The appointment of President Widodo’s son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as the running mate of Prabowo Subianto has ignited a new debate about meritocracy. Photo by the Prabowo media team for Antara.

The topic of meritocracy has been thrust into the spotlight again since the controversy surrounding the appointment of Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as the running mate of presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto.

Gibran’s candidacy was made possible through a ruling by the Constitutional Court, chaired by Gibran’s uncle, Anwar Usman, that changed the minimum age for a candidate to run for president or vice president.

Before this latest controversy, Gibran’s brother, Kaesang Pangarep, made headlines after he was crowned as chair of the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) – despite having joined the party just three days prior.

Jokowi will leave office next year, but these moves towards consolidation of dynastic power may well help him continue to promote his vision Indonesia Emas 2045 – a ‘golden Indonesia’ by 2045 – which would see Indonesia become a high-income nation, comparable to first world countries.

The Indonesia Emas 2045 vision is often discussed in connection with Indonesia’s so called ‘demographic dividend’, referring to Indonesia’s high population of young people.

While Indonesia has invested heavily in physical and human capital through scholarships and ambitious infrastructure projects, there are still cultural challenges holding young Indonesians back.

One of Indonesia’s most urgent challenges is the dominant culture of favouritism and the anti-meritocratic practices of its elites.

The origins of Indonesian nepotism

In order to fully understand Indonesia’s culture of nepotism and anti-meritocracy it is important to scrutinise the system of patronage implemented under Soeharto’s New Order. In his 32-year rule, Soeharto used the politics of rewards and punishment to breed loyalty among his subordinates and strengthen his political position.

The consequences of this were devastating, with the New Order regime inundated with corruption, collusion, and nepotism (KKN), especially in the public sector. Many positions in the public sector, for example, were purchased, rather than being based on meritocratic recruitment processes.

Not only that, transfers and promotions were not conducted in accordance with key performance indicators (KPIs) – as in modern private companies – but under the principle of ‘asal bapak senang’, or, as long as the boss is happy. As a result, loyalty was valued over productivity, and bureaucrats vied for the approval of their superiors, rather than serving the public.

Two decades after the fall of the New Order, Indonesia’s civil service has improved substantially.  Recruitment systems are now more transparent, with the introduction of the Computer-Assisted Tests (CAT) enabling the best and brightest to be admitted.

But that does not mean old practices have been stamped out entirely.

Favouritism is still rampant

Favouritism still mars Indonesian institutions, albeit in a less explicit fashion.

In the higher education sector, universities still privilege their own staff or alumni for lecturer positions. University rectors are frequently selected not based on academic reputation but more on political connections and considerations. Vice rectors, deans, and down the structure are often chosen on more or less the same basis. University admission can also be involve dirty money, as seen in Lampung, where a rector charged hundreds of millions of rupiah for a place.

The same goes for the military and police recruitment. While processes have improved, money can still be a determinant, with cases reported of candidates being asked for money by members of the military and police during recruitment.

And it’s not just a problem at the entry level – meritocracy is also often missing at the level of senior positions. State-Owned Enterprises (BUMN), for instance, are filled with those faithful to the president. Some party leaders openly endorse their children to inherit their positions or run in elections, aiming to create political dynasties

Likewise, at the regional level, department head positions are handed out to local loyalists, not to most outstanding candidates. Many ministers are picked under the same principle. Governors routinely pork barrel discretionary grants into their hometowns over other places.

In the private sector the story is not much better. In big cities like Jakarta, corporations often aim for the best persons, but in regional Indonesia it is still quite difficult to land a good job in the private sector if you lack an ‘orang dalam’ (insider).

Meritocracy needs to become part of the national vision

Political leaders are counting on young Indonesians to deliver a golden future, but Indonesia’s demographic dividend is not a foregone conclusion – it requires a commitment from young people to do and be their best.

However,  favouritism culture and anti-meritocracy elites have taught many young Indonesians a precious, if contrary,  lesson – careers are built on connections, not hard work. It is no wonder at least 1,000 Indonesians adopt Singaporean citizenship every year. They see better opportunities and a level playing field in that country’s more meritocratic system.

If Indonesia wants to be a developed nation by 2045, it needs to get rid of nepotism and adopt the meritocratic systems of many developed nations. The Indonesian government needs to expand its capacity to investigate nepotism and punish those involved. But sadly, this is unlikely to occur in the current political climate, which has seen the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) progressively weakened.

Indonesia also needs to think carefully about the consequences of anti-meritocratic policies. For instance, in 2019 the Minister for Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform, Tjahjo Kumolo, lowered the pass grades for civil service entry exams to boost recruitment. Doing so sends a bad message to young Indonesians – that the system can be downgraded, rather than the public servants being upgraded.

No matter how confident Indonesia is about becoming a developed country by 2045, it will be impossible if its population are not competing on a level playing field. Only in such an environment will young Indonesians be motivated to grow and become the best versions of themselves.

If a commitment to meritocracy is neglected, Indonesia will not preside over a demographic dividend, but rather, a demographic exodus of young talent to other developed nations that value the contributions they can make, not just how much money or connections they have.

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