On Friday, Asia Sentinel and the Australian newspaper corporation Fairfax published summaries of several Wikileaks cables in which American diplomats in Jakarta made serious allegations that Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) and his close circle were involved in corruption and other abuses of power. The cables allege that Yudhoyono used his power to skew judicial investigations in order to protect political allies of his known to be corrupt, and that many of his political allies were involved in bribery and vote buying.
That an Indonesian leader would be involved in graft and abuse of power isn’t, on the face of it, that surprising – Indonesia has one of the worst records for corruption in Asia, according to Transparency International, and graft is probably the biggest obstacle holding back greater investment in the country. But Yudhoyono has been portrayed in the United States, and in many other nations, as a kind of white knight, a reformer capable of cleaning up one of the world’s most diverse, troubled, and graft-ridden nations all by himself. During his visit to Indonesia last year, Barack Obama highlighted Yudhoyono’s role in Indonesia’s economic and political renaissance, while many other senior American officials, even in private, heap praise on SBY as the key figure in turning the country around.
And there is the problem. Over the past decade, Indonesia has indeed made great strides from the chaotic era following Suharto’s downfall. It has built a real and vibrant democracy, ended some of its sectarian conflicts, and begun to reassert itself, for the better, in regional policy, such as in the recent dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over the Preah Vihear border temple. But Washington always wants to view reform in the person of one man or woman: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, or Olusegun Obasanjo in Nigeria, or, in this case, SBY. This type of excessive personalization has major risks – if the one white knight turns out to be flawed, like Obasanjo, it makes the entire policy look foolish, and puts a stain on the overall reforms that country might be making.
Yudhoyono actually has taken some positive steps toward reform, helping empower the anti-corruption commission at times, and at times standing up to retrograde elements. He has made strong speeches condemning terrorism and radicalism and has led what is generally considered a highly successful counterterrrorism strategy. He also at times has proven a timid and consensual politician, weakly allowing hard-liners to pass laws essentially outlawing heterodox Islamic sects, and allowing old-line tycoons to push some of the most important reformers out of his Cabinet. But Indonesia’s successes since the late 1990s are due to far more than one man: They are the result of a federalization of political power away from Jakarta, a determined media and NGO sector, an economy that is gaining the benefit of demographics, and many other changes. To put all the credit – or the blame – on one man makes for highly unwise policy.