Oligarchy? What Oligarchy?

The role of technocracy in Indonesia is historically known and well discussed, albeit from an ‘etic’ or outsider perspective. The Berkeley Mafia – a group of US-trained Indonesian economists who masterminded Suharto’s development policies is a prime example. Much has been written about them, but few to almost none are told from their own perspective – depriving us the knowledge of how it felt as an intellectual being in the centre of power schemes.

The Indonesian public deserves an insider look at how technocracy in Indonesia has become a byword for a noble endeavour at problem-solving without acknowledging its actual root causes. The broader question here -which is not only applicable to the current regime but also to all previous ones- is whether professional expertise has proven effective for problem-solving or whether they were merely been used for justifying vested interests that seemed to have persisted within the main corridors of power.

As a context, what is meant here under “technocrat” is any person occupying a full-time role in serving the government having prior experience working in either academia and or civil society, building a reputation in their respective field as a person defending the public’s interest. By using this definition, we can identify numerous individuals who have been occupying strategic positions either as an advisor or an expert working within the executive bodies, line ministries, including the Executive Office of the President (KSP).

Based on personal experience in bridging the divide between academia and assisting the bureaucracy, I provide first hand insight into the world of advisory and policymaking. I use my personal experience of aiding three different ministries between 2017 and 2020, where I have had the opportunity of officially acting as a consultant on different programs. They shall not be named, nor specifics will be spelled out of ethical considerations.

A brief autoethnography of technocracy

“Can you provide data on how many academics have had working experience with the industry? It seems like a good indicator to use in a presentation to the other ministry”.   “I’m not sure if there is any but I’ll try finding the closest number”, I replied while hastily opening my laptop. My mind went blank and almost ended up googling the keywords out of desperation. I felt like a magician who was expected to pull out a rabbit of a magic hat. The expectations are that somehow, us consultants have all possible types of data on any quantifiable phenomenon in this country. Yet all available infrastructures that are supposed to unearth this information (e.g Open Data, One Data) are barely even used by the ministries themselves.

The above anecdote typifies the scrappy nature of consultancy and thus, technocracy. The fast, incisive, accurate and waterproof arguments that one ought to bring to the table of decision-making is a bane to any scholarly mind. It is a different milieu altogether. Scholars are generally known for slow, careful deduction, while dealing with policymakers the opposite seemed to be necessary to survive.

Making a move from academia into government is not a natural one. Quite the opposite, it is a strange divide where it feels as if one is morphed from being the observer into the observed.

Reflecting on my own experience in becoming acquainted with policymaking, I realize fully how the main flaw of technocracy in Indonesia is its blatant inability to address underlying structural issues that hamper equal, just and quality development for all. I doubt that a technocrat within the Ministry of Environment and Forestry for example, is able to explain the high number of corruptions related to mining concession permits. The word oligarchy is probably a taboo within those circles. The reason is that bureaucracies are comfortable living with half-truths. It is a matter of how compelling technocrats present them to the powers that be.

This facade of policy making is the main reasoning behind the campaign launched by Indonesian Corruption Watch that went viral in 2019. Former anti-corruption activists who crossed over were criticised for their inability to stop the passing of the anti-graft law in September 2019. The technocracy is also being denounced for their silence in allowing state repression in forms of online and offline persecutions to take place, enabling further erosion of democratic values.

This is the ultimate paradox of technocracy enveloped by a strong patronage system: the closer one is to decision-making, the more difficult it is to say “No”. The famous Indonesian adage of ABS or “Asal Bapak Senang” (“whatever makes thy happy”) is not only a reflection of patronage, but also shows the difficulty of uttering disapproval within a system of decision-making that is not build to accommodate an objective, open, egalitarian and data-driven culture.


Questioning the role of technocrats and more generally, intellectuals in state-building in Indonesia is not an unusual undertaking. Since the beginning of this republic, the role of intellectuals has been subject to scrutiny, with Julien Benda’s Treason of intellectuals a favourite reference for discussion during the onset of Orde Baru. The fact is, even from its very early phase during the Old Order, technocrats have always had a close relationship with the ruling regime in Indonesia. But if these well-informed people that make up the technocracy remain powerless in the face of the authority, why have they remained in the system they have failed to change from within?

There are structural explanations for this. The first is a consensus that these professionals are powerless in front of the oligarchic forces that block most reform agendas, letting the technocracy become the tools of the status quo (Mughoffir and Alamsyah, 2018). With such power structures in place, the individual is destined to show meek compliance.

Second of all, there is a general perception that sees resignation as a sign of weakness. There are only few examples of resignation, such as Febri Diansyah resigning from KPK, hinting at a strong moral disagreement with the developments within the institution and beyond. As this one particular case has shown, resignation can be a powerful form of agency. It can even lend the public a sort of moral victory.

Unfortunately, there is no valid theory to generalize personal motives for someone to join the administration as a technocrat. McRae and Robet pointed out that ‘helping’ and contributing to the nation is still a motive for crossing over into politics and the administration(McRae and Robet 2020). For some, it might even be a form of validation or recognition of their expertise. Though the prevailing sentiment for many social activists who chose to remain on the outside of the system is that technocracy is merely a means of climbing up the social and political ladder. In other words, just another form of career path.

For what it is worth, the phenomenon of crossing over from civil society to the executive politics is something that deserves to be more written about. The public certainly is eager to hear from these technocrats and how they experience the process of instigating change from within. A little self-reflection has never hurt anyone.


McRae, Dave, and Roberts Robet. 2020. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Academics and Electoral Politics in Indonesia’. Contemporary Politics 26(1): 38–59.

Mughoffir, Abdul Mughis and Andi Rachman Alamsyah. 2018. Indonesia’s predatory politics neuter former activists’ attempts at reform from within the system. The conversation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.