Hybrid Seminar on “Stalled Reforms? Institutional, Legal, and Political Changes in Indonesia After 25 Years”

In this hybrid seminar, Dr Yanuar Nugroho, Dr Indriaswati D. Saptaningrum and Dr Muhammad Fajar shared their reflections on Indonesia’s democratic journey after 25 years of Reformasi. The panel discussed Indonesia’s successes and failures in strengthening governance and legal and political institutions, and in fostering societal transformations, with a view toward the 2024 elections.


Tuesday, 16 May 2023 – In 1998, Indonesia experienced a new juncture of history following the fall of Suharto’s authoritarian regime, initiated by civil society and the student activist movement, calling for Reformasi. Since then, the country has become a democratic entity with noticeable reforms in politics and governance, including legal and constitutional changes, and politicians and bureaucrats putting Indonesians at the centre of social policy. However, scholars and observers have also pointed out the weaknesses of certain institutions and backsliding of Indonesia’s nascent democracy. ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s Indonesia Studies Programme (ISP), in collaboration with Atma Jaya Catholic University (UAJ) of Jakarta, organised a roundtable discussion reflecting on “25 years post-Reformasi“. The discussion featured Dr Yanuar Nugroho (ISEAS Visiting Senior Fellow), Dr Indriaswati Saptaningrum (Executive Director, Institute of Public Policy, UAJ), and Dr Muhammad Fajar (Research Fellow, Institute of Advance Research, UAJ). Ms Julia Lau (Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator, ISP) moderated the session.

Left to right: Dr Muhammad Fajar, Ms Julia Lau (moderator), Dr Indriaswati Saptaningrum and Dr Yanuar Nugroho. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Indriaswati started the discussion by sharing three primary reflections on human rights and legal reform in Indonesia. In her view, first, human rights had generally progressed from the pre-Reformasi period, if Reformasi was defined as eradicating corruption and improving human rights conditions. Since then, however, certain elements in the political elite had used human rights issues as part of their rhetoric for electoral politics. She noted how such issues were a game changer in the 2019 election, which partly led to President Joko Widodo winning his second term. Dr Indriaswati, therefore, believed that human rights would be highlighted in the upcoming 2024 election, albeit with a slightly different emphasis on how the next administration might react to and resolve past human rights abuses.

Second, Dr Indriaswati observed a decline in the independence and quality of Indonesia’s judicial and constitutional courts. This was mainly due to the rise in appointments of politically connected personnel within the judiciary and related institutions, resulting in potential conflicts of interest. Third, Dr Indriaswati expressed concern that the legislative performance of the House of Representatives (DPR) had been decreasing over the years, which could shift back the pendulum of power to the executive branch. She cited examples of how the Omnibus Law had received 22 constitutional challenges, while the DPR had fallen far short of its Prolegnas targets, with only eight laws passed in 2022. These instances showed that legal and constitutional reform had not been progressive but had potentially regressed.

Dr Fajar reflected on civil society movements, in particular youth movements, his area of research. In his general observation, Indonesian civil society has grown since Reformasi began, with the inclusion of new issues for advocacy, such as the environment, mental health, land rights, and sexual minority/identity issues. Activists were also increasingly well educated, with most of them having university degrees and being well exposed to social and political discourses. As such, he observed a rise in a new “type” of civil society actors who were well-equipped in harnessing digital technologies to communicate their messages. These included online petitions or social media platforms like Indo Relawan and Change.org.

That said, Dr Fajar highlighted three main trends that could become fundamental problems for civil society. First, they established organisations, but not a movement. The current activists were placing higher emphasis on establishing NGOs instead of increasing government accountability for social issues, or what he called the “NGO-isation” of civil society. This included developing proposals to obtain funding instead of engaging with the masses and interacting with the community. Second, due to this NGO-isation trend, the activists tended to develop programmes instead of gaining power. Their programmes were usually short-term and donor-driven ones. Consequently, they lacked connections with specific communities to build social bases on the ground. Third, they focused more on the present than on planning for the future. Due to a weak caderisation strategy, training programmes for future cadres were short-term, heavily theoretical, and partially focused on specific skills, such as digital security. As such, Dr Fajar argued that this strategy was insufficient for building knowledge, power, and a network to pursue a reformist agenda, hence creating “lone-wolf” activism with fewer true community organisers. He, therefore, believed that as much as Indonesia’s civil society movements have progressed over the last 25 years, they needed to continue to improve and refocus on community building to gain traction.

Rounding out the panel, Dr Nugroho highlighted how Indonesia had progressed accordingly to global measures or indices, on areas such as the rule of law, government effectiveness and tackling corruption. Indonesia has shown improvement in most indices over the last 25 years but declined in corruption perception and democracy, especially on two indicators, political culture and civil liberties, which were clearly in decline. Dr Nugroho thus questioned whether reforms in Indonesia had stagnated, especially since breakthroughs in reform were not fast enough to produce changes. The current quality of democracy had also declined, with government and bureaucracy functioning more procedurally rather than substantively. Rampant corruption, shrinking civic space, and suppressed press freedom were other concerns highlighted. Dr Nugroho believed that, as much as Indonesia had progressed in the last 25 years in the right direction, the growth of its democracy was not fast enough and more needed to be done to prevent further backsliding.

The hybrid seminar drew an in-person audience of 19 participants and 65 online participants from Singapore and abroad. The audience raised thought-provoking questions, including on the likelihood of bureaucratic reform in the next administration, the influence of youth political actors in the upcoming elections, the reasons behind the slow tackling of corruption cases by President Jokowi’s administration, educational reforms, the effects of decentralisation on Papua, and safeguarding Indonesia’s democratic progress amidst the country’s development needs. The speakers concluded that despite the shortcomings of Reformasi and clear room for improvement, Indonesia was moving in the right direction towards democratisation and will continue to move forward.

(Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)