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

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Sustaining Indonesia

Dr Suriptono isn’t a measurable, standard issue lecturer in civil engineering. He has to be viewed through a prism of ethics, not the theodolite of science.

Instead of asking his students at Malang’s Merdeka University to test the load-bearing qualities of lintels he sets three basic questions:

Who am I? Why am I here on earth? What am I going to do in the world?

“They answer anonymously and most reply: ‘I don’t know’,” he said. “As the course progresses some start to find answers. If you can’t make life meaningful then you can’t live a life of meaning.

“To make Indonesia a better place we must have a vision. Visions drive people to achieve.”

The students also ask a question: ‘Why are you different from other teachers?’

One reason is because Suriptono, who runs classes in sustainable development for third year students, dreams of bettering his homeland using his intellectual gifts and blessings of good fortune by inspiring others.

And whether they like it or not the students have to listen; his course is compulsory for all who study civil engineering.

On Western campuses engineering faculties include terms like ‘environment’ or ‘sustainable’ in their titles. They try to show they’re no longer crash-through constructors, but sensitive men (about 10 per cent of undergraduates are women) more interested in mind than muscle.

Merdeka’s Rector Professor Anwar Sanusi has asked Suriptono to investigate establishing a National Institute of Sustainable Engineering. The idea is to magnetize the best thinkers into moving to Malang, drawing into their field the smartest students.

As an advocate for the softer and caring side of engineering it would be hard to find a more appropriate ambassador than Suriptono. Now 61 he comes across as a young idealist rather than a calloused engineer bulldozing problems.

Yet Suriptono once spent 20 years among cement mixers and bricklayers before reconstructing his life as a mild-mannered and reflective academic.

As a contractor building houses he had to authorize the felling of trees and the draining of paddy. Under his direction sharp blades shaved the earth raw. His wallet was enriched but his soul was scarified.

Growing up in Bondowoso, a small town south-east of Surabaya during the 1950s (“a struggle period”) Suriptono wandered forests deaf to chainsaws, swam rivers yet to taste toxins. Not that he had much spare time. His father was a local administrator, his mother ran a snack business. As the eldest child of three he helped prepare foods and deliver orders.

Mum’s ambition was clear: Her children had to be well educated, and that cost. “Everyone has a big enemy you have to defeat,” she told her able son. “That enemy is laziness.” So he rose before dawn and only studied once his chores were complete. A whiz at mathematics the lad was sent to a Catholic high school in Malang where he sold T-shirts and snacks to supplement his allowances

Next stop was Satya Wacana, the Christian University at Salatiga in Central Java where he graduated in civil engineering and dreamed of working for IBM. Instead he went back to Malang to study at Merdeka.

But his academic career was cut short by his mother’s ill health. Her savings went on medical care, so Suriptono turned to contracting. When he wasn’t doing deals and supervising workers he thought deeply and read widely.

As a youngster he’d been touched by the Genesis creation story. As a student he encountered the writings of Ernst Schumacher: “Today we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of giantism, it is therefore necessary to insist on the virtues of smallness where this applies.”

Where better to apply the British economist’s Small is Beautiful thinking than Indonesia? “It’s very difficult to do things on a large scale here,” Suriptono said. “With centralized sewage systems 70 per cent of the cost is in capital equipment. Imagine the installation disruption in big cities.”

In the early 1990s Suriptono was selected for higher study at Perth’s Murdoch University under environmental scientist Professor Peter Newman, a man of like mind.

Four years later Suriptono was back in Indonesia with a PhD earned by studying community wastewater projects. Supported by his general practitioner wife Kityawati, he decided to recalibrate his life and become a change agent.

He took a hefty income drop and set about publishing, lecturing and teaching, seeking to influence the next generation to think more carefully and constructively, and so create a better world.

“I want to change the mindset of my students,” he said. “If we are just civil engineers all we do is damage the earth. We need to develop the wisdom to protect the environment and apply the three Rs – recycle, reuse and reduce.”

Now he advocates local sanitation solutions developed through gotong royong principles. Indonesia’s famous community self-help tradition is the great plus. But there are also cultural downsides

However good, imposed ideas tend to fail. So education has to precede projects, and as Suriptono knows from his early days in Bondowoso, rural folk take a while to change their ways.

Not all ideas migrate well. Dry compost toilets, now the trend in rural Australia, are unlikely to succeed in Indonesia where using water for ablutions is religiously fixed. Laws fail unless widely accepted and properly policed. In Malang it’s illegal to litter and burn trash, yet waterways are thick with plastic and smoke drifts down streets.

Inevitably there’ll be corruption. “We are contaminated,” said Suriptono in a rare flash of intolerance. “Yet most of us keep silent. Criticism of public officials can be culturally sensitive.”

Then there’s the personal economic factor, perhaps the most significant.

“People are poor and have no time to think of the environment if their stomachs aren’t full,” Suriptono said. “I thought my childhood was tough, but some of my students exist on only one meal a day.

“Sustainability is the art of maintenance, so we don’t draw on the needs of future generations to satisfy our needs today. Change must come from the young knowing that if we damage the environment, the environment damages us.”

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