'New Order' nostalgia is for a past best left to history
July-September 2014
By: Jim Della-Giacoma

It was a simpler time under Soeharto but much has changed in the world since he ruled, and the clock cannot be turned back. The New Order’s development through rigid five-year plans, fixed exchange rates and generous subsidies was underwritten by windfall profits from oil exports. Now a net importer of fuel, voters dependent on this largesse use elected representatives to resist the end of subsidies. The legacy of this policy is a budget burden of around $40 billion a year, most of it flowing into the private fuel tanks of the influential middle class, rather than toward education, health care and infrastructure. Pushed and pulled by competing interests, in a democracy there is no easy way to decide who wins and who loses. Indonesia’s floating exchange rate and open stock exchange allow global markets to pass instant judgment on the perceived merits or weaknesses of every important policy choice made by domestic leaders.

The New Order had far fewer elections, limiting itself to one big event every five years. It only permitted three parties to run, and voters had no say in picking the president – and there was only one choice anyway. Retired military officers dominated appointments in regional governments, bringing discipline and reinforcing central control across the archipelago. Development was carried out with little discussion, as Soeharto was assumed to know what policies were best for the nation, even if in the later years they seemed to disproportionately benefit his own family. Pointing this out was risky business. Foreign correspondents only did it when they were leaving or had ended their assignments. Contrary ideas and the people who expressed them were suppressed. There were sweeping colonial-era laws in place and jail time waiting for those who criticized the president.

As voters choose their next leader, it is worth remembering Indonesia’s authoritarian past as time of control, repression and violence. Those who struggled to end the New Order and suffered because of it should not be forgotten. Recalling the brutal tools that maintained the regime shows how Indonesia has changed for the better. It also reminds us why the New Order is best not rehabilitated.

In September 1989, I was a provincial newspaper journalist in Australia. Serendipitously, I found myself on a short reporting stint in Zimbabwe and Sudan. I returned determined to become a foreign correspondent. To be a better reporter, I wanted to interview people in their own tongue and was determined to master a foreign language ahead of any future overseas assignment.

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