A Generation of Transformative Change: The New Democracy Generation

Guest post by Stephen Lock, CEO of Edelman Indonesia.

With national parliamentary elections just weeks away on April 9 and the presidential elections taking place in the summer, Indonesia will start to write a new chapter in its national story. The teenagers of today will live through what could well be a transformative period, for better or worse, depending on who takes up the reins of leadership and the direction in which they choose to steer the country.

This week Edelman Indonesia celebrated and explored the teenagers from an earlier generation. We are proud to premiere Words of a Generation: Indonesia – a series of intimate one-to-one interviews – discussing the past, present and future personal perspectives of 10 Indonesians born 1977-1985, who were teenagers and young adults during 1998 and the fall of President Haji Muhammad Suharto and the transition to democracy. These films paint a fascinating picture of modern Indonesia. They give us a great snap-shot and insight into what makes modern Indonesia tick and the attitudes that are shaping society.

These personal portraits of life in Indonesia are intimate and unique. These seven films touch on a diverse range of topics – from dreams, to work to love – and explore modern Indonesian society and attitudes today.

In Indonesia, this generation is highly-politicized (and not just because 2014 will be a year of seismic political change for this young democracy). This new democracy generation has lived through the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis that brought Indonesia to its knees and led to the revolution that overthrew Suharto, leading to the end of the New Order regime. Our participants were part of a generation of students that pushed for change and shed the blood to radically transform Indonesia.

The stories they tell are of the realities of life in this transformed Indonesia. Some were born into a poor Indonesia, with childhood stories of grinding poverty: a battle for survival; struggles to buy food; a childhood of no shoes and no electricity. They have experienced Indonesia’s economic transformation first hand, born into a poor country where GDP per capita stood at $357 in 1977 and today stands at $3,557, according to the World Bank. They have lived and are living through Indonesia’s economic rise, where the country has moved from poverty to a country in 2013 classified as “middle income.” Today they live in a much stronger and prosperous Indonesia, but this is not always the way our participants feel.

This generation is not satisfied. In some cases, they pine for an earlier age where life was simpler and “better.” Most strikingly, the new democracy generation that helped overthrow Suharto has a strong sense of nostalgia for his period in power, with some even going as far to say “life was better under Suharto.” The films encapsulate a sense that to return to a time where a strong leader governed and dominated the nation will safeguard not only Indonesia’s society, but also its natural endowments and reputation. This has interesting implications for the upcoming elections: will Indonesians favor a Prabowo Subianto strong-man presidency over a Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ticket? These films seem to suggest an underlying current of popular support for aspects of both men.

The stories told in Words of a Generation: Indonesia are of a promise unfulfilled. Democracy has in many ways disappointed. Disenchantment with an inward looking political elite that appears to many normal Indonesians to be more preoccupied with its own enrichment and power than solving everyday problems. People are skeptical that the political class is truly committed to moving the country forward. This is a serious issue for the future of Indonesian democracy. Endemic corruption or “korupsi” is frequently cited. It is true that Indonesia’s economy has done well – for some. The middle class is set to double to more than 141 million people in the next decade, according to the Boston Consulting Group, but this would leave 100 million+ Indonesians left behind. Not all are sharing in Indonesia’s prosperity and this is beginning to cause resentment.

Words of a Generation: Indonesia suggests this generation hopes that they will be able to give their children a better life; in many ways harking back to an almost mythologized time of their grandparents’ generation; a simpler time but a more gentle life.

Throughout all the films, the importance of the traditional family unit in Indonesian society dominates. A belief in traditional family and religious values is still the norm. Religion is still a central force in shaping attitudes; although largely secularized in an Indonesia originally crafted, at independence, on “unity in diversity.”

I would like to thank Amanda Mooney for her great dedication in undertaking this project and Xia Lee for shooting these beautiful films, as well as to Mario Patrick and Edelman Indonesia’s digital team for their tireless support in finding our Words interviewees and for bringing their stories to life. They truly tell a fascinating story, filled with hope, sadness, courage and Indonesia’s indomitable spirit.

You can learn more about the six-country Words of a Generation project here.

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