Raising the retirement age for Indonesian Defence Force officers could worsen logjams for mid- and high-ranking officers, and as well as undermine Indonesia’s broader interests in the Indo-Pacific.
On November 15, five Indonesian citizens (including a retired officer) submitted a constitutional review of the retirement age clause within the 2004 TNI Law to the Constitutional Court (MK) in an effort to extend the 58 age limit for Indonesian Defence Forces (TNI) officers. It is not clear whether the review would be successful or to what extent President Joko Widodo would be willing to skirt around the existing law to ensure that General Andhika Perkasa, the current TNI Commander, can stay on past his mandatory retirement age.
The submission resurrects a long-standing debate. Soon after the appointment of General Perkasa as TNI Commander on November 15 2021, there was a debate about extending the mandatory retirement age for TNI officers, which currently stands at 58 years old. This debate is directly relevant for General Perkasa as he will be 58 by December 2022. With only about a year as TNI Commander, he could be one of the shortest holders of the post in TNI history (General Edi Sudrajat briefly held the post for about three months in 1993).
In any case, without a clear policy debate over the long-term implications of extending the retirement age, the push may be interpreted as politically driven, given that some hope General Perkasa could ‘safeguard’ the upcoming 2024 general elections. His father-in-law is retired general A. M. Hendropriyono, a former intelligence czar with close ties to the Megawati Sukarnoputri, founder of the ruling party PDI-P.
Assuming the constitutional review goes through, there are several potential outcomes. The MK could declare the retirement article unconstitutional and recommend revising that article alone (but not the full 2004 TNI Law). If so, the article could be revised to only apply to the TNI Commander and service chiefs, rather than all TNI officers. But it is also possible that the new retirement age could be applied to all officers; it could be extended, for example, from 58 to 60 (in line with existing rules for National Police officers), or it could be at the ‘discretion of the president’. That said, however, extending the retirement age for all TNI officers has some serious downstream effects.
First, the extension could worsen the ongoing promotional logjams for mid- and high-ranking officers. Between 2011 and 2017, the Indonesian Army on average had a ‘surplus’— too many officers for too few positions available — of some 30 generals and about 330 colonels per year. Rather than reducing this logjam, extending the retirement age effectively allows current senior officers, initially scheduled to retire, to hold on to their posts and hold up the regeneration process.
The current problem of promotional logjams was partly caused by the previous extension of the mandatory retirement age under the 2004 TNI Law from 55 to 58. As history rhymes — part of the debate back then was the fact that General Endriartono Sutarto was asked to stay on as TNI Commander (which he had held since 2002) twice past his retirement age under President Yudhoyono.
Extending the retirement age now from 58 to 60 not only repeats the same policy missteps that led to the current logjams but might exacerbate the problem further. For one thing, the TNI’s personnel policies remain under-institutionalised. We can see this historically in the haphazard and political manner of senior officer appointments and the constant tinkering of organisational structures since the 1950s. The most recent round of tinkering — known as ‘organisational validation’ — started under Yudhoyono and remains incomplete until today.
For another, the expansion of new TNI command structures and units means that the TNI’s organisational structure remains in flux. The process of ‘up-ranking’ of key positions — where some existing posts were upgraded, thus providing higher ranks for their holders – also does not help. This was accelerated during General Perkasa’s tenure as Army Chief. Another round of logjams could mean yet another round of organisational expansion. This would increase the financial and budgetary burden for a military already struggling to pay for long-term modernisation plans. This includes the addition of a new Reserve Component (KOMCAD) and a new long-term shopping list drafted by the Ministry of Defence.
… if the retirement age — and by implication, personnel policies — is subjected to another round of politicisation, the post-authoritarian defence transformation over the past two decades could lose its steam.
More worryingly, a severe logjam could further undermine democratic civil-military relations. At some point, the TNI simply cannot keep expanding its current structure and will eventually have little choice but to ‘assign’ officers to civilian posts. Civil society groups have already criticised the growing intrusion of the military into civilian policymaking positions and domains.
Finally, if the retirement age — and by implication, personnel policies — is subjected to another round of politicisation, the post-authoritarian defence transformation over the past two decades could lose its steam. Such transformation is more than just the post-New Order “depoliticisation” of the TNI. It has been about the professional ‘re-militarisation’ of the institution to improve its effectiveness, efficiency, and readiness underpinned by democratic civil-military relations.
Taking a step back in this process could undermine Indonesia’s broader strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific. Indonesia is now caught in the polarising effects of great power politics between the US and China. Jakarta should be seeking new options beyond the traditional hope that ASEAN can solve all its foreign policy woes. The defence transformation process is a critical part of this effort to give Indonesia the strategic capability to not have to choose between Beijing and Washington.
But how can the defence establishment proceed when key personnel policies and senior appointments are driven by political interests and calculations? Ultimately, defence capability development is more than just buying arms or modernising equipment. It is about ensuring the people and organisation could professionally thrive as well.
General Perkasa’s tenure as Army Chief was notable for some of his progressive policies, including ending the use of ‘virginity tests’ for female recruits. He should extend this focus on human capital development within the TNI by professionalising personnel policies and completing the organisational validation process. This is a crucial piece of the defence transformation process Indonesia badly needs to tackle an increasingly complex strategic environment.
Evan A. Laksmana is Senior Research Fellow of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.