Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Indonesia gives a Gonski

  • 24 July 2013

Fifteen years have passed since Indonesia embarked on reformasi following the fall of Soeharto in 1998. That year a Yogyakarta theatre company performed Samuel Beckett's Endgame to mark the end of the old dictator and to challenge Indonesian audiences to reflect on the absurdity of the long Soeharto years. Not only had Soeharto clung to political life like the play's central character, the wheelchair bound, overbearing and blind tyrant Hamm, but also like Hamm he had disabled much of Indonesian life around him.

This year, the company performed Endgame again using a new Indonesian translation from the original French. The play's director focused not on Soeharto but on Indonesia today 15 years on and what he sees as the laughable state of Indonesia's absurd democracy, a plaything of celebrity politicians and corrupt political parties. The conversations in the play, said the director, are as funny as the situation the country is facing. 'We see the 1998 movement falling into a silly whirlpool.'

The director also conceded, however, that there are bright spots amid the everyday insanity and cause for 'sober optimism'. I agree. Despite all the challenges, Indonesia is a far better place than when I first visited in 1969, just after Soeharto took over, and again today, 15 years after his departure.

Reformasi has not delivered in many ways; impunity prevails and serious issues such as Papua are being mismanaged. Indonesia has not seen 1000 flowers bloom but its garden hosts some attractive blooms and its spring has been much better news than the transitions in the Middle East. In particular, the general sense of openness, creativity, and freedom that exists is a very distinctive and refreshing change from the old days when basically only one man, Soeharto, enjoyed freedom of opinion, expression and assembly.

Many examples in support of this sober optimism can be given. That a politically charged Endgame could be produced and discussed publicly is itself evidence of this change.

Positive Indonesian reaction to the recent speech to the UN by the young Pakistani Muslim girl Malala is another. A leading Jakarta paper strongly endorsed her calls for education especially for girls, while pointing out that the number of female students at Indonesia's top universities exceeds that of males. It also called for an end to remaining book censorship laws in Indonesia and reminded readers that both Sukarno and Soeharto adopted what it called 'the Taliban way' regarding books, burning and banning