Johannes Nugroho: Rethinking Local Administration

Another potent argument against the RT/RW system lies in the gradual devolution of power that has occurred since 'Reformasi' in 1998 in the form of regional autonomy. The local government is now more powerful than it was under the centralized rule of Suharto. As such the system has also become incongruent in urban centers. (JG Photo/Yudhi Sukma Wijaya)

By : Johannes Nugroho | on 5:37 PM September 29, 2017
Category : Opinion, Commentary

Dewi Aicu, 58, a resident of Mustikasari, Bekasi in West Java, recently decided to evacuate her pet dog to Jakarta after receiving two formal letters from her neighborhood chief informing her of the ban for residents on keeping dogs. Medianto, her neighborhood chief, said that the ban is enforced within the neighborhood because "other residents were unsettled by their presence." Aicu, though toeing the line, is unhappy with it and argued that her dog had always been kept indoors.

While not explicitly stated, the most likely reason behind the chief's objection to dogs in Aicu’s neighborhood is probably religious. Dogs are seen as haram - unclean in Islam - and direct contact with the animal is frowned upon.

It remains unclear whether there were indeed complaints against dogs in Aicu’s neighborhood or it was the neighborhood chief's own prejudices that prompted the ban on dog ownership in the neighborhood under his jurisdiction. The incident is but one among many in which individual rights of citizens are often sacrificed at the altar of supposedly communal wish. More importantly, it calls into question the relevance of the administrative division of the neighborhood, known bureaucratically as RT, and its immediate upper echelon - the RW (or hamlet) in today’s Indonesia.

Many Indonesians would probably say that the RT/RW system has been in place as long as they could remember, as if it were an indigenous system that has always been here from time immemorial. In fact, this assumption cannot be furthest from the truth as the system was only put in place by the Japanese Occupation Forces in 1944, in imitation of their own military-style administrative divisions back home in Japan.

RT, as the smallest administrative division comprising 10 or so households, was then called "Tonarigumi," while RW was "Azzazyokai." The introduction of the system was meant to tighten control over the population. The chiefs under the system also acted as informers and intelligence gatherers for the Japanese military, as well as organizing civil defense exercises for Indonesians in the event of invasion by the Allies.

During the rule of President Suharto, the RT/RW network was also used by the government to keep a vigilant eye on the populace. It is no coincidence that it was, and still is in many RTs, compulsory for residents to report any guest who overstays in their house for more than 24 hours. Coupled with the presence of Babinsa (military officers seconded to the village district to "guide" the people), most political dissidents during the New Order era never stood much of a chance in evading arrest.

The sinister origins of the RT/RW largely forgotten, many now believe the system is a force for good for the community and is instrumental in maintaining harmony and togetherness. But as Aicu’s experience demonstrates, the system is more effective in imposing "communal" will, no matter how unlawful, on individuals than anything else, effecting only a superficial semblance of harmony and cohesion.

Throughout the nation’s kampungs, where the RT/RW system is strongest, we frequently hear about residents storming into people’s homes, often under coordination by their RT chief, because the occupiers are suspected of committing adulterous sexual acts or even pre-marital sex. Blatant sexual promiscuity may still be frowned upon in mainstream Indonesian society but forced entry into a private home is in direct violation of the law.

Such disregard of individual private space also took place earlier this month when public duty officers and the police, upon information supplied by the local RT/RW, raided a house in Cigombong, West Java, where 12 women lived, allegedly as lesbian couples. Yet again, although most Indonesians disapprove of LGBT people, the law of the land does not criminalize being lesbian or gay in itself or even homosexual sexual acts.

Despite being a threat to civil liberties, the RT/RW system is often lauded by various government officials as the vanguard against radicalism and terrorism, presumably referring to its role as government informants. However, this line of logic rests on the assumption that all RT/RW chiefs support the government’s stance on radicalism. What about RT/RW chiefs who secretly champion radical causes? Since RT and RW chiefs are now elected by residents ─ as opposed to their being appointed in Suharto’s day ─ any "extremist" stands a chance of being elected.

Another potent argument against the RT/RW system lies in the gradual devolution of power that has occurred since "Reformasi" in 1998 in the form of regional autonomy. The local government is now more powerful than it was under the centralized rule of Suharto. As such the system has also become incongruent in urban centers.

In Surabaya, East Java, for example, the latest mayoral regulation defines an RT as a unit of at least 70 households. By contrast, under the old system it was initially 10 households and was later amended to 30. With so many household under his or her watch, is it logical to expect the RT chief to be familiar with everyone in the neighborhood?

The answer is a definite no, and yet the same chief is expected to be character witness and verify other administrative facts when ordinary Indonesians conduct administrative business with the state. So, with today’s impersonal relations between the RT chief and his or her residents, the main function of the office becomes redundant, and could easily be carried out by the Kelurahan office, the lowest formal local government unit.

As Indonesia’s regional autonomy movement gains momentum and shape in devolved powers to local governments, new paradigms are needed to ensure that the principle of efficiency is adhered to. The constant threat to devolved authorities is that they end up becoming unwieldy from overlapping bureaucratic functions.

Today the RT/RW system represents such unwieldiness. Rather than entrench democratic principles at the lowest level of society, it is poised to threaten civil liberties and rule of law with neighborhood rules and regulations, often at the whims of the RT chief or his functionaries. Rather than make local administrative process more efficient, it tends to make it more cumbersome. Isn’t it time to do away with such a relic of the past?

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at and on Twitter: @Johannes_nos

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