Friday, June 22, 2012

The "Floating Mass" and the "Aspirations of Society"

Indonesia, with a population of 240 million people, is one of the largest democracies in the world.  It's also one of the world's youngest democracy; real contested elections only began in 1999 after the fall of longtime dictator Suharto, who used sham elections and ineffectual political parties to create a facade of democracy during his three-decade rule.  Now Indonesia has direct elections for all officials from the president on down to the heads of villages as well as direct elections of members of the national, provincial, and district assemblies.  Elections are hotly contested here and dozens of political parties have emerged over the past decade.  Democracy is blossoming, but there have been bumps in the road and the country still faces some obstacles to the development of a truly functioning representative government.  In the post I'm going to try out an idea I had the other night to put one of these obstacles into historical perspective. 

Massa Mengambang....

Indonesia declared independence from the Dutch in 1945 (1), and after a 4-year war it was recognized as a sovereign and independent country.  In the early to mid-1950s Indonesia had a democratic government, but political turmoil and regional rebellions led the country's first president, Sukarno, to suspend most democratic institutions and institute "guided democracy".  In 1965 Sukarno was deposed amidst a failed coup attempt, and Suharto, a general, took over.  Suharto ruled the country from 1966 until 1998.  During the first few years of his reign he focused on solidifying his hold on power and the development of a structure that would enable him to dominate the country for more than three decades.  From this point on the regime's political vehicle would be GOLKAR (Golongan Karya), an association of "functional groups" which began as a federation of non-government organizations (NGOs).  One of Suharto's associates, Ali Murtopo, reorganized GOLKAR into a political party, though the regime and GOLKAR always maintained that the body was not political.  Rather than getting mired in counterproductive political squabbling, GOLKAR and Suharto would focus on economic development and modernization.  Part of this philosophy was the notion of the people as a "floating mass" with no political role.  The floating mass doctrine banned the remaining parties from operating at the village level, which made them powerless to organize at the local level Instead the paternalistic government would carry out the will of the people.  In 1971 there was a general election for parliament in which GOLKAR triumphed over nine other political parties, but the election is universally accepted to have been rigged.  The victory gave GOLKAR the "mandate" and authority to re-elect Suharto as president in 1973.  By this time the fate of Indonesia's troubled "democracy" was sealed; in 1974 Suharto eliminated most political parties with the remaining parties serving as powerless puppets. 

Suharto 1993 picture from Wikipedia
During the Suharto years there were elections, but GOLKAR always prevailed.  The lack of real political contestation allowed the Suharto regime to impose its will on the Indonesian archipelago.  The New Order regime used repression to silence most opposition, and freedoms of expression, including the press were limited.  Though there were improvements in health, education, and economic development, these were accompanied by a high level of institutionalized corruption which still haunts the country.  The New Order was obsessed with the notions of "development" and "modernization" and devoted significant resources to megaprojects, mostly on the island of Java (2).  Many of these large development projects were less than successful, and a number of them resulted in environmental devastation.  The Indonesian idiom proyek mercusor ("lighthouse project") is used to describe these projects which were constructed more to illustrate the prestige of the regime rather than for the advancement of the country.

"Aspirasi Masyarakat"

"Aspirasi masyarakat" means "the aspirations of the people".  Basically it refers to the will of the citizenry in general; it's a general, ambiguous phrase that emphasizes the fact that the government should serve the people.  It is not something that can be measured or quantified, but is frequently used by candidates for office during their campaigns.  It also appears in formal legal documents like laws and regulations.  For example, we can see the principle of "aspirasi masyarakat" codified as the first criteria for the creation of new districts in government regulation 129/2000 (Peraturan Pemerintah 129/2000 Tentan Persyaratan Pembentukan dan Kriteria Pemekaran, Penghapusan dan Penggabungan Daerah):

Regional autonomy is an authority of the autonomous region to regulate and maintain the priorities of local society according to their own initiative based on the aspirations of society consistent with laws and regulations (3) 

We see another example in the first line of the legislation (Law 25/2008; UU25/2008 Tentang Pembentukan Kota Sungai Penuh di Provinsi Jambi) that created the administrative municipality of Sungai Penuh (where I live), split from its "mother district" of Kerinci:

Such that to spur development and progress in Jambi Province and especially Kerinci district and considering the presence of a growing aspiration within society, the must be an increase in the organization of government, implementation, development, and public service in order to hasten the realization of the prosperity of the people.... (4)

The aspirasi masyarakat discourse has long bothered me, but I couldn't quite put my finger on a specific reason why.  Last night though something clicked.  "Aspirasi masyarakat" is very similar to the "floating mass" in that it depoliticizes certain issues, placing them beyond the reach of contestation and placing them within an untouchable realm of universal goals or aims.  What this does is creates the impression that "society" is a homogenous block with easily identifiable goals.  Grad school types refer to this as "essentialization", which basically means simplifying a "group" of people or a complex concept with a few general or stereotypical words or phrases.  As you might imagine this is really useful to authoritarian regimes because it makes it easy for them to portray themselves as the guardians of the people while positioning opponents as "enemies of the people".  On the other hand it is contrary to the notion of representative democracy, which is characterized by pluralism and a multiplicity of ideas and opinions.  Indeed debate and the exchange of ideas is considered by most to be one of the most positive aspects of democracy because it enables "society" to grow.

It occurred to me that "aspirasi masyarakat" might be considered a holdover from the Suharto years.  This has some important ramifications for governance in Indonesia.

Practical Implications

During the time I've spent here doing my PhD dissertation research, I've noticed that the "aspirasi masyarakat" discourse features prominently in two issues that interest me: 1) administrative proliferation and 2) proposed road projects through Kerinci Seblat National Park.  I've discussed both of these issues in previous posts, but there seems to be one common feature in both debates about creating new districts and building roads through the park.  In both of these instances it turns out that there are few practical reasons to institute the policy (creating a new district or building a road through the park), and so "aspirasi masyarakat" is invoked by certain powerful interests that stand to gain from the "project".  But I think this is really, really bad for public policy.

Chart is from a UNDP report on administrative proliferation
in Indonesia
When Suharto was deposed, Indonesia pretty much did a 180-degree turn away from authoritarianism and decentralized most political and administrative power to the (then) nearly 300 districts and administrative municipalities in the country (5).  One important law that was passed (129/2000 which I quoted above) allowed for the creation of new districts and provinces for a number of reasons, among them to fulfill the "aspirations of the people", but also to improve participation in government and to increase economic development.  Administrative proliferation, known in Indonesian as pemekaran daerah spun out of control, and over the course of about 10 years several new provinces and over a hundred new districts and municipalities were formed.  My own research here (as well as that of other scholars in other places) shows that the main motivations for creating new administrative entities are to increase the number of civil servants (new districts need new mayors, planners, teachers, etc) and to increase the amount of money received from the federal government in the form of grants (6).  In addition, although the law requires studies to be done to support the new administrative unit, these studies don't seem to have much impact on the process.  An example of this is the study done when the Sungai Penuh-Kerinci split was still in the planning stages; although the study found that the area wasn't ready for such a split it happened anyway.  When you talk to people on the street about proposed new districts, most of them are in favor of it.  But what really happens is that it fuels corruption, because the many of the new civil servant positions are sold, and increases the total number of people employed by the government, which is usually considered a bad thing.  In most of the new districts the long-term economic outlooks are pretty bad.  Thus from the standpoint of public policy, in many cases pemekaran is bad.

Another example is roads through the park.  National parks are generally protected by federal or national law (hence the name), and in most cases it is difficult if not impossible for lower-level governments (state, province, county, parish, etc) to bypass the national law.  Roads in particular are very contentious and draw criticism from a number of quarters.  For example, in the US roads through parks can be challenged by th 1964 Wilderness Act, the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, the 1970 Clean Air Act, the 1972 Clean Water Act, and the 1973 Endangered Species Act.  In fact, in order to even propose a road through a park the interested government has to complete years and years of studies, including feasibility assessments and environmental impact statements.  For a good example you can google the North Shore Road through Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the US.  

Some of the 33 currently proposed roads that would
cut through the park
Instead here at Kerinci Seblat National Park district governments propose roads without providing data to support the project.  Rather they invoke the "aspirasi masyarakat" doctrine.  Opposition to the roads comes from two sources: 1) a small number of conservationists and environmentalists, who bring up the ecological damage the roads would cause, and the park, and 2) the park itself, which makes the legal argument that the roads are illegal and hence cannot be built.  The district governments then vilify the park as an obstacle to development, which is reflected in the press (7).  Though local conservation NGOs engage in some advocacy and pubic outreach, for the most part there is no counter to this one-sided portrayal of the issue, and so in the eyes of the majority of people the park is viewed as an enemy hamstringing local development. 

I say this represents a failing of public policy because environmental impact assessments, cost/benefit analyses, and other types of studies are essential in order to ensure that the benefits of a project outweigh the costs, both in terms of expenditure of public monies and damage to the environment.  In addition, these types of studies also help to determine whether the project is actually merited and is a legitimate expenditure of public funds.  This is an essential part of a functioning democracy, but it seems to be lacking here.  From the point of view of the park, this weakness opens another potential point of attack against the roads: that the government has not done its due diligence to ensure that "society's" money isn't spent haphazardly or on useless projects like those that were common during the Suharto years.  I know of at least one case in which the park is being scapegoated for preventing a road being built, when in fact even before the park was established the same road was rejected by the provincial government because it would cost too much to build it.  

Thus the roads through the park are not just a bad idea because of the environmental havoc they would wreak, but because they represent a deviation from one of the core missions of a democratic government. My basic point is that while "aspirasi masyarakat" is an appropriate guiding principle for government, but it should not be a primary criteria for policy formation, because it leads to the ignoring of other, very important considerations.  This lack of logic needs to be challenged so that Indonesia's new democracy can continue to develop and grow.  


(1) Indonesia's national day, August 17, commemorates this initial declaration.

(2)  Java is home to the majority of Indonesia's population.  It is the most densely populated island and is the homeland of both Suharto and Sukarno.  The national capital, Jakarta, is located on Java.

 (3)  "Otonomi Daerah adalah kewenangan Daerah Otonomi untuk mengatur dan mengurus kepentingan masyarakat setempat menurut prakarsa sendiri berdasarkan aspirasi masyarakat sesuai dengan peraturan-perundangan..."

(4) "...bahwa untuk memacu perkembangan dan kemajuan Provinsi Jambi pada umumnya dan Kabupaten Kerinci pada khusunya serta adanya aspirasi yang berkembang dalam masyarakat, perlu dilakukan peningkatan penyelenggaraan pemerintahan, pelaksanaan pembangunan, dan pelayanan publik guna mempercepat terwujudnya kesejahteraan masyarakat"

(5)  Now there are nearly 500.

(6)  All districts, provinces, and administrative municipalities receive a couple of big grants from the central government each year.  If you take one district and turn it into two, you are dramatically increasing the amount of funds you get from the central government.

(7)  Though the press in Indonesia is "free", most local and a significant number of regional reporters lack training in journalism.  Moreover it is widely accepted that reporters accept bribes for favorable coverage on political issues.


  1. The use of nebulous and ill-defined terms such as 'aspirasi masyarakat' is always detrimental to intelligible political discourse. It certainly shouldn't be both necessary and sufficient for policy decisions. But while I agree with both of these points, the use of essentially meaningless catchphrases as rallying cries is a direct product of the democratic political system. In a functioning democracy the citizenry has the power to dictate how decisions are made. If an official is to accomplish their goals, whether selfish or samaritan, they must perforce court public opinion. Unfortunately there isn't a nation on earth with a sufficiently educated and rational population to reject candidates that employ the often nonsensical terms bandied about in speeches, debates, and interviews. A logical and realistic platform won't get you elected, so in order to put yourself in a position to actually achieve anything you must play the game. I don't see an end to this interaction without a fundamental change to how humans make decisions- and without a truly astounding educational initiative on a massive scale, that will never happen. So for now, the U.S.A. will pursue aggressive foreign policy in the name of Liberty, and Indonesia will bulldoze rainforest because it is 'aspirasi masyarakat.'

  2. Hi Dustin. Good points. But I think the level of meaningless catchphrases is probably related to the level of education within the population, and one would hope that the level of education increases over time. And even in the US, where, at least in my opinion, public awareness is fairly low, there is a pretty high level of effectiveness in government compared with a lot of places. In Indonesia the level of effectiveness in governance is pretty low, and corruption is very high. I personally hope that as education levels there increase that this situation will change.

  3. Aspirasi Masyarakat seems like it was just an illusion or just a phrase used to make the people feel like they are in charge. In my opinion Aspirasi Masyarakat is a safety net but with big holes in it because during the Suharto years many of the developmental project were on the island of Java and many was not an success! This development however was more for the show case of power of the regime rather than development of the country.