by Verra Wijaya and Fitriani
In recent years, Indonesia’s economy has grown constantly at above 5 per cent per year and, as the economy grew, so have the levels of public income and the size of the middle class.
Defined by the World Bank as those who are capable of spending between US$2 (S$2.56) and US$20 per day, Indonesia’s burgeoning middle class comprises 56.5 per cent of its 237-million population, numbering 134 million people – a jump of 65 per cent since 2003.
The emerging middle class has proven to be a huge engine of consumption of the latest and highest-quality goods and services.
Indonesia’s consumer spending is an important driver of the economy, accounting for 55 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) last year. By comparison, China’s consumer spending was only 35 per cent.
At the same time, it is also paying attention to various political and social issues shaping Indonesia – a process further boosted by the growing role of the numerous free press and social media networks.
Indeed, up to May, Indonesia was the fourth-largest user of Facebook in the world and the No 1 Twitter user in Asia, generating 15 per cent of the world’s tweets.
As many of these “plugged-in” users are from the middle class, it is not surprising that their voices are often aired through these channels.
THE SILENT MAJORITY
However, despite their cyber activities, the middle class has not taken concrete political action in addressing social injustices, including those related to the protection of religious minorities.
Facing many demands on their professional, personal and family lives, convenience has been one of the priorities for the middle class. Therefore, when it comes to actually taking action beyond the cyber world, they are more likely to be passive spectators, adopting a “wait-and-see” attitude, and behaving more like a silent majority.
Such silence over social injustices also reflects the reality that economic growth does not equate to democratic maturity, especially when it comes to issues relating to human rights.
An investigation conducted by the Setara Institute, a civil society organisation, showed that throughout last year, there were 244 violations against freedom of religion, including restraining minorities from practising their religion, in particular the Ahmadis and Christians.
The Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy, also showed that there were eight cases of rights violations against Christians from January to April.
These incidences follow the growing trend of social intolerance.
A recent survey by the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies found that nearly 70 per cent of their respondents from 23 provinces preferred not to allow neighbours of different faiths to build places of worship around their localities.
From its 2,220 respondents, the survey also showed that almost 80 per cent objected to the idea of inter-religious marriage and more than 60 per cent approved of a policy that would require students to be fluent in Arabic.
Despite the lack of concrete social action by the middle class, some of them have actually provided articulate critiques of various policy issues relating to such disturbing trends of growing intolerance.
Indonesian journalist and Twitter user @andreasharsono managed to draw the attention of the international media and society to the worsening religious intolerance when his article on Indonesia as being “No Model for Muslim Democracy” was published by The New York Times.
Likewise, the cyber movement Indonesia Without Islamic Defenders Front under the #IndonesiaTanpaFPI banner has managed to mobilise people on Twitter and Facebook to voice their opposition against violent vigilantes at a rally at the Bunderan HI monument in the heart of Jakarta.
While these critiques are positive signs, the government is not absolved of its responsibility to solve the various social and political problems faced by Indonesia.
After all, the middle class cannot act on its own. Since online openness works in tandem with democracy, one way to proceed is not by dismissing those critiques out of hand. Instead, the government should make good use of them while better engaging the middle class.
One possible venue that is ripe for such constructive engagement is obviously the cyber world, where state officials could be more responsive to the various concerns raised therein.
With 94 per cent of Indonesia’s middle class connected by social networks, the cyber world could act as an ombudsman, an intermediary between the state and the middle-class constituents.
If nothing else, the middle class represents the largest voting social group. Consequently, listening to its democratic aspirations, and even acting on them, would likely prove an excellent way to bolster electoral support for the 2014 general elections.
Verra Wijaya and Fitriani are researchers at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.
Published in Singapore’s print Today’s newspaper, 27 June 2012
Written for RSIS Commentary http://www.rsis.edu.sg/publications/Perspective/RSIS1042012.pdf
The commentary was also published in Indonesia’s print Jakarta Post, 26 June 2012 and in Malaysian Insider, 27 June 2012