Monday, February 4, 2008

Death of Suharto - 29 Jan 2008

The end of an Asean era
By Yang Razali Kassim, For The Straits Times

THE worsening medical condition of his predecessor Suharto forced Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to cut short his talks in Malaysia with Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi earlier in January.
Not long after, Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew flew to Jakarta to visit the ailing Mr Suharto, whom Mr Lee holds in high esteem and fondly remembers as a close friend.

Within a day, another ageing Asean stalwart, former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad, did likewise. He even offered prayers for the man many Indonesians refer to respectfully as 'Pak Harto', using the honorific reference to 'father' or 'uncle'.

Mr Lee, 84, and Tun Dr Mahathir, 82, were paying what they knew would be their final respects to a former comrade-inpower fighting for his life. As a moment of poignant grief, it was pregnant with symbolism. The curtain was drawing on a key actor on the regional stage. Mr Suharto, 86, finally succumbed to his illness and died on Sunday.

Mr Suharto's final hours were as divisive as his last years in office, which ended in his downfall in 1998. Indonesians who respected him for developing their country were sad. Those who suffered under his strong-arm rule and accused him of plunder as well as power and human rights abuse were disappointed that they had failed to bring him to trial.

But there is no doubt that Mr Lee and Tun Dr Mahathir respected Mr Suharto for his achievements under trying circumstances. The three former heads of government dominated the regional stage for so long that they not only laid the groundwork for Asean's economic transformation, but also played a major part in shaping its political ethos.

The younger generation of Asean citizens must maintain a sense of balance and be guided by their Asian values: They should honour those who have done good, even as they do not forget the painful scars of repression. Pak Harto clearly deserves this.

It should come as no surprise that the three leaders developed a certain bond. The manner in which Mr Suharto was treated by his people since his exit must have saddened, if not hurt, the other two regional figures.

Notice Mr Lee's moist eyes as he spoke to the Singapore media later about the fate of Mr Suharto. Just as touching was the quiet moment between Tun Dr Mahathir and Mr Suharto during the period when the former Indonesian president was conscious. According to a daughter of Mr Suharto, Tun Dr Mahathir and her father shed tears together.

Yes, strong men do cry. Even those who were once in power, and feared because of it.

What can we make of this moment of pathos? Tun Dr Mahathir disclosed nothing of his inner thoughts. If there could be any clue, it came in clear and no uncertain terms from Mr Lee in his pre-departure session with the media. In his usual straight-talking style, he said Mr Suharto had not been given the due recognition he deserved.

His contribution to Indonesia was too enormous to be forgotten, or to be trifled with. Mr Lee left hints of his deep regret that the younger generation of Indonesians has been too harsh, if not ungrateful, to the man who, on balance, brought far more good than harm to his country.

Mr Lee's comparison of Mr Suharto and Ne Win of Burma in the early 1960s was stark but drove home his point. Had Mr Suharto followed Ne Win's road to socialism and style of governance, Indonesia would be like Myanmar today, Asean would not have come into existence, and South-east Asia might have ended up a mess, if not a war zone.

Until his death, Mr Suharto and Mr Lee were the two surviving founding leaders of Asean. Mr Lee is now the only one left from that generation. Tun Dr Mahathir came to the scene later.

But Mr Suharto, Mr Lee and Tun Dr Mahathir shared several common characteristics: All three lasted very long in office as chief executive - from Tun Dr Mahathir's 22 years (1981-2003) to Mr Suharto's 32 (1966-1998) and Mr Lee's 39 (1959-1990). They are of a similar age and from a generation whose formative experiences were during the Japanese occupation and the post-war quest for independence.

It is widely accepted that these three leaders' dominant characteristic was strong leadership. Their single-minded drive to bring food to the table of their respective peoples came at the expense of civil liberties of the Western model, which they argued was a necessary sacrifice.

The repression of the Suharto years, and the enduring corruption, proved to be politically fatal for the retired general who came to power through an anti-communist coup and uprising in 1966.

He was ousted in 1998 under similar circumstances - the result of an uprising that was long waiting to happen, though triggered by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Mr Suharto's downfall was as earth-shaking as the financial crisis that swept the region.

A little-known fact is how the financial crisis also brought Tun Dr Mahathir and Mr Suharto closer together. It also caused a rift between Tun Dr Mahathir, in his final years as prime minister, and his pro-IMF deputy Anwar Ibrahim. Suspicious that Datuk Seri Anwar was trying to play out the Indonesian scenario in Malaysia to oust him, Tun Dr Mahathir shocked the world with his counter-strike when he expelled his deputy and anointed successor.

The sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar, who once called Mr Suharto ayahanda, the most reverential form for 'father' in the Malay language, led to the rise of Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi as Tun Dr Mahathir's alternative successor.

The emergence of Datuk Seri Abdullah in Malaysia coincided with the rise in Indonesia of a series of post-Suharto leaders, peaking with the election of Dr Yudhoyono in 2004. They form a new generation of leaders after Mr Suharto, Mr Lee and Tun Dr Mahathir.

This new cohort of leaders, which includes Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, carries the burden of continuing the legacies of their towering predecessors. But the new leaders face a different generation of citizens who will not unquestioningly accept the old style of leadership - benevolent or otherwise.

This new generation wants more freedom and space to do what they regard to be within their rights as citizens. This transition to a new Asean is now a major agenda of the region. We see this in the Asean Charter, which reflects the changing values of the regional bloc that was first put in place in 1967 by the founding leaders, led by Mr Suharto.

The Suharto generation of leaders is passing from the scene. As mere mortals, they have their strengths and their weaknesses. It is understandable to heap praise for the good that they have done, and to feel aggrieved by the impact of their foibles.

But the younger generation of Asean citizens must maintain a sense of balance and be guided by their Asian values: They should honour those who have done good, even as they do not forget the painful scars of repression. Pak Harto clearly deserves this.

The writer is a senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also author of Transition Politics: Dynamics Of Leadership Change And Succession In Indonesia And Malaysia. He was previously regional editor of The Business Times and, prior to that, the Jakarta correspondent for The Straits Times in the 1980s.

PRIME MOVERS: Tun Dr Mahathir (right) visiting Mr Suharto in Jakarta in 2006 before the ex-Indonesian president fell seriously ill late last year. The two leaders, with Singapore's MM Lee, helped shape Asean. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

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