By Paul Keating
MORE than any figure in the post-World War II period, including any American president, former president Suharto, by his judgment, goodwill and good sense, had the greatest positive impact on Australia's strategic environment and, hence, on its history.
In the 40 years since he came to power in 1965, Indonesia has been the ballast in South-east Asian stability, and the foundation stone upon which Asean was built.
Mr Suharto took a country of 120 million people, racked by political turmoil and poverty, from near disintegration to the orderly, ordered and prosperous state that it is today.
In 1965, countries such as Nigeria and Zimbabwe were in the same position as Indonesia then. Today, those countries are economic and social wrecks. By contrast, Indonesia is a model of harmony, cohesion and progress. And the principal reason for that is Mr Suharto.
We can only imagine what Australia's strategic position would be like if Indonesia's 230 million people degenerated into a fractured lawless state reminiscent of Nigeria or Zimbabwe.
For the past 40 years, we have been spending roughly 2 per cent of GDP on defence - about A$20 billion (S$25 billion) a year in today's dollars. That figure would be more like seven to eight times that, about A$150 billion today, if Indonesia had become a fractured, politically stricken state.
Had General Suharto's New Order government not displaced the Sukarno government and the massive PKI communist party, the post-war history of Australia would have been completely different. A communist-dominated Indonesia would have destabilised Australia and all of South-east Asia.
So why have Australians regarded Indonesia so suspiciously, especially over the past quarter-century, when it is evident that Indonesia has been at the fulcrum of our strategic stability?
I think the answer is Timor and the wilful reporting of Indonesian affairs in Australia by the Australian press.
This rancour and the misrepresentation of the true state of Indonesian social and economic life can be attributed to the 'get square' policy of the Australian media for the deaths of the 'Balibo Five' - the five Australian journalists who were encouraged to report from a war zone by their irresponsible proprietors and who were shot and killed by the Indonesian military in Timor.
This event was sheeted back to Mr Suharto by journalists of the broadsheet press. From that moment, in their eyes, he became a cruel and into-
lerant repressor whose life's work in saving Indonesia from destruction was to be viewed only through the prism of Timor.
Rarely did journalists ever mention that Mr Suharto was president for 10 years before he did anything about Timor. He was happy to leave the poverty-stricken and neglected enclave in his archipelago to Portugal, with its 300-year history of hopeless colonisation. Mr Suharto had enough trouble dragging Indonesia out of poverty without needing to tack on another backward province.
But in mid-1975, communist-allied military officers took control in Portugal, and its colonies abroad were taken over by avowedly Marxist regimes. In Timor, a leftist group calling itself the Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of East Timor, or Fretilin, staged a coup, igniting a civil war.
When Fretilin overran the colony by force, Mr Suharto's government became alarmed. This happened at the height of the Cold War. Saigon had fallen in April that year. Fretilin then appealed to China and Vietnam for help. Fearing a 'Cuba on his doorstep', Mr Suharto reluctantly decided on military intervention.
In his 32 years as president, he embarked upon no other 'foreign' exploit. And he would not have bothered with Timor had Fretilin not made the going too rough.
Indeed, resistance leader Jose Ramos-Horta told The Sydney Morning Herald in 1996 that 'the immaturity, irresponsibility and bad judgment of the East Timorese provoked Indonesia into doing what it did'. Rebel leader Xanana Gusmao also told anyone who would listen that it had been a 'bad mistake' for Fretilin to present itself as a Marxist outfit in 1975.
But none of this stopped a phalanx of Australian journalists from reporting Indonesian affairs through the warped and shattered prism of Timor.
The Sydney Morning Herald even editorialised in favour of an Australian invasion of Timor, then Indonesian territory. That is, it urged the Australian government to invade Indonesia.
Even as late as this week, the paper claimed that the achievements of Mr Suharto's New Order government 'were built on sand'. It cited as evidence Indonesia reeling from crisis to crisis after 1998, though it knows Mr Suharto did precisely the right thing in calling in the International Monetary Fund to help, and that the IMF, operating under US Treasury prescriptions, kicked the country and Mr Suharto to pieces.
The economic decline of Indonesia after 30 years of 7 per cent compound growth under Mr Suharto had little to do with him and everything to do with the Asian financial crisis and the short- sighted and ill-informed IMF.
But more than that, Australian journalists knew but failed to effectively communicate that not only did Mr Suharto hold his country together, he also insisted that Indonesia be a secular state - that is, a Muslim country but not an Islamic or fundamentalist one. In other words, not an Iran.
One would imagine that such an issue would be a matter of high and primary importance to communicate to the Australian community. That there was on our doorstep a secular Indonesian state and not a religious one run by syariah law. And wouldn't one, in all reasonableness, give Mr Suharto full marks for keeping that vast archipelago as a civil society unrepressed by fundamentalism?
Consider what happened to us in Bali at the hands of a handful, literally a handful, of Islamic fundamentalists. Imagine the turmoil for Australia if the whole 230 million of Indonesians had a fundamentalist objection to us.
But this jaded bunch of Australian journalists could only report how Mr Suharto was corrupt because his son Tommy might have elbowed his way into some equity with an American te-
lephone company or his daughter had something to do with a road builder. In terms of the weight of Australia's interests, the deeds of Mr Suharto's public life massively outweigh anything in his private affairs.
I got to know Mr Suharto quite well. He was clever and utterly decisive, and had a kind view of Australia. The peace and order of his country, its religious and ethnic tolerance and the peace and the order of South-east Asia came from his goodwill towards neighbouring states and from his wisdom. He was self-effacing and shy to a fault. One had to tease him out of himself to get him going, but once he got going, his intellectualism took over.
Mr Suharto lived in what we would call in Australia a rather old and shabby McMansion in Jakarta. I have been there on a number of occasions. He lived as simply as anyone of his high standing could live.
But Time magazine claimed that Mr Suharto has stashed away US$30 billion odd (S$43 billion), as if those ning nongs would know, presumably so he could race off to live it up in Miami or in the Bahamas. Errant nonsense!
Mr Suharto was an Indonesian who was always going to remain an Indonesian. He lived a simple life and could never have changed that.
I do not doubt that his rapacious family had the better of him and got away with lumps of capital that they had not earned. Mr Suharto was a disciplined leader, but not a disciplined father. But to compare him with the likes of Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos is nothing short of dastardly.
The descriptions of Mr Suharto as a brutal dictator living a corrupt high life at the expense of his people and running an expansionist military regime are untrue. Even his annexation of Timor was not expansionist. It had everything to do with national security and nothing to do with territory.
Like all leaders, Mr Suharto had his failings. His greatest failing was to underestimate the nature of the society he had nurtured. His economic stewardship not only led to food sufficiency, improvements in education and health and declines in infant mortality, they also gave rise to a middle class as incomes rose.
Mr Suharto should have let political representation grow as incomes grew. But he distrusted the political classes. He believed they would not put the national interest first, had no administrative ability and were utterly indecisive, if not corrupt. He told me this on a number of occasions.
He would not let go of the reins. Partly because he did not want to lose them, partly because he really had no one to give them to.
Mr Suharto's problem was that he had too little faith in his own people, the very people he cared for most.
Whatever political transition he may have wished to have had, it all blew up on him with the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. He had no democratic transition in place, and in the economic chaos, political forces wanted him to go.
In January 1998, nearly two years after I had left the prime ministership of Australia, I flew to Jakarta to see him the day he signed the IMF agreement with then IMF managing director Michel Camdessus.
The IMF had tragically overplayed its hand the previous November, and Mr Suharto was giving it a chance to dig itself out of a hole. He had a small window of opportunity.
I thought that as a former head of government who was on friendly terms with him, I at least owed him advice of a kind I knew he would never get inside Indonesia: To take the opportunity of the IMF interregnum to say that he, Suharto, would contest the next election, but that he would not complete the term. That he would stay long enough to see the IMF reforms in place and then hand the presidency over to his vice-president.
Had he taken this advice, the process of political transformation would have been orderly. A new administration would have been in a position to set up the organs of democracy.
I discussed this issue with then Singapore prime minister Goh Chok Tong and then senior minister Lee Kuan Yew, both of whom had Mr Suharto and Indonesia's best interests at heart.
Both gentlemen believed that I was in a better position to broach this subject with president Suharto than either of them. For two hours, I met him in his house with his state secretary, Mr Moerdiano, and his interpreter Widodo.
Fifteen minutes into the conversation, while I was making the case why he should step down, he stopped Widodo's translation and took my advice in English directly. Mr Moerdiano said to me in an aside at the door: 'I think you have got him.'
Mr Suharto followed me to the door, put his arms around my shoulders and said 'God bless you' as I left. As it turned out, I didn't quite have him, and he hung on thinking he could slip through one more time.
But the crisis and the behaviour of the IMF and the US Treasury had marooned him. Completely determined to act constitutionally, he turned over his singular power, on his own initiative, to his vice-president to avoid any upheaval of the kind Indonesia had experienced during earlier transitions.
When Attorney-General Robert McClelland and I arrived in Indonesia for his funeral last Monday, we drove the 30-odd kilometres from the airport at Solo to the mausoleum where he would be buried alongside his wife. For not 1m of that distance was there no person present.
In some places, they would be six and eight deep, all holding their baskets of petals to throw at his cortege. They all knew they were burying the builder of Indonesian society, and all felt the moment.
How many Australian leaders would have a million or so people grieve for them beside the roadway? Mr Suharto's funeral was a tribute to what his life truly meant.
I felt honoured to have been there - but more than that, to have known him.
The writer is a former prime minister of Australia.
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