Rizal Mallarangeng: Liberalism Already Won, No Need for Celebrations

The following interview is re-posted with permission from Suarakebebasan.org.

Let’s talk about the freedom in recent years, Bang Rizal. The government has systematically control our website and internet. Then recently the government also banned alcoholic beverages with low alcohol percentage and that includes some beer. What’s going on with the people’s acceptance to our freedom?

Sometimes a restriction does not have a deep philosophical foundation. Policies which are prohibiting were only based on cultural background of “the parents forbid their children from doing things”. But we should be able to see the larger context of freedom from time to time. If we see the fundamental problem, a system that guarantees individual rights, there is actually quite a big progress. In the last 15 years we’ve laid a sufficient foundation for democracy to maintain freedom. In the system, it is much better than before. 32 years under Soeharto’s presidency we had very limited civil liberties. Certainly there are many shortcomings that need to be improved. However now it is much better.

These restrictions are made because there are people in our government which are reactionary. They have an erroneous understanding, and happen to have power.

Or perhaps because the idea of freedom has not been working effectively in Indonesia?

Again, look at the big picture. It clearly has an effect. If it is not working we might not have democracy, decentralization, and a constitution that respects freedom of speech and association. History is as a linear line, up and down. Well, maybe there will be some people opposing the idea of liberalism. But is there a match to the idea of liberalism? No, there is not. The issue on the Islamic liberalism which has no party to it is another matter. Idea of religious tolerance and religious pluralism has become stronger.

The point of liberty according to John Stuart Mill is you are “free to do whatever you please as long as you do not harm others”. There are some controversial things debated by many. That is why liberalism appears, the right to freedom of opinion and debate. The bottom line for the liberals is someone is free as long as does not hurt anyone else. Now there are a lot of hassles came from human aspirations. People used not obliged to wear a seat belt when driving a car, but now there is a fact that many deaths occur in accidents because there did not wear seat belts. Okay, restrict the freedom to impose the use of seat belt for the safety of human life. It is the same thing for cigarettes. But this does not mean that freedom is reduced. Depending on where we see it.

It also happened when there was a restriction on alcoholic beverages in America. The discussion that appeared was not whether the democracy was threatened, but the people just simply argued on it. It turned out that the restriction on alcoholic beverages raised the mafia, criminals who were in control of the circulation of alcoholic beverages in the black market at that time. Now in California marijuana is legal, whereas last year it was not legal. Half of the inmates in California were associated with marijuana, now it is legal and they are all free. So it’s all the particular restrictions. It is the same with restriction issues in Indonesia.

Well, going back to the effect on the notion of freedom we discussed earlier, if the fundamental freedom in Indonesia has been good, it does not mean requiring the influence of the ideology of liberalism as a whole. That’s two different things. The important thing is that the values of liberalism are already applied, such as tolerance, pluralism, civil liberties. So, what is important is the action. The meaning of “liberal” had been influenced by different meanings. I agree the idea of liberalism is strengthened, but do not expect liberalism became a popular vocabulary. It could be popular in 10-20 years. But the important thing is the essence of liberalism is working properly.

I once read a book Unconscious Capitalism by John Mackey. According to him, everyone is basically a capitalist, already liberal but nobody wants to admit it. What do you think?

There is a wise saying in Javanese, “menang tanpo ngasoraki” (be a winner, forget the celebration). Why should we look for recognition on the victory and defeat, when in reality we have completely won. Why should we ask the audience for applause, then acknowledge our victory. What for? The young spirit really needs it. But as we grow wiser, the more important thing is the people are more prosperous and feeling better. Instead of making them more liberal. How to make a good and prosperous life? A system that is set to follow the liberal principles. But you do not have to use the term “liberal”.

On the influence of liberal philosophers, like Hayek, for example, how do they influence your thoughts?

Hayek has become a cornerstone of philosophy for those who want to learn about freedom. He is in the same page of classical liberalism philosophy such as John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Jefferson. That is the basic. But in my opinion, as the history moves on we also have to move forward. Sometimes a book written 50 years ago is rather difficult to apply in the present context, particularly in the issues of Greece, Germany, and Europe today. It is true that we did get to the essence of human freedom and life systems of the philosophers, but it’s a very rich understanding of the world. We are trying to adopt new works that discuss the present context. I am now reading a new book that tells the long history of mankind since the beginning of the era of homo-sapiens. The world does not only discuss about freedom.

I admire Hayek’s works, but we also need to “find” our own local liberal leaders. It is very difficult indeed, as I have experienced it. But if we dig deeper, we can even find liberalism in a part of Sukarno. Soekarno wanted to unite this nation as one without the barriers that separate us. He wanted to unite this nation without any separation of religion and certain ethnic. As a human, Sukarno is already gone. But the history is moving on and we can interpret Soekarno’s history. Liberals should highlight and explore Soekarno’s life as a brilliant young man, found Pancasila. What more can you add from Pancasila as a principle?

Lastly, what do you think about Jokowi’s current government?

I hope it can be better. Anyway we do not have to criticise their shortcomings, I still expect better. There are great people inside the government. We should pray that he succeeded. Many examples in other countries, leaders are less strong in leadership despite of their good and noble intentions for example Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, or even Gus Dur. Some of them ended tragically.

But the best of our attitude to Jokowi is to advise what is still lacking, but still support him so that he could succeed as a President. Although he came from PDIP and I am with Golkar party, he remains our president. Jokowi should realize that even though he’s a good guy, but governing is different from campaigning. He was a genius in the campaign, but it has not proved successful in managing his government. Without him knowing it, he has a nice personality and proven credentials. But the campaign is different from being in power. Impromptu visit is a method of good campaigns, but impromptu visit while he is in power is very, very tyrannical method. Thus, the transition from being a campaigner to become a governor should work well. We hope he can develop to become a president who is able to manage the government well. That is all.


Rizal Mallarangeng is one of the people in the first generation who are keen to campaign on individual freedom and the market economy through his intellectual institutions, Freedom Institute. Since early 2000s, Freedom Institute has been a pioneer in a campaign for the system in which there is a philosophy, which guarantees individual freedoms in the economic, political, and social sectors. Rizal Mallarangeng at the time, as a columnist in several mass media and author of two books about liberalism “Breaking Economic Centralism: Economic Liberalization in 1986-1992” (2002) and “From the Sky” (2008) became an opinion leader in the issues of freedom which at that time was still very foreign in Indonesian intellectual discussions. Check out the interview from SuaraKebebasan.org Editor with Rizal Mallarangeng who had once “disappeared” from the arena of the idea of freedom as he became an active member of Golkar Party talking about freedom, philosophy of liberalism and Jokowi’s presidency.