Musings from Indonesia: Baggage of the colonial master

Almost 72 years ago an archipelago country of close to 10,000 islands at the southern hemisphere - today one of the most populous country in the world with ironically 100 million at the bottom struggling with less than USD3 per day - was unchained from the shackles of its colonial master. It was perceived as one of the most promising developing countries in Asia - a huge population with thriving domestic market and a maturing democracy that offers the potential for checks and balances if it conforms to what the liberal west espouses - standing an opportunity to rise and on par with the Asian economic giants then.

This prediction fell apart. In fact quite the opposite had happened.

I shall not attempt to act as an Indonesia expert here to diagnose the country's problem. I am in no position to do that too.

Over the past three weeks in which I have had the chance to speak with various levels of bureaucrats in the local government, I have seen a common sentiment/theme emerged from our informal conversation beyond the formal interview settings. There was an interesting observation that I now could reasonably derive from the similarities in some of these questions posed to me during the discussion. This country is still very much weighed down by the colonial shadows, and is still struggling to unload its colonial baggage.

Whenever my informants found out where I was born (Malaysia) and where I now live (Singapore), most tend to naturally ask questions on how certain policies work in these countries, i.e. health financing, pension plans, and etc, fair enough. You would imagine people generally are curious and want to know what's happening in other countries. The interesting part that later emerged was almost 90% of them would attribute Singapore's and Malaysia's relative successes as something that emerged due to the right colonial master we have had - the English.

I feel sorry for this perception because it was so lopsided. They have only seen that Singapore is where it is today because it was lucky enough to be ruled by the English then. Same thing goes to Malaysia (lesser of such attribution to a certain extent due to Malaysia's own domestic affairs at the moment). The colonial masters have left us better legacies as compared to theirs. Fair enough. But I still believe that the colonial legacy only serves to provide the precursor for the developmental engine to start.

What they have failed to see really, is that, as countries in this region gain independence, all have embarked on different trajectories. Singapore went on a well planned and robust developmental trajectory that beat the odds of its resource empty curse. It definitely did not happen by chance. Rather, this was spearheaded by a strong and authoritarian government leveraging on human resources - deemed the most valuable asset - who decides what was best for the country and largely adhered to its principle of no free lunch. In Malaysia, it got a bit lucky with the initial blessings of natural resources (which now turned to be a curse!), paradoxically, under another form of authoritarian government with a good 22 years of iron-fisted rule that comes with basic respect toward pluralism and diversity early on.

To live under the shadows of your colonial master and apply blame avoidance without moving on could be the crux of the issue here. Without letting go of the thought that the Dutch is owing Indonesia a great deal of development (which of course they really did) and move on, it would be challenging for a huge country to tackle the real issues on hand.


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