This clipping is from the January 30 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit http://smh.com.au/digitaledition.

Allah willing, Indonesia may one day become an egalitarian society SMH – Monday, 30 Jan 2012 – Page 7

For a self-styled nonpractising atheist, I was surprised to find one of the great pleasures of living in Jakarta was the call to prayer.

Like most homes in the city, mine was just 100 metres or so from the local mosque, a labyrinthine whitewashed building with a towering minaret where the muezzin sings praises to Allah five times a day.

Even at 4.30am, the smooth and melodious voice of Tata, the mosque’s main singer, enchants, wafting across the warm tropical pre-dawn to herald the new day.

The chattering congregations for Friday prayers and the quiet meditations of business owners, workers and street vendors as they pause for the salat has endeared me to a faith that is too often maligned.

Most of all though, I have been impressed and inspired by the programs and projects run by worshippers to help the poor.

There has been a steady diet of news from Indonesia for the best part of a decade about a tiny minority of Islamic extremists and their destructive deeds but most Muslims here are like those at the Jami Assa’adah mosque.

While polling consistently shows that Australians are lukewarm , at best, about Indonesia and its people, Indonesians of all religious persuasions are almost uniformly generous and polite.

They adore and indulge children , and there is a deep strain of communitarianism where the extended family supports each other, as does the wider village or neighbourhood.

For a developing country where 100 million of its 240 million people survive on less than $2.50 a day, and there is not much of a social safety net, there is little begging and those looking for spare change will invariably offer a service: help with parking, an umbrella on a rainy day or a song.

From the scavengers at the gigantic Bantar Gebang rubbish dump outside Jakarta to the farmers eking out existence in remote Sumba, the grace, ingenuity and kindness of poor Indonesians has never ceased to amaze me.

The Indonesian masses have lived precariously for decades but, amid widespread acclaim that Indonesia is on the cusp of rapid development, will the promise of economic progress translate into lasting improvement for them?

Certainly, the macroeconomic outlook for Indonesia is highly encouraging. The economy has grown at between 6 and 7 per cent for the past three years, and the country’s credit rating has been raised to investment grade for the first time since the crippling financial crisis on 1997. Capital is flooding in from abroad as investors race to tap into Indonesia’s resource riches and burgeoning consumer market.

Even now, Indonesia’s per capita income of $US3000 ($2800) a year outstrips India’s . But it masks an astounding gulf in income disparity.

The economy is dominated by a relatively small group of families and almost all of them beneficiaries of the crony capitalism of the Suharto dictatorship.

Jeffrey Winters, the American Indonesianist, calculated that the wealthiest 500 Indonesians are 600,000 times richer than the average Indonesian.

Indonesia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy has rightly earned plaudits but the smooth changeover from authoritarianism was built on something of a Faustian bargain. The old elites retained control of the economy and they have since used that wealth to dominate most of the country’s major political parties and to promote and protect their interests.

The influence of money in Indonesian politics is pervasive and extends from local elections to the national parliament, one of the country’s most corrupt institutions. Candidates pay local party apparatchiks to get preselected and frequently offer financial inducements to voters for their support.

Party bosses pay even greater sums to regional political leaders to get senior positions within parties. Once elected to parliament or organisational posts, successful candidates seek a return from their investments.

This system of patronage, with Indonesia’s oligarchs at its apex, ensnares the bureaucracy and judiciary, curtails effective policy-making and resource allocation and underpins Indonesia’s pervasive culture of graft and bribery.

Indonesia has an independent corruption body with wide powers and has convicted scores of people, but it is poorly resourced and, as Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has acknowledged, corruption remains endemic and a brake on economic development . The defective political culture and the level of graft certainly partly explains why too little of the benefits of Indonesia’s economic expansion is finding its way to the masses.

But there is another explanation : until the mid-1960 s, Indonesia had a flourishing movement for the advancement of workers and peasants that coalesced around the Indonesian communist party, the thirdlargest in the world until it was destroyed in one of the worst massacres of the 20th century.

Between 500,000 and 1 million people were killed in a brutal putsch led by Suharto in the aftermath of the assassination of six senior generals by the socalled September 30 movement.

The legacy of that decimation of the organised left is still felt today. The union movement, for example, has been highly fragmented and weak. Indonesia has some of the lowest wages in Asia at about $150 to $200 a month for a typical factory worker.

Interestingly though, in the past six months, there has been a rise in industrial activity. A series of strikes at the US-owned Freeport mine in Papua, the world’s most profitable gold and copper concession, led to a substantial increase in wages.

Industrial action in factories around Jakarta also has spiked.

And, as the Australian National University scholar Edward Aspinall observes, notions of social justice are embedded in the country’s vibrant civil society , the dazzling array of nongovernment groups and activists who thrive in Indonesia’s democracy . Through them, it feeds into the political culture, albeit at a mostly rhetorical level.

While the elites remain entrenched in Indonesia, these are positive signs, however nascent , that Indonesia’s prosperity may for once be shared among the many.

Tom Allard has just completed a three-year posting in Indonesia for the Herald. Michael Bachelard will be the new correspondent.

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald