Alumnus a leading Indonesian presidential candidate

Mr. Moderate: Firebrand Amien Rais cools stance ahead of June polls p. Amien Rais has come a long way since his Islamic-firebrand days. During the Gulf War in 1991, for example, the political scientist turned religious leader cheered Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s defiance of the West in the same open shirt and sandals as those worn by his students. These days he wears a suit and tie as he courts businessmen in his bid to be Indonesia’s next president. The 54-year-old Amien has been the most strident proponent of reform in Indonesia since 1997 and the most insistent voice calling for President Suharto to step down. Even before Suharto’s resignation in May 1998, Amien had announced – as early as September 1997 – that he was “brave enough” to stand for president.p. As a presidential candidate, he has tried to convince people of his political independence and moderate intentions. Indonesians were skeptical. Amien had risen under the patronage of current President B.J. Habibie. He was chairman of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organization, until he resigned last August to chair his new political party. Despite his Western education (Notre Dame and University of Chicago), he was seen as radically inclined and suspiciously close to forces bent on making Indonesia an Islamic state.p. But with four months to go before parliamentary elections in Indonesia, Amien is polishing his act. His National Mandate Party is gaining strength on the ground. Surrounded by a bevy of young handlers, who include Christians, Chinese and Muslims, he was in Hong Kong in mid-February to meet some of the 250,000-strong Indonesian community. About 30,000 of them are pribumi (indigenous Indonesian) workers who are a potential source of votes: They send money back to their villages and therefore wield influence with their families. But the majority are Indonesian-Chinese business people who need to be reassured that Amien represents a tolerant, centrist force in Indonesian politics.p. He appears to be succeeding. There was loud applause when Amien told a meeting of Indonesian-Chinese resident in Hong Kong that he would give Confucianism legal recognition as a religion if he won the election.p. “I think I’ve found a new leader,” declares Jusuf Wanandi of Jakarta’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, after spending several days with Amien at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “It’s not just a tactical move. I think he’s very serious about broadening his base,” adds Wanandi. “We have a Muslim leader who is trying to reach out so he can be more credible and acceptable. It’s the kind of leadership we need.”p. Amien’s style is very different from that of another Muslim leader turned presidential candidate, Abdurrahman Wahid, whose words, actions and motives are often mercurial and mysterious. Amien delivers powerful, unvarnished speeches that ordinary people can understand. He does not approve of Wahid’s recent proposal to bring Suharto into the process of national reconciliation. He demands some form of financial retribution from the Suharto family. The ex-president is reportedly very worried about his fate under an Amien administration.p. In an interview with REVIEW Managing Editor Michael Vatikiotis in Hong Kong, the man who is fast becoming a front runner to be his country’s fourth president commented on Suharto’s future and other aspects of Indonesian politics. A full text of the interview follows:p. Are you satisfied with the new laws that have been passed governing the upcoming elections?p. I am not satisfied. My party has done its best to convince the parliament not to give automatic seats to the armed forces because it is against the constitution. The proposed compromise we expected is some members of the armed forces sitting in the parliament, but as nonvoting members. But we were defeated, so we are not happy regarding the 38 seats of the armed forces because they will be very decisive in the next presidential election. Secondly it is not very clear whether we use proportional system or district system. At a glance it is a proportional system, but because the calculation [of votes] is based on the lowest level, or regency level, it is fully district. That’s why we also want to change the draft bill so that calculation of votes is not based on regencies but on a higher level, on the provincial level, but again we were also defeated.p. Are you worried that the June parliamentary election will ultimately be irrelevant to your presidential candidacy? There will be a large number of unelected members in the People’s Consultative Assembly that will choose the president at the end of this year.p. I hope the situation is not that bad. Why? Because the 200 nominated members who fill up the People’s Assembly will not be decided by the government, but will be decided by the provincial governments where the political parties have a say.p. What is your experience so far in the funding of your party?p. Maybe you won’t believe me if I tell you that I’m not worried at all about funding. Why? Because there is a very encouraging development within my party, that all the members of the party finance our party. Since the birth of the party, not a single penny has been issued by the central board of the party because the leaders of the branch level finance their own expenses.p. What about the response from the business community?p. To be very honest I attended a gathering sometime in October last year in Jakarta. Some Chinese conglomerates attended the meeting—they invited me. They listened to my speech followed by a Q&A session. Afterwards some of my Chinese friends told me that they did not want only to give moral support to the party but also financially. But up till now that promise has not materialized yet because I did not follow up the meeting and as I told you I don’t desperately need the money. Because it seems to me the members of the party finance our own needs, from Sabang to Merauke.p. Is there a danger that, as the elections near, money will be used to influence your party platform and the political process? There are reports that some of the old political forces are offering you money.p. Of course I’m worried because other parties may use money as the vehicle to achieve their goal. But I don’t want to follow that kind of money politics. It is futile because we want to reform the politics in my country. There’s no use in repeating the dirty games of the past. So my friends and I will be very, very careful in facing money politics which is used by many parties—especially status quo parties.p. Do you still believe in a New Economic Policy for Indonesia similar to Malaysia’s affirmative-action plan for the Malays?p. Yes. There is no alternative, because we have to say goodbye to the new order structure and system. We need a kind of New Economic Policy. Since I’m not an economist I cannot give you details, but I can give you some moral principles in our next new NEP. First of all we don’t want to take drastic measures to shock the global community, and also our own people. For example, we don’t want to cut down to size those conglomerates to shake the present system irresponsibly. But there is a philosophy I hold very dearly that in order to empower small-scale industries and improve the life of the people we must not chop off the big buisness in Indonesia. But what I’m going to do is that we must regulate the big business in Indonesia so that it becomes more transparent. And also we have to improve the process of bank credits, because as you know in the past a person can take billions of rupiah in credit without collateral. I think this is stupid.p. But how about helping small and medium-sized businesses? Isn’t difficult to think of practical ways to do this in the midst of an economic crisis?p. It is difficult. But it can be achieved. It takes time of course, step-by-step policies. I don’t want to take drastic measures. But the goal is very clear, and that is we want to improve our economic performance using wise and down-to-earth policies.p. Do you agree with the International Monetary Fund’s policies in Indonesia?p. I don’t want to dismiss the IMF prescriptions because I know a lot of them are very reasonable and realistic. But sometimes what is taken by the IMF does not necessarily fit with the needs of the people. It seems to me that the IMF always gives out generic medicine, while our disease cannot be generalized by the IMF. I mean there are some distinct characteristics of the Indonesian economy that cannot be generalized. I believe the IMF is still well-placed to help our economy, but at the same time we have to tell the IMF that our situation must be analyzed very closely so that the prescription could fit in. I would like to add that the IMF concentrates more on the monetary system than on the real sector. I’m not an economist but I believe that you can’t solve your problem by changing even for the better only the monetary system. You need to look very closely what’s going on in the real sector.p. What is your stand on popular demands to deal with Suharto and his cronies?p. As a matter of fact, I sent a very clear message to Mr. Suharto some months ago. I met with one of his former cabinet ministers and asked him if he still often sees Suharto and he said yes, and then I told him to tell Suharto my message. That is if he chooses the legal process to solve his case, the case will outlive him. I said: look at the Marcos case, up till now it is not settled yet, while Marcos died 12 years ago. So I said to him ‘please tell Suharto there are two steps he must take.’ First of all he apologizes to the whole of Indonesia—for example by giving a speech on national TV, in which he apologizes to the whole nation for his mistake and for his political and economic “crimes” and also for crimes against humanity which directly or indirectly he was involved in. Secondly, while apologizing he must show his readiness to return the billions or trillions of rupiah he amassed when he was in power. I believe because Indonesians are a forgiving nation they will forgive him and we can start anew.p. So you don’t necessarily think Suharto should go to court?p. There are two choices. The first choice is not through the legal process. I know there is a weakness here. But I think the substance is that if he apologizes and returns all the money he amassed during his presidency, I think people will forgive him. But it seems to me he has chosen the legal procedure because he thinks that he will win. So we have to push the legal procedure until it’s through. However, after Suharto is sentenced to death or I don’t know, I think we have a very good example from South Korea. Its two former presidents who were given severe sentences—one was given a death sentence and one given a life sentence—both were pardoned. I think we’re going to do the same to Suharto, provided he returns everything he has plundered during his presidency.p. How do address concerns that a senior Islamic figure like yourself might become president?p. I think I was very much inspired by [former deputy premier] Anwar Ibrahim’s steps in Malaysian politics. What interested me is that in Malaysia finally people counted not what was said but what was done. I must be very honest that in the 1980s I was traumatized by Suharto’s politics. I think he ignored the fate of the Muslims who happen to be the majority and he gave too much room to the minority. He was playing a balance-of-power game: He thought he would get rid of the threat of the majority by strengthening the minority. He thought he was secure. But as we know there was a backlash. The reason I was traumatized was because I was educated in America for six years and I know wonderful aspects of democracy as practised in the U.S. So at the time I proposed the implementation of representative democracy. The reason why there is discrepancy in the representation of the people in the parliament, in the people’s assembly and the executive bodies during Suharto’s New Order is because Suharto did not give good opportunity for the Indonesian people to exercise full democracy. That’s why I believe that if we push democracy just like the U.S. we will have a much healthier result. Secondly, democracy must be combined with meritocracy.p. But people worry that whatever you say, if you are elected, your Islamic credentials could be exploited and it might be difficult to keep the forces of extremism under control.p. I don’t blame this kind of thinking if you look at Iran, Afghanistan or Sudan. But I can assure you that the Muslims in my country are very, very moderate. The idea of establishing a sharia [Islamic religious] state has dissipated completely. As a nation we believe we believe in Pancasila [“belief in God, humanity, national unity, democracy and social justice”] as a state ideology. We don’t want to repeat our mistakes. In the 1950s, we spent our energy, our time for nothing. Just to have a never-ending debate about the basis of our state and no majority could be found to endorse the sharia state. So we must be wiser and more mature, looking forward to our future. And I can assure you that people who believe in the Islamic state for the future is very, very few—only small pockets and they are insignificant. I know the political map of the Islamic community in Indonesia.p. But should Islam play a role in addressing social justice in Indonesia?p. Yes, I think the five principles are congruent with the Islamic principle—not a single principle of Pancasila is in contradiction with Islam. So in achieving social justice for all Indonesian people, as a Muslim me and my friends can accept that principle wholeheartedly. If there is good distribution of national wealth, if there is equal opportunity for the whole people to pursue their respective careers, and they can do freely whatever they like provided they don’t transgress the rights of other people—this kind of justice is totally endorsed by Islam.p. How important is the advice you get from your advisers?p. Among the nine people who founded the Partai Amanat Nasional [National Mandate Party], there are Christian leaders and secular thinkers, as well as NGO activists. These nine people represent the diversity of Indonesia. From the very beginning my policy has been very open and all-inclusive. So in plenary meetings I can absorb different ideas and the result of the exchange of ideas is very good for the whole nation. There is also no room in my party for extreme ideas like establishing an Islamic state. This is just an impossible thing.p. You made your political debut under President B.J. Habibie. How does that affect your stance towards him?p. It is now a bit awkward because I’m running for president while Habibie intends to lengthen his period as president. I consider Habibie as one of the most loyal cadres of Suharto, so if I can suggest, he’d better leave the scene and be remembered as the one who led the country towards free elections. But if he runs again for president he will lose credibility.

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