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Honour models for democracy

Since the 1998 ouster of the dictator Suharto — who ruled Indonesia with an iron fist for over three decades — the world's fourth most populous nation has undergone a series of rapid changes. Once dependent on foreign aid to exercise its basic functions, Indonesia has firmly established itself as a major economic player in the Asia-Pacific region, with the distinction of being the only Southeast Asian economy to be included in the Group of 20.

However, its rapid economic development wasn’t the only achievement from which it can draw pride. Since the fall of Suharto’s regime, there have been continued efforts to steer the country away from authoritarianism. Free elections are regularly held, and their results are rarely questioned, albeit in a few rare instances.

The armed forces were stripped of their political influence, and unlike in countries like Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand, the system that emerged following the collapse of the New Order regime was a secular one — with a constitution that doesn’t enshrine a particular faith as a state religion.

The combination of these factors earned Indonesia praise from leaders and the press, with The New York Times calling the nation under President Joko Widodo an “unlikely model for democracy”, due to his ability to balance the nation’s democratic aspirations and the interests of religious groups, which yield significant political power in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

But the recent changes to Indonesia’s criminal code is threatening to undermine the reforms which had taken blood, sweat and tears to enact — and ball is now in Mr Widodo’s court to act before his term expires, as without an intervention the changes will come into effect in three years.

The intention behind the revision was commendable — Indonesia had been relying on a century-old criminal code which the Dutch drew up to police its then-colony, so it was about time for the code to be updated to reflect the realities of modern life.

But the clauses which received a nod from parliament — the most controversial of which ban cohabitation outside marriage, extramarital sex and insulting the president — certainly have a distinct whiff of sharia law about them, raising the question: Whose values do these laws aim to protect?

The passage of these clauses risks undermining the nation’s credentials as a model for democracies worldwide, for several reasons.

First, the approval of these clauses marks the return of what is known in Indonesia as “rubberband clauses” — vague codes whose definitions could be stretched to fit the accuser’s intention, be it for personal or political gains. These clauses place the burden of proof on the accused, meaning the onus is on the defendant to prove in a court of law that they did not in fact carry out a crime as accused by the plaintiff.

The question is, how does one set about proving that they did not carry out extramarital sex, without having to resort to invasive procedures that harms one’s personal privacy and dignity? It also raises questions as to how far the state can go to police an individual’s life — does the state have a role in policing morality?

The same concerns apply to the clause which bans insulting the president — whose standards will apply when it comes to judging whether a personal expression constitutes an insult? These are subjective questions which would bog down its justice system with even more petty cases, with people reporting each other over differing political opinions — which should be expected in a developed democracy anyway.

Second, these clauses show that Indonesia is becoming another country in the world that swings to the right, signs of an upcoming or resurgent radical ideology that pushes a few governments to take a more conservative line, which can sometimes clash with a democratic system.

Their rallying cries revolve around identity politics, with advocates for the revised criminal code, such as Deputy Justice Minister Edward Omar Sharief Hiariej, claiming the revisions needed to be passed to preserve “Indonesian values”. But what are these national identity values — so-called Indonesian values, or Thainess? In the first case, does this mean the ideal citizen does not live with their partner out of wedlock, engage in premarital sex and kowtows to the president?

For the latter, does Thainess mean behaving by the standards prescribed by the PM Prayut? Does “Thainess” mean Islamic villagers in the deep South need to follow the central government’s prescribed rules that are created to preserve “Thainess”, such as through the naming of streets?

To remain relevant as a model for democracy, Indonesia and countries that veer to the right need to ensure that the positive changes made to their legal system are not undermined by additions which are put in solely to please certain groups — especially ones which can be used to advance the personal and political interests of some individuals over others.

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