The Explainer: So long, Suharto

Yesterday, the Indonesians buried their former dictator-president, Suharto. The state funeral went off without a hitch. And yet, now comes the hard part: coming to terms with a life at an end, but whose legacy will long outlive a dictator’s mortal shell.

Tonight, on the Explainer, a meditation on power. Why does absolute power absolutely corrupt? And for those of us living years past the heyday of dictators, why can they continue corrupting our society, long after they’re gone?

I’m Manolo Quezon.


I. What a swell party this is


Once upon a time, the Emperor of Persia decided to have a party, and to his party, he invited the crowned and uncrowned leaders of the world.


There’s a great website that immortalizes that party. It was held to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy. Though of course the dynasty that held the lavish celebrations in Persepolis, the ancient capital of Iran, was barely half a century old.

In a great tent, the crowned and uncrowned came together, in full evening dress, and bristling with medals. Most of the crowned heads, from Europe at least, were powerless; but that didn’t stop the crowned and uncrowned from other parts of the world, from wanting to rub shoulders with them, and bask in their reflected glamour.

One head-turning guest was Madame Imelda Romualdez Marcos, here bowing before the Shah,

And here, being rather obviously ogled by the King of Denmark. Now among the people at that 1971 banquet was this little old man, the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie.

And it’s this man, and his host, that kicks off our meditation on power tonight.

Once upon a time, most of the world was led by leaders who inherited their positions. They were kings, and emperors. Their lineage was so long, and often so inbred, that they made for a cast of very peculiar people.

Generations have passed since they ruled by divine right from their thrones, but their pictures still startle us:

Whether the last Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II, here glaring from exile in the Netherlands,

Or Sunjong, the last Emperor of Korea, deposed by the Empire this rather lost looking man-

Here, shown as Crown Prince and known to us as the late Emperor Hirohito, and now known by the Japanese as the Emperor Showa;

Or Alfonso XIII, the last Spanish monarch to rule over us and wield absolute power in his kingdom…

These individuals presided over nations where their rule was absolute and their assurance of kingship assured by a long pedigree.

But even as the world developed other means of leadership, traditional leadership came to be wielded by people who wanted the glitter and pomp of ancient thrones, though they themselves were really new men, who’d seized these thrones themselves, or more recently inherited it.

There was the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and the Shah, or Emperor, of Iran.

Two of my favorite books, “The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat,” and “Shah of Shahs,” both by the late Ryszard Kapu?ci?ski, come to mind. The former chronicles the twilight of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule, and how in his final days, imprisoned in his own palace, he spent his time hiding wads of cash from his Communist interrogators; the latter ends with the deposed Shah of Iran wandering from country to country, ravaged by cancer, and denied permanent refuge. The decline and fall of both monarchs were chronicled by Kapuscinski in some of the most fascinating, and useful, meditations on power you’ll ever read.

To give you some brief examples, from his book on the Shah, he said: a revolution always takes everyone, even those working to achieve it, by surprise. And revolutions begin when rulers think they can get away with everything, because until then, they had; but there is always that one small step, often unremarkable, that suddenly snaps the patience of the people. Then it all falls apart.

In our part of the world, we have nations that call themselves republics, existing in places where the traditional attitudes of people still look back to the era of monarchy.

And so it’s by way of Persepolis, where the Shah of Iran played host not only to the Emperor of Ethiopia, but an impressionable first lady of the Philippines, that we return to the recently-concluded life of President Suharto.

When President and Mrs. Marcos commissioned these portraits, by the Indonesian artist Abdullah, you know where they got the idea: from Persepolis. They’d set up the New Society. In turn, the New Society here at home, had a contemporary in Indonesia: the New Order, established by this man.

President Suharto of Indonesia came to power in 1967, two years after Ferdinand Marcos’s election. In that year, Suharto liquidated half a million of his countrymen, to defeat Communism. Five years later, in 1972, Marcos would try to liquidate Communism, too, by proclaiming martial law.

Both men would be accused of looting the treasury, yet Marcos had to flee his country in 1986 and would die, in exile, in 1989.

Suharto was also people powered out of office, much later, in 1997, but would die, ten years later, in his homeland.

And Ferdinand Marcos waits for a state funeral while Suharto got his, without a hitch, yesterday.

What accounted for Suharto’s comfortable retirement?

According to to R.E. Elson in “Suharto: A Political Biography,” the former Indonesian dictator, was ravaged by successive strokes in retirement, leaving him “with badly slurred speech, poor memory, and unable to express or understand anything more than simple ideas. He filled empty days watching cartoons and documentaries on television, sleeping, and praying…” His prayers, perhaps, were consistently answered. Poor health made his trial impossible, said the Indonesian courts.

On January 4, the final chapter in Suharto’s life began. He was admitted to hospital; despite news came from Jakarta that the former dictator was making what his doctors said was a remarkable recovery, last Sunday Suharto’s body conked out and he died. Writing in The Asia Sentinel, Eric Ellis had described the flurry of preparations being made for Suharto’s passing –including press passes being issued for a funeral for a man not even declared dead. Other preparations, such as preparing his tomb, were more understandable. As was the parade of visitors to the ailing Suharto’s beside.

Among the visitors was Singapore’s Minister Mentor Harry Lee, alias Lee Kwan Yew (“who at 84 to Suharto’s 86 is perhaps sensing his own mortality,” commented Ellis). Singapore’s famously corruption-allergic strongman shocked observers by enthusiastically tribute to his dying friend: “I feel sad to see a very old friend with whom I had worked closely over the last 30 years not really getting the honours that he deserves… That’s why I came here to visit him.” After visiting the bedside of “a very old friend with whom I had worked closely over the last 30 years,” the Minister Mentor, unprotected by his island nation’s draconian laws, was pressed for further comment by reporters. What’s a few billion dollars lost in bad excesses?” Mr. Lee replied, after all, “He built hundreds of billions of dollars worth of assets.”

In my Arab News column two weeks ago, I suggested Lee’s fondness for Suharto may stem from what Jim Studwell documents in his book, “Asian Godfathers,” as the very close relationship between Indonesia’s tycoons and politicians, and Singapore’s banking system, which are bulging with Indonesian cash (besides Tommy Suharto’s owning, once upon a time, luxury carmaker Maserati, and properties abroad, Conrado de Quiros should really read the book and revisit his belief that somehow, Suharto and the Indonesian ruling class are somehow more patriotic than ours). Lee’s been dismissive of his other contemporaries, such as Ferdinand Marcos, and that might be because he sent his money to Switzerland instead of adding to the portfolios of Singaporean banks.

But for one observer of Southeast Asia’s political and business culture, the Singaporean elder statesman’s comments were surely understandable. That observer is Joe Studwell, who wrote a book titled “Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and South-East Asia,” which details what he claims is the cozy relationship between Indonesia’s leading politicians and businessmen, and Singapore, which has banks that provide a haven for Indonesian wealth (whether honestly or corruptly obtained). Basically, Singapore’s economy benefits from Indonesian wealth, so one could view Lee Kwan Yew’s admiration for Suharto as knowing where his country’s bread is buttered. It would be interesting, for example, to see where how much of the billions of dollars in assets Lee credits Suharto with creating ended up in Singapore’s banks.

Which may also explain Lee’s famous contempt for the Marcoses: the late Philippine dictator stashed his money in Switzerland and not, like his dictatorial contemporary Suharto (or their respective cronies) in the banks of neighboring countries.

When we return, how Suharto’s death validates the notion that the more things change, the more they remain the same.


II. A familiar hangover


Studwell’s book (and you can look up his July 23, 2007 article, “The ties that bind,” for Newsweek International, which gives a condensed version of his ideas) argues that in Southeast Asia, the tycoons call the shots more often than not, except when strongmen like Suharto come around and intimidate the tycoons. In any case, tycoons and politicians in that part of the world are hand-in-hand when not actually in one or the other’s pocket.

As he puts it in Newsweek, describing the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis (which led to Suharto’s fall, lest we forget), “After the financial crisis in Southeast Asia, in state after state, taxpayers picked up the tab, tycoons picked up the pieces and life went on as before. The lesson of the past decade has been that the relationship between political and economic elites in Southeast Asia is more enduring than almost anyone imagined.”

What interests me most about Suharto’s expected passing, is how yet another Southeast Asian country is coming to grips with the passing, not just of individual strongmen, but of the generations those strongmen came to represent. Writing of the death of Queen Victoria, H.G. Wells described its effect as like the removal of a great paperweight –bits of paper began to blow about in the wind.

However, as the era of strong leaders passes in Southeast Asia, and institutions, then, are forced to keep societies together, will the result be better governance, or a spread in petty as well as big time corruption?  Societies that are more traditionally attuned to taking their cues from a single, elder, often ruthless, leaders, may be unprepared for small men and women trying to fill the giant boots of these departing (or departed) strongmen. Which could lead to an even more dangerous situation: that leaders will still try to fill those boots, instead of accepting that the kind of leadership they offer has to change.

An unsigned commentary, also in The Asian Sentinel, pointed out that the Indonesia of today is not so different from Indonesia of yesteryears under Suharto. Current leaders promote the view that Indonesia is long past Suharto because, the commentary says, “like most members of the ruling class, they have a long Suharto past”. That’s principally because Suharto, like most dictators, didn’t tolerate opposition or develop heirs.

The commentary then observes,

“At least under Suharto there was order in the corruption: if you paid the right people, things got done. Today, with decentralization and no strongman at the top, corruption is more chaotic and widespread and payoffs less effective.”


This is an interesting point, because one economist says it was when our home-grown dictator began to be seriously sick, that corruption became truly widespread in our society. With no enforcer at the top, everyone discovered no one was there to prevent everyone being on the take. This is why older Filipinos, who think a phone call to the top will solve a problem, are laughed at by younger Filipinos who know that everyone, from top to bottom, has to be bribed, unlike in the old days.

The commentary then exhorts Indonesians to confront the Suharto Era.


“There is no shortage of people who want to be autocrats. The difficulty is finding a nation ready to play along. Until it proves otherwise by decisively repudiating and purging the Suharto legacy, Indonesia remains easy prey for the next aspirant, be it a populist neo-Sukarno, another brass hat or a charismatic mullah.”


As one reader of my blog put it, “sounds like the Philippines!”

But our President praised Suharto, in terms of his contributions to supporting Philippine efforts to achieve peace in Mindanao. Australian media and leaders did the same. They hailed him for contributing to stability in the region.

So when we return, we’re going to ask our guest to help us assess Suharto’s place in the history of his country –and of our region.


My view


Ferdinand Marcos was our Suharto, but Marcos has been dead twenty years, and what the Indonesians are only beginning to contemplate, we’ve been living out. Some time ago I wrote that it’s only now that we’re beginning to see life beyond those who surrounded Marcos. The reason is that the political torch is being passed to the generation that grew up during martial law and which had no recollection of life before the dictatorship. In a sense, my generation is the one most influenced by Marcos because of the absence of any personal recollection of the Third Republic. Someone, during a conversation, asked me what I felt this implied, and I said the internalization of a basic lesson: it’s not how you play the game, but winning that matters, because my generation only knew Marcos at the height of his dictatorial powers, and his cult of success at all costs. In contrast Marcos’s contemporaries still had to wrestle with the old concepts of gentlemanly politics, which, whether clung to or rejected, involved a conscious choice. Together with that win-at-all-costs mentality comes the mentality that nice guys finish last. And that, I’m afraid, is a lesson we all have to live with, for another generation to come.




Manuel L. Quezon III.

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