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

Sunday, May 13, 2012


Where there’s sugar, there are ants


Maybe you’re reading this squashed in traffic or wading through blackwater while coughing up smog but hey, take it easy.  Really, life is good.

Forget increasing prices and decreasing services, high inflation and low wages.  Ignore roadblocks and rubbish, corruption and collusion – you’re doing OK.

How do I know?  Because of the Javanese proverb ada gula ada semut, the title of this BTW. Why else are foreign leaders taking Jakarta junkets and overseas economists making three-day analyses?  

Would VIPs like UK Prime Minister David Cameron be jostling for a photo op with the President in a peci if they couldn’t sniff cash in the kampongs?

These altruists have been telling us we’re doing fine, better than most.  Investing used to be risky, now it’s frisky. 

Let’s jump in.  Hotels will be overflowing with carpetbaggers drawn to the newfound equatorial Shangri-La.  They’ll pay millions for a bed.  Even more for one in a room.

We used to be an Asian Tiger before bounding into a fiscal pit. Now we’ve clawed ourselves out and become BRICed in with the economic elephants of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

That’s what the boosters have been shouting during their Big Durian stopovers: The Archipelago’s awash with rupiah and the friendly foreigners want to bail us out.

Behind this newly minted interest are statistics showing bulging wallets among the growing middle classes, folk who earn above US$ 3,000 a year.  That’s Rp 2.3 million a month.

Sounds good until put into context: The World Bank says half the nation’s population earns just one tenth of that sum.

So if you’ve got a full-time rewarding job count your fortunes. You’re in a minority. More than 30 million are underemployed; another nine million have no work at all.

When you stagger home for a couple of hours before heading back to your sweatshop take stock of your new prosperity.

Is there milk in the fridge, bread on the table? Has your Honda got four wheels, not two?  Is a flat screen TV on the wall hiding fractures in the plaster?  These are the economists’ markers of prosperity.

Well, lucky us. I fit the demographic though without all the goods. No kids or maid, but some relatives to support – a cultural duty foreign economists exclude from their equations.

Apart from bread (home made), food is from the local markets.  No mortgage or debts, yet we need at least Rp 5 million a month for the basics.  Any extra income is spent on maintaining a jerrybuilt house, which is what most of our neighbors are doing. 

This isn’t a whinge list. I’m satisfied with our lot. The alluring archipelago has riches that money can’t buy.

Its good guests are now stopping by, even if Jakarta’s just a refuel-point on a flight path to somewhere else.  Pity they prioritize selling above buying.  Sad the smoke of rhetoric has clouded the view past Jl Thamrin to the problems beyond.

Police motorcade outriders would have kept the beggar babes at bay but the visitors should have noticed shopping malls marketing glossy imports, though not the crumbling kerbs where rombeng (second-hand traders) flog their scavenged trash.

They’d know the power resides in Jakarta.  They wouldn’t know that in many villages there’s no power, real or metaphorical.  Even in cities like Malang flicking a switch doesn’t mean a light will ignite.

Spending time in this diverse and demanding nation would reveal how and where the West can best help. Investing in infrastructure would be a good start.  Rich, poor or in-between, we all need better transport systems.

Buying more finished goods (batik’s fantastic) instead of raw materials would help create jobs.  Offering tens of thousands of overseas scholarships to the talented poor would yield future dividends for givers and takers

So what did we get out of the PM’s visit – guns or butter? Apparently the former as the Brits may now lift their arms sales embargo. 

Good trade Mr Cameron, your arsenals will stay busy.  But why do we need more weapons? Surely not to control the envious majority hoping to enjoy their nation’s world famous economic boom?   Duncan Graham

(First published in The Sunday Post 13 May 2012)

An example of the boosting here:

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