January 14th, 2008

The Legacy of Suharto


As Suharto lies in his bed on life support, and the buzz online about MM Lee visits over the weekend, mostly negative from the Singaporeans, it is timely to remember Suharto as he is.

Like many outsider to Indonesia who is less then 40 years old, my original perceptive of Suharto is a corrupted dictator who deserve his fate and a trial at court. After all, he and his family accumulated billions (by some estimates US$15-30b) in assets in a country whose income per capital is merely (PPP) US$4,000.

But since traveling to Indonesia in the last two years, making more friends and particularly interacting with older generation who remembers his regime, I realized I have being influenced by the western media perception far more than I admit.

MM Lee quote “Yes, there was corruption. Yes, he gave favors to his family and his friends. But there was real growth and real progress” is no further from the truth.

One has to remember Suharto took control in 1966 (a year which I haven’t been born), Indonesia was in hyperinflation, massive poverty, constant political conflict among fraction, and technical at war with its neighbors.

Over his regime between 1966 until 1998, Indonesia grow on average of 7% per annum with a population of 200M people. Experts estimate the percentage of Indonesians living below the poverty line shrunk from 60 percent to 11 percent and life expectancy improved by 20 years.*

Communism is active in the region back in 1966 and without Suharto, communism might be in control. Konfrontasi in opposition to the formation of Malaysia from the Federation of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore was the policy of confrontation from 1963 to 1966. The younger generation would not know the MacDonald House bombing of 1965. Suharto brought peace to the region by putting a stop to Konfrontasi.

More importantly, anecdotal from Indonesian who knows him, remember him as a hardworking thrifty man, who eat simple meal everyday. Some still believe his only fault is that he put too much support to his family who are the main benefactors of the corruption but not himself.

Suharto brought many Indonesia out of poverty (many has since fall below the poverty line again after 1997), bring economic reform and growth in an enormous large country of 200M people, political stability and peace in the Indonesia and the region. His downfall comes in the 90s where he began to make political mistakes.*

I am not trying to justify corruption is right or whether he should be pardon or not. But it is sad that the wikipedia entry of him mentions all his failures without remembering what he has done for the country and the region.

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