Indonesia Expat
Charities Observations

Opinion: Saving Indonesia from the Mistakes of the West

Indonesia is a place that travellers speak of as a paradise. Advertisements for leisure travel depict pristine white sand beaches, palm trees swaying in cool tropical breezes, fishermen tossing their nets into the rainbow sunsets, all while cocktails are being served on the verandas of five-star hotels. Potential clientele are assured of the hi-speed Wi-Fi and ease of communication for those doing business or social media networking.

Beaches are devoid of crowds or garbage, and the complimentary car services fail to mention the daily gridlock or the carbon clouds poisoning your drive to the temple through fluorescent green rice paddies terraced around rolling hills. Here they took paradise and forgot to build a parking lot, so it’s best to have a driver.

But these are just the destinations tourists go to. Indonesia boasts 17,508 islands, stretching along the equator of which 6,000 are actually inhabited by humans. Migrants created diverse cultures, both ethnically and linguistically.

The history of Indonesia can be traced back 40,000 years to a time when a land bridge joined the islands to the rest of Asia. Even then, the fossilized remains of ‘Homo Erectus’ and his tools suggest that Indonesia was inhabited some 1.5 million years ago. Austronesian people from what is now Taiwan arrived in 2000 BCE.

The first populations of Islam arrived in North Sumatra in the 13th century, and Islam became the dominant religion mixed with existing cultural and religious influences. Indonesia has been shaped by its geographical position and natural resources. Trade fundamentally shaped Indonesian history starting in the mid-16th century, when traders sailed to the Malukus for nutmeg, clove and pepper.

By 1610, The Dutch East India Company was the dominant European power. Dissolved in 1810, it became The Dutch East Indies Co. By the early 20th century, Dutch control extended to the current borders. The Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945 ended Dutch rule, and the Indonesian Independent movement was revived. Two days after Japan’s surrender, Sukarno declared independence and became president.

In 1965, an attempted coup led to a violent army-led anti-communist purge that killed half a million people. General Suharto politically outmaneuvered Sukarno and became president in March 1968. His New Order administration garnered the favour of the West whose investment in Indonesia was a major factor in the next three decades of economic growth.

By the late 1990s, Indonesia was the hardest hit by the East Asian Financial Crisis. Among popular protests, Suharto resigned on May 21, 1998. The Reformation era led to a strengthening of democratic processes and the first democratic presidential election in 2007. Political and economic instability, social unrest, corruption, natural disasters and terrorism have slowed progress.

“USAID has enabled Indonesia to take that step up from its third world nation status.”

But not to worry. The USA then stepped in with USAID (US Agency for International Development). Officially started in 1950, USAID focused on the urgent needs of new republics and has since enabled Indonesia to take that step up from its third world nation status. Trading the rights to the wealth of a nation for a place on the global stage.

Indonesia is now an emerging democratic economy. Development assistance is vast – covering food aid, infrastructure, rehab, health care and training. Monsanto brought in genetically modified seeds in the 70s. Some believe it played a major role in self-sustaining rice production and lowering the birth rates.

Apart from the above, today’s programmes include revitalizing education for the next generation, democratic governance, economic growth, health care, food and the environment. Through the media, TV programmes such as Sesame Street were made available in Bahasa Indonesia. Anti-trafficking of people (Ministry of Women’s Empowerment) became financed. Justice sector programmes, tech assistance and training and justice sector reforms were put in place.

Special programmes to advise and educate judges, prosecutors and members of the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court and the Attorney General were put in place. Technical assistance and training are in place for parliamentarians and members of the National House of Representatives and the National Regional Representative Council, nine provincial and 40 district legislative councils. Support is given to 60 local governments along with media for all the above.

So when we ask why Indonesia doesn’t go solar because it is such an obvious answer to the energy shortages, we have to see the big picture. Through USAID, Indonesia has been offered financing for geothermal plants, and upon Obama’s last trip here, a contract was signed for America to build two nuclear power plants. The money for these outdated and polluting systems is in place, but there is no money of substance to build solar energy plants or give villagers bicycles to pedal an hour for 24 hours of electricity. That all must come from the private sector.

Here is what progress of this sort brings (large unsustainable corporate business) – Indonesia is now the second biggest polluter of waste to oceans in the world (with 130,000 tonnes a day). Waste from Indonesia is covering northern Australia. Walk on any beach here right now and this can be verified. In 1980 there was no plastic here. Now, there are islands of plastic waiting to be recycled. There is no USAID money to do so.

It is obvious that to create the change needed in Indonesia – to save Indonesia – one must go to Washington DC. Change will come from the private sector, not any government, as they all represent big money and corporations.

There are many foundations and groups working to combat our deadly environment. Most were initially started by expats, but Indonesians are quickly becoming aware of the dangers awaiting us because of pollution and an unsustainable way of life. They have been victims of the West.

In the 80s, the USA declared the banjar system (where everyone is required to work for the community) to be communist because the farmer who worked his paddy field did not own it. The US insisted that the system give title to the farmer. Along came Western bankers, who sat down with the farmers and gave loans with the land for collateral. Not understanding compound interest, the farmer soon lost his paddy field. It is an old story.

The United Nations Development programme has been working with the Indonesian government to save the forests by creating jobs in the eco-tourism industry. It is a Band-Aid that has had little effect elsewhere. In Machu Picchu, they have built bridges so no tourist may walk through the ruins that also have plants and fauna being studied. This is because the degradation to the environment from rampant tourism was killing the plants and so the animals left.

Jokowi Mental Revolution
“It is still a long time before real change can impact Indonesia.”

It is still a long time before real change can impact Indonesia. Real change takes a long time and huge steps. Indonesia’s government tried such a task just last year with the Revolusi Mental (Mental Revolution) programme.

Sociologists have long held the belief that real cultural change takes two generations – a generation being 25 years. This means that we are in year 18 after Suharto, year 13 of the new direct election system, year seven of the new school system, and year three of a social insurance system. Anyone not socialized under the old system is now between 18 to 21 years old. So there is still a long way to go.

Culture is deeply rooted in beliefs, the society and environment a person grows up in. An Indonesian gets most of her culture from family, friends, surroundings or immediate environment. Cultural values are usually unquestioned, and therefore taken for granted, as these values are experienced without cognition. Cultural values here are rooted so deep that they resist change.

Roots of some cultural basics in Indonesia are far older than the republic itself, having been passed from generation to generation and kept because they were either useful to maintain social order or useful from a personal point of view. For example, the principles of rukun (harmony), musyawarah dan mufakat (discussion and consensus) and gotong royong (mutual cooperation). These principals continue to be taught in schools and formal institutions.

The people of Indonesia will save Indonesia. They still maintain their respect for nature and family. Indonesia is a rare country that has retained its old ways such as the village system because change takes place at the grassroots level. With a little help from individuals and associations in the West, Indonesians will be saving Indonesia.


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