He even had a Christian girlfriend during high school, whom he tried to convince to convert to Islam, but he failed, "so we broke up." Later he enrolled at IAIN Syarif Hidayatullah because he wanted to learn more from its faculties.

"It was the university that changed me from a fundamentalist to a pluralist, as many scholars there promoted tolerance in religious diversity, including Harun Nasution and my seniors, Nurcholis Madjid, Komarudin Hidayat and Azyumardi Azra," said Saiful, who was also involved in the Indonesian Muslim Association during his student days at the university.

After completing his undergraduate degree in Islamic studies, Saiful worked for scholar Dawam Rahardjo's Institute of Religious and Philosophical Study, where he became interested in political and social philosophy.

At the institution, he was involved in the publication of the then famous journal Ulumul Qur'an.

When his senior Azumardi Azra returned from the U.S. after completing his PhD, Azumardi and others including Saiful established the Center for the Study of Islam and Society in 1994 and started the publication of its internationally acclaimed journal, Studia Islamika.

Saiful received a Fulbright scholarship to earn a master's degree in political science at Ohio State University, after receiving a recommendation from noted Indonesianist William Liddle of the university.

He continued his PhD with the support of the university, and finished in 2003. His dissertation Religious Democrats: Democratic Culture and Muslim Political Participation in Post-Suharto Indonesia, which was based on two national surveys he and PPIM conducted in Indonesia, was regarded as the best dissertation in political science at the university that year.

After returning to Indonesia, Saiful and his colleagues Rizal Mallarangeng, Denny J.A. and others helped establish a research institution, the Indonesian Survey Institute, in August 2003.

Denny J.A. became its executive director and Saiful the academic director. Saiful was responsible for the quality and methodology of the survey.

Saiful said that Indonesian democracy would function more effectively if it was responsive to the perceptions, expectations and evaluations of the public.

Regular public opinion monitoring that serves as an input to political process and policy making is vital in a democratic system, he said.

"And surveys are the most systematic and efficient way of measure public opinion," Saiful said. He said the Gallup, Harris, Roper and Corsley polls were survey institutions that were helpful to the development of democracy in the U.S.

LSI made its debut during the first direct presidential election, with its Election Channel program being aired on television. Its surveys were the main topic of the show for a full year.

Saiful was also involved in the famous Quick Count program, which was conducted in cooperation with LP3ES, the Freedom Institute and Metro TV.

However, due to disagreements over how to implement the principles of LSI's independence and survey methodology, Denny resigned in 2005 and Saiful became LSI's executive director.
Denny established a similar institution called Lingkaran Survei Indonesia.

Saiful believes that the independence of LSI is imperative to upholding and maintaining the institution's credibility.

He added than another aspect that could help strengthen democracy was pluralism. The low acceptance of diversity within society would result in a horizontal conflict, and the energy of the state might be exhaustively absorbed in tackling the problem.

"A test of pluralism is how tolerant we are toward minority groups, particularly in the religious sphere," said Saiful, who is married to Baiquniah, and has three children.

Interfaith dialog has shown an improvement, but not dialog "within communities with the same religion," he said.

He cited as an example of the case of Ahmadiyah, whose members have been condemned by other Muslims.

"But the state was in a dilemma because it could not afford to the lose support of the majority. So we need strong and decisive leadership to tackle this sort of problem, as based on our constitution we have the right to practice what we believe. Otherwise anarchism will triumph," Saiful said.

He said religious and community leaders should educate their followers about the importance of tolerance in multi-ethnic and multi-religious Indonesia.

He also said that civil groups were important to help a maintain healthy democracy. "Strong societal organizations can function to absorb and articulate people's aspirations to be conveyed to the policy makers," he said.

"The more we have society-based organizations, the healthier it will be for our democracy."

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