'What's in a name?' Shakespeare's Juliet asks. Quite a lot, as things turned out for her. And so it is for the just-published proceedings of the ANU Indonesian Update, titled The Yudhoyono Presidency: Indonesia's Decade of Stability and Stagnation. A 'mini' version of the Update was held at the Lowy Institute, but this volume contains a much fuller record of the diverse opinions on the SBY years.

The title of the volume has triggered debate among both Indonesian commentators and the 'batik-shirt brigade' of Australian Indonesia watchers, some of whom see the word 'stagnation' as too harsh a judgment on SBY's decade as president.

Taken literally, both words – 'stability' and 'stagnation' – have the same meaning. But one is positive, the other negative. For many political scientists, it was not enough that SBY presided over a decade when democracy was maintained and strengthened (he implemented the policy of democratically elected heads of provinces, cities and districts; the Corruption Eradication Commission [KPK] also became operational during his term). Yudhoyono, says one contributor to the ANU volume, 'merely stabilised Indonesia's fragile democracy without ensuring that democracy became "the only game in town".'

Even at the start of his presidency, local cynics said SBY stood for Saya Belum Yakin ('I'm not sure'), and this proved to be a persistent criticism. He was a hesitator and vacillator.

This volume sets out SBY's own answer to the charge. He saw himself as a moderator 'leading a polity and a society characterized by deep divisions...he believed that his most important role was to moderate these divisions by mediating between the conflicting forces and interests to which they gave rise'. He was also a president with a multi-party parliament, an inherently difficult arrangement. In response, he maintained over-sized government coalitions whose internal differences he fuzzed over rather than resolved. This is what enabled him to maintain stability. It also explains the stagnation.

Thus he failed to support the KPK at critical junctures, was weak on human rights in failing to protect minority religious groups, and failed to safeguard the budget from the enormous rise in petroleum subsidies during his second term. 'Yudhoyono's constant poring over the polls and thin skin for criticism often had a paralyzing effect on him'. But he achieved the Aceh peace accord and gave Indonesia a higher profile on the international stage, especially at the G20. Above all, he held the ship of state steady after the weak performances of Gus Dur and Megawati, his predecessors. In his own defence, he says: 

Whenever the winner takes all, it's harmful, there will be losers, and losers generally like to hit back and if that gets out of control, then it can be terrible. Ya, I must admit that I love to maintain balance, yes, the balance in life, in our country.

The economists who contributed to the volume, while acknowledging the shortcomings, give SBY a pass mark. He maintained 5% annual growth and lowered poverty rates.

The contrast with the Soeharto era is brought out in a volume coincidentally published at the same time: A Tribute to Ali Wardhana (available soon from Gramedia). Ali Wardhana was Indonesia's finance minister for a record-breaking 15 years (1968-83), followed by a decade as Coordinating Minister for the Economy.

It's hard to overstate the differences of policy-making style and environment between this period and the SBY years – 7% annual growth was maintained for three decades despite persistent shocks, both domestic and foreign. And this period was characterised by decisiveness. Two examples stand out. The first was the 50% currency devaluation in 1978, despite the strong current account. It was a path-breaking response to Indonesia's loss of international competitiveness as a result of the 1970s oil shock (the so-called 'Dutch disease'). The second example was the replacement of the entire (hopelessly corrupt) Indonesian customs service by a Swiss company to carry out the task of customs inspection. Not much of SBY's moderation and balance there.

Whatever the judgment on the words 'stability' and 'stagnation', the early days of the Jokowi regime provide plenty of room for a more generous and forgiving view of SBY. It's early days, but some commentators, both domestic and Australian, have already fallen out of love with President Jokowi. Perhaps both SBY and Jokowi suffer from the problem of overly optimistic initial expectations. 

Indonesia will always be judged as having missed many opportunities to do better. More than 50 years ago Clifford Geertz, a sympathetic observer of Indonesia, said: 'Indonesia at its base is an anthology of missed opportunities, a conservatory of squandered possibilities'. Yet for all this, the country has transformed radically for the better since then, both politically and economically, confounding the critics while disappointing the optimists.

With Australia-Indonesia relations at a nadir, The Yudhoyono Presidency is a must-read for anyone who thinks this relationship matters.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user AK Rockefeller.