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Ignoring Indonesia: What you can't say in The Guardian

Screenshot of Guardian report on Indonesia

Earlier this month, tens of thousands of white-robed protesters stomped through the streets of Jakarta, baying for the blood of Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, aka Ahok. To simplify a complex story, Ahok stood accused of the sin of quoting the Quran while being Christian. In the best Indonesian tradition of rent-a-crowd politics, many of the “protesters” were there for the promise of money and a packed lunch; one told TV reporters that, though he came for the cash, he would of course continue to vote for Ahok because of what the no-nonsense governor had done to clean up the city’s corrupt bureaucracy.

No real surprises there, except perhaps to marvel at the pay for a day’s ranting-in-public. On the TV report, a shadow-faced protester said he was paid 200,000 rupiah (US$15), which is now 50% over Jakarta’s minimum wage. Ahok himself told ABC news others earned up to 500,000, or US$37 for the day. In several provinces in Indonesia, that’s just about the average monthly income. It’s certainly an interesting measure of inflation. If memory serves, during the last large political confrontation between supporters of Gus Dur and Megawati in 2001, protesters only earned 50,000 a day, around US$4 at the time, along with their nasi bungkus.

Some of my friends shrugged at these new demonstrations — just another expression of the well-established tradition of invoking the sacred to achieve profane political goals. But still, I always find the donning of religious uniforms to fight a political battle dispiriting. I was also cross with myself for leaving Jakarta for London the day before the demo; since it was barely covered in the European press, it made it that much harder to follow what was going on. Thank God for Twitter.

Right after the demo, when I was feeling somewhat sour about my Bad Boyfriend Indonesia, The Guardian asked if I’d write a piece to introduce their week-long series on Jakarta. They wanted me to explain “why Indonesia is such a point of global interest right now”. Hmmmmmmm. That’s a tough one; in the world which I inhabit — one of generally curious and internationally minded scientists, film-makers, restaurant owners, school teachers, bike shop owners — Indonesia is absolutely NOT a point of global interest. I said so. The Guardian editors agreed, and asked me to write about “why Indonesia SHOULD be a point of global interest, even though it isn’t”.

Update: Inflammatory headline alert: and it applies to both this blog post and to the article in the Guardian. The Guardian didn’t tell me what I could or couldn’t say. In fact, the editors actively encouraged me to tell it the way I saw it, and I did my best. But they then added a headline and sub-head which are not, in my view, supported by the facts as I interpret them.

As I said in the article, I am truly optimistic about the common sense of most Indonesian voters. I think decentralisation and democracy have created conditions in which that common sense can prevail in most places at most times. On Saturday, for example, Indonesians who support pluralism hit the streets (without being paid) to defend their country’s diversity. I spent last month in East Kalimantan and West, Central and North Sulawesi, and I found supporters of pluralism to be very much in the majority in city and village alike. But that does NOT necessarily mean that I agree that “The world can’t afford to ignore this diverse archipelago any longer” as the Guardian proclaimed. “Its eager and savvy democracy, big workforce and brightening outlook demand attention.” Hmmmmmmm again. I think Indonesia’s experience provides valuable lessons in “experimentalist democracy” (more about that in this very nerdy paper on health insurance, pdf). However, I think the world can and will continue to ignore Indonesia.

That’s not a pessimistic view. Or only mildly so. The world can afford to ignore Indonesia because even given the hopeful changes I outlined in the article, it will still punch below its weight economically. That’s partly because most of the “big workforce” in the the Guardian’s introductory sub-heading is not well equipped, either educationally or habitually, for highly productive work. But it’s also because of the nature of democracy itself. Successful democracy requires compromise, and compromise often leads to less-than-optimum distribution of resources. Call it pork-barrel politics (though not in Indonesia, where you may find yourself on trial for blasphemy if you do). Call it corruption (if you’re a Tea Party member with no desire to promote or preserve diversity). Or call it the cost of pluralism. The fact is, the more diverse a democracy, the more political compromise you need to glue it together. And Indonesia is probably the most diverse democracy in the world. A great deal of the country’s energy, attention and resources for many years to come will be turned inwards, focused on maintaining the exquisite balancing act that is Indonesian democracy.

On the plus side, the world can continue to ignore Indonesia because, despite the screeching of para-religious “mass organisations” and the machinations of their political puppeteers, the country’s leaders and most of its citizens understand the art of compromise. I believe that the nation will continue to manage the balancing act of democracy successfully. Thus, no major meltdown. Thus, no headlines in the global media, and no great demands on international attention. Sometimes, (other people’s) ignorance really is bliss.

(Updated on 22/11/16 to underline the mismatch between headline and content)

Health insurance Etc.: Indonesia's improbable success

Poster advertising Indonesian state health insurance
Since its very inception, Indonesia has been given to committing itself to unlikely projects with virtually no preparation. Nationhood, for example (1945). Rice self-sufficiency (1970). Dramatic decentralisation (1999). Most recently, in 2014, universal health coverage. By 2019, it was summarily declared, all Indonesians would be included in a single national health insurance scheme. All of these grandiose declarations were greeted with howls of scepticism from colonisers or so-called development partners; there was a great deal of “they’ll-never-do-it-without-us” thigh-slapping/hand-wringing. Each spectacularly unlikely venture was followed by a few years of chaos. There was a lot of ‘make-it-up-as-we-go-along’ and ‘let’s-see-what-we-can-get-away-with’ on the Indonesian side, and a certain amount of schadenfreude on the development partner side. Then comes the ‘hmmmm,-let’s-try-this-instead’ phase. And eventually, usually far more quickly than any of the hand-wringers predict, the country arrives at a workable system, which involves a bit of creative flexibility (a.k.a. muddling through), but which pretty much achieves the previously unthinkable goal.

When the Universal Health Coverage goal was first declared, I was among the sceptics. Maarten Kok and Kharisma Nugroho and I traced the political origins of the healthcare-for-all pipe dream, pdf), from the 1960 health law to the birth of the current BPJS/JKN system. What we found was a microcosm of what’s going on in Indonesian politics in general. First, the state fails to meet its welfare goals for a couple of decades, doing only the bare minimum to meet immediate political priorities. Then, it pulls in “development partners” to help stave off a national crisis. This creates a sense of entitlement, which persists into our current, more democratic era. One or two bold innovators at the district/city level begin to deliver what the population hopes for, sometimes more. This catapults them to further electoral success, attracting the attention of other aspirants, including those at the national level. Suddenly, popular programmes such as health coverage become “must-have” campaign items, spreading around the country, and eventually co-opted at the national level. (That’s a great simplification — you might need to read the whole paper pdf.) Suddenly, it really seems plausible that most Indonesians will be able to get affordable care for most of what ails them physically, without bankrupting their extended family. Perhaps not quite by 2019, but probably before the richest country in the world manages to achieve the same goal.

The hand-wringers and thigh-slappers are of course keen to point out that what doesn’t bankrupt families may well bankrupt government — the premiums for those deemed “poor” are picked up by the state, and the contributions of those who are in informal employment but not formally poor are deemed to be lagging. Over the last three weeks, however, I’ve spoken to a fair number of those people in the less developed areas of four provinces — East Kalimantan and West, Central and North Sulawesi. I expected a great deal of “why pay if you’re not sick?” and a fair bit of whining about long waiting times and poor service. I have been sorely disappointed. Most people I’ve met on ferries, in buses, in village health centres or working in the fields say they pay their premiums — most often at the lowest band of 25,000 a month — and are proud of it. The only real complaints I’ve heard are from doctors, who are cross that they can no longer charge whatever they please, and from local politicians in very wealthy areas, who feel that their visible generosity to voters has been hijacked by the central government.

Yes there are inefficiencies. Yes demand is escalating more quickly than the ability to meet it. Yes, the BPJS bureaucracy is short-circuiting some of the standard-setting and oversight work that should be done by the ministry of health. Yes, many people have been erratic in paying their premiums. Yes, the overlapping political claims on the health insurance brand have caused a bit of confusion (see photo above). But the system is adapting pretty quickly, with new restrictions on coverage for those in arrears, and an increasing array of ways of signing up and paying. (Where else can you pay for your health insurance at the local mini-mart?)

The hand-wringing will doubtless continue, but I don’t hear very much of it coming from people who can now get care that they wouldn’t have imagined just three years ago. Universal health insurance etc.: it’s a damned good start. Someone should tell Donald Trump.

Could this blog post land me in jail?


What’s up with the Indonesian government? First, they confiscate toys because the sight of a gold star on a red background might turn Indonesian kids Communist. Then they bully and intimidate the organisers of cultural gatherings into shutting down discussions of history. Now there’s a move afoot to jail people who make fun of others online. It’s supposed to stop cyberbullying. But in truth, Indonesian politicians are themselves beginning to look a lot like the over-fed playground bullies who beat up skinny kids in case the skinnies point out that they’re fat.

I’m certainly not in favour of baseless mud-slinging of the type so favoured by Donald Trump. I despair at the stream of racist invective that has been “permissioned” by Brexit. I believe that societies should arrive collectively at some agreement about the acceptable limits of public discourse. But we shouldn’t let one, privileged group make up the rules as they go along. That’s exactly what the proposed amendment to Indonesia’s already problemtic Electronic Information and Transactions Law does, when it threatens to jail people for posting photos, videos or other content that individuals (politicians, for example) might find offensive. By failing to define “offensive” content, the law leaves Indonesia’s spectacularly corrupt judiciary to decide whether statements like this one, posted on a blog read by a few hundred ardent Indonesia-watchers, merit depriving a person of their liberty. Should they jail me for calling the judiciary spectacularly corrupt? What should they do with the 62.4 percent of people who told CSIS in a large national survey (.pdf) that they wished the government would do more to smash the judicial mafia (membrantas mafia peradilan)? Or the 39 percent who said corruption in the judiciary was the single biggest obstacle to strengthening democracy in Indonesia — far and away the highest proportion compared with all other obstacles?

These persistent assaults on personal freedoms (many of them absurdly masquerading as protection of children) lead to
self-censorship and thus make others suspect that they are not being told the whole truth. Example: Though I’m always happy to assume incompetence before assuming conspiracy, in the current climate I find myself wondering why Indonesia’s largest publisher is two years behind schedule in printing and distributing Begitulah Indonesia, the Indonesian translation of Indonesia Etc. Are they they that much more inefficient than the Polish, Italian, German, Taiwanese and Chinese publishers who managed to get their translations out a year or more ago? Or, given the current climate, have they suddenly grown all wobbly about some of the (fully sourced) comments I make about religion, the FPI, corruption, education or the thousand other things that might be deemed “offensive” in what is actually an extended love letter to Indonesia? With the whole of Indonesian society treading on eggshells in case they fall foul of fuzzily conceived laws, one is left fearing the worst.

One group, InterSastra, is reacting in a small but delicious way to these threats to freedom of expression (and thus to freedom of thought) in Indonesia: they’re planning to publish a series of banned literature, translated into Indonesian. Regular readers will know that I don’t promote products or events, but if you agree that this is an interesting venture, you might want to check out their Kickstarter campaign which runs for another 2 days. For those who consider making a donation but are confused by the Norwegian Krone in which the campaign is denominated, its roughly 10/9/8 Krone to the £/EUR/$ respectively, 1600 rupiah to the Krone.

Ageing Indonesia: wiser or just grumpier?

Number of sharia-type regulations passed in Indonesia by province, 2001-2012

Number of sharia-type regulations passed in Indonesia by province, 2001-2012

Indonesia turns 71 today. Like many septuagenarians, the country appears to be growing more grumpy and intolerant as it ages. This week, the Economist picks up on an apparently rising tide of homophobia in Indonesia. Importantly, the paper also picked up on the fact that the grumpiness is partly motivated by politics: “Politics, as much as religious conviction, plays its part,” The Economist reports. “Many politicians sense they may win more votes by presenting themselves as pious Muslims than by defending sexual minorities from persecution.”

In fact, I’d say it is a lot MORE about politics than about religious conviction. I’ve written about this before, referring to an analysis of local laws I was working on together with political scientist Michael Buehler. The first part of that work is now finally published, in a paper that looks at the cynical ways in which Indonesian politicians use religious regulations to appeal to different key groups at different points in the electoral cycle. (Link is to pdf)

The paper is a bit pompous — academia, eh? — but it shows that at least until 2012, sharia-type laws mapped onto both political history and on to the electoral cycle in very predictable ways. From the map above, you can see that the passage of laws with an Islamic inspiration are concentrated in areas where political Islam has been embedded for over a century. And from the paper you’ll see that “pious Moslem” laws are mostly passed in campaigning periods, unpopular zakat laws imposing taxes are mostly passed during a second term when a bupati/walikota can’t run again, and laws which confer extraordinary patronage opportunities on influential groups are passed more or less across the board.

On the day I write this, Indonesia turns 71 and my family celebrates the 80th birthday of both of my parents. The good news is that my parents are both getting much more liberal politically as they age. I hope Indonesia will, like them, grow wiser rather than grumpier as she matures.

Castration: another knee-jerk 'solution' from Jokowi


Nearly half of the cases of sexual violence that get reported to Indonesia’s police are dropped or “resolved”, according to the National Commission on Violence Against Women: the victim’s family is paid off, or the victim is forced to marry her abuser, thus restoring family honour. The reaction to this scandalous situation from Joko Widodo’s government has been, well, pretty much nothing.

Then the gang rape of a 14 year-old girls hit the headlines, and Jokowi did what he does best. Without citing any data at all, he declared that Indonesia was suffering a moral meltdown that required extraordinary measures, and he spat out a headline-grabbing regulation that makes him look tough. This modus operandum, which he first used to deal with an alleged epidemic of drug abuse, appeals to those he has whipped into a moral panic, but that does almost nothing to address the root of the problem. The headline-grabber in this regulation is castration (of the chemical variety, the type that, in my own parents’ lifetime, the UK used to inflict on brilliant men who happened to be gay). But it includes the possibility of the death sentence, if the victim is killed, mentally damaged or contracts a disease. It’s up to the judge. That would be the same type of judge who jailed a number of almost certainly innocent men for alleged sexual abuse with the word of a five year-old boy as principle evidence. The evidence was pretty extraordinary, certainly — the kid and two others maintained that perpetrators had conjured a magic stone out of thin air to heal and induce amnesia — the stone may also have been responsible for conjuring away the [incurable] HSV-2 virus which the court decided the boy was infected with, though the laboratory could find no trace of the virus. The details of that case would fit well in one of those Indonesian novels that fills gaping holes in plot by turning people into pigs and tigers. But under the new legislation, the judge who chose to jail the men could have put them to death, and no novelist could have revived them.

Oddly, when I was looking for coverage of the castration story in Kompas, Indonesia’s most respected daily newspaper, my search threw up an unexpected parallel. A the screenshot above shows, a search on “pengebirian” yields a story about the new regulation, then one accusing Jokowi of trying to pass legislation that would castrate Indonesia’s anti-corrpution commission the KPK.

Most Indonesians are impressed by how much the KPK has done to combat corruption in the country — the institution has gone after governors and district heads, ministers and MPs, judges and cops, and it has a very high conviction rate. Certainly, one wouldn’t want to see it emasculated. But having said that, the KPK’s approach is not so different from Jokowi’s: go for the headline grabbing easy-ish fixes — the one or two big fish that will make it look like action is being taken — while leaving the underlying cultural and institutional factors that drive corruption virtually untouched. It’s that “oknum” thing again, the idea that a more or less perfectly moral system is disrupted by one or two wicked individuals who need only to be castrated, shot or jailed to restore perfect harmony. Luckily, many Indonesians don’t buy it; they know that what the country needs in order to protect both children and adults from the worst outcomes of sexual abuse is a functional, victim-friendly police; an independent, fair and accessible judicial system; and educational and cultural systems that give children and women the confidence to speak out. Let’s hope that the Members of Parliament who will debate Jokowi’s knee-jerk legislation are more thoughtful than the President.

Why are Indonesian politicians such slow learners?

Banner in Jakarta reads: Lesbis and Gays: No entry to our neighbourhood!

Lesbis and Gays: No entry to our neighbourhood! (Photo: Prima Mulia/Tempo)

Just hours after an incompetent attempt at terrorism shut central Jakarta down for about 20 minutes earlier this month, I wrote a commentary in the Financial Times saying that “Islamic State” (which, let’s remember, is neither) and similar rabid, back-to-the-7th-century fanatics had no traction in Indonesia because “Indonesia is a vibrant democracy and its citizens are proud of their diversity and tolerance”. (If the link to the FT doesn’t work for you, you can read the text in Word here).

The commentary refers to some work I’ve been doing with a colleague, Michael Buehler, analysing the spread of sharia-inspired local laws (peraturan daerah, or perda) across Indonesia. We find solid evidence that these perda are passed mostly for reasons of political self-interest. Either they bring in cash, or they create patronage opportunities, or politicians think that they are popular, and that they will help in re-election campaigns.

Interestingly, though, our analysis suggests that — SURPRISE — Indonesia’s political elite is out of touch with what most voters think and want. Local leaders who pass “morality” laws in their first term may make themselves popular with groups such as FPI, which then have a legal basis to go around smashing up those bars that don’t pay them protection money, but that does NOT translate into popularity with voters — they are much less likely to get re-elected compared with those who didn’t pass such laws in their first term. (Notes for nerds below.**) Interestingly, those who passed laws that effectively encourage Sunni (Wahabi?)-branded thugs to beat up on other sects did especially poorly in the provinces that have the strongest traditions of political Islam and the largest Moslem majorities.

And still, we get quite senior politicians thinking that appealing to intolerance is a populist move. The punch-bag of the week are gay men and women (and perhaps also transgenders, now inexorably grouped with the others under the daft acronym LGBT, though waria are socially, culturally and politically very differently positioned in Indonesian society compared with gays). First, the minister for research, technology, and higher education, Mohammad Nasir, said gays were not welcome on campus. Then the popular mayor of Bandung, Ridwan Kamil, got in on the act, in a very Indonesian way — support gay rights if you want, just don’t do it in public. (Here’s a useful summary of recent homophobic pronouncements by Indonesian officials from Human Rights Watch.) The Sunni-themed thugs in the FPI appear to have taken Ridwan’s comments as license to put up idiotic banners such as that pictured above and go house to house looking for same-sex-love. The FPI, Front Pembela Islam or Islamic Defenders’ Front, is one of several groups of Islamic-themed gangsters (pdf) who cloak their extortion rackets in the language of The Book. Guess what they found in the cheap boarding houses used by students in the university town of Bandung? Lots of young women sharing rooms!

FPI members are generally not very clever, and it may be that few of them have been to college far from home. But they are, after all, Indonesian. So they should know that in Indonesia, people of the same gender regularly bed down together — in some islands I’ve shared mattresses with three generations of women at once. And I can assure those shouty young men who wish to defend Indonesia’s morals that that does NOT make me a “lesbi”.

Stupidity on the part of gangsters is understandable. On the part of senior politicians it is less forgivable. There has been a bit of backtracking from several of the mouthiest politicians, including Nasir and Ridwan. But they, and all of their colleagues, appear to be very slow on the uptake. When will they learn that most Indonesian voters are way ahead of them in the desire to live and let live, otherwise known as tolerance?

**The data set was limited to the 254 local government heads who passed any sharia-inspired perda between 2001 and 2012 — 442 regulations altogether. These results compare the electoral fate of those who passed certain types of bylaws in their first term with those that did not. For those who care about these things, the results were statistically significant at the p<0.05 level.

High drama in the Indonesian Theatre State

Indonesia's new theatre state

Photo: Jaringan Masyarakat Peduli Pegunungan Kendeng, via Twitter

Some decades ago, the US anthropologist Clifford Geertz coined the phrase “Theatre State” to describe politics in Java and Bali. The Powers That Be in many countries use pomp and pageantry to project power but Geertz’s point was that in Java, the strutting and preening was power, the display had become a substitute for government. In this essay in the Nikkei Asian Review, I suggest that in this democratic age, Indonesian citizens are taking over the stage. A great recent example are the farmers of Kendeng, pictured above, who recently trekked 122 kilometers on foot to attend a court case that they had brought against a polluting cement factory. There’s no doubt that they had costume and set designers to help out with the performance — check out the matching backpacks. But their theatrics worked: the court denied permission to go ahead with the factory.

This week, we’ve seen some more serious theatrics, on centre stage in the House of Representatives in Jakarta. There, obviously against the will of some of its members, the House Ethics Committee was made to sit through an audio recording of parliamentary speaker Setya Novanto trying to shake down the head Freeport McMoRan Inc’s Indonesian operations, to the tune of some four BILLION dollars. Freeport Indonesia runs the world’s largest gold mine, and that’s not even its day job: the Grasberg mine, in the fractious far eastern province of Papua, is principally a copper mine. It makes a lot of US shareholders very rich and is Indonesia’s biggest tax payer. Its contract comes up for renewal in 2021, and the company is trying to get some indication from the changeable Indonesian government whether it is worth investing billions of dollars now in long-term operations, something that it is naturally reluctant to do if there’s a good chance it will be kicked out in just five years time.

Wednesday’s instalment of the morality play, shown live on Indonesian TV starred Indonesia’s Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Sudirman Saeed. With dignity and some determination, he stood his ground in the case that he himself brought against Novanto, and in the end the court agreed to hear the recording. In the three-way conversation Novanto, who belongs to the Golkar party that dominated Indonesian politics through the Grand Patronage era of the Suharto years, and squillionaire Muhammad Riza Chalid, suggested to Freeport boss Maroef Sjamsoeddin that they could smooth through some assurance of long-term contract renewal. All Freeport had to do was put 20 percent of the Indonesian company’s shares into the pockets of President Joko Widodo and Vice President Jusuf Kalla. (Here’s the transcript of the conversation, which also contains lots of catty remarks about relations at the very top of Indonesia’s government, and some breathtakingly arrogant assertions about Novanto’s own powers.) Sjamsoeddin showed up in the parliamentary theatre on Thursday to confirm that the recording was genuine.

So what’s the next act in what threatens to be Indonesia’s biggest corruption story to date? Well, we’ll have to wait. In the time-honoured fashion of Indonesian politicians, the House of Representatives if going off on a study tour. And really, what better place to learn about ethics in government than Russia?

If you’re interested in the modern expression of the Theatre State in Indonesia, you might enjoy this little video I made in the outer reaches of Halmahera:

How well is Indonesia managing its differences?

Photo: DW

Photo: DPA

On Tuesday night, I went to the opening ceremony of the Frankfurt Book Fair, where Indonesia is the Guest of Honour. True to form, Indonesia worked its last-minute magic and the ceremony was delightful; the highlight for me was the speech by Education Minister Anies Baswedan. I’m not given to enjoying formal speeches by Indonesian Ministers (or by any ministers, for that matter). But Bpk Anies managed to go beyond the platitudes of these occasions, to make a point that was both timely and important. Referring directly to the hundreds of thousands of refugees from different cultural traditions who are besieging the borders of Europe, he spoke of what the world might learn from Indonesia: that diversity is a source of strength, not of weakness. Indonesia, he said, specialises in managing differences. He acknowledged that there had been bad times, including in the 1960s. But overall, the “imagined community” of Indonesia has stood over time as a solid monument to the strength that can be derived from diversity in a tolerant society. His speech made me really proud, and I wasn’t the only one. I even tweeted to that effect once I got connected — for all their expertise in engineering and software manipulation the Germans live in the dark ages when it comes to social media and connectivity.

Then came the news of the burning of a church in Aceh, which must have taken place just a few hours before Bpk Anies made our hearts swell. And the news of the displacement of hundreds of people, seeking refuge from religious-inspired violence, just like the Syrian refugees the minister talked of. It seems from locally-constructed chronologies that the violence was not unpredictable, and indeed the police said it was premeditated. Malay-speaking Aceh Singkil is both the most mixed district of Aceh and the part of Indonesia in which I witnessed most violence myself — including two spectacular catfights between women, complete with jilbabs torn off and handfulls of hair being pulled out. Perhaps we can hope that this is no more than a random incident, that it won’t spark any greater conflict. But having felt so warm and fuzzy about Indonesia’s (generally remarkable) example as a manager of differences, I now feel that Bpk Anies needs to persuade some of his cabinet colleagues to start managing those differences a bit more actively.

You can watch Bpk Anies’s speech here.

Less touring, more studying would serve Indonesian politicians well

Jakarta Globe Headline

Trying to cut words from a headline? Replace “study tour” with “junket”. Most Indonesians think of study tours, or “studi banding” as a politician’s way of going on an overseas holiday at the taxpayers’ expense. There are exceptions, of course. Over a decade ago, I took the then vice-governor of Papua province, Konstan Karma, to Uganda to see what a generalised HIV epidemic looked like. One morning, we visited a clinic at a university hospital in Kampala. It was overflowing with people, waiting patiently to be seen by a doctor. Bpk Karma chatted happily with many of them.

After a while, not wanting to appear impatient, he took me aside and asked quietly: “When are we going to meet the AIDS patients?” Uuuuhhhhh…. “These are the AIDS patients, Bpk,” I replied. He looked at me, eyes wide, then looked around, then looked at me again. There must have been about 300 people crowded in to three small rooms and overflowing into the courtyard. “But it can’t be. All these women, all these children…” He was on the verge of tears. Then he went back to chatting, now with greater concern, asking questions, patting kids on the head. When we left the clinic, he reached in to his pocket, pulled out a hundred dollar bill, and gave it to the doctor on duty. “I’m sorry it’s not more,” he said. After that visit, Bpk Karma tried very hard to convince fellow politicians in Papua to take HIV more seriously. His success was questionable, but it was clear that seeing the future with his own eyes persuaded him to try, at least, to avert that future.

Contrast that experience with this story from the Jakarta Globe, about Jakarta politicians on a three day “study tour” to Bali. Thirty two Jakarta councillors felt the need to learn from Bali, and eight staffers went to dance attendance on them. This one paragraph says it all:

The main program on their itinerary, though, was a meeting with their counterparts at the Bali provincial legislature, which failed to take place. The Jakarta officials showed up at the council building on Thursday, only to be told that the very people they expected to meet had themselves embarked on a study trip to Yogyakarta.

This phenomenal waste of money and opportunity jars especially because I happen to be doing some work on the history of the HIV epidemic in China. Foreign study tours of up to two months, during which technocrats attended classes or went on site visits every day, were the key which unlocked an eventual response. The study tours sparked a lot of home-grown experimentation by a small but dedicated group of Chinese researchers and civil servants. It took a while for China’s leaders to give a damn about HIV, but once they did start to care, those foreign-inspired technocrats had tried out different models at home, knew what was likely to work, and were ready to roll. If Indonesia’s public servants did more studying and less touring, the country might be better off.

Indonesia is 70: Many happy Etc.s

Indonesian declaration of independence, taken from waste-paper basket

Seventy years ago today, Sukarno and Mohmmad Hatta were frog-marched to a radio station by students hungry for independence. There, they declared the formation of the republic of Indonesia. Both the text and its original presentation in Sukarno’s handwriting (pictured above, rescued from the waste-paper basket) tell us much about the country. It translates as:

We the people of Indonesia hereby declare the independence of the Republic of Indonesia. The details of the transfer of power etc. will be worked out carefully and as soon as possible.

Jakarta, 17-8-05
Representatives of the people of Indonesia

The date is taken from the Javanese calendar. The crossings-out reflect the imprecision of the Malay language in which it was written. Though Malay was adopted as the national language, it was not the mother tongue of any of the founding fathers; perhaps they struggled to find just the right word for this momentous declaration. The content — and especially the Etc. of which I’m so fond and which I used as a title for my book — reflects the imprecision of the very nation itself. At the time of the declaration, the nationalists were not even agreed on what territories it covered, and most other nations took four years to agree that it even existed. My personal favourite, however, is the way the last word, Indonesia, gets squished down into a little curly tail: forward planning has never been the nation’s most obvious strength.

The last six decades have seen many Etc.s: riotous multi-party democracy (centralised), “guided democracy” aka dictatorship under Sukarno, a “New Order” aka dictatorship under Suharto, and many stripes of “reformasi” aka riotous multi-party democracy (decentralised). There will doubtless be many more to come. Indonesia is a nation that will live always in interesting times.

I wish the nation and its people very many happy returns. A propos of nothing, so does Google, which for some reason pleases me.

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