Sunday, January 20, 2008

End of the Line

As I write this on Monday, ex-president Suharto is in intensive care and has been given a 50-50 chance of survival. What does that mean when you are in your late 80s? Surely everyone's chances of survival are ultimately zero? The old boy's had a good innings though for sure. Certainly he made it to a riper old age than the million plus whose journeys ended in the orgy of violence of 1966, the catalyst that saw Mr S. rise to power in the first place.

Trying to gauge public opinion last week on everyone's favorite English language personal abuse forum, Jak Chat, I found mixed sentiments in evidence. There were those trying to cast the man's achievements as, "The father of development," in a favorable light to someone else's prediction that, "If you gave this man an enema you could bury him in a matchbox," (actually that one was mine but keep it under your hat). Some wit had posted up a little vignette involving SBY visiting the old boy in hospital and the ex-president wheezing like Darth Vader through his ventilator, "SBY... I am your father." Very witty Oscar, although possibly there is a serious point here behind the jape, namely Susilo BY's rather risible and offensive suggestion that the whole nation pray for Suharto. Not national awakening but a national wake.

In fact Mr. S has himself been thinking along spiritual lines and is reported to have had his bed turned in the direction of Mecca. In my secular humanist opinion though, his best bet would be to hope that the great bearded one in the sky doesn't exist and come join us lovable atheists down the pub. If not I reckon that it could be a trip down to the cellar for our man.

As for the father of development argument though, let's take a closer look at the evidence. During the 31 years that Mr S. was in power, the whole of the developing world, including this region, was also expanding at a fast clip. Many of those countries could be said to have made a better job of the whole deal than this one. The bloodshed and Indonesia's 1998 financial plummet are not great marks on the old man's celestial report card. The whole of the rich world was rushing to invest in Southeast Asia throughout the 70s and 80s and so did he have to do much more than stick up a sign at Sukarno-Hatta saying, "Indonesia now open for business, no more Konfrontasi or pinko shenanigans guaranteed folks."

Also, bearing in mind that about half of this country live below the UN mandated poverty line, you have to ask the question, "Development by who for who?" The almost nihilistic plundering of resources via the weapons of unfettered capitalism did indeed develop this nation. Only one resource was perhaps neglected - the human one. Perhaps though, the still lingering Suharto legacy of anti-intellectualism was a necessary precondition for facilitating the embezzlement of more money than any other leader in world history. Sounds logical to me.

However, I seem to be getting carried away with myself. What I really wanted to report was that last Monday I popped into Rumah Sakit Pertamina, handily near my office, to check out what was going on. Now, Pertamina Hospital is somewhere that I have myself spent time, although with slightly less media attention and, I would assert, considerably more repellent food at my disposal than the great helmsman. It was a slightly creepy nostalgia trip for me then.

When I arrived, the cameras, reporters and policemen were crowding the entrance and generally inconveniencing outpatients trying to get in for their checkups. I waited around for a bit to see what would happen and sure enough, after about 20 minutes, a fancy car pulled up and out stepped former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad. It was once said of the heavily eye lidded author Salman Rushdie that he resembles a hawk looking through a set of Venetian blinds. Mahatir, with his rather inscrutable, sour faced expression is seemingly cut from the same cloth in this respect.

Anyway, the old man shuffled in amid a mêlée of blazing flashbulbs and was gone. I decided to call it quits and headed back to the office for a bracing can of Pocari Sweat and a plate of rice (the champagne is still on ice you understand). It's strange though that this Indonesian media fascination with Mr S's inner workings, haemoglobin counts, colon condition and blood in faeces etc has been dragging on now for about five years. Why this obsession with the old man's guts? I reckon that at some unconscious level a lot of the Indonesian public dream of seeing this man eviscerated and feasted on by vultures.

Later, on Wikipedia, I learnt that during his early life, Mr S., "Is believed to have had little interest in anti-colonialism or political concerns beyond his immediate surroundings." This certainly makes sense if you believe that a lack of ideological underpinnings to a man's character can allow his corrupt side to run rampant. Wikipedia also informs inquisitive web surfers that, "Like many Javanese, Suharto has only one name." Well so do God, Sting, Satan and Cher; I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Ultimately, he was a wily man for sure and for three decades his method of co-opting a few of his more powerful opponents while criminalizing the rest proved a winning formula and one whose legacy is still with us. Keep praying everyone. See you next time.