03 June 2021


If you don't know the past, you will never understand the present or the future -- especially in the case of Indonesia, as Glen Robinson reminds us in this article.

Indonesia, that frequently mis-understood country just to the north of Australia, has had a very checkered history, and a very checkered connection to Australia.  Given the path it has trodden, or perhaps been forced to tread, its position in the world is quite surprising, it should not even exist, and the fact that it does, is testament to the tenacity of both the leaders and the populace.  This article tracks the high points in Indonesian leadership history, taking a very helicopter view without too much analysis, but it does track the leadership of the country.


Indonesia is somewhat of an enigma, having had a checkered, and sometimes violent history at the hands of others, and yet it faces the world with confidence, an exceptionally large economy, a [reasonably] stable population, and it is expected to be one of the largest world economies within 20 years.  Given the demographics and the history, the country should not exist, but it prospers.  The following paragraphs trace the history.

COLONIAL PERIOD. Indonesia was occupied by the Dutch for over 300 years [from approx. 1620 to 1945] It was a period of hardship for the indigenous Indonesians, as they were very restricted in which activities could engage.  They were very restricted in their education, not permitted into any commercial activities, residential locations were restricted, and they were restricted in their employment activities.  Given that the Dutch had targeted Indonesia for its agricultural potential, the local Indonesians were “encouraged” to work in the agricultural production and processing areas.

The Dutch chose to control the indigenous population by engaging the local Chinese population to act as “warders”. It was not a popular action as it placed the ethnic Chinese at total odds with the indigenous Indonesians, and at the time the Chinese population was relatively small around 2% of the total.

From the Australian viewpoint, the whole arrangement was quite comfortable with the Indonesian archipelago supplying incredible quantities of agricultural products back to Europe, and it did not take a lot of control because of the structure, and further, we were protected by the White Australia Policy. To our north was a sprawling Dutch colony of some 17,000 islands with which we had little contact.

The East Indies, as the Dutch government in Indonesia was called, benefitted immensely from the Indonesian activities, as the system did nothing to provide any benefits for the Indonesian people. An increasing commercial role was played by Chinese immigrants, engaged in tax collection, moneylending, and small trading. But in 1942 the fall of Singapore changed everything.  The Dutch administrators of East Indies fled to Australia together with thousands of Indonesian soldiers, sailors, and political prisoners. By war’s end Australian people were strongly supporting Indonesian Independence claims to prevent the return of the Dutch, and Australia defied its wartime allies Britain, Holland, and the US in favour of an Asian neighbour fighting for its Independence.

Australia’s role in the dramatic birth of the Republic of Indonesia is largely unknown or forgotten, as it was a coming-of-age story for both nations. It was a time of civil unrest, bloody warfare, diplomatic wrangling, and final collapse of a vast empire that changed both Australia and our region forever. There are stories of “almost warfare” against the British as we supported the emerging nation.  The fall of the East Indies to Japan early in 1942 broke the continuity of Dutch rule and provided a completely new environment for nationalist activity.   The Japanese policies fluctuated according to the requirements of the war, but in general their primary object was to make the East Indies serve Japanese war needs. The Japanese and military authorities in Java found it convenient to use Indonesians in many administrative positions, which gave them opportunities which had been denied them under the Dutch.

On Aug. 17, 1945, after the news of the Japanese surrender had been confirmed, Sukarno proclaimed Indonesia an independent republic.

One of Australia’s diplomats went to great lengths to have Indonesia admitted into the United Nations, and to this day his name is held in incredibly high regard in the country.  The Republic of Indonesia obtained its independence in 1946, this was a surprise to the Europeans, particularly the British, and they accepted the independence, the presidency of Sukarno, and the short-term parliament.


General Soekarno [often Sukarno] was President from 1945 to 1967.  He was extremely popular, firmly establishing the democratic principles in the country, and firmly established Indonesia as an independent country.  This was achieved against severe competition and opposition from the Dutch, British and Japanese at various times and with varying degrees of seriousness.

During the 2nd world war, the country was under Japanese occupation until Japan was defeated by the allied forces and had to surrender.  During that time there was considerable angst and struggle between the 3 foreign countries and Soekarno to run the country, and eventually he prevailed.

He is credited with creating the Pancasila, the 5 fundamentals of the Indonesian mantra. Once again there was considerable argument over the 5 issues, but his view prevailed.  One of his important achievements was the formation of the “united” Indonesia from the disparate 300 plus groupings, together with the adoption of the Bahasa language, a significant achievement given that the population was spread over 8000 islands.  These 2 matters, the Pancasila and Bahasa language are the foundation of the unity of the country, as without both, the country probably would not exist.

Sukarno's attention was turned to the world stage and he embarked on a series of policies to increase Indonesia's international prestige. These anti-imperialist and anti-Western policies were also designed to unite the diverse and fractious Indonesian people.

In 1965, six of Indonesia's most senior army generals were assassinated, and Sukarno's cabinet was disbandment to be replaced by Suharto. Surprisingly, Sukarno agreed and allowed Suharto to take control.  At this stage Soekarno had lost control of the military, political Islam, communists, and nationalists all of which had previously which had basically supported his influence, had effectively collapsed. He remained in house arrest and retained the title of President until March 1967.


He was President of Indonesia from 1967 to 1998. His rule gave Indonesia the much-needed political stability and sustained economic growth, but his authoritarian regime finally fell victim to an economic downturn and its own internal corruption.

In his early days, he joined the Dutch colonial army and then, after the Japanese conquest in 1942, switched to a Japanese-sponsored home defense corps, receiving training as an officer. With Japan’s surrender in 1945, he fought in the guerrilla forces seeking independence from the Dutch. By the time Indonesia became a republic in 1950, Suharto had distinguished himself as a battalion commander in central Java and achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel. Over the next 15 years he rose steadily through the ranks of the Indonesian army, becoming a colonel in 1957, a brigadier general in 1960, and a major general in 1962.

As President, Suharto instituted a policy called the New Order, in which Western investment and foreign aid were encouraged, and Indonesia’s domestic oil production was greatly expanded, with the resulting revenues used to fund infrastructure and development projects. In foreign affairs, he pursued an anticommunist, pro-Western stance. Indonesia rejoined the United Nations (from which Sukarno had withdrawn), and in 1967 it became a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Indonesia’s economy grew an average of 7 percent annually, and living standards rose substantially, education and mass literacy programs were used to propagate the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, and to unify the country’s disparate ethnic groups and scattered islands. These successes were marred by the inequitable distribution of the nation’s expanding wealth, as his friends and six children assumed control of key sectors of the economy and amassed enormous fortunes by means of monopolies and lucrative trade arrangements.

In 1997, the GFC exposed the deep flaws in the national economy, but Suharto resisted demands for structural reforms even as the economy went into recession. There were anti-government riots in the major cities during 1998, and Suharto, having lost the support of the military, was forced to resign the Presidency on May 21.


In the ensuing 23 years Indonesia has had 5 Presidents, as follows:

Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie [B.J. Habibie]1998 to 1999

Upon being appointed President, he liberalized Indonesia's press and political party laws, and held an election three years earlier than scheduled, which resulted in the end of his Presidency. However, he oversaw and protected the democratic process, and released thousands of political prisoners.

Abdurrahman Wahid [Gus Du] October 1999 to July 2001,  was an Indonesian Muslim religious and political leader who was the long-time President of the Nahdlatul Ulama and the founder of the National Awakening Party (PKB), Wahid was the first elected President of Indonesia after the resignation of Suharto in 1998. He abolished controversial legal issues against Chinese Indonesians and attempted to reform the military as well as parliament, and consequently was he was removed from office before his parliamentary changes were successful.

[Diah Permata] Megawati Setiawati Sukarnoputri 2001 to 2004.

Megawati is Indonesia's first female President and the sixth woman to lead a Muslim-majority country. She is the eldest daughter of Indonesia's first President, Sukarno. She presided over a period of economic growth, and her rise to the presidency was initially widely welcomed, however, it soon became apparent that her presidency was marked with indecisiveness, lack of clear ideological direction, and a reputation for inaction on important policy issues.  The slow reforms and avoidance of confrontations had the advantage of was that she was able to stabilise the overall democratization process and relationship between legislative, executive, and military. However, she was decisively defeated by SBY in the second round of the 2004 election.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono [SBY], 2004 to 2014. He is a member of the Democratic Party and President of the Assembly and Chair of the Council of the Global Green Growth Institute. SBY was also the former Chairman of ASEAN, as Indonesia hosted the 18th and 19th ASEAN Summits.

 The day of his inauguration in 2004, he announced his new cabinet which consisted of 36 ministers, including members of all the major political parties, and professionals, most of them taking on ministries in the economic field. He oversaw the economy during the GFC and was credited with introducing the BLT cash transfers to poor people. He made education and health more affordable and attainable for wider sections of the populace.  In 2007 he made significant moves to have the international community recognise the problems associated with climate change and was instrumental in promoting the United Nations Framework Convention on climate change [UNFCCC].  The Constitution of Indonesia limits Presidents to two terms of office, making SBY ineligible to run for a third term.

Joko Widodo [Jokowi], 2014 to Present.

He achieved national prominence in 2009 for his work as the Mayor of Surakarta.

A member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), he was named as the party's candidate for the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial election.   He took office in October 2012 and reinvigorated politics in Jakarta, introducing publicised blusukan visits (unannounced spot checks) and improving the city's bureaucracy, reducing corruption in the process. At the national level, he introduced programs to improve quality of life, including universal healthcare, dredging the city's main river to reduce flooding, and inaugurating the construction of the city's subway system.  He too is ineligible to run for a third term.


Indonesia is somewhat of an enigma.  It has been through 300 years of colonial rule which was a time of rape and pillage and the indigenous Indonesians were severely restricted in their activities, then 2 two periods of Presidential rule which totally transformed the country over a 50-year period, then a period of 23 years during which there were 5 Presidents.

 It has a population of 270 million spread out over 8000 inhabited islands from the total of 17000 islands, all this in a country of 1300 ethnic groups which historically spoke 700 languages and an unknown number of dialects. With that history and that demographic, the country should not exist ……… BUT IT DOES……It is flourishing, and while it is often criticised by more developed countries, the pace and rate of change is impressive.  Sure, there is still some distance to go, but direction is clear, the desire is there, the intention is there, and as the economy develops, the changes are made.

It is one of my favourite countries.


Glen Robinson,

 AFG Venture Group

+61 412 229 664

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About the Author

Glen Robinson

Glen Robinson is a co-founder and director of Asean Focus Group with Peter Church which was formed in 1990 to provide advice and assistance to those organisations which wished to take a commercial presence in ASEAN and other Asian countries.   A number of years ago the company entered into a joint venture with Venture group and both now trade as AFG Venture Group.  Glen is a director of the Australia Thailand Business Council and a Councillor of the Australia Institute of International Affairs NSW.  The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and not of any of the companies or organisations mentioned.
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