THE SWEET TASTE OF SUCCESS © Duncan Graham 2007
The quotes and comments in this story could not have been published during Soeharto's New Order era. That's because they would have offended SARA – the government prohibition on discussing issues of religion, race and ethnic relations.
Asking why three per cent of the population controls most of the nation's wealth is still a sensitive question. Depending on the company and the questioner it can reveal nasty prejudices and ugly stereotypes.
East Java farmer Jani, 48, doesn't share these hang-ups. He thinks the Chinese are successful because they work hard and follow some simple formula. He says so to anyone who asks, and he follows Chinese business values.
"I left high school before graduating and worked for a Chinese in a motor spare-parts shop in Malang," he said.
"The boss told me that if I was dishonest I'd always be looking for food, but if I was honest the food would come looking for me.
"I've found that's true. I would rather go hungry than tell a lie.
"I was also taught the rule of five. If I earned Rp 5,000 I should use Rp 2,000 for my daily needs and set aside Rp 1,000 for education, Rp 1,000 for unforeseen problems and the rest for my parents.
"When the Javanese get money (Jani is a Javanese Muslim) they just spend. They want to plant now and harvest the same day. The Chinese are prepared to wait."
These basic management principles seem to have worked, for Jani and his wife Kusitah are now a local success story, controlling much of the honey trade in Tulus Besar, a village on the slopes of Mount Semeru.
Honey and royal jelly from the district is famous in the province for its quality. (Royal jelly is the high protein bee secretion that's used to nurture young queens and is reputed to have health benefits.)
Jani has 80 hives close to home, another 200 in Blitar (about 90 kilometers south west) and more still in Central Java. He also buys honey from other producers.
He's taught himself the skills of the apiarist and is able to coax more honey from his hives than most farmers using another simple aphorism: "If you look after your bees, your bees will look after you."
Last year he grossed Rp 400 million (US $ 44,000) for a profit of almost half that sum, a significant amount for a farmer who started with no knowledge, minimal education, no money, and no land or other assets.
He's turned down offers of loans from a trader in Singapore, and two local banks that have sent their managers to see him with inducements to borrow.
"I'd rather use my own capital, then I don't risk other people's money," he said. "For about two years I could only afford one meal a day. I know what it's like to be poor.
"Every job I left was never on bad terms, and only to try and better myself. My first boss is still a family friend.
"I worked as a driver, mixing concrete on building sites, and in a furniture factory. Then I got as job in a honey packing shed and by watching others learned how to farm bees.
"Many friends and neighbors can't understand how someone who was once a laborer is now a landowner and boss.
"I tell them they must be disciplined and look for opportunities. If they really want to succeed then they have to be totally determined. Sadly few are prepared to do that.
"I also tell them that there will be failures along the way. However we learn from our mistakes. I've never prayed for money. I've prayed for help in using my brain to find opportunities."
With success come problems. Jani said he'd like to market his honey under his own name, but fears others would copy his label and use it to sell a diluted or sub-standard product that would drag down his reputation. He doesn't believe there are any copyright laws that would protect his brand.
So he sells direct in unmarked bottles to people who know that the food is guaranteed pure. He also sends 225-kilogram drums of honey to Jakarta where the product is tested for purity and exported to France.
The other factor in his success has to be his personality. He's a friendly, open bloke and deceptively relaxed about business, though clearly concerned with detail. Curiously he claims never to have been stung, which presumably means that even the bees like him.
During the wet season Jani spends Rp 1 million (US $ 110) a week on maintaining his bees, feeding them sugar and controlling diseases. He buys new queens from Australia to upgrade his swarms.
In the dry season he moves his hives around East and Central Java chasing blossom during the dry season. The best yields come from kapok, longans (a fruit similar to lychee) and coffee. Hives are shifted at night by truck and dropped on farms or forest reserves. He has an apiarist's permit to use government land.
Although employing workers he has to supervise them closely, keeping him from more productive tasks. "Unfortunately it's a fact of life that you can only trust people about 50 per cent of the time," he said.
"In the Koran it says that if you help people they will help you. That's been my experience with other farmers, but not always with workers.
"Many Chinese that I know who now have their own businesses also started like me with nothing. They've been successful because they've worked hard.
"We must stop being jealous and angry – and look at the Chinese from a different perspective."
(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 March 2007)