Like onion and garlic
Will be sold someday
– Parmananda Shrivastava in Aag
Malaysia has recently been spending a small fortune on multimedia campaigns to project itself as ‘Truly Asia’, but such a distinction belongs most naturally to Indonesia. People from all over the continent feel instantly at home in the mixed culture that has evolved in this country over the past several centuries. For Muslims from Bahrain or Bangladesh, Indonesia is a fascinating land. It has more Muslims than anywhere in the world, but is not an Islamic state. Most professionals respond to azaan, the ritual call to Muslim prayer, with a brief pause, and then get on with the business at hand. Some working women wear headscarves, but burqas attract curious glances. But despite marked differences, Indonesia is a country where Muslims from Arabia and Southasia can find a mosque whenever it is time to pray, and halal food is easily available on any street corner.
The classical period of Indonesian history, between the fifth and 15th century, was Hindu and Buddhist. Bali and Borobudur survive today to tell the tale of the day when sailboats were faster than bullock carts, and thus the Indonesian islands across the bay (which came to be named after Bengal) were closer to Madras than were the great cities of the Indo-Gangetic plains. Hindus from Southasia are instantly charmed by the visible influence of Sanskrit, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata on seemingly every aspect of mainstream Indonesian bhasa (language) and artha (economy).
Indeed, the major religion of Indonesia traces its origin to West Asia; its classical culture is rooted in the legends of Southasia; and its people are quintessentially tropical, albeit with Pacific predilection. Yet at the same time, there is something perceptibly Confucian in the mannerisms of the common Indonesian. Austerity, obeisance, obsequiousness and industry – which supposedly define the ‘Asian Way’, as theorised by Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore – are the values to which the Indonesian bourgeoisie also aspires. Since Indonesia has always been the nucleus of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), its affinity with the people of the region is affirmed through multiple engagements.
As such, there could have been no better place than Jakarta to hold the recent UN-sponsored Asian Forum on Governance and Democracy. Indonesia could do with a bit more of both, despite decades of experiments in ‘guided democracy’. The tenth anniversary of the Asian financial crisis, which ended the gilded age of crony capitalism patronised by General Suharto, was also an appropriate time for government officials from all over the continent to gather in Jakarta and share notes with their Indonesian counterparts. Unfortunately, though, the inherent limitations of UN meets make frank and fruitful discussions impossible.
Style over substance
Stifling formalism seems to be the defining feature of most UN events. It appeared as if the temperature in the climate-controlled hall of the five-star Jakarta hotel was being deliberately kept low, perhaps to discourage participants from loosening their ties or taking off their jackets. When the Indonesian auditor-general found that he was the only person in a comfortable batik shirt in a roomful of self-important dark suits, he quickly decided to begin his address by justifying his dress.
Since the UN is an organisation of states, grandstanding by country representatives is a serious drawback of any consultation. With fellow delegates from the home country paying close attention to every word, speakers inherently spend an inordinate amount of time extolling the supposed virtues of their rulers. A lackey of Pervez Musharraf lost his job in a cabinet reshuffle, even as he was valiantly trying to defend the constitutionality of his boss’s self-coup. A delegate from Bangladesh tried to prove that military discipline is necessary to combat corruption. The very act of being held is apparently a success for a UN event – despite the grand title, hardly anything new came up during three days of intensive discussions. The programme was so packed that Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, had to put up with the clanking of cutlery as he spoke, because his speech was scheduled during lunch.
On a regional scale, the demeanour of participants says more about the position of their countries at the UN than do their statements. In contrast to their legendry reticence, these days the Japanese make deliberate efforts to appear solicitous. A new breed of Western-educated Chinese also loves to flaunt its familiarity with American idioms and French fashions. Koreans, meanwhile, walk with the swagger of first-generation rich, while Malaysians attempt to present themselves as learned rather than wealthy. Indians try to discuss either Kashmir or the Northeast. West Asian sultanates wash their hands of the whole thing and parade British or American consultants on their behalf. Watching representatives of small countries in action – East Timor, the Maldives, Singapore –is perhaps the most amusing. They are often the best dressed and most well behaved, listening to inane speeches most attentively and posing the dutiful question thereafter. Clearly, the UN is an excellent platform on which to feel equal to the hegemonic powers.
But by being designed as a forum of conversation rather than action, bureaucratic procedure is inherent to every programme of the UN system. Perhaps that is the reason it does quite well in establishing dialogue, but rarely succeeds in implementation. From global issues of climate change to regional challenges of nuclear proliferation, the UN begins to founder the moment that real initiative and risk-taking becomes important. Reducing hunger and poverty by half by 2015 is technically among the Millennium Development Goals adopted by 189 member states in 2000, but most UN officials have yet to realise that these goals are either unachievable or unsustainable in the absence of democratic governance.
There are reasons to be sceptical about the effectiveness of UN systems. The UN presence in Kashmir, for instance, has failed to have any impact on that Southasian blight. But one way or another, unless regional groupings such as ASEAN or SAARC present themselves as reliable alternatives, there will be no escaping the pious and pointless proclamations of UN gatherings.
Jakarta is a city on the rebound. Construction sites that were abandoned during the Asian financial crisis have begun to hum with activity. Overhead, cranes work round-the-clock. Roads are clogged with luxuries cars, as three-wheeler Bajajs and Yamaha motorcycles whirl past air-conditioned buses stranded in lanes occupied by street vendors. Skyscrapers soar majestically, as shantytowns hug the ground beneath with proliferating mosques in garish green. Communist parties remain proscribed, but communal organisations set up to combat socialism continue to spread. Anti-Chinese riots, spearheaded by the state, are a thing of the past, but embers of resentment against minorities can be sparked on a moment’s notice. As in Pakistan, Indonesians have been conditioned by military rulers to suspect any form of dissent.
The economic impact of crony capitalism, and its consequent corruption, is clearly visible in Jakarta, but the cultural degeneration brought about by proxy rule of the Americans will probably haunt Indonesia for much longer. Ageing civil servants, military officers past their prime, business tycoons on the move, and fixer-politicians from the neighbourhood wear batik shirts and loafers to look more like off-duty marines on vacation in the tropics. Then, they dye their hair black and head out to the nightclubs with young paramours. It is amazing how they manage to ignore the disdain in the eyes of resentful waiters and attendants, as they sing sea songs in bad English to the prompting of scantily dressed crooners.
Even the classical dances performed by popular troupes in Jakarta have ‘For Tourists’ written all over them. These Indonesian artistes, if not others, retain the form but seem to have lost the essence of their performances. Movements remain, but the dance has disappeared; the songs survive but the voice is gone. Indonesia, like many other client countries ruled by proxy regimes, has lost the resilience of its civilisation in the whirlwind of modernisation. When there is nothing but brute force left to counter dissidence, dissatisfaction inevitably leads to disintegration.
Nobody has an authentic figure to offer, even about the number of islands in Indonesia – figures presented vary between seven and seventy thousand. With each inhabited island a potential claimant for independence, ‘Indonesiaisation’ may gain currency as the 21st-century Asian equivalent of Balkanisation. An antidote to that inevitability has to be discovered in democracy and federalism, rather than military centralism. If not, fire will be sold with spiced rice from the pushcarts of Jakarta. There is a lesson there for Southasia, as well: Listen to the people, localise, decentralise, federalise.