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Response to the Book The Will to Improve

The society has appeared as a result of people’s desire to improve. Hierarchy helped to create order and divide responsibilities for the common good. However, the history of mankind has provided many examples of abusive power applications and imposing reforms profitable only for the ruling elite. Despite the development of humanitarian thought in the 20th century, understanding of democracy varies in the countries of the industrialized and developing world. Proclamation of democratic values can hide violent approaches to the aims destinations and unethical methods in the fight for power. Tania Murray Li investigates the peculiarities of politics in Indonesia. The author studies and examines the effectiveness of reforms implemented in the country that survived centuries of colonial exploitation. People followed the authorized vision of the ruling invaders without an attempt to understand the rightness and profitability of such away. Tania Murray Li shows that The Will to Improve persists in the people of the country. However, violence and poverty remain the evils that hinder the development of the society. The author estimates the correlation between the effort and result and underlines the importance of precise calculation on the way to achieving the set finalities as the criteria for the political leaders’ efficiency. Through vivid and numerous examples and non-judgmental way of facts presentation, the book reveals the gap between the will and the accomplished improvement in the life of Indonesian society.

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The first chapter of the book The Will to Improve starts by highlighting two contradictory positions that stipulate complications of Indonesian development. The first is the implementation of the capitalistic model in the territory with extensive poverty. The second contradiction is in the attempt to reduce the boundary between the poor majority and the ruling elite, and implementation of the democratic model in the territory.

Until the mid-1940s, Indonesia did not exist as an independent state. The country was a Dutch colony. On the one hand, it created a preposition for easy state governing based on the submission of any freedom or criticism sprouts. On the other hand, the long-lasting exploitation and the absence of strong and competitive opposition led to the blurring of signs of nationalistic identity and ethnic values. The 20th century transformed Indonesia from an agrarian state with a rich traditional culture into a hybrid of modernization by imposing the models of development existing in the industrialized world. Throughout the book, Tania Murray Li puts the question of the rationality of such blind copying of foreign success and the opportunities of implementation of the models rational in the west to the realities of the east economy.

Numerous programs designed for the improvement of livelihoods and landscapes reducing waste and dividing farmlands and forests gave certain results. They improved roads, habitats, and general infrastructure. At the same time, the absence of critically thinking and nationally concerned population aware of the rights and responsibilities of a democratic society created the effect of a blind crowd. People followed the imposed ideology and the power of military arguments. The population lost many of their traditional values and followed the models of behavior offered by the west. The absence of opportunities for the majority of working people led to trade migration and cheap labor force promotion. In other words, the desired improvement resulted in the degradation of national consciousness and dignity as well as following evidently fake ideologies and utopian ideals.

In the second chapter “Projects Practices and Effects,” Tania Murray Li demonstrated the attempt of the formation of political classes into a whole generation of Indonesians according to the European model. The process occurred mainly in the second half of the 1940s early 1950s. The failures related to the automatic transplantation of the European liberal model led to the gradual authoritarianism of the political regime. Its establishment in Indonesia proceeded in two stages. In the first stage, the political elites associated with the nationalist movement of the interwar period limited democratic procedures. In the second stage, the former nationalists were removed from power by a new political generation based on the Armed Forces. Since the second half of the 1960s, Indonesia plunged into the totalitarian regime of the “new order”. Indonesian nationalism of the analyzed period was not only an ideological justification for the process of modernization but also a two-sided phenomenon consisting of both political and ethnic trends. Depending on the situation, leaders could apply to political or ethnic nationalism.

In the third chapter “Formations of Capital and Identity,” Tania Murray Li showed that the future leaders of independent Indonesia gained their basic political experience and capital within the nationalist movement. The Indonesian modernization process resulted in the principles of political nationalism with the bias to the civilian identity. The Capital concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite because it was a long-living tradition. The transformation of rural slaves into city wage dependant residents made a little change.

The Republic of Indonesia inherited the political situation characterized by the multiparty system and increased the activity of the legislative bodies. In August of 1950, the interim constitution adopted under the pressure from the major parties replaced the basic law of 1945 and provided the transformation of Indonesia from a presidential to a parliamentary republic. The power of the president significantly narrowed, while the role of the prime minister and the parliament increased. The period of those political changes following up to February 1957 was called liberal democracy. The conditions of the acute political crisis caused a confrontation between president Sukarno and the people’s congresses. With the support of the military, the president promulgated the rejection of parliamentary order and announced the country’s transition to the so-called guided democracy.

The radical anti-imperialist foreign policy of the first president Sukarno, his socialist bias in domestic economic affairs, and active support by the Indonesian Communist Party resulted at the beginning of 1965 into a deep political crisis. The opposing forces accused each other of intention to usurp power. The armed forces and security services split along ideological lines and finally, right-wing political forces proved to be quicker and more merciless than their opponents. According to different sources, up to two million former communists were killed without court or investigation because of their political identity. The acquaintance with the new historical retrospective and the interpretation of the facts leads to the reconsideration of national identity. The book of Tania Murray Li could be a starting point for the transformation of patriotism and revival of faith into the national dignity, rejection from the total submission, and consent to any decision of the ruling elite.

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The structure of the book provides a logical transition to the understanding of the gap between the strong desire for improvement and the persistent state of poverty and the lack of opportunities for the native population. The Will to Improve is based on numerous practices and projects, constant political reforms, and funding of social initiatives for restoring and renewing the potentially rich lands and locations. Besides, the book presents many examples and proofs. At the same time, Tania Murray Li non-judgmentally reveals the facts of total fear and inability to resist the regime and the hindering of the development by the implementation of non-effective projects. She shows the inefficiency of land-cultivation without a conscious and interested master confident in the future result and responsible for the outcome. A poor man will never be a master, and the formation of responsible farmers is a long process taking time and effort. People engaged in the reforms and renovation process usually get an irrelevant reward, because politics usually seek for personal profit under the mask of socially directed projects. People distrust political parties and elect them guided by fear or imposed ideology.

The style of the book reveals the profound and many-sided approach of the author to the research she conducted. The text is full of citations and examples from credible sources. Moreover, Tania Murray Li created sites where she opened blogs and started discussions of the problematic issues of the region. Such an approach let her gather evidence from both authorized statistics and the native population who witnessed, participated, and experienced the effects of certain implemented programs. She underlined the importance of precise calculation for every project.

The book is written in terms of academic writing with accessible language without extra emotionality and ideological criticism. However, the position of the author is distinctly read between the lines. Tania Murray Li tries to identify and trace the roots of the inefficiency of ardent efforts to improve in such a potentially rich region. She does not condemn or reprimand the efforts of people who look for change and create various new programs, but her implicit idea is to stop moving forward and explore the history and the leaders’ methods on the way to the independent state.

The book presents an example of academic and journalistic research synthesized with personal experience retrospective. It reveals a tolerant and pluralistic vision on the ideological and political deficiencies in the country with hybrid democracy. The comprehension of the book needs some basic knowledge in history and political science, but, in general, the reading will be useful and instructive for people actively engaged in political processes and those who observe them from apart.

One might object that the current situation in Indonesia shows considerable progress in the infrastructure development and creation of new opportunities for the growing population. The area has become an attractive tourist destination for people from all over the world. The unique nature and the special helpful manner of Indonesians to meet and serve guests turned exotic tourism in the country into a profitable business. Undoubtedly, the last eight years after the book was published became a period of profound reconsideration of historical events and political ideology deficiencies.

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The work written by Tania Murray Li showed a profound and critical vision on the political problems and progress in Indonesia. The book The Will to Improve is a combination of scientific and popular reading useful both for the native people and foreign readers. It does not put claims but sets a succession of questions that lead to the logical answer to the inefficiency of many western models of development applied to Indonesian politics. The author looks for the answer in history and the subconscious ways of behavior of the ruling elite and working people. The examples, arguments, and statistics show peculiarities of the profit orientation of the old and current political practices. The author reveals that human rights and principles of non-violence and democratic freedoms are still violated through the absence of legal regulations over the leaders of the country. People get the advantage of infrastructure improvement and they get more opportunities with the development of the tourism business, but there remains much to be changed in the sphere of national dignity and consciousness. A democratic society cannot exist without a critical and thought-provoking open discussion of the calculated finalities and profits for every member of society. The reconsideration of democratic values and the concept of human rights by the ruling elite of the country might contribute to the vital Indonesian will to improve.