JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - That Indonesia, among the largest archipelagic states in the world with a huge population and rich in natural resources, needs strong armed forces is beyond question.
The fact is defence spending in the fourth-most populous country in the world amounts to as little as 0.8 per cent of its gross domestic product, a ratio that is lower than that of its close neighbors Timor Leste, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.
And with the possibility of regional tensions simmering in South China Sea developing into a full-blown conflict, Indonesia may have to bear the brunt of the clash between big powers, unless it is well equipped and fully ready.
Unfortunately, that is not the case if the recent Nanggala 402 submarine tragedy is any indication.
Before the 44-year-old German-made sub with 53 crew on board sank off Bali, accidents involving Indonesian Military (TNI) equipment had been rife and had claimed many lives.
Official data have revealed that although the TNI operates a sufficient number of planes, warships and tanks, many of them are not ready for battle. Many therefore have suggested that the Nanggala 402 accident is the right moment for strengthening the national defence system to a desired deterrence level.
In fact Indonesia once was billed as a key regional player thanks to its strong military. The administration of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo appears to share these concerns and has placed national defence on top of his spending list.
During Jokowi's term the defence budget has persistently increased and even outweighed the education budget.
The news about the government's plan to allocate nearly US$125 billion (S$165 billion) between 2020 and 2024 should therefore have not evoked a controversy, simply because we desperately need to revamp our defence system just to make sure the TNI has the capability of protecting the nation and its natural resources.
A draft presidential regulation regarding the planned arms procurement, which Defence Ministry officials say has been leaked, stipulates the shopping spree would be covered by foreign loans.
What seems to be missing from the lucrative program is the absence of transparent dialogue.
The House of Representatives' defence commission members, perhaps except those from the Gerindra Party, which Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto leads, claim to know nothing about the plan.
As if to add insult to injury, the minister is said to have formed a company, PT Teknologi Militer Indonesia, manned by people close to him, to deal with the arms procurement.
Gerindra politicians and the company executives say, however, that the firm provides defense technology advice to the ministry.
The House's defence commission finally held a hearing with Prabowo, TNI chief Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto and all three armed forces chiefs of staff on Wednesday, after Prabowo failed to turn up on Monday, to clarify the strategic issues. The hearing, unfortunately, was held behind closed doors.
Public curiosity, if not suspicion, about the government's arms shopping is justifiable given the reported roles of brokers that have marred the country's arms procurement for so long.
A former defence minister admitted such rent-seeking practices were so difficult to eradicate that he could only try his best to minimise them.
Transparency is the best policy, because the public has the right to know how the taxes they have paid are being spent.
- The Jakarta Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.