Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Dictators Move Mountains, Democracies Form Committees

Interesting question posted on Twitter earlier. Why isn't there an Indonesian TMJ or Newin Chidchob to raise the level of the game? They of course are the people behind Johor Darul Ta'zim and Buriram United, two of the most ambitious football clubs in South East Asia with cash being ploughed into facilities and infrastructure to allow them to compete at the highest level for years to come.

Without doubt the potential of clubs like Arema, Persib, Persija and Persebaya is far greater than the Thai and Malaysian clubs but the chances of them fulfilling that potential in the near future is very slim indeed. And indeed the chances of any Indonesian side doing a JDT or BU are pretty bloody low. And the reason, as with everything, lies in politics.

Until 1998 Indonesia was a dictatorship under a gentleman by the name of Soeharto. His idea of running a country was to see the place as his own personal bank for his benefit and the benefit of his cronies. Indonesia was very centralised. There was Jakarta and there was the rest and as no money was being spent on anything much in the capital city then of course nothing was being spent elsewhere.

With the fall of Soeharto Indonesia is now making moves towards decentralisation with more power and greater funds being made available to the regions. The idea is a good one but unfortunately the quality of provincial politician isn't that good. They grew up in the Soeharto era where they saw it as the right of the rulers to benefit from the fat of the land at the expense of others. They pay to stand in elections and they spend their time in power recouping their expenses while looking to add to their bank balance knowing they could be voted out at the next poll.

They focus therefore on projects that are high in value and potential kickbacks but offer little in the way of succor to the residents. Short term thinking is the priority as they seem to amass as much wealth as they can before the next election and as it can take years for large projects to come to fruition nothing gets done beyond kickbacks. Even if they approve something like a new stadium tenders, contracts and land ownership disputes, you know the stuff of democracies around the world, eat into timeline and there is always the danger the next lot in power will cancel it because their snout is not in the trough.

Things are different in Thailand. And not just Buriram but we will start there. The regions there are have always had a bit more authority than their equivalent in Indonesia, especially those in lucrative border areas where opportunities for smuggling are or were rife. Canny businessmen were able to muscle their way to the top using fair means and foul and once they got to the top they have stayed there. Their position is unassailable because they control all the levers of power in their province be it the top office all the way down the chain to village heads who are appointed by...guess who? And once in power they cement their position through ostentatious shows of largesse such as handing out cash to poor people or building a road to a remote village. To go through Bangkok takes time, costs money and takes more time leading to a mistrust of the capital and further boosting their support locally.

Chai Chidchob became a politician for Buriram in 1969. Since then the province has become a family fiefdom and son Newin, named after a former Burmese dictator, has just carried on the family tradition. These people are so well entrenched locally it is highly unlikely they will lose an election anytime soon. At one time Newin was a serious kingmaker in Thai politics. He commanded such a large faction of ambitious politicians any political party wanting to form a government after an election had to come to him for his support with everything that entails.

The situation is similar in provinces like Chonburi and Suphanburi where entrenched local dynasties (the Khunpluems and Silpa-archas) have seen football as a way of keeping their province in the limelight (though the former are run more as a football club than a vanity club receiving vast sums of money)

For someone with such unlimited power the decision to build a football team or a football stadium comes easy. Wanna stadium? No problem, Mai pen ria. Need some land? Mai pen rai? Need a contractor? Mai pen rai. Job done. No need to file for planning permission or nonsense stuff like that, just go for it. And no pesky opposition politicians to rock the boat either.

It can take ages to get a new stadium constructed in Indonesia. New venues in Tangerang, Balikpapan and Bandung are still not ready for use despite being several years under construction. But stadiums are built by local government, not the private sector and until now there has been no one with the power, finances or vision to build one privately. Often new stadiums are built for multi sport national games and then used by football clubs who must pay a rent for it. Clubs must share them with whoever pays the rent; hence Persija have been denied Bung Karno in the past because of political rallies, civil service examinations and religious meets.

When Indonesia announced its plans to bid for the World Cup their proposal included the construction of a number of stadiums across the country. Paid for by the government. Even when the IPL came along promising to #ChangeTheGame there was little mention of an improved infrastructure. Yes, clubs should have developed academies but that was about as far as it went. And anyway the IPL was all about politics and we are still paying the price for that misadventure to this day.

Things are changing slowly with Persib leading the way. While other clubs sit there handwringing Persib went out and got shirt sponsors. It may not seem much compared to Buriram United and JDT but it is a start. Not that long ago clubs only received sponsorship from SOEs and then only after political pressure was applied locally. 'We are a small club from a small town,' one club official said, once, 'who wants to sponsor us?' That small town mentality is slowly being defeated but we are still some way from a national powerhouse being developed.

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