Progress is a long hard trek

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 09 Nov 2003


IT has not been a good week for Indonesia by any account. But if there is any consolation to suffering natural disasters, political violence, criminal negligence and systemic chaos simultaneously, it is that none of these problems is unique to any country. 

By Friday afternoon, the death toll from the flash flood in North Sumatra, blamed on illegal logging, had risen to 125 with 132 others still missing and feared dead. On the same day, Indonesian Forest Watch announced that so far this year, 4.1 million hectares of forest in the country had disappeared – above the annual average which itself was nearly double the official figure. 

Relatives of the dead in Bahorok, North Sumatra, demanded the death penalty for illegal loggers who had cost them their homes and their families. As donations poured in for the surviving victims, distribution of the donations was irregular and reportedly less than what donors had given. 

While refugees sought daily meals and shelter, several local officials were already busy collecting money in the name of government relocation plans. The going rates were reportedly Rp3.6mil for a new house or, alternatively, a monthly Rp300,000 in cash to the officials themselves. 

At the same time, Jakarta decided to extend martial law in Aceh for another six months to crush the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Despite increasing civilian casualties, the decision has been to raise the level of conflict in place of peace talks that collapsed in May. 

Among the groups, organisations and countries opposing the move are major donors Japan, the European Union and the United States which are contributing to a post-war construction fund for Aceh. At least 1,300 have died in the past five months of fighting, with more still to perish as 40,000 troops assume positions against 5,000 GAM members. 

On Thursday, Tokyo cautioned against the escalating violence, voicing concern while continuing to offer aid and mediation assistance. The following day, Jakarta replied by accusing the major donors of meddling, even as bereaved families look to the central government for help. 

In Jakarta itself, even a peaceful event in a mood of generosity turned ugly and deadly. More than 1,000 poor people had gathered in South Jakarta on Friday to receive alms, as an annual occasion during the second week of Ramadan. 

This time the crowd was triple the usual number, with people arriving as early as 5am. The heaving multitude apparently broke a metal barrier, which fell and caused a panic – and the stampede that followed killed four women and injured dozens others. 

In preparation for elections next April, the Jakarta General Elections Commission (KPUD) is busy processing documents such as voter endorsements submitted by candidates. Four days ago, it found that nearly all the 73 candidates for the Regional Representatives’ Council had submitted fake documents. 

Even Unicef had cause for concern: on Thursday it found that only two-thirds of the Indonesian population of 215 million are consuming iodised salt. This means the world’s fourth most populous country could suffer more cases of iodine deficiency disorder, besides failing to reach its target in the Universal Salt Iodisation campaign. 

The target is 90% consumption of iodised salt in the next two years, while officially up to 70 million Indonesians are vulnerable to the disorder. The Jakarta Post pointed out an anomaly of mal-distribution typical of Third World societies: salt-producing regions like South Sulawesi and East, Central and West Java have low iodised salt consumption, while non-producing regions like North Sulawesi and West Sumatra have high rates. 

The more characteristic features of developing societies are not absent either – police on Friday began interrogating people on their roles in the Rp1.7tril central bank (Bank Negara Indonesia) scandal. 

At least four laws may have been broken by the perpetrators, with (officially denied) reports that three presidential candidates and staff at as many foreign banks may have been involved. The prime suspect remains at large, overseas and probably untraceable. 

There have even been complaints that the General Elections Commission (KPU) was not transparent in its order for 2.1 million aluminium ballot boxes. Another controversy concerns the involvement of President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s eldest son in a project on state land in Central Jakarta. 

Many of these problems revolve around the lack of transparency and proper procedure, whether real or perceived. 

The greatest irony happens when established institutions in the developed world are implicated in corruption or collusion in developing countries. Even when only some staff at these institutions had been responsible in a personal capacity, for many the institutions themselves become implicated. 

In September 1998, the World Bank went to work on Indonesia in two separate teams simultaneously. In an internal Bank report the following month, some of its officials were taken to task for ignorance or neglect in allowing “leakage” of Bank funds into local private pockets. 

Another internal report four months later went a little further. Bank staff were accused of complacency and possibly even wilful collusion in such leakage, giving vent to long-held complaints that loans to Indonesia amounting to US$25bil over 32 years had been milked. 

Within South-East Asia, Malaysia has proven itself in physical development and material wealth. But even these achievements, modern as they may seem, are the results of only an earlier development plan. 

A later plan beginning in 1990 – Vision 2020 – centres on nine policy goals, of which only one (the last) is economic in nature. Four others may be described as social and political, social and cultural, social and technological and social and economic. 

The other four, including the first goal of incorporating a Bangsa Malaysia, are social or societal in nature. Among these is the goal of “establishing a fully moral and ethical society.” 

The nation’s economic prowess and physical endowments not only need to be maintained and advanced, but also complemented with a range of social development projects that enhance society, culture and the people. These are what make a country developed in a comprehensive sense. 

Pak Lah’s government has made a promising entry with a focus on eradicating corruption, improving efficiency in the civil service, and raising ethical standards with a proposed institute on ethics. After identifying these needs, the next step is to apply them in everyday practice. 

After acquiring the economic hardware of the Mahathir era, Malaysia now needs to be enriched further with updated human and social software. 

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