Returning in May to Jakarta after an absence of 20 years, I found a city greatly changed.
Skyscrapers dominate the landscape. Toll roads speed the motorist through crowded areas. Villas rise in new subdivisions - with modern shopping malls nearby. At least a dozen first-class hotels have been established. The bicycle rickshaw has disappeared.
Statistics confirm that affluence is growing. In 1995, the gross domestic product rose 8.1 percent, an increase greater than that in South Korea and Taiwan. The changes result from a judicious use of oil and gas revenues over four decades and Indonesia's growing attraction to foreign investors. Liberal rules on foreign investment have led to more than a fourfold increase; in 1995 the government approved $39.9 billion in such investment.
During my brief visit, I posed several questions:
What is the impact of these changes on the average Indonesian? An estimated 20 million people (10 percent of the population) can now be considered middle class. The percentage of those below a poverty line determined by calorie intake has dropped, in 20 years, from 60 to 15.
But progress is not without some cost. Farmers living near developing urban areas are under pressure to sell land for development. And, in Java, already one of the most crowded islands on earth, new agricultural land is hard to find for the farmer willing or pressed to relocate. Improvements in factory workers' pay and conditions are limited by the need to keep wages competitive with other countries.
What is the impact on traditional ways of life? American influence is conspicuous - in fast-food chains, malls, music, and advertising. The younger generation is fascinated with these trends, but the sense of Indonesian identity is strong and cultural patterns are not forgotten. Weddings still ostentatiously display traditional dress and music.
Inevitably, questions turn to politics. Although all are aware that free expression has its limits, the visitor gains the impression that, apart from direct criticisms of the president, his family, and his closest associates, the limits are not clear. As has happened in South Korea and Taiwan, a rising middle class is seeking a greater voice. Numerous private radio stations have been established. An Indonesian human rights commission is active.
Speculation on the "succession issue" is a common thread in Jakarta conversations. It seems generally accepted that President Suharto will seek a seventh term in office in 1998. Discussion of the president's successor center on his likely choice for vice president. No one predicted instability, but the political future is uncertain.
Visitors posing questions about East Timor or other areas where the Indonesian Army has been recently in action are reminded of history. A prime objective of the still-revered first president of Indonesia, Sukarno, was to bring together all parts of the island country. The Army fought earlier insurgent attempts in Sumatra, West Java, and Sulawesi. Although Indonesians will admit to mistakes in the handling of current issues, all insist the government has no choice but to ensure the nation's integrity.
Indonesians are proud of new initiatives in foreign policy: the new security treaty with Australia; new links between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the European Community; and the new Asia Pacific Forum. In each, Indonesia has played an important role. When the subject of China arises, the response is that a nonprovocative policy works best for ASEAN members.
It's clear that one more dynamic Asian nation is experiencing the benefits and uncertainties of rapid economic growth.
* David D. Newsom, Cumming professor of international relations at the University of Virginia, was US ambassador to Indonesia from 1974 to 1977.