Indonesia needs to build up its international credibility

The Jakarta Post
26 October 2004

In a recent article for a major Jakarta newspaper, economist Faisal Basri warned President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to preserve the moral capital that is the major endowment of his government. This is a very important message. A singular effort needs to be specifically aimed at building up, not just preserving, Indonesia's international credibility.

Undoubtedly President Susilo starts his term with ample moral capital. This is highlighted by the fact that for the first time in Indonesian history, leaders of other nations personally attended the inauguration of the new President. In some cases it was even the foreign leaders who took the initiative in coming to Jakarta to show their support for the Susilo presidency.

International credibility is made both within Indonesia as well as in locations around the globe. It all hinges on proper means of communications in almost equal importance to the substance of the policies and actions actually pursued by the government. There are signs that within Indonesia, President Susilo will be represented by a communications organization in the presidential office, which is already being colloquially dubbed as the "West Wing" of the Presidential palace.

But a special strategy will be required to gain credibility in the global marketplace. In the world at large, it is plain to be seen that the medium is the message. An important feature of the medium is credible spokespersons and effective communication symbols. The reactions of the media overseas can often be very different from the domestic Indonesian media.

As an example, while then-President Abdurrahman Wahid was receiving daily condemnation from the Indonesian press during the last days of his presidency in 2001, the Australian press received daily briefings in Sydney. This resulted in a strong appreciation of Wahid's importance as a leader who was attempting to transform values in Indonesia in the direction of pluralism and humanism. The essence of this example is that there are always positive aspects to be highlighted even in the darkest periods of public mistrust.

Take the case of the current state of Susilo's credibility. Faisal Basri is just one of many people who have been critical of the composition of the Cabinet and the President's perceived indecision and politicking. International spectators are no doubt also skeptical of the new Cabinet, but their concerns do not necessarily parallel the concerns of the Indonesian public.

They are not concerned with individual ministers or by the murky politics of Cabinet horse-trading, and no doubt they may be worried that the first impressions they have of the new President, which are positive, might turn out to be followed by disappointment as the anticipated changes fails to happen quickly. In the case of Indonesia, the public watch the political behavior of SBY (as the President is familiarly known). But observers abroad, especially those involved in decision-making, will look at the overall performance of Indonesia, and its ability to realize the enormous potential of this vast archipelago.

The message abroad should be that the Indonesian nation is getting stronger because the democratic process has worked. It is getting stronger because the people have been empowered. Indonesia is a stronger nation because public confidence has overcome state driven violence. We are now applying public confidence to the battle against international terrorism, and we need international support in giving us the benefit of the doubt.

While many economic recovery programs have failed, the grassroots economy is flourishing because state and private monopolies have come under public scrutiny. The fight against corruption has become the public's priority; in fact, the government is reminded every day by the media of the need to prioritize effective action against corruption.

In light of these signs of improvements, Indonesia is not totally dependent on the President. As long as SBY stays true to his stated principles, he may remain moderate if he so wishes, while the people supply the principal impetus for reform. It is a new nation, and SBY is just the entrusted leader for the next five years. This kind of message will increase international confidence. Foreign investors should be assured that we want a level playing field, legal certainty and physical security. Indonesian ambassadors and spokespersons should carry this message to the world.

Lastly, to create an effective communications presence abroad, SBY must have a team working on the principles of communications. People who understand that messages should be tailored to the cultural idioms of the recipients. Ambassadors who know their country of assignment almost as well as they know their home country. People who will defend the nation's image regardless of their partisan sympathies. The old paradigms of international public relations are outdated. No more investment missions abroad, no more duplication of domestic political messages to an international audience, no more loyalties that overshadow loyalty to the new Indonesia.

Faisal Basri mentioned a phrase used by Mahatma Gandhi, abhayam mitra. He says it means "do not be afraid of your friends," which says that as long as you are on the side of the people, do not worry about getting the support of the people around you. Faisal was referring to the pressures SBY reacted to in the formation of the Cabinet.

In the same article, Faisal quoted The Economist as commenting, "(Indonesia's new president) Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (...) is a hard man to read. During the month-long transition between his election and inauguration, he consulted such a motley array of advisers that it was impossible to tell where his own instincts lay on any given subject. His public statements, although unobjectionable, were studiously vague. Many pundits were hoping that he would at last reveal his true colors when he announced his Cabinet. The President's choices (of his Cabinet members) and his intentions remain frustratingly ambiguous. The economic team is equally muddled".

We do not need to defend SBY against this criticism. But we must place the increasingly negative opinions in the perspective of more important positive directions in Indonesian nationhood, the growth of democracy and public confidence. Context and background are what Indonesia's spokespeople should be spreading throughout the world to get the positive side of SBY presidency across.

* The writer is a communications advisor and founder of InterMatrix Communication, Jakarta.

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