By Juan L. Mercado

“YOU NEED four things to succeed in Indonesia,” went the joke spawned by the 33-year long Suharto reign. “First is Swiss capital. Second is British management. Third is Japanese equipment. And fourth is Indonesian general.”

     That wisecrack came to mind when the Indonesian president died late January. By then, the 86-year old Javanese general withered, over a decade, in comfortable house arrest, like Joseph Estrada’s Tanay detention. Popular fury over corruption and runway prices forced him to quit in May 1998. Indonesian courts ruled in 2000 he was physically unfit to stand trial for corruption and massive infraction of human rights…

     Indonesia changed in that span of time. How much is seen in Jakarta’s hosting of a UN conference on graft. Suharto’s generals insisted on dwi-fungsi (“double function”) rule: one finger on the trigger and another in the cookie jar. His military, like Marcos’ “Rolex 12”, slammed doors on exercises that hang out, with the wash, corruption records. 

     UN conference delegates saw, for example, Transparency International’s annual listing of “The World’s Ten Most Corrupt Leaders.” Suharto topped it, with embezzled funds betwee$15 to $35 billion. Ferdinand Marcos came in Number 2 with $5 to $10 billion. At $78 to $80 million, Estrada wedged himself in slot Number 10.

     Indonesia is a lynch pin for Southeast Asian stability. Its population of 246.8 million is almost triple that of the Philippines. It has oil.  Despite deforestation that outstrips even Filipino logger greed, its remaining forests remain “the lung of Southeast Asia.”  Indonesia ranks 108, out of 177 nations, in human development – behind the Philippines at 84. And its leadership stomp radicals who’d would enflame this giant: the largest of Muslim countries.

    Over the long pull, governance in Indonesia will affect the Philippines more than which trapo gets to be House of Representatives’ speaker. Thus, informal comments, by an experienced Filipino journalist, comparing leaders, after the dictatorships of Marcos and Suharto, are relevant.  On retirement, Eddie Lachica was serving with Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau. Prior to that, he worked with the Philippines Herald and  DEPTHnews correspondent in Tokyo.  

     “What’s troubling to some outside observers, like myself, is that in terms of democratic consolidation, the Philippines and Indonesia may be going in opposite directions,” Lachica writes. “The late learner, Indonesia, is moving forward, albeit slowly but with promise of further gains. Enough dispiriting things are happening in Philippine politics to cause one to worry it may be going backwards.

      “President  Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono  has been in office for more than three years.  How do SBY’s fortunes compare with those of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo? The record is mixed. But overall, he’s done a good deal better by his people than Gloria has with hers. 

       “Like Gloria, he started with high expectations.  His 2004 election was a moment of national pride, as he was the first directly-elected president. And Indonesians liked the cut of this handsome, Magsaysay-like reformer. The euphoria, of course, was unsustainable. His approval ratings slid down from the 80s to barely over 50% — although Western leaders would be ecstatic to have as much. 

     “The democratic paradox is: Winning big doesn’t guarantee a successful administration.  Your program works only to the extent your fellow citizens allow it to. 

     “SBY has gone against corruption, as part of his mandate.  But so far, only a few high-profile grafters have been jailed.  A slew of crooked businessmen fled abroad, some safely harbored in Singapore, until an extradition treaty can be worked out.  Public concern for the dying Suharto kept his personal wealth untouched for the longest time. But now that he’s been laid to rest, expect the prosecutors are going to go after his children. 

     “Corruption in the public sector is endemic. But this due to an unspoken tolerance for poorly paid civil servants picking up extra income so long as it isn’t abusive or highly scandalous.  It will take a generation or longer to bring governance up to Western standards.

      “But overall, this is less depressing situation than what you have in Manila.  SBY himself is clean as is his family.  And on this point alone this is a tolerably more honest administration than GMA’s. 

      “SBY has taken a few knocks even from his supporters for being too cautious to act decisively.  He needs to break some eggs to make an omelet. But I’d take this slow-to-act, God-fearing man as president any day rather than the damn-the-public methods of Mrs. Arroyo.

      “She may have an edge over SBY, though, is in the management of the economy, at least for the short term. Of course, her burden has been eased by the huge dollar earnings sent home by overseas workers.  God knows where the country would be without them.

     “Be grateful, too, to America for it gave  us English and an edge in competing for  overseas jobs.  Indonesia doesn’t have anything like our bilingual competence and ability to pull in those billions of expatriate earnings.

    “SBY may face a strong challenge in 2009. That includes from Megawati, out to redeem herself after having been trounced by SBY the last time around.  But most voters will give him credit for what he has done so far. They’d give him a new mandate with just a few less votes than he got in 2004.  If the U.S. has a vote, it’d go without hesitation to SBY.”