Weda Bay is not a place you’ve ever heard of, so don’t pretend.
It was not a place I’d ever heard of until a couple of months ago, either, and I’ve been trailing around the outer reaches of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands on and off for over 20 years. I tripped into Weda at the start of this year, attracted by tales of phenomenal economic growth, galloping corruption and lots of parties. In the seven years since I last lived in Indonesia full time, the country has gone through a frenzy of democratization.
Traveling around this enormous nation, you see the clash between this new world and the old traditions, such as eating the eggs of now-endangered turtles. Indonesia’s economy is booming, partly thanks to its abundant resources. And as the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, it could prove a model for others, if democracy can tame the more radical strains of Islam here. But government is splintering into local fragments, in a way that makes future success hard to take for granted.
This summer has seen a bit of hand-wringing because growth in the first quarter of 2012 slowed to 6.3 percent — but the country is still growing nearly eight times faster than Britain. So what is the Indonesian government doing right? Actually, very little. But Indonesia continues to thrive, despite its leaders; the question is whether it can keep it up.
Weda Bay is in Halmahera, an octopus of an island that sprawls from just east of Malaysia to just north of Australia. When I was last in Halmahera in 1989, there were no proper roads, no public transport and no electricity.
Now, as I arrive at the dock that forms Halmahera’s main port, I’m faced with dozens of new SUVs — they speed passengers across the island on smooth blacktop roads while on their plasma screens pop singers gyrate.
This new wealth is the upside of two things: a commodities boom and the decentralization of political control. The downside is a new feudalism, a culture of personal patronage that is fertile soil for both corruption and conflict.
Corruption and conflict tend to undermine wealth. If they are to prevent that, the leaders of this nation must reshape a coherent Indonesian identity out of the country’s increasingly disparate fragments.
Indonesia is essentially a make-believe nation. It was brought into notional existence in 1945 with a declaration of independence of unsurpassed vagueness. It reads, in its totality:
“We the people of Indonesia hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters which concern the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and in the shortest possible time.”
There’s a lot wrapped up in that “etc.” — not least some consensus about what constitutes “Indonesia.” Sukarno, the demagogue who blurted out that declaration of independence after the defeat of Japan in World War II and became the new country’s first president, took it to mean the remains of the former Dutch colony, the Dutch East Indies. But that colony itself was a shape-shifting beast without cultural, linguistic or geographical coherence.
Resisting attempts to nudge the country toward federalism, Sukarno — and later his successor Suharto (who assumed office in 1968) — turned Indonesia into a republic whose quest seemed to be the fattening of purses in the capital Jakarta. Foreign companies were licensed to suck oil and minerals out of the resource-rich extremes of the country. The limbs got some roads and a hospital or two. But most of the cash flowed in to the Javanese heartland that takes up 7 percent of Indonesia’s land and squashes in 62 percent of its population. For people in the less productive outer islands, places like Halmahera, independence simply meant being neglected by the Javanese rather than by the Dutch.
When Suharto was finally ushered out of power following the Asian financial crisis in 1998, Indonesia was administratively one of the most centralized states in the world. Politically, however, the regions were roiling: Suharto’s successor Vice President B.J. Habibie reacted by allowing East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that was only “integrated” into Indonesia in 1976, to hold a referendum on independence in 1999. No one but Habibie was surprised when the territory broke loose. Now Jakarta worried that if it gave other provinces more power, the rest might follow. So Habibie handed power not to the country’s 26 provinces but to its districts. At that time there were 293 of them — a trifle compared to today’s 497, but a daunting number to become the primary unit of government.
The legislation underpinning this colossal transformation was cobbled together in just a few months. It became effective in 2001. Overnight, brand new districts were supposed to be running health services but had no competent staff; provinces were supposed to be providing oversight but had no budget.
Despite a couple of laws that have tried to “clarify” roles and responsibilities, in far-flung places such as Weda the power of the elected district head, or “bupati,” is near absolute. The splitting of districts, the result of lobbying by the rich and influential, continues to create yet more thrones from which self-serving kings can reign supreme.
Weda is the throne room for Central Halmahera, a district that is home to all of 30,000 souls. A local travel website dismisses it as “a scruffy village with muddy roads.” But what I find is a little island of asphalt laid out in divided highways, with brand-new housing and 24-hour electricity.
Capping it all, up on the hill, three palatial buildings: the bupati’s office, the district Parliament and the Ministry of Public Works. Next to the bupati’s office is the state guesthouse.
The bupati is from Weda; he moved the district capital to his hometown at the beginning of his current five-year term. Now it’s re-election year, and he’s kicking it off with four days of parties. Friday is the wedding of his eldest daughter. On Saturday, his second daughter will get married.
The demarcation between what one does for the electorate, and what one does for one’s political party can seem small. On Sunday, with all the wedding guests still in town, we celebrate the “birthday” of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, to which the bupati belongs. Thousands of people in newly-acquired red T-shirts declaring “I’m a Big Fan” throng behind marching bands.
On Monday another birthday, this time the 12th anniversary of the creation of the district and the fourth anniversary of its move to Weda. Attending the event is an obligation for the local civil servants — which is most of the town’s adult population. They watch ceremonial dances and listen to speeches praising the bupati, a man who, it would seem, is much loved by all.
Until, that is, you travel to the dreary town of Lelilef a few miles away from the center of his fiefdom. Now you’re in nickel territory, the mineral that made this little local eruption of wealth possible. Long ago, just before his demise, Suharto awarded a big nickel exploration and mining contract in Central Halmahera to Weda Bay Nickel, now a French-Japanese joint venture that threw a bone of 10 percent of its shares to the Indonesian state mining company.
Then came decentralization, and with it huge uncertainty about who had the right to issue contracts for exploitation of local resources. The local government thinks it, not Jakarta, should get the royalties from the mine. A nongovernmental organization is challenging the license, saying it is at odds with environmental regulations. The local population has thrown in its two cents both for and against the mine.
“All the good jobs are going to outsiders. For us, it’s just jobs like security guards, where you have to wear a uniform and go to work every day,” says a teenager with alcohol on his breath. He tells me proudly that he torched a company speedboat last month, then zooms off on a new motorbike, bought with money his father made by selling land to Weda Bay Nickel.
Local elders, on the other hand, have tried to counter the bonfires with pro-mine demonstrations. “Those kids can’t even make it to school every day. What do they want, jobs as engineers?” says a gray-haired man who is investing his own Weda Bay windfall in a fishery business.
Democracy is inherently inimical to long-term investment. That’s especially true in Indonesia, where individual candidates change their political affiliations with every election and where there’s no longer-term political incentives to protect. Delivering long-term benefits at one remove — invest now to protect the environment so that in the future we can build up a tourism business that will put rice on your table — that’s just too hard to sell right now. Or so I found in Pulau Banyak (“Many Islands”), a small group of islands off the southwest coast of Aceh, the region that was flattened by the tsunami in 2004.
Under moonlight on an otherwise deserted beach, I watched a giant sea turtle plop her pingpong-ball eggs into a nest that she scrabbled out of the sand. With staff from a conservation NGO, we measured her and left her in peace to drag herself back down the beach.
In the daylight the next morning, we spot three men digging at the nest with hunks of wood, loading the eggs into a sack. We start down the beach toward them; I have no idea what we’re going to do when we get there. Turtle eggs are protected by international and Indonesian law. The NGO I’m with has a memorandum of understanding with the Environment Ministry in Jakarta to run this research and conservation project. The district government has signed a local ordinance forbidding the collection of all turtle eggs, in accordance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora to which Indonesia is a signatory.
This local ordinance has been in force quite successfully for six years. But there’s been a recent splitting of subdistricts, and a senior official of one subdistrict likes turtle eggs for his tea. He’s let people in “his” area know that, and now they are robbing nests with impunity. What authority do staff from an NGO headquartered in another, now enemy, subdistrict have in confronting turtle-egg thieves working with the approval of their local chieftain? They can wave a memorandum from Jakarta for all they’re worth. Jakarta is a very long way away. As it happens, the egg-snatchers flee before we reach them and the test of authority never takes place.
Oddly enough, the atomization of Indonesia functions as a job-creation scheme. Every one of the country’s 497 districts has its own parliament with at least 20 elected members. Every government department has an office in each district. The civil service nationally has swollen by over a quarter in the last five years alone: There are 4.6 million civil servants on the books.
Is the splintering of Indonesia good for business, and thus the economy, and thus, eventually, people’s welfare? Most would say no. Indonesia’s infrastructure is shockingly poor. But government in Indonesia is now divided into such small units that it’s hard to make large investments with public funds.
As Indonesia shatters administratively, it becomes less efficient, more corrupt, more prone to conflict and less likely to implement standardized regulations. But, paradoxically, it also becomes richer: The country grew 6.4 percent last year.
More localized corruption is less efficient overall, but it trickles money into more pairs of hands than the previous “center-take-all” model. Some of the country’s 237 million people are using that money to tap the country’s extraordinary natural wealth in small but productive ways: turning an unused piece of farmland into a SUV taxi service via sale to a nickel mine, for instance.
As British Prime Minister David Cameron has said, Indonesia is a country with extraordinary potential. If it realizes that potential, it is likely to be despite its government, not because of it.
- Elizabeth Pisani is a writer, journalist and epidemiologist
New York Times/Prospect magazine