Being a politician in the Indonesian government, whether it be during the Soeharto era or the respective governments that followed, is one job I just would not do.
But there is one politician who has been through all the governments and at the age of 70 years, is still going strong. Ridwan Max Sijabat interviewed this enigmatic politician.
Sabam Sirait: Democracy euphoria disrupts public life
Ridwan Max Sijabat, Jakarta
At the age of 70, senior politician Sabam Sirait gives no signs of retiring from politics any time soon.
“I’m quite strong. (Besides) I’m still trusted by the people and my party to represent them in the parliament,” said Sabam, an Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) member on House Commission I in charge of, among other things, defense.
And to celebrate his 70th birthday, the father of three sons and one daughter launched a book, Meniti Demokrasi di Indonesia (Developing Democracy in Indonesia). Many prominent figures, including former presidents Abdurrachman Wahid and Megawati Soekarnoputri, came to the launch.
There is no doubt that Sabam, known as a man of principle among politicians and state officials and a smiling friend among PDI-P colleagues, has the authority to write about how democracy has slowly taken root in the world’s largest Muslim country.
Since his studies at the University of Indonesia in the 1950s, the husband of Sondang Sidabutar has been known as a pro-democracy activist and a member of the Indonesian Christian Student Movement (GMKI). In 1967, he was elected a member of the Gotong Royong House of Representatives representing the Indonesian Christian Party (Parkindo).
After serving as a legislator for two periods from 1973 to 1983, he was appointed by then president Soeharto as a member of the now defunct Supreme Advisory Board (DPA) for almost 10 years.
When he returned to the House of Representatives in 1992, Sabam made history by interrupting a plenary session of the People’s Consultative Assembly, the country’s highest legislative body. While interruptions are a common democratic practice, it was anathema during Soeharto’s leadership.
“The undemocratic decision-making process encouraged me to stand up and move closer to the chairman of the plenary session to raise an interruption because many crucial issues were not deliberated in ad hoc committees. I was aware of the risk of being arrested by military personnel in charge of maintaining security in the parliament compound,” Sabam said.
Soeharto stepped down in 1998 after ruling the country for more than three decades and the country now enjoys much more freedom now. But according to Sabam, Indonesians have taken democracy to another extreme.
“We have given too much emphasis to our rights, instead of our own obligations. All parties are busy fighting for their own interests and forget to pursue national interests,” he said.
The following is excerpt of a recent interview with Sabam at his office in the House building.
How do you assess democracy in the country?
Our democracy is moving too fast and it has gone off track, creating confusion among the people. Some quarters in society are pursuing their rights but are ignoring their obligations. There is almost no space for public life. We observe how the majority group has forced its interests in the name of religion and institutionalized them through policies, both at the central government and regional administrations.
Democracy is not the majority’s tyranny over the minority. Some people have the illusion that freedom means they are free to do anything they like. Democracy should assume national discipline, rule of law and accept differences in opinion and pluralism.
Democracy in the country has benefited the elite group only, while the people, especially those living in rural areas, have been left out. It seems to me the people have become objects in the country’s democratization process. The national press have also exploited the freedom. Almost all things, including privacy issues, have been covered and manipulated by the press.
Why has it gone to that extreme?
We’re giving too much emphasis on our rights instead of our obligations. All sides are busy fighting for their interests and forget to pursue national interests. We have to balance our rights with our obligations. All national policies, including the law, must reflect the interests of the public at large.
How do you compare current democratic practices with practices during founding president Sukarno’s leadership?
Following our independence in 1945, we were so familiar with rembug desa in Java, nagari in West Sumatra, huria in Tapanuli, marga in South Sumatra, subag in Bali and similar names in other regions, in which people practiced democracy in decision-making. At the national level, we had the so-called people’s congress.
The rural democratic system was killed during the New Order as Soeharto centralized virtually everything. Once Soeharto pressed the button in Jakarta, it would certainly reach all villages across the country just one minute later.
Informal leaders who were playing important roles during the Old Order were no longer functioning after their role was taken over by civil servants and the military, which supported the authoritarian regime. We had only three political parties — Golkar Party, the United Development Party (PPP) and the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). The last two were, however, barred from establishing networks in rural areas, while Golkar had wide access to rural areas through civil servants and the military. As the old democratic practices have long disappeared, parties have difficulty reviving democratic traditions.
Why did you oppose the democracy introduced by Soeharto?
Soeharto introduced a pseudo-democracy with a militaristic-style government. The military, which co-founded Golkar, was involved in a political conspiracy to kill democracy and maintain the status quo. The militarism developed by Soeharto sparked strong criticism from the international community and it led me to tell the public, “No pardon for Golkar and the military.” I did realize the risk of being killed for making that statement, but we could no longer endure the systematic shackling of democracy.
Democracy died when all political parties were forced to fuse into the PPP and PDI (in 1977), and the people were barred from expressing their political aspirations and criticizing the regime and its policies. Security was heightened so tightly that nobody was allowed to express their own opinion to ensure a rapid economic growth whose results benefited a small number of people and Soeharto’s cronies, while the majority remained mired in poverty.
How does your party fight for democracy in the House?
PDI Perjuangan came second in the 2004 legislative election and as such it could not do much in the face of the biggest faction, Golkar, and the other factions. Many political moves have been launched to channel the people’s political aspirations but they were dropped by other parties.
Why didn’t your party take the opposition line?
Officially, PDI-P does not take the opposition line, but in practice it has become an opposition party. PDI-P does not join the government and has been critical of government policies.
What is your comment on the House’s performance?
The House does not perform well because it is still searching for an appropriate format. It has set up a special committee to carry out an in-depth study on what it should do to improve its performance. The number of special committees should be added to read bills prepared by the House or submitted by the government so that it can reach its annual legislative target. All commissions should be supported by expert staff and researchers, so that they can produce quality laws and speed up bill deliberations.
A bigger part of the House’s budget should be allocated to paying for expert staff and research activities so that we will no longer see laws endorsed by the House annulled by the Constitutional Court.
House members should realize their status as public officials more than as party representatives, and legislators’ budgets should be audited by independent auditors to make them accountable and help eradicate corruption and abuses.
Legislators now receive relatively high salaries. What is your comment?
Legislators must be well paid to prevent moonlighting, but they too have to improve their productivity and do their job according to the Constitution and work hard to fight for the aspirations of their constituents over their party’s interests.
Why are legislators now less militant in fighting for their constituents’ interests?
Most legislators are still poor and less qualified and this has a lot to do with a lack of political education among party members. Many people are disappointed with PDI Perjuangan and this is why it failed to win the 2004 legislative election. Most PDI-P cadres were uneducated, such as hoodlums, becak drivers, farmers and bus drivers. PDI-P is now busy providing political education and training in regions to make its members literate in politics.
Being a member of the defense commission, how do you assess Indonesia’s defense and security condition?
Indonesia is the biggest nation in ASEAN but the poorest and worst in the region in terms of its defense system. Our arms system is out of date and military personnel really lack professionalism. Our armed forces would be defeated in hours if Indonesia was involved in an armed conflict with Singapore, an islet state in ASEAN, or Malaysia. For example, our armed forces could not do much in defending Ambalat Island off East Kalimantan from Malaysia’s claim several years ago.
The low defense budget, involvement in politics and business have contributed to the military’s poor and less-than professional performance. Indonesia still uses arms and war machines produced in the 1960s and despite the current supply of modern arsenals and war machines from Russia, they are still below the minimum need.
What do you think of military development in the future?
The Army should no longer play a dominant role as it has. Based on the country’s geographic condition and our current defense doctrine, we have to revive the Navy and the Air Force. The Navy has to have an adequate number of patrol boats, different types of warships and submarines to protect our large sea territory. Similarly, the Air Force has to start applying sophisticated technology and have modern warplanes to support the national defense from the air.
The most important thing is Indonesia has to start developing its own defense industry by increasing its annual defense budget and enhancing bilateral cooperation with developed countries. We have an aircraft industry and arms factory in Bandung, West Java, and a shipyard in Surabaya. The industries could be developed in cooperation with relevant non-department agencies such as the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Research and Technology Development Agency (BPPT), National Nuclear Agency and Aerospace Agency and the private sector to develop the defense industry.
Why do you think the military seems to be reluctant to accept civilian supremacy?
It still has psychological hurdles in accepting civilian supremacy due to its powerful position for more than three decades during the New Order era. If President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has a strong political commitment, he should put the military under the Defense Ministry and the TNI commander should no longer be in a position equal to a minister. Similarly, the National Police should be under the supervision of the home minister.
You seem to enjoy playing politics. Why?
My big family was quite familiar with politics and the media. Although my father was a civil servant during the colonial era, he was active in political struggles for independence. He often brought me to attend political meetings in my hometown in Pematang Siantar during the colonial era. I subscribed to Mimbar Umum daily for three years in Medan, North Sumatra, in the 1950s.
When I was studying at high school in Medan, I was active in a student movement opposing the Dutch colonialists and I was several times invited to attend political meetings in Pematang Siantar. During my study at the law school at the University of Indonesia, I was a student activist and involved in political discussions with former Army general TB Simatupang and many other national intellectuals.
After completing my studies, I remained active in the National Student Movement (GMNI) and joined the Indonesian Christian Party (Parkindo). When former president Soeharto forced political parties to fuse in 1973, I joined the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) and was entrusted to be its first secretary-general. Up to now I remain active in PDI Perjuangan and a member of the party’s advisory board.
Who are your political gurus?
My uncle and my former professors at the University of Indonesia and TB Simatupang. My uncle Situmorang is a former regent of North Tapanuli
Who is your idol in politics?
Founding president Sukarno although I was personally not close to him. He was a nationalist and a charismatic figure and leader. Apart from his weaknesses, he was the founding president and a leading intellectual in democracy. I admire Lintong Sitorus, a figure from the Indonesian Socialist Party, and Muhammad Roem and Amir Syarifuddin.
When were you married?
I married Sondang Sidabutar, also a member of Parkindo in Medan, in 1967, as a requirement to become secretary-general of the party. After the marriage, I attended the party’s congress and was elected secretary-general.
Did your wife support you in developing your career in politics?
Yes, she did. I am very proud of her because she has never complained about financial problems and my activities in politics, and she was very tough in educating our children. Our four children completed graduated from university and my second son received his doctorate overseas. And I am happy that I have many grandchildren.
Are any of your children active in politics?
My eldest son Maruarar Sirait has been active in the PDI-P. He is now a member of the party’s executive board and a member of the finance commission at the House. My youngest son Johan Bhakti Porsea Sirait is also active in the student movement Forum Kota (Forkot).
What advice do you give to them?
They know me well and what I did when I was young. But we have often been involved in political discussions. I am proud of them but I always advise them to be careful and consistent in defending their political stance.
Ridwan Max Sijabat