Indonesia's Achilles' heel: Populist authoritarianism
April-June 2017
By: Rainer Heufers

Modern challenges to paternalist leadership

Men traditionally held powerful positions in society and were hardly ever challenged to justify this. This changes in a world where women are the better graduates in several university disciplines and push into leadership positions that were previously reserved for men. The relative inadequacy of men in dealing with complexity makes it worse for them in the modern world. This is particularly evident when looking at Islamic communities whose men face an immediate drop in their status after migrating to Europe. On the surface, violent protests by Muslim youth in the suburbs of Paris in 2005 were against police harassment and unemployment, but it was basically an explosion of the frustrations of an exclusively male group. Their powerlessness triggered their violence and made them look down on others. The French government was not their only target, but also their sisters who had joined earlier demonstrations protesting male violence against women in the suburbs.

Men deplore disempowerment, and not only in migrant communities. The mass demonstrations in Jakarta against Governor Basuki consisted almost entirely of male participants. There was the fear that he undermined Islam; others were uncomfortable with Chinese influence within society; and yet others felt victimized by Basuki’s often-ruthless modernization policies. Different men joined the demonstrations for different reasons, but all basically felt disempowered.

Traditionally, Indonesians are used to interacting with elders and superiors with great respect and obedience. Positions of power were generally reserved for men. In return, people expect decisiveness, strong leadership and sufficient attention to their own concerns. Nowadays, elders, family fathers and leaders in general are facing competition from the Internet when they advise people and their families on work and life issues. That undermines their position. Some can adapt to the changing world, but others struggle to maintain their right to set rules and exercise power in the modern VUCA world.

In a country as highly religious as Indonesia, even Islam does not appear undisputed. Prasmanan is a popular Indonesian buffet where people take their pick from an available set of choices. “Islam prasmanan” refers to the attitude of people comparing religious edicts and directives to find the one that suits personal preferences. When a local leader declares a certain behavior in line with, or opposed to, the interpretation of the holy scripts, there are other statements from other leaders elsewhere who came to a contrary conclusion.

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