Why I’m Regularly Mad at Soeharto

No, I’m not talking about the events of September 1965, which have since regularly caused heated debates at this time of the year. Not that I didn’t think those debates were useless either, for the record.

I get mad at Soeharto mostly when I travel, which is pretty regular. Let me tell you a story.

One day on our way to the famed Ora Beach in Central Moluccas, a woman in the group told us that her grown daughter was also waiting for a flight to London on the other side of Soekarno-Hatta airport. 15 hours later the girl texted her mom that she’d just arrived at her apartment in London. Guess where we were? After flying to Ambon, driving to Tulehu port, taking a ferry to Seram Island, riding forever on bumpy roads to a village on the other side of Seram, in addition to hitch a small boat to the beach unreachable by land from that village, we’d just arrived ourselves at our Ora Beach inn. In fact, that text was the last we got before signals went off completely.

How is it okay that it takes the same time to reach Europe’s major city and a beach just two time zones away in the same country? If you traveled a lot within Indonesia, you’d find this often.

Yes, Soekarno left a tattered economy when Soeharto rose to power, and sure, there have been multiple presidents afterwards. But Soeharto ruled the longest, with many advantages; the urban population was only starting to grow, the country’s income from oil was very robust, and no red tape or opposition rows to hold back if he wanted to build something.

I imagined in 32 years Soeharto could’ve completed first-grade Trans Sulawesi highways, built respectable ship lines from Sabang to Merauke, resuscitated and developed Sumatera railways, and formed reliable mass transportation modes in 5 largest cities.

With his iron fist Soeharto wouldn’t have gotten bogged down by land clearing and decentralization, major thorns for foreign investments in recent years (what an irony that decentralization sometimes means more nods to win?). With his total grip he could’ve marshaled down the troops to help infrastructure projects in far-flung corners, just like for the stone-based road paved throughout Banda Besar Island I once saw. With his dogmatic actions he could’ve trained the masses to use, at the time when the middle class wasn’t yet emerged, a reliable public transportation mode.

Instead of laying a great foundation in full force for 32 years, Soeharto left us with insufficient infrastructures and the seed of human resource largely not equipped to act as world-class citizen once the economy took off. 72 years after independence electricity and water are still scarce to some, the water transportation modes are pathetic, the masses are bad at queuing, the middle class get into debt to buy private vehicles for convenience and status, and the upper-middle class is bedecked in luxury products they often can’t pronounce properly for foreign language proficiency is still relatively low.

To be fair, post-Soeharto Presidents haven’t really done that much to catch up. The road on Banda Besar I mentioned above remained the only one existed when I came in 2014. We have jaw-dropping malls and apartments mushrooming in urban cities in the past 15 years, but our pedestrian walks are below those in countries still at war until the 1990s.

I recently spent time with my dad exploring 3 of the 7 countries that until 1991 made up Yugoslavia. The relatively young countries Slovenia and Croatia are now EU members with city sidewalks better than most of Jakarta’s, highways solely on automated payments and air-conditioned public buses that work on schedules. Ljubljana bus passes are obtained through user-friendly machines at bus stops that feature both Slovene and English, no different than subway passes in Hong Kong. Bus drivers in Dubrovnik spoke enough English to tell us which bus to take and how to purchase the pass. The trails at Postojna Caves and Plitvice National Park are paved and secured better than what you may find in Indonesia. Ljubljana and Zagreb don’t have glitzy malls or overly opulent hotels, yet their service industry’s human resources show professionalism and speak much proper English than ours.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, which war ended in 1995, is mostly rural and in dire need of foreign investments, and many buildings including in Sarajevo still bear holes from mortars thrown by the Serbian military, yet Sarajevo’s main downtown boulevards feature proper sidewalks and bicycle lanes. The public toilet at Mostar’s historical old town and the streets at Sarajevo’s heritage old city are cleaner than the facilities at Jakarta Kota Tua in any given Sunday. Dad and I scratched our heads throughout our trip as to how Indonesia had gotten this far behind from the former Yugoslavia countries.

Soekarno got bogged down by grandstanding politics and post-1998 Presidents spent much time battling oppositions and polishing image, but Soeharto had the longest time and total control. He could’ve built proper foundations and systems. He could’ve been our Lee Kuan Yew. But he didn’t. And most times when I travel, I’m sorely reminded of that missed opportunity. If only those now busy repainting Soeharto’s image as Indonesia’s most benevolent leader would just shut up and start traveling with me.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/09/30/urban-chat-why-i-m-regularly-mad-soeharto.html

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