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‘Biggest invisible thing on earth?’ – It’s called Indonesia, and it’s waking up

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The world can’t afford to ignore this diverse archipelago any longer – its eager and savvy democracy, big workforce and brightening outlook demand attention

Looking for fun on a rainy afternoon? Try this: take a blow-up globe down to your nearest public space – a shopping mall, perhaps, or a train station – and ask people to find Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation.

I’ve tried it in London, New York and Rio. The response: “Uuuuuuuhh …”

Much stroking of chins and scratching of heads. “Somewhere around here, maybe,” accompanied by vague hand gestures towards Indochina or south Asia.

If you’re in Melbourne or Sydney you may have more luck. But even there, interest in Indonesia per se is muted. In the words of an editor at Penguin Australia: “Despite [Indonesia] being a profoundly important near neighbour of ours, I feel our market would need an Australian angle on the country.”

Despite being a country of superlatives – most populous Muslim-majority nation, biggest exporter of numerous commodities dug or grown out of its generous earth, one of the world’s most enthusiastic users of Twitter and Facebook – Indonesia also remains, in the words of Indonesian businessman John Riady, the biggest invisible thing on the planet.

This is despite the cheerleading of brokers and business consultants who point to Indonesia’s young population, its rapid urbanisation and its huge market of enthusiastic consumers as reasons for foreign investors to pay it more attention.

I’ve been hearing those same arguments since I first covered Indonesia for Reuters and the Economist in the late 1980s. Over the intervening three decades, per-capita income in Indonesia did indeed rise steeply to $3,300, over five times its level when I first lived there.

Which is great, but not as great as Thailand or Vietnam (between seven and eight times higher), let alone China (where per capita income is now close to $8,000 a year, 26 times its 1985 value).

For a country that has such extraordinary natural resources, and such an abundance of labour, Indonesia is arguably underperforming economically. This is in part because the scatter of its 7,000 inhabited islands creates extraordinary infrastructure challenges, in part because a torpid bureaucracy squashes innovation, and in (large) part because Indonesia’s miasmic legal system means no contract is secure.

The much vaunted “demographic dividend” will not deliver the pot of gold at the end of the Indonesian rainbow until all three of these things change. Now, for the first time since a brave but ill-prepared Indonesia declared its independence from Dutch colonists in 1945, at least two of these changes are under way. That’s no small achievement in a nation as kaleidoscopic as Indonesia, where there are almost as many ethnicities, languages and belief systems as there are islands. The improvements in both infrastructure and governance are especially worthy of global attention because they are being propelled by the twin engines of democracy and decentralisation, both relatively new to Indonesians.

Having lived through 45 years of virtual dictatorship, Indonesians are now rowdily democratic, directly electing everyone from their village head up to the president. Some politicians still hand out cash for ballots, but Indonesian citizens even in the remotest villages have a remarkably acute understanding of the twists and turns of politics.

“They think we’re idiots, that they can buy our votes,” commented a fisherman in North Sulawesi last month of the politicians who are already campaigning ahead of next year’s district elections. “Of course we take the cash, we’ll take it from all of them, but we vote with our heads.” Political elites who expect bribery or blind populism to trump all else in Indonesia are often left flummoxed, and, increasingly, out of power.

Indonesia’s democratic rebirth came with what some see as a second wave of decolonisation. For the first five and a half decades of its existence, the nation was firmly ruled from the capital Jakarta, largely for the benefit of the 60% of Indonesians who are squashed in to the single island of Java.

The resentment this caused contributed to the 1998 downfall of the country’s second leader, Suharto, after 32 years in power. There followed a “big bang” decentralisation that turned Indonesia’s many geographic, cultural and ethnic fiefdoms from vassals of the central government in Jakarta into quasi-autonomous democracies.

Among the many votes Indonesians now cast, the one that affects their lives most directly is that for district head or mayor. Voters laughingly refer to these local potentates as “little Sultans” because they are so powerful. They make most of the important decisions about education, healthcare and local infrastructure; they dole out jobs and contracts, regulate entertainment, and negotiate the transport routes that are all-important in an island nation.

Though Indonesia’s current president, Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, has made much of his support for infrastructure development, it is driven less by a well-planned push from Jakarta than by active demand from politicians directly elected in district and provincial governments. Though progress is slow, those demands are gradually overcoming the hurdles raised by the country’s geography.

Decentralisation has had an effect on innovation-squashing bureaucracy also, though not all of it good. In many areas, district governments have simply pasted cumbersome new layers on to an already dysfunctional administrative system.

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But in a few districts, adventurous politicians have experimented with radical reforms: they require civil servants to show up on time, to treat citizens with respect, to do their jobs without being bribed. These individuals have become local heroes and media darlings: their popularity has in many cases provided a springboard to higher office, including the presidency. Jokowi rose from small-town mayor to governor of Jakarta and on to the presidency on the strength of his no-nonsense approach to local government.

However, neither decentralised democracy nor Jokowi himself have managed an assault on the third major hurdle to Indonesia’s self-actualisation: the legal quagmire referred to by his predecessor as the “judicial mafia”.

The judiciary, still bruised after the 2013 conviction on corruption charges of the highest judge in the land, will be in the global spotlight again as it considers a blasphemy investigation opened against the Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok).

If he is charged, a transparent trial and a fair verdict would signal the beginning of improvements in the legal landscape. That, more than anything, would make Indonesia a country to watch in eager anticipation of a destiny of global greatness soon to be fulfilled.

Elizabeth Pisani is author of Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation

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