Two decades ago, Indonesia was under the rule of strongman president Suharto, with military and political influences dominating many spheres of domestic life. Corruption, collusion and nepotism were pervasive. Indonesia, however, began its political change following the downfall of Suharto in 1998 when more democratic forms of governance began to take root.
Though the early stages of this reform process were bumpy, Indonesia managed to defy many sceptics who feared the country may break apart, like the former Yugoslavia following the demise of president Josip Broz Tito. Fortunately, it steadied itself and eventually underwent a decade of stable growth and development.
Of course, the country is far from perfect, but it has come a long way with institutional reform, a more enlightened citizenry and exemplary leadership in certain quarters.
In comparison, over the past 15 years, Thailand has rode a political rollercoaster and of late has somewhat lost its bearings. The main example of that is lacklustre leadership in various arenas.
Many recent surveys have shown that the country is slipping in regional and world rankings on many key indicators. The 1997 people's constitution, much touted at the time as ushering in a new era of democratic governance in the country, is now a passing memory.
Can Thailand get its act together and start running again? That question is on the minds of many people _ both Thais and foreigners.
The English term "gone South" usually denotes a state of decline. However, looking southward towards Indonesia in this case may be instructive and hopefully can help shed some light on how Thailand can pull itself out of the sorry state it is in.
Indonesia used to rank near the bottom of the list of countries in terms of corruption. In recent years, its 10-year-old Corruption Eradication Commission has started to have some bite in its prosecutions _ bringing suspects to justice and recording a 100% conviction rate during 2003-2012. Ministers, judges, police officers and other senior officials were not spared. The agency earned the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, earlier this year for its effective anti-corruption efforts. Thailand may wish to consider taking a leaf or two from Indonesia.
In terms of prospective political leaders, the current governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo _ popularly known as Jokowi _ stands out. He earned high marks when he served as the mayor of the central Javanese city of Solo a few years ago. His relatively clean image, coupled with a down-to-earth, hands-on, and no-nonsense working style and his ability to connect with the common people are among his hallmark qualities. He has introduced a new work culture into the Jakarta city administration _ taking a bottom-up consultative approach to dealing with issues, and demanding results and service delivery from his subordinate staff.
For the welcome changes he has brought to public office, both in Solo and Jakarta, he has been encouraged to run for the presidential elections next year. At least there is hope in that country of a capable leader in the making, whereas Thailand is still in search mode for such a person.
The Indonesian national air carrier, Garuda, used to rank at the bottom of the league in the global airline industry. Its air safety records were so dismal that at one point it was barred from flying into Europe. All of that changed when the airline's current president and CEO, Emirsyah Satar, took over the reins in 2005 and instituted reforms. He reduced government interference in corporate management and introduced a new work ethic requiring all his senior executives to do cleaning jobs on the aircraft with himself in charge of toilets. Basically, senior management had to lead by example by rolling up their sleeves, getting their hands dirty and taking pride in a job well done. He also implemented a meritocratic system linking employee remunerations and promotions to performance rather than just seniority and secured agreement from the staff unions. In terms of finances, he has also put the airline in the black after it had languished in the red for many years.
Garuda's spectacular turnaround paid off _ it was voted as the world's eighth best airline in a 2013 survey by Skytrax, which provides ranking of the global aviation industry. Interestingly, Garuda was ranked 11th in last year's survey, while Thai Airways came in ninth but then fell to 15th this year. Both THAI and Garuda are now in the five-star airline league but the Garuda CEO had this to say: "We are in a region where the world's best airlines are located, and I like competition _ it makes you creative, innovative and efficient".
By the benchmarks described above, Indonesia surpasses Thailand on all counts, while duly recognising it is still very much a work in progress. The take-home message is that seemingly impossible changes are possible if the will is there. It is noteworthy that the national emblem of both Indonesia and Thailand is the Garuda, a mythical bird-like creature. However, the Indonesian Garuda (both country and airline) appears to outperform the Thai one at present. Thailand used to assist Indonesia during the troubles in East Timor and Aceh. Perhaps Indonesia can now come to Thailand's aid when the latter is facing difficulty or at least Thailand should start learning from its southern neighbour. After all, both are Asean member countries and that was one of the reasons for having Asean in the first place _ to help and learn from each other in a spirit of friendship and cooperation.
Apichai Sunchindah is an independent development specialist from Thailand and considers Indonesia his second home.
Latest stories in this category:
- Dangerous nonsense about parliamentary dictatorship
- New charter might work
- Postbag: Rig election the right way
- Muslim separatists fear breakdown of talks
- Is choosing Section 7 the right option?
- The means justify the end
- Mandela's legacy puts that of our politicians to shame
- Thirty-nine fun things about the King