Doing it our way
Finding folk who think the Jakarta floods are a hint of the Deity’s displeasure isn’t difficult. But when the believer is a famous overseas trained statistician and economic commentator, it’s time to raise eyebrows.
Though only marginally and seasonally adjusted.
So what sort of message from above? “That we haven’t managed the environment properly,” said Kresnayana Yahya, a Christian.
“Joko (Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo) has been put there by God to improve the welfare of the people. Westerners don’t understand that Indonesians believe in the power of the Almighty. We are certain there is a God.
“Overseas business people need to realise this about our culture and society. The Japanese appreciate our ways and don’t seem to have the same problems.
“In the West you just pay your taxes and expect the government to take care of welfare, but not here. This is poorly understood by the Western media that’s caught in the mindset of 20 years ago – we are no longer a midget nation.
“You must respond to these new realities and take part in CSR (corporate social responsibility) programs to help raise the dignity of the people. We want things to be done our way.”
‘Raising dignity’ is a common phrase in Kresnayana‘s lexicon, stressing it as a factor along with the “Indonesian ideology of a shared life” that he says outsiders need to comprehend.
Now 63 he teaches at Surabaya’s prestigious Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember (ITS 10 November Technology Institute, named after the 1945 Battle of Surabaya). Kresnayana pioneered the study of statistics at ITS in 1983 after returning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison two years earlier.
ITS now has around 1000 maturing statisticians. There are 3000 nationwide, but Kresnayana claims ten times more are needed to fill gaps in government and industry with graduates working as forecasters, planners, data analysts and social developers.
“I started studying mathematics at high school because I thought that was the queen of the sciences that would give me easy access to all the other disciplines,” he said.
But why queen? “Queens are wiser and kings too authoritarian. They can’t be challenged.”
Kresnayana spoke to The Jakarta Post after delivering a lecture in mid January on the 2013 economic outlook before an audience of about 250 at the Malang branch of the Indonesian Management Association.
“Twenty years ago about 80 per cent of the people attending would have been Chinese,” he said. “Now it’s down to 60 per cent – that’s how much our society is changing.”
His message was upbeat. “The future for Indonesia is bright regardless of the world economy and the uncertainties in Europe and America.
“Our growth rate of around 6.3 per cent doesn’t take the warung economy (roadside stalls and home industries) into account. I think the real figure is closer to eight per cent.
“It’s true this is mainly due to population growth, not exports, but this is changing. Just look back and see the differences. The national budget is five times larger than during Soeharto’s regime, and at least a third now goes to local government.
“Decentralization has liberated the provinces to develop their ideas and responses to change. Think how Sulawesi is now challenging Java in food production. Consider how ayam kampung (the almost wild, lean and tasty village chickens), once too expensive for poor people, are now being bred on farms and the price of protein has come down.
“Our strength is our diversity. Most of us have grown up in a homogenous environment. Indonesians live with and for each other.
“There aren’t that many countries in the world which have these benefits and the experience of working together. The danger is of becoming dominated by others – like our reliance on Japanese vehicles, not public transport”.
Statisticians keep comics in business. New Zealand economist Sir Frank Holmes once said statistics were like bikinis – what they reveal is important, what they conceal is vital.
Then there’s the old joke about a statistician putting his feet in a fridge and head in a fire and feeling comfortable ‘on average’. Kresnayana chuckled, but said this misunderstands his profession. “These are two different things that can’t be compared,” he said.
It’s the loose balls, like the Jakarta floods and political crises that upset economic forecasting, with 2013 set to be a year of political floods as candidates joust for positions ahead of next year’s election.
“We are tolerating democracy and going through the learning process, though too few understand what it means,” he said. “Feudalism is still present, but diminishing as people get better educated.
“It’s not so easy for politicians now – at least a third of the population knows what’s good and proper and can see through propaganda. They are getting frustrated because of the way policies are being mishandled.
“I’m not impressed with the candidates so far. We are still looking for the right person. Why aren’t good people willing to get involved?”
The son of teachers in Malang, Kresnayana doesn’t fit the definition of an economist as someone who talks about money without making any. He is also a commissioner with fertilizer manufacturer PT Petrokimia Gresik and works for the Enciety business consultancy which publishes enough data to fuse a calculator.
As a media commentator he pushes a vision of a greater Indonesia in the big league alongside China and India, stressing that the Republic is rich, the workers keen and open to change, wanting to take on new technology – but need to be respected for who they are.
He rejects the line that Australia needs Indonesia, but not vice versa, saying: “We need each other.
“The role of the intellectual is to speak the facts as he or she sees them, whether the rest of society likes it or not, or whether they are curious or angry.
“It’s easy to cheat with figures, but a statistician’s role is to tell the truth. Or at least what is closest to the truth.”
First published in The Jakarta Post, 11 February 2013