Bob Elson, the Australian historian who wrote Indonesia: A History of an Idea, has expressed his puzzlement at what he sees as a gap between Indonesia in the international arena and Indonesia at home.

He wonders why in international forums Indonesia has been portrayed as a rising star in terms of its growing economy and its promising democracy, while at home, when mostly a gloomy picture, increasing inequality, religious intolerance and many local disturbances.

He remains puzzled by such divided perceptions an wonders how to reconcile this glaring gap in the image of a country about which he knows a lot.

What is perceived by Elson as an Indonesianist as the gap in the image of Indonesia abroad and at home amply demonstrates what we are witnessing these days. The controversies around the plan by a New York-based interfaith organization, the Appeal of Conscience Foundation (ACF) to give an award on May 30th to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in honor of his success in supporting human rights and maintaining religious tolerance in Indonesia is a case in point. The plan has been seen by many local civil society and human rights and maintaining religious tolerance in Indonesia is a case in point. The plan has been seen by many local civil society and human rights organizations as a mockery of Indonesians, as violations of human rights and intolerance is rampant here. Protests and petitions are mobilized to reject the award as it is contradictory to the reality in Indonesia.

We are all aware that President Yudhoyono is well-known for his deep concern about his public image. It is no secret that the current Indonesian President will make everything effort to minimize anything that could tarnish his image as a good and upright statesman. The phrase “at all costs” is familiar among his close circles as it means that his subordinates should take any action-no matter the cost-to upload the shining public image of his presidency.

A public image is after all a social construction that can be engineered through various mechanisms and devices. Mass media is perhaps the most common device for constructing the public image of a particular personality. Celebrity figures in politics or in entertainment in many cases are merely the products of media exposure or campaigns. They look smart but are lacking in substance.

Both foreign and domestic observers generally agree that the press in Indonesia is highly liberal. But we also notice that the media is owned and controlled by a few media tycoons who are mostly outside, if not in opposition to, the government. This situation obviously has resulted in the tendency of media reports that are generally very critical of the President and his government.

Indonesia is indeed a huge and complex country. Events worthy of being reported by the media are almost unlimited across the country. The media have to select what is the most important according to their preferences. Certainly there are some biases in the media reports, but the public are generally in consensus that what has been reported represents the reality in society.

It seems clear that at a domestic level SBY and his government have difficulties in countering public criticism that is delivered through the mass media, while at the international level SBY and his foreign diplomatic apparratures have been successful in casting the President and his government in a rosy light.

There is no doubt that Indonesian membership of the G20, for example, has been capitalized on extensively by Yudhoyono to show that Indonesia will be the coming economic giant in Asia after China and India. The gross domestic product (GDP) as the main criteria for G20 membership, however, can not hide the fact that the majority of Indonesians are poor quite apart from the fact that income inequality between economic classes is widening.

Another example of the international recognition that President Yudhoyono should be proud of is his achievement in collecting honorary doctorates from various universities outside Indonesia. The most recent one was from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, which praised Yudhoyono for his achievements in consolidating democracy in Indonesia.

The seemingly high appreciation by the world of Indonesia and its President, however, does not help protect Indonesia from domestic criticism that strongly contadicts what appears to be the rosy international image. It might be the fact that two different political crafting mechanism are being operated on two different levels of the public domain.

At the international level, a sustainable political crafting mechanism, mostly in the form of diplomatic lobby groups, has been generally successful in reassuring Indonesia’s foreign counterparts about Indonesia’s achievements, economically and politically. At the domestic level, the hard realities experienced by many sections of society, in many instances reported on by the media, have made what looks like a successfully crafted beignn image of Indonesia on the international scene appear to be only an illusion.

Sumber : The Jakarta Post, May 18, 2013