Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Letter to Jakarta Post: Politics and Earthquakes

[Published in Jakarta Post on 7 October, 2009]

Politics and Earthquakes

    Several days ago I read a news report saying that government minister and senior member of Golkar political party, Aburizal Bakrie, had openly pledged to set up a one trillion rupiah trust fund for Golkar to help them win elections in the future (if they make him their leader). But until now, I haven’t read anything about a 1 trillion rupiah fund from Bakrie or anyone else to benefit earthquake victims in Padang and West Java. (There was also a serious earthquake in West Java about 4 weeks ago, but no one seems to remember that anymore).

    It seems that when power and prestige are at stake, Indonesia’s political and financial elite are able to find massive sums of money to further their ambitions. There is certainly no shortage of personal wealth available here, as evidenced by the ever increasing number of Bentleys, Ferraris, Porches, Hummers, and Lamborghinis that are visible on the streets of Jakarta these days.

People who are members of the financial elite seem to care so much about power and money that when opportunities to get more power and money present themselves, then massive amounts like 1 trillion rupiah can suddenly become available. But when it comes to providing much needed humanitarian assistance for fellow citizens, then the same voices are never heard. Although, if this was still the election campaign season, then there would be up to 40 political parties in the disaster area, handing out food and T-shirts with candidates’ faces on them, and money would flow like water. Unfortunately, the campaigning is over.

And the government seems determined to do everything as slowly and bureaucratically as possible. For example, I saw on the news that one regent refused to release aid (which was piling up in his office) unless victims could show documentation from their neighborhood chief (presumably to prove that they were residents and that their houses had been destroyed). I wondered how an earthquake victim would get the necessary letters if the local chief himself was also buried under the ruins of his house.

If this same series of events was happening in a developed country like Australia, the UK, or France, there would be public outrage at the slow pace of the government. People who have been without food, water, shelter and medical attention for 5 days would be demanding that someone take responsibility, and some member of the government would probably have to resign. But this is Indonesia.

Some people will probably die after surviving the initial earthquake, simply because they have limited or no access to food, water, medicine, doctors and so on. But that doesn’t really bother anyone, as no one will count them. Only the people who died quickly from their wounds will be counted in the government’s official total and no one will take responsibility for or protest about the old and the young who will die in the weeks and months to come from treatable illnesses like diarrhea, dehydration or infection. Those people probably aren’t as important as the initial victims, who are much easier to count because they were already dead when found by rescue workers.

Many countries are lining up to send assistance to the victims in Padang, and that is both desperately needed and gratefully accepted. But the wealthier citizens of Indonesia are capable of doing so much more by themselves. Unfortunately, they probably won’t. A majority of well-off people that I have seen in Jakarta is so full of self-interest that it almost seems to be a cultural obsession to take care of yourself above all else and do as little as possible to help others. Or at least, help others a little bit (as a token gesture) without sacrificing too much, so that you can still live in excessive luxury.

In our human history, there have been numerous examples of larger than life individuals, who were less concerned with lives of excessive luxury and more concerned with how they could be of service to others, for the benefit and also the betterment of all mankind. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa are just a few examples. If only we had such people living here in Indonesia to set an example to others then there might be fewer Hummers on the streets of Jakarta and more free public kitchens in Pandang right now.

But this is Indonesia. Realistically, we can expect that aid will slowly arrive, some people will live, some will die, some will survive and become beggars because they are destitute and physically disabled, and the whole country will forget and focus their attention once again on which TV stars are getting divorced. At least until the next natural disaster occurs, and then everyone will care again for a few minutes before their favorite soap operas and celebrity gossip shows start.

And the people with wealth and power in Jakarta will also quickly forget, and will refocus their attention on a very a difficult decision: “Shall I buy another Bentley or a Ferrari this time?” And life will go on as usual. Welcome to Indonesia. See you next natural disaster, when the comments above will be repeated again as nothing will have changed.

Gene Netto
Jakarta, Indonesia


  1. Mas/Pak Gene,
    Assalamu'alaykum wrwbH,

    Spot on! Tulisan Bapak tepat sekali.

    Kasus ketidak-pedulian kaum berada adalah cermin bagaimana ideologi hedonis-materialistik telah merasuki umat muslim seoperti yg telah diprediksi RasuluLlaah SAW. Tengok saja orang2 kaya Arab yang tidak peduli dengan nasib saudara se-ras Arabnya di Palestina, Somalia, Sudan atau negara2 Sub-Shara lainnya. Mereka malah sibuk dengan kehidupan jet-setnya, seolah-olah minyak bumi yg ada diperut bumi mereka ditanam oleh nenek moyang keluarganya & mereka berhak menghabiskannya sesuka hati.

    Salah satu penyebab masalah ini adalah belum kuatnya masyarakat kelas menengah terdidik di umat kita yg mampu menjadi motor penggerak ke arah "political correctness" dan kontrol sosial terhadap orang2 kelas atas (termasuk pejabat). Ini memang tantangan jangka panjang bagi ummat. Saya cuma bisa berharap bahwa akan semakin banyak orang kelas menengah yang selain peduli dalam bentuk material (ZIS) tetapi juga menyuarakan kritik sosial terhadap kelas atas (pejabat, kaum kaya dan selebritis) dan juga mendidik kelas menengah-bawah untuk tidak terbuai kehidupan materialis kacangan kaum selebriti Indonesia.

    Terima kasih,

    Saudara seimanmu; your brother in faith

  2. The social gap between those at the top and those at the bottom is too big. Partly, perhaps education is the issue. But morale is the larger matter--because of that huge gap.

    Focusing on the rich vs poor, it's hard to think of the surroundings (i.e. the less fortunate), when you're so high above: busy managing your money, panicking the security of your assets, and spinning brain to find more ways to double / triple what you already have.

    People learn best from experiences. If these financially elite people were directly affected, then maybe they'll do things differently. But that's not or has not been the common case.

    Well-said, Pak Gene :)

  3. >Terima kasih Anonymous. Saya juga tidak senang melihat orang arab yang kaya raya beli barang2 yang menyenangkan hati mereka untuk sementara di dunia ini, sedangkan saudara mereka yang menderita banyak sekali. Apakah karena keimanan mereka dangkal? Atau mereka beriman dengan baik, asal tidak perlu peduli pada saudarannya terlalu banyak?

    >Soulful, I agree with you that education is very important in this issue. People are taught how to behave very early on in life. They either learn to share and be kind to others, or they learn to leep everything for themselves and not care whether others survive or die.

    If rich people spent more time thinking of how to utilize their money for the benefit of mankind, rather than just for their own benefit, then this world would be a very wonderful place. But I doubt that will ever happen. At least not in this world.


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