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Published in PostGlobal
How Suharto Got It Right

Published by PostGlobal on 2008-01-01

In the cascade of condemnations and condolences that followed the death of Indonesia's former strongman Suharto on January 27, one voice was conspicuously missing. That voice was of Dr. Haryono Suyono, the Chicago-trained sociologist who served for almost two decades as Suharto's minister of population and family welfare.

Those two decades represented the most benign of Suharto's authoritarian rule, not the least because of Dr. Haryono's emollient personality. If there was an architect of Suharto's social development policies - one that resulted in a dramatic drop in what had been a galloping rate of population growth in the world's largest Muslim country - it was Dr. Haryono.

He didn't bring about that drop by coercion. There was no forced sterilization, as there had been in 1975-1977 during then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's "emergency" rule in India, when the Constitution was suspended and the only daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru (India's first prime minister and co-founder, along with Mahatma Gandhi) assumed dictatorial powers that far exceeded anything that Suharto ever exercised. There were no penalties imposed on families with more than one or two children, as had been done for quite a while in nearby China.

Suharto and Haryono created a model of social development by tapping into a simple, central understanding: people want families that they can economically support; parents want only as many children that they can afford to educate properly; and men and women, particularly in traditional societies, seek insurance in their old age through producing children whose own longevity can be assured.

In the Suharto-Haryono model of economic and social development, that meant the creation of more jobs in the Indonesian archipelago, which consists of 13,000 islands, through governmental subvention and by encouraging the private sector to go into the previously neglected rural hinterland. It meant establishing a wide assortment of secular schools to teach not only a tolerant form of Islam, but also foreign-language and vocational skills. It meant broadening the national network of primary health-care clinics.

The Suharto-Haryono model meant focusing on education and employment for women because, as Suharto always liked to say, women - particularly in male-dominated countries of the 135 nations of the Third World - were the wisdom-keepers, the purveyors of family values. Haryono would add that he always found that women managed family finances far more diligently than their men folk.

The model worked. While elsewhere in the Third World the population growth rates were exceeding 3 or 4 percent annually - in India, at one point, some 18 million people were being added each year, the size of Australia - Indonesia was able to bring down its growth rate to just a shade over 1.5 percent in 1975 from 4 percent in 1965, when Suharto seized power in a military coup.

Implementing that model meant vigorously advocating birth control measures such as use of condoms by men, and pills and intra-uterine devices (IUDs) by women. I remember covering large rallies at which Haryono would rouse audiences through songs and poems, extolling the value of small families. Meanwhile, his associates would course through the crowds, distributing literature, condoms, and birth-control pills.

Indeed, a documentary I made for American public television on Haryono was titled "Doctor of Happiness" - an apt name.

Haryono would frequently request that Suharto attend meetings with mullahs in order to persuade them to use the power of the pulpit to preach the importance of small families in nation-building.

Needless to say, when Suharto left the Indonesian presidency in 1998, not entirely of his own volition, Haryono's tenure as minister also ended. He subsequently became an academic and a syndicated columnist.

Regrettably, the Suharto-Haryono model was abandoned by subsequent governments. They seemed more determined to investigate allegations of corruption on Suharto's part and that of his family. No one ever impugned Haryono. In fact, he became popular on the international lecture circuit, particularly at conferences organized by the United Nations. The support of multilateral agencies such as the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) had been vital in expanding the Suharto-Haryono population-control model.

That model needs to be revived, not only in Indonesia but in many other developing countries. The world's population is still growing at the rate of more than 85 million people annually, 90 percent of such growth occurring in poor countries.

That is an unsustainable rate, one that rapidly diminishes what scientists call the earth's carrying capacity. Overpopulation contributes to a variety of social ills - congested cities, impoverished rural regions, deforestation, and poor health. And overpopulation contributes to global warming because unsustainable demographics inevitably result in increased use of fossil fuels in cities, and firewood in villages - pollutants that trap gases in the atmosphere and overheats the planet below.

Suharto-Haryono demonstrated an expeditious and culturally acceptable path toward social development. Because of that, they were backed not only by multilateral agencies such as the UN and the World Bank, but also by governments including the United States, and several European countries, most particularly the Nordic countries and the Dutch, Indonesia's erstwhile colonial rulers.

With the vitriolic attack on family planning from the Right since the Reagan era, U.S. support for family planning programs globally has been whittled down. Even the Europeans have been lackadaisical of late.

One more point: I interviewed Suharto several times, and covered Indonesia quite extensively during many of the years that he was in power. I am not one for endorsing dictatorships, nepotism and state-condoned corruption. But you could look far beyond Suharto and see worse. I don't think that even in his sternest periods of rule, Suharto was the kind of nail-puller and torturer that, say, Mobutu of Zaire was.

That is to say, let's be a little more careful about making sweeping judgments about Third World rulers, even those who come to office through unconventional means. Pulling nails and murdering people wasn't in the Indonesian tradition, at least not in Suharto's time.

Nor is public display of personal grief. Maybe one reason Haryono Suyono's voice has been missing from the coruscating chorus about Suharto's alleged villainy is on account of that time-honored tradition. In that tradition, one simply doesn't speak ill of the dead - particularly of someone who did much to spur social development and transform lives at a time when it truly mattered.

Such transformation needs to be accelerated in Indonesia today, an oil-rich country where democracy wobbles along. At least governance was sturdy in Suharto's time. And with that governance - however authoritarian - came a special form of progress, one that benefited everyday people by persuading them to opt for smaller families. Small may not always be beautiful, but it was certainly progressive in Suharto's lifetime.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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