The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, July 26, 2005



There are many ugly sights in polluted, grimy Surabaya, Indonesia's second biggest city. But by far the most distressing and evil is outside Tunjungan Plaza, the city's glitzy and most popular shopping mall.
TP, as it's known in the East Java capital, is a honeypot for street traders and beggars, lured by the pollen of prosperity that dusts the mall's well-off customers.
Annoyed by the traffic congestion caused by the two-wheeled food carts of the kaki lima, Surabaya city authorities have imposed stringent controls. Police and security now restrict parking and work hard to keep the street open. But they've done nothing about the beggars.
They're nowhere near the problem of kaki lima and in most cases cause only minor inconvenience and embarrassment. Except for the little kids. Really little kids.
The sight of a begging child of maybe three years carrying a baby of perhaps three months, maybe less, is gross in any culture. In a country that has signed the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child and emphasises the social responsibilities of religion, it's obscene.
Everyone agrees, but no-one will do anything about this running sore. Particularly when the issue is raised by a bule (foreigner).
No-one has been rude enough to say it's none of your business. They don't need to. Instead they've given the complainant the "rubber wall" response.
On each occasion I've prefaced my concerns with this statement: "I'm not being critical of your country. It's a matter of universal human rights and decency. There are many examples of child abuse in my own country.
"As an Australian I cannot claim the high moral ground. We are holding almost 100 asylum-seeking children in detention camps. My country's great shame is the way many kids' needs have been ignored and their bodies exploited, in some cases by churches and churchmen.
"But when these awful cases are exposed action is taken. Forget the fact that we hold different passports. In the common name of humanity can't we take action here?"
In Australia we tell outsiders who offer even the mildest criticism of our culture to "butt out". Fortunately Indonesians are more polite. But the message is the same.
So far I've been to five separate agencies, government and non-government, and spoken to senior people. The responses have been remarkably similar:
"Yes it's a problem and something must be done. But it's very difficult. If they're just hunted away they come back. What can we do?"
Then follows a standard speech about syndicates controlled by preman, (street thugs) beggars with suburban mansions who earn fortunes shaking plastic cups, and people refusing to work because tapping car windows at intersections is more profitable than labouring.
These may well be urban myths for no-one can point to any proof of such operations other than "everyone knows it's true".
But even if such stories are true, does it matter?
No society with any claim to humanity can tolerate beggarbabes darting in and out of the traffic risking their lives for 50 rupiah. Most cannot even reach the car windows they're supposed to scratch and evoke pity. They are certainly the right size to inhale exhaust fumes, for their little faces are in the thick of carbon monoxide.
"You don't understand, you'll get used to it. It's just part of Indonesia," one Australian businessman told me. His wife had joined a group of expat women who have raised funds for orphanages, and he was sympathetic. But nothing more.
I'm not a newcomer to Indonesia. I've visited slums and lived in kampung. I've studied social psychology and understand the cycle of dependence. I can put up with adult beggars, but not beggarbabes.
I've taken my concerns to an Indonesian Rotary Club which is involved in many worthy causes, including paying students' school fees - and to charitable organisations which are also helping the poor to overcome the hurdles. And, of course, government departments.
Using an Indonesian friend who avoided saying his concerns were driven by a bule, the complaint was ping-ponged between the Surabayan City Government and the East Java Government until we all got tired of the game. In a rage one night I confronted a policeman standing five metres from the tiny kids squatting on the kerb. The baby was asleep, its little head unsupported so it flopped across the girl's lap as though its neck was broken. It looked more like a battered doll, but breathing. "Yes, it is a problem," the policeman said, and not unkindly. "But it's not my job."
Naturally a bule raging to a cop drew onlookers. I appealed to them knowing the police are widely disliked and distrusted. They sided with the policeman. It takes a foreigner to do that.
So at least I've done something positive.

(First published in Online Opinion - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate - 28 July 2003. Forum at the Indonesia-Australian Language Foundation, Surabaya, 29 April 2005)

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