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

Monday, March 05, 2007


© Duncan Graham 2007

The other morning as I unfolded the local newspaper my cornflakes went soggy, the yogurt soured and the unmonitored toaster turned incinerator. For there across page one was one of the most depressing pictures I've ever seen.

This was not a grim photo of the latest disaster. No masked soldiers pulling plastic-wrapped corpses from yet another landslip, no tear-stained women staring at the hungry ocean praying for survivors from yet another maritime tragedy.

These things are sad and awful. But they've happened and cannot be undone. This story was about the future – which can be changed, given political will.

The picture showed some of Indonesia's best and brightest. Sturdy young people, fit, well-dressed, educated, intent, seemingly determined. They are the achievers who will inherit the archipelago. They're the top crop with the capacity to husband the Republic's resources, solve its problems and lead us into a better world.

Generation Hope. We depend on you. You're all we have.

So what was so wrong?

These promising youngsters, and there were reported to be 110,000, were sitting in the Bung Karno stadium – though not to watch soccer. They'd come to fill in application forms for a handful of positions at a TV station.

My knowledge of the job problems facing young graduates isn't academic. A relative has just joined the market, and is getting increasingly depressed as she suffers knockback after knockback.

In most cases the employer won't even bother to say she's been rejected; the absence of a phone call or e-mail as days turn into weeks is proof enough.

Those who find the manners to reply: 'Sorry, but no thanks', don't say why. She won't ask because questioning superiors is not part of the culture.

The law in my country requires bosses – if asked - to explain why a candidate failed so she or he can correct their faults, and to ensure staff hirers don't discriminate. Unions are tough and applicants assertive.

These are alien ideas to anyone who knows that workers here have minimal rights that few dare exercise, and must be grateful for whatever is offered. Salaries are rarely advertised and the successful usually know the size of the pay packet only when it arrives.

My relative wants to work in industrial psychology – that's her qualification. But as personal and family pressures mount to get a job she's turning more and more to mind-numbing work far below her intellect, tertiary education and skills – and there goes her dream career and her parents' sacrifices.

What's on offer? Hardly anything worthwhile and even then the environment is like a dinosaur documentary where everything is a predator.

A few positions as secretary or receptionist - euphemisms for office dogsbodies at around Rp 1 million (US $110) a month. In the big cities this isn't enough for clothing, transport, wholesome food and half-decent accommodation.

Selling phone systems, bank loans and health foods on commission only – no retainer. Donning a tart's outfit to push perfumes or smokes in shopping malls.

Now multiply her case by millions and you can see why that Page One picture was so gut-wrenchingly depressing. The conversation in the endless queues is not about success, but survival.

In the lucky country next-door hope in the future is our birthright, hard-wired into the national psyche. Kids from ordinary families are expected to say they intend to become astronauts or zoologists or anything in-between.

The limits are those you impose yourself. Coming from this background the plight of Indonesia's unemployed looms as a major tragedy, a cloud of economic ash from the fall-out of failed policies, smothering possibilities.

The prospects for all nations depend on the will of the world's youth. If our golden boys and girls are having their ambitions, their education, their lust to achieve and contribute turned to dust at such an early age - what hope for us all?

Don't cry for me and my cremated toast, Indonesia. Weep for the lives we are wasting, the future we are destroying and the opportunities we are ignoring.

Weep for the barren times we are marching towards led by the grim battalions of the jobless who mustered at Bung Karno Stadium.

(First published in The Sunday Post 18 Feb 07)