Why Indonesia is still not a middle-class society (yet)

inequality picture

 

Investment banks, credit rating firms, and a lot other international financial institutions do seemingly have a penchant to studying about Indonesia’s economic outlook. On a positive note, it is remarkable that this country has recovered after being debt-ridden in the 1997/1998 Asian financial crisis, by which Indonesia was the hardest-hit one. The government successfully pushed down debt-to-GDP ratio from an all-time-high of 140% in 1997, all the way down to a little above 27% as of 2015. While I have to caution that this is based from government’s data (which may need further research and analysis), what makes Indonesia able to rebound after the crisis (and also survive the 2008 global recession and 2015 global currency meltdown) is the ability of the central bank to monitor and control capital mobility, in and out of country, relatively free of political interference. Economic growth, while unsatisfactory, still recorded annual rates of a little above 5% in 2014, and slightly 4.7% in 2015.

Nevertheless, if you refer to World Bank income-based classification of countries, Indonesia is still positioned as a ‘lower-middle-income’ country (which has a threshold between US$ 1,045 and US$ 4,125, as of July 2015 updates), at a level of approximately 3,600 US$, and is projected to have a GDP volume of approximately 940 billion US$ this year. Middle-class population, furthermore, while rapidly growing, is still significantly small, even if one compares with neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Thailand.

Even to define who is eligible to be in ‘middle-class’ will undertake serious debates. Various institutions have their own ways in classifying who are in this social stratum, and who are barely. World Bank utilizes two thresholds to differentiate ‘extremely poor’ and ‘poor’ or ‘lower income’: if one either earns below 1.90 US$ (to be considered extremely poor) or below 3.10 US$ (as either poor or low-income). But what about people who earn precisely at these income levels? Or changes in size of currency conversion per unit? Welcome to the grey territory. On the other hand, Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) sets ‘middle-class threshold’ at precisely 4 US$ / day, considering that those earning somewhere near that figure are classified as ‘lower-middle-class’. Pew Research Center takes an even more crude and arbitrary measure than the two institutions above by averaging the entire world’s middle-class income (literally), generating an approximated figure of 10.01 US$ per day. For those earning between 2.01 and 10 US$, they are crudely defined as ‘lower-income’.

Yet, as a reminder, I caution not to simply take the entire datasets as they are. For World Bank, the size itself is an estimate, based largely on random-sampling methods on various households across one respective country; some people may not report their actual incomes, either that they are overblown or most likely underestimated. Nonetheless, in spite of existing biases and inaccuracies, they are still pretty useful as a ‘reference work’ (which means such calculation can hardly be fully definitive). Furthermore, I won’t give a detailed explanation about why Indonesia’s middle-class population remains comparatively small, as the information below speaks ‘a bit’ volumes about the social context relating to the country, specifically income and wealth inequalities. I would rather, in this regard, encourage readers to share some thoughts and information based on the presented data below, which I already print-screened here.

The data below are enabled by PovcalNet, a widget tool built by World Bank by which everyone can ‘set their own poverty threshold’ and analyze extent of poverty on a country-by-country basis. The latest available data regarding Indonesia was from the year 2010; it is to be reminded that percentages have shifted, but to which extent they move remains unknown.

income threshold 1

income threshold 2

income threshold 3

income threshold 4

Try this interactive:

pew global middle class survey

A series of unfortunate events (and a ‘happy’ ending)

burning televisions

 

For non-Indonesians, I understand if you haven’t heard about this news story. For fellow Indonesians, I hope our attention is not solely preoccupied with the aftermath of recent bombs and gunfire in Jakarta last Thursday (and that hashtag which instantly turns into a rap song), or splits within some of the country’s major political parties.

If you notice some conversations in the social media, or even to a limited extent on Indonesian news channels, I bet you must have heard the case of Mr. Muhammad Kusrin. Or no? Perhaps because other bigger issues are dominating major news taglines?

If you don’t, that’s okay. Based on the information I compiled from several news articles (my apologies all of them are only available in Indonesian language), Mr. Kusrin was a self-taught entrepreneur who assembled parts from unused PC monitors, and converted them into TV screens. He didn’t get himself an engineering degree in order to obtain such knowledge; indeed, this man only managed to finish his primary-level education, and most of the skills he possessed in reproducing those devices originated from decades of repairing electronic products. From Karanganyar, a mid-sized town in Central Java Province, which is also his hometown, Mr. Kusrin managed to open up a small assembly center that recycled those PC monitors into television screens, employing over 35 persons, with daily revenues up to 75 million rupiah (or equivalent to 5,500 US$). Every TV screen was sold with prices ranging from 500,000 rupiah (~ 36 US$) up to 800,000 rupiah (~ 58 US$).

The Lemony Snicket-esque irony began, nonetheless, when he tried to apply for national product standardization, or in Indonesian known as SNI (Sertifikat Nasional Indonesia). Never mind with the fees charged (it costs 35 million rupiah, or approximately 2,590 US$, to get one), albeit it’s costly. But the application process, on average, requires almost half a year for an inventor in order to get this standardization for his or her product. Within this timeline, one has to go to the national accreditation body to begin the application process, and demonstration of competence has to be conducted. Even that process doesn’t simply end here. In the following procedure, three stages of processes are applied here, mainly product-testing by a designated state lab, followed by standard inspection by a special appointed body, and certification of product parts by another appointed body, all affiliated with the standardization process. The last process includes ‘demonstration-of-conformity’ test, so as to adjust these products with consumers’ needs, before a fixed standardization is issued. And lastly, within this period, one is not allowed to produce and/or sell their products to the public. In the eyes of Max Weber (father of bureaucracy), it is turning into a golden cage for the universe.

And it was bureaucracy itself that became the biggest problem for Mr. Kusrin’s business: he, and just like most other small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), had no slightest idea about the idea of ‘product standardization’ required by the government. Having both business and trade licences, both of which had also required light years in process (sorry for hyperbole), were not sufficient to safeguard his business assets; police, assisted by local prosecutor’s office, raided his company, confiscated almost all his assets, and put him into prison, back in March 2015, as his company continued selling the assembled product in the absence of SNI. To exacerbate the matter (or cause you some conflagration), both police and prosecutors openly smashed and set his business’ TV screens, unused PC monitors, and carton-made packages on fire, very proudly captured in front of reporters and journalists, just a few days ago. As Mr. Kusrin was in prison, the business couldn’t operate, and all his 35 employees immediately lost their jobs.

 

idiot1

idiot2

Pictures: retards (above), another retard (below)

 

This is my afterthought: what the heck are these prosecutors doing? First, if you burn a TV, regardless of its status as cathode-ray or LED or whatever, from a very close distance, your chances of inhaling cancerous chemicals into your lungs increases dramatically (without me having to be a forecaster, unless you people are already chain-smokers). Second, this country, of which I have to share with those buffoons, is still struggling to shelve its ‘punish-only-ordinary-people’ mentality; it’s true hundreds and hundreds of politicians, mayors, regents, governors, and even ministers have been put into prison on charges relating to corruption and other forms of power abuse, but out there, there are still countless other people sitting on top of the elites who, having committed numerous mistakes that cost Indonesia huge amounts of money, remain safe and untouched by the existing laws. Third, you proudly burn someone’s creation in front of cameras! What makes you different from thugs, after all?

Again, this was another reason why I really adore the way social media works. Soon after this incident, people on Facebook, Twitter, and various petition websites began posting for demands to release Mr. Kusrin out of prison, and at the same time, these prosecutors (and some police involved) underwent their mob-trial by the media. This news soon reached out to the central government in Jakarta, with the immediate response by Ministry of Industry to directly reward him the standardization, thus enabling him to breathe the air of freedom. Yes, he just got the certificate a few hours ago, all the way directly bypassing the months-old procedures.

 

172743_kusrin3

“My name is Kusrin, and I am not a copyright-pirate.”

 

I don’t know if getting the standardization will become an eventually happy ending for his business (as well as his family and the workers) as there are still obstacles Mr.Kusrin has to face, given that he has lost most of the capital he needs to resume the operation, all engulfed on that big fire. For now, from my standpoint as a rational optimist, this is a ‘happy ending’ that he deserves for years of hard work and expertise he has accumulated.

Let me say something: this is another harsh lesson, one after another, that the government hasn’t succeeded to learn. I must be both proud and outraged to say that Indonesia has so many geniuses that the existing system, engendered after decades and decades, fails to cultivate. Education system remains rigidly on one-direction approach (students are discouraged to critically evaluate their teachers’ explanations), while a lot of government regulations, rather than stimulate the growth in creativity and innovation, end up choking new ideas to death. It is not just one Kusrin I’m referring to, but also the entrepreneurial culture in Indonesia. Most media remains conditioned to only focus talking about politicians and stuff happening on their parties, while little attention is paid on how people like Mr. Kusrin are transforming their communities with their creative works and/or other inventions.

Which brings me to one question: how’s President Joko Widodo’s ‘mental-revolution’ plan? This becomes interesting.

 

(please give me feedback if you get to find any fallacies)

Reality check: ASEAN Economic Community

ASEAN economic community

 

By December 31, 2015, ASEAN (or for those outside Southeast Asia, known as Association of South East Asian Nations) has officially entered a new phase of its region-based integration with the launching of ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC in short. With that new precedent established, the 10-country association will become a single-market base, integrating a combined population that is projected to surpass 640 million by the end of 2016, with total GDP output approaching 3 trillion US$. The launching of AEC will enable near-limitless intra-ASEAN capital, human, investment, talent, and social mobility. People from all ASEAN member-states will soon be faced with intense competition with the free inflows and outflows of goods, services, labor, capital, and almost everything within the region.

Heck, a lot of my close friends I personally asked had not even the slightest idea what ASEAN Economic Community is.

If you look at all these numbers and figures (640 million people, middle-class population of over 100 million, 3 trillion US$ of GDP output, over 1.5 trillion US$ in goods and services exports and another 1.3 trillion US$ in imports), they are sexy. Indeed, these figures make the notion of AEC so sexy and attracting, particularly for multinational corporations seeking to invest in this region as labor costs remain lower than those in China. But, hold a second, why the heck do a lot of people here seem not attracted to this idea of ‘economic integration’? Even more people out there, I bet, would think of a cow playing a piano when imagining the impacts of this agreement.

Beforehand, we need to unmask the uneasy reality being faced by ASEAN in facing this brand-new world of free trade agreements, economic unions, customs unions, and so much other stuff you may think they are a series of one-off talk shows.

We have been so integrated economically, but separated culturally and socially.

Even before the implementation of AEC, ASEAN has signed lots (and damn lots) of trade agreements, mostly with our own neighbors. China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand have attested to such cooperation, and European Union (to a lesser extent also including Gulf Cooperation Council) are hastening up negotiations for the completion of another round of FTA – albeit EU is pursuing the negotiation with individual states. The implementation of ASEAN Free Trade Area, or AFTA, has also eliminated most existing trade barriers, in this regard the imposition of tariffs. All ASEAN countries have reported the rate of tariff elimination at above 95%, with the exception that some non-tariff barriers remain. And what about Myanmar, our ‘friend’ that just (supposedly, maybe?) became a democracy after November 2015 election? Economic reforms beginning in 2011 have resulted in Singapore and Thailand becoming the largest foreign investors in the country, but to which extent the economy will further open up remains another question worthy of further scrutiny.

The table below provides the data regarding ASEAN member-states, as cited from MIT’s damn-pretty data-visualization website Atlas of Economic Complexity:

 

ASEAN export-import

By the way, never mind with the fact that most Southeast Asian countries look up to the world’s biggest panda for trade (at least for now, as China is Asia’s biggest economy currently), with the exception of Brunei, which exports bulk of its oil to Japan, and Laos, which has Thailand as its ‘friendlier’ partner. One obvious indication with such pattern is the increasing Asian-centric nature of these countries’ trading activities. If you dig more data from the Atlas, especially with regard to ASEAN member-states, one major thing you observe is the overwhelming domination of Asian (and fellow ASEAN) countries taking huge portions of their trading volume.

Nevertheless, the inconvenient truth is that we remain ‘separated’ culturally and socially. Never mind with the fact that intra-ASEAN migration is of a huge and tremendous scale, especially if you try to consider these figures below (data obtained by UN International Migration 2013 report):

  • More than 3.7 million foreign migrants residing in Thailand originate from Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, overwhelmingly employed in low-paying jobs, particularly in construction, farming, and fishing industries
  • Over 1 million Indonesians are currently staying in Malaysia (mostly to work as domestic helpers or factory workers), but many unofficial estimates put the figure between 2.5 and 3 million people instead, due to the possibility that a lot of them ‘overstay’
  • Almost 1 million Malaysians are currently in Singapore, coming in and out of Johor Bahru on a daily basis, mostly for work

Or consider these news samples, based on what I obtained and summarized from mainstream media:

  • People in Yangon (capital of Myanmar) protest against death-sentence verdicts against two Myanmar nationals charged of first-degree murder in Thailand they possibly didn’t commit
  • Discrimination, at a lower level, continues for ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia
  • More than 150,000 Cambodian migrants rushed home in the aftermath of 2014 May coup in Bangkok, for fear of military persecution
  • Thousands of Rohingya (a Muslim ethnic group from Myanmar) refugees were stranded in seas as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand refused to grant them protection, only to be resettled after months of intense negotiation between the countries
  • Potential future standoff by Sulu insurgents (from the Philippines) in Sabah State, Malaysia (located in Borneo Island)

Without trying to provide further explanations, I suppose I have given enough examples to highlight the problems with regard to our concept of integration. No?

Another problem is our extremely huge economic discrepancies within ASEAN member-states. Seriously.

Consider another table below for your reference. Do notice, for the fourth column, that I input ‘4 US$ a day’ as a threshold, largely following the guidelines set by World Bank and also Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (for the latter, the reason is you know why) to differentiate those as ‘lower-middle-class and above’ and ‘low-income and poor’.

ASEAN middle class

With such extremities occurring if comparing these countries, it is worth questioning the viability of socio-economic integration of communities representing a huge array of income strata, particularly when everyone is entering the AEC era, as the leaders always like to envision. Then there comes the gap in the quality of manpower. A large proportion of population, especially in countries with GDP per capita below 10,000 US$ per year, are deprived of access to education due to poverty and many other reasons, and of course this is a legitimate reason to worry about. How will people compete on a level playing field if the resources provided to them are not even on their own level playing field? While unfortunately this is the underlying reality that shapes the contemporary world (and we can’t deny that fact), it takes a massive investment to equip individuals in these countries with sufficient capacity to compete against each other, and the amount itelf is of a no-joke hold-no-breath size; McKinsey Global Institute, the world’s most optimistic consulting firm (I guess), forecasts that ASEAN member-states have to spend upwards to 3.3 trillion US$, from 2015 up to 2030, to totally upgrade their infrastructure, especially in education. Where on earth are they going to get the money? While asking for international aid sounds more like an off-sounding joke, the only possible models that can be envisioned are either public-private partnership (PPP) or simply total liberalization that will enable inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI).

Even in terms of political orientation, each ASEAN country is completely ‘unique’ on its own.

If one has to look at it from a very truthful, and I could say somewhat inconvenient, language, the unique ‘selling point’ of ASEAN lies in its all-inclusive spectrum of political orientation. It has 1 absolute monarchy (Brunei), 2 military dictatorships (Thailand and Myanmar, so long as the junta doesn’t permit Aung San Suu Kyi to become the president), 2 Communist countries (Laos and Vietnam, but the latter has better political space than China), 3 semi-democracies (Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore, which have continuously been ruled by the same ruling party), and 2 ‘problematic’ democracies (Indonesia and Philippines, which are still struggling to control corruption and cronyism).

And in recent years, there have been concerns by academics whether many countries are actually deteriorating in terms of quality of democracy. While I’m not to subscribe to the belief that democracy is a panacea or a cure-all, the major advantage of democracy is it allows freedom to voice dissenting opinions on existing issues. But that’s it. Numerous research works in political science, mind you, have warned the public that rule of law has absolutely nothing to do with the fact if a country is a democracy or a dictatorship. And even in terms of rule of law, most Southeast Asian countries are lagging behind (except Singapore). Indeed, corruption and abuse of power have been deeply entrenched as a kind of ‘inalienable’ mindset among a large proportion of population in those countries.

Even then we still intensely debate and struggle to define what is corruption, which has only been constrained to these two actions: either you bribe or are bribed, or that you steal state assets. But what about these possibilities:

  • Because you are close to people with influential political power, you can monopolize an economic sector, depriving other more capable players of equal opportunity to compete. Is that not corruption?
  • Major corporations donate to political parties financial support so that they can win election. Is that not corruption? (okay, some consider this lobbying, but still, you know what I mean)
  • Political parties, especially ruling regimes, create ‘linked companies’ as their major source of revenue, controlling various economic sectors. Some consider this a legitimate way of earning money and lessening dependence on private donors, but again, is that not corruption?

This is the big Achilles’ heel that almost all ASEAN countries are being faced with. How will there be a level playing field if one side endorses one thing more than the other? One can talk about the concept of ‘single market base’, but with governments sometimes going to all available means to protect their cash cows, is that not killing competition? Is that not corruption?

But the most challenging aspect is their solidarity in international issues, especially those that carry significant stakes to ASEAN. Did anyone still remember the failure in 2012 ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia? If not familiar, this is the brief explanation: all the 10 countries failed to deliver a major communique about their stance on South China Seas, which are currently being disputed between China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam. Even to deliver only a unified response ended up as a major fiasco! While further communication has been done and some ‘unified messages’ have been crafted, there remains an aura of uneasiness among those countries in responding to this issue, which has been their biggest major international challenge. Still, given the huge socioeconomic gaps that become internal problems in those countries, to some extent we also have to understand why these countries fail to show unity when presented with some crucial issues.

And there is another table that I have obtained from The Economist, Transparency International, and Freedom House. While the ranks may be somewhat subjective and disputed, at least they offer a general overview of the current sociopolitical situation in these Southeast Asian countries. For more examples, I would encourage you to look them up by yourself (as too many examples will render this blog post more like a ranting essay):

ASEAN political quality

This is the reason why the real ASEAN Economic Community will only be felt in a longer future to come, given the existing obstacles. Despite such reality, still, the initiative has been launched, and even with that celebration merely in name one has to start preparing oneself to face future challenges. While red tape will still exist, companies will face less restriction in investing in these emerging markets. A large population still below middle-class status will experience upward social mobility with closer economic cooperation. Furthermore, with mega-regional free trade agreements such as TPP already reached and soon to be ratified, as well as negotiations in RCEP that will also be completed in the near future, by which most ASEAN member-states are participating, this is the huge opportunity (altogether with its underlying risks) that the countries must adapt with in order to succeed in the long run. Now, the challenge with AEC is how long it will take for the entire bloc to achieve the envisioned integration, and truth be told, the path towards that vision will not be as easy as we imagine.

And yes, my friends already knew about this initiative, anyway.

Welcoming 2016: a brief reflection about this blog in 2015

welcoming 2016

 

I am not writing here to make a reflection of what happened around the world in 2015 – it’s too broad, worldwide, and by the time I finish what I want to write about things occurring in 2015, it’s already the first day of 2016. Anyway, I’ll just create a ‘self-assessment report’ of my own blog throughout this year, precisely on its last day.

I could call 2015 a year of courage; from previously very actively updating my blog with posts (or I could call ‘spamming social media’ with my posts?), this year I muster up my courage to reduce the intensity. It’s not simply a slight drop; from publishing over 300 blog posts in 2014, I only managed to release a little above 20 in 2015. That’s a more than 93% in decline! If you notice a bit carefully, you can even see I didn’t put anything online in November. However, it did not exactly correspond with a massive drop in my blog views. By 2014, there were over 8,400 views the whole period. This time, nearing the end of 2015, the WordPress statistics revealed to me slightly above 7,200 views, or ‘only’ 14% decrease. Well, that’s not too bad.

Afterwards, someone asks me this: am I going to gradually put an end to my blog? It’s too early to speculate. Although countless Youtube videos outside have attracted views in days more than what my blog does in 5 years and a half, I would still do my best to continue managing this blog in 2016. Truth be told, publishing 300 blog posts in 2014 was a deeply exasperating – and also frustrating – experience. Even though I mostly ‘reblogged’ other people’s posts and content, I would still have to ‘wreck my brain’ to comment on their stuff, and post them here. I called it quit, and began to shift from only quantity-based posting to quality one. Wasn’t that enough recipe for your consternation when one blog post you really wished to attract a lot of views, gained attention only countable by the number of fingers in the end?

I began pushing for ‘quality posts’ by early January, as well as ending my years-long hiatus of writing thousand-word articles by my own. The last time I did so was in mid-2013, and even then I did it on Facebook Notes feature (it used to be popular in 2010; for 2015 kids, it’s okay you have no goddamn idea about that). Writer’s block was common in the middle of the process, and indeed, I had to tell you, there were 3-4 long-read posts on very serious topics I planned to publish, but didn’t manage to do so in the end as writer’s block – and lack of time for in-depth material research – ended my attempts. Still, despite repeatedly wrecking my own brain, I did manage to release over 20 (one was written by my close friend), and the views per blog were significantly larger than previous one. Total blog views might drop slightly, but I was glad the ‘transition’ fairly succeeded.

By 2016 (or tomorrow), I may try my best to keep the similar target of 20-30 posts, but I can hardly guarantee if I’m going to do so. Given that more new projects (other than this blog) are coming in, I may have to carefully manage my time in updating this blog. I suppose it would be acceptable, gradually, that I don’t publish stuff on a monthly basis. You may expect to see ‘holes’ in some months next year, and I really expect you understand my reasoning. Again, referring to my previous argument, I would now only opt for ‘quality-based’ posting, so that means I may take extra time to review my future posts more deliberately than ‘generic previews’ I did back in 2014.

Originally planning to only put a cap of 300 words on this post, it now exceeds 600. I need to stop adding more crap right now. I wish everyone out there a better 2016, and in the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a more anti-fragile version of all of us.

I won’t stop my blog, my promise.

Being a tourist in one’s own hometown

hometown

 

A few minutes before the plane landed in Kuala Namu International Airport, Medan, I saw from the window myself dim, low-wattage light dotting blocks of streets, with cars and motorcycles – seen from the sky as tiny as moving ants – rushing in and out of those streets.

“Gee”, I whispered to a friend sitting beside me, “is this place having power ration again?”

“Hasn’t our hometown stayed almost the same since we last left?”

Having studied in Hong Kong for a year (literally without any summer breaks or holidays), this counter-culture-shock was already the first thing I experienced – all the while even before I touched off the ground, of the place I was born and raised for over 18 years, this city – goddamn Medan – that I have called it home since the beginning.

Truth be told, I only have my holidays once a year – and as though a ritual, I have been back home once a year, for approximately one month. My first time, it was December 2013 – it lasted 37 days. Fast forward to December 2014 (all the way from Chinese New Year), it lasted 40 days. And there came another 10.5 months of time-space, filled with the same pattern of courses, research projects, killer exams, and other school activities, and there it is, December 2015. This time, I will be home for over 42 days – almost one and a half month. Assume that there are not many changes next year, my next holiday in Medan will be in December 2016 (and also definitely the last time I can afford such a superbly long break).

Every December I sojourn back home, I have to be very admittedly honest that I have this repetitive cycle of ‘culture shocks’. Old wisdom (I don’t know which grannies say that) explains that one’s personality totally changes after exploring a brand-new place, and adapting to these unexpected circumstances out there. Well, my life story ain’t that fascinating like what Frodo (and his friend I crushed my brain to remember the name, not Gollum) faced in The Lord of The Rings, but the reality is that this problem becomes apparent once I arrive in the city I have called it ‘home’ since 1995.

First thing first, there are all these dim-lighted streets over the city.

I have been to Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung, and Denpasar (it’s the capital of Bali), and I could tell you that the streets are so glitzy and brightly lit, especially if one lives in the capital. Medan, being Indonesia’s fourth largest city after the first three cities I described above, with population almost approaching 1% of Indonesia’s total (if you don’t know the answer: it’s one-quarter billion people), is still grappling with electrification. Blackouts are still regularly scheduled in some districts, and street light is mostly dim. That was the same thing I have observed, over and over, since the first time I revisited in 2013. If you take airport express right to the city center, which takes approximately 30-35 minutes, I bet you the first 25-30 minutes you will see almost nothing (as though one were traveling inside a black hole). There are wooden houses and huts beside railway tracks, but there’s no electricity. Even when one sees light (and it’s approaching city center), it’s still very dim, unless one is only a few hundred meters away from the train station. Anyway, I took the airport express back in 2014, and it was really convenient, all the while worth an almost 8 US$-equivalent single-journey ticket.

Another unique thing, meanwhile, is the fact that the airport is completed first before the connecting highways are constructed. As I reached Medan only by last Sunday, there has been substantial progress with the highway construction. Still, going out of the airport area, one can imagine massive traffic jam, and further out, dim street lighting again. Your cars are even brighter than traffic lights, I bet.

Closer into the city center, there are signs of ‘repair projects’. Indeed, all the way back to my childhood, these ‘repair projects’ have always been existent, while at the same time the road quality, I assume, seems worsening. Everywhere we go, there are all these cute little ponds scattered across the streets – years-old potholes that are yet to be fixed. Why the heck don’t these projects manage to fix these little ponds? Because these projects are mostly random patchwork, and some people have rumors that these year-end projects are simply to use up the remaining annual budgets already provided to the city government. Just cover the holes with cement and some sand, and you get the impression that these roads are smooth. The analogy would be you put a very thick makeup to cover your pimples.

We have not only little ponds, but also eternal pipe-implanting projects. A lot of people have experienced this: for some periods of time, drainage in front of houses will be scraped, leaving piles of sand, mud, and other ‘stuff’ scattered across those streets. The problem with these projects, however, is nobody has a goddamn idea when they are going to be accomplished. Sometimes pipes sit idle on street corners, waiting for someone to implant them underground. Wait, you have to consider these piles as well! When raining season comes, and nobody comes to fix them, these piles will flow across the rainwater, causing flood, diminishing the quality of existing roads and streets, and voila!, there emerge all these cute little ponds. The only exception is that you don’t see waddling ducks (though some people plant rice paddies as acts of protest).

See, even I already sound like a ranting First World traveler? Apologies for stereotyping.

Some things are changing, too, especially in the circumstances surrounding my home. One example is mushrooming number of tower cranes. Apartments and shopping malls are being built on my hometown like a boom; in my vicinity alone, I count at least 10 tower cranes (simply because I live in the city center). I haven’t conducted any mini-research, but all I only hope is that the increase in use of tower cranes does not correspond with the parallel increase in the number of potholes or number of four-wheeled vehicles hit by motorcycles, which oftentimes becomes a classic taboo.

Hmm, guess like the only thing is changing is that there are more tower cranes? Probably so. I haven’t been back in my hometown for almost a year, so it’s inevitable I lost count with most things happening not only in Medan, but also in Indonesia. See: in 2013 I still ‘cared’ a lot about news from this country, by 2014 I still did so, but by 2015 my attention has been significantly diminishing. You get this feeling when you talk the same thing to your friends or other acquaintances, over and over. Corruption, crime, pollution (and then this haze that awards Indonesia as the world’s third largest carbon dioxide emitter), infrastructure problems, illicit drug trade, etc. I feel like a 50-year-old heavy-smoking guy whenever I talk about it (and I used to talk about it), so I simply suppress my interest in discussing these matters.

That’s where I switch to gossiping. Regardless of its fact that it is a major sin in virtually any religion (I’m not sure with Spaghetti Monster), gossiping with old friends you haven’t met for more than 2.5 years is a ‘blessing’ for me. Some have gone on to study in top-notch universities in Singapore, Australia, US or those in Jakarta and Bandung, while the rest stay faithful to the same hometown. Mindsets may have changed, but our gossiping habit puts them aside. Some friends’ friends have switched either boyfriends or girlfriends, while one has gotten married (and she’s just 20, for the sake of mom’s spaghetti!). And, well, some have also become mothers (same age), one of whom got MBA (married-by-accident), a code-word for one doing premarital sex. I won’t touch in details about it.

Still, the gap in mindsets by itself can explain that prevailing counter culture-shock.

“People’s mindset here is so simple: you finish high school by age 18, go to a local college for 3-4 years, and after graduation, either your parents give you some money to set up a business or you work for a few years, then you get married, buy a house, have some kids, and get them to the school you were in before. Your life is so stable, but at the same time it’s flat.” That’s what my parents say. Indeed, that is precisely because of what they (and most of my close friends’ parents) had experienced in this life cycle.

“That’s why, after consulting in a local temple, your ultimate fate is to go outside to succeed.”

Hmm, this begins to sound like an adventure movie plot again (apologies for stereotyping), but indeed, what my mom and dad said were really accurate. Go outside, explore the whole world, and return home as an entirely different person. Physically, I’m still short, a bit bellied-up (though I already do some workout), but in regard to my mindset, it’s been completely dissimilar. My Indonesian accent has changed a lot (becoming almost Jakarta-like), and it sounds awkward when I converse to some people here in Bahasa. My mindset differs a lot from my own parents, and to be honest, it’s quite a process to bridge our differences. Still, as uneasy as it is, Medan remains my own hometown. 18 years living here before I embarked on university education, my identity as someone from this place remains irreplaceable. It’s just that the ways of thinking have shifted. My worldview expanded from what was only my hometown, into the whole world. Befriending people from different parts of the world has debunked some prevailing prejudices in my mindset.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if I become a tourist in my own hometown. Well, my holiday becomes more enjoyable at least (with spicy food accompanying my meals almost everyday).

The work-life balance concept, revisited

overwork

I can describe a friend of mine, Becky, as a very astute, and emotionally deliberate, observer. Taking a picture inside Central MTR station, precisely during the typical daily rush-hour evening, she put out the words ‘all the people on this planet working nine-to-five (six here) to stay alive‘. The station, as crowded as ever, is filled overwhelmingly with employees rushing in and out of the station, and the escalators are almost completely full. In all directions to the station’s exits, the loop plays over and over again.

And a few days before, as though being in an existentialist mode, she blogged about this:

 

How did we evolve from living our lives to working to live?

How did we invent the notion that working is so unpleasant that we have to balance it out with life? Most jobs require 9-to-5 working hours, and multiplying those hours by five days a week. These working hours exclude commuting and overtime, which implies that we spend more time working as opposed to ‘living’.

And if the majority of the world works 9-to-5 to stay alive…

How did we stop living?

 

She comes in to this topic with an emotional thought, and I am here to complement it with some facts.

The ‘9-to-5’ working concept, in this regard, is an ideal American business tradition. While this working standard has been internationalized to a majority of countries across the world, there remain disparities between countries in regard to average annual working time per capita. Statistics from OECD (and for OECD countries alone) account for a huge deviation. Mexicans, on average, work over 2,200 hours per year. On the other extreme, Germans work ‘only’ slightly less than 1,400 hours. Greeks, among the world’s most indebted nations, work over 2,000 hours a year. Does working more indicate higher incomes or higher productivity? Research doesn’t find any correlation. Mexico’s GDP per capita stands at slightly lower than 12,000 US$, while Germany’s is approaching 45,000 US$. This excludes numerous other variables that can further disrupt this pattern, such as inequality, extent of human capital investment, rate of education attainment, hourly wage level, etc.

In reality, the truth is more complicating. Can we replicate 9-to-5 model to the rest of the world? To some extent, it’s possible, only if there are sufficient guarantees from the workplace to limit working hours. That’s why it’s lucky to be a government employee; your working time starts at 9 am, and it ends at 5 pm. But what about factory workers? What about street food sellers? What about contract workers? And what about people in poor countries, who, oftentimes, have to work more than 100 hours a week in 2-3 different occupations not only to stay alive, but also to survive? Given that most of the world is located in the developing world (every 6 out of 7 persons in this planet lives in this area), this model may not be completely universal.

Even being in a working environment does not necessarily mean one will be on a fully-working mode. A government employee may still be inside an office reading newspaper, while the clock shows 11 am. A company employee may just sit in front of a computer playing games, if there are no promising projects around. A restaurant owner may sit for two continuous hours, and there are still no customers. A street seller circles round a city or a small town, and may not find any buyers after an hour or two. Are they employed? Yes, they definitely are. But does it mean they are working? Not necessarily. This possibly can explain why ‘longer working hours’ do not bear correlation with increase in income or productivity level.

From another perspective, there are people who are so embedded, or simply conditioned (trust me, most of them won’t like it), in their working activities that they equate them as their own ‘lives’. Mostly, this is not because this is the job they want to do; a bigger, sometimes more meaningful, cause underlies their motivation to do it. Millions of migrant workers across the world are a typical illustration; leaving their families and their beloved ones behind, they work overseas, oftentimes in almost slave-like conditions, in order to earn hard-gained incomes to be remitted back to their families. We have seen a lot of examples in Hong Kong. Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers, once in their weekends, will gather with their fellow friends, sitting in any public squares, and sharing stories about their families, newborn babies, and exchange jokes or sarcasms about their employers. High-income employees, such as investment bankers, traders, and other professionals, sometimes are also faced with such conditioning, but with greater distress, work pressure, and more competition. My cousin, as an example, has been working in most Big Four accounting giants in Hong Kong for over 5 years, and she oftentimes still works until beyond 2 am in the morning, or continues analyzing reports in her house during weekends (blame the absence of working-hour laws in this city).

The question now is: does working 9-to-5, or working up to 100 hours a week, make people lose the notion of ‘living our lives’? Again, it’s a matter of perspectives. Some people enjoy competition and have unending ambition, and thus 9-to-5 schedule may not be sufficient. On the other hand, we see versatile people who can do a lot of different tasks in less than 7 or 8 hours a day. Then, there are also individuals who don’t find excitement working in cubicles, but rather outdoors. Unfortunately, for the rest, financial and economic pressures often force people to work overtime. Ironically, to some degree, it is from such condition that they discover ‘life’. Thus, there is never a single, coherently universal answer to that question.

Another more complicating reality here is the growth in inequality. As long as it is controlled, inequality is actually a healthy indicator of economic competition. What is happening right now (and if one reads Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century) is that capital income is growing faster than labor income. Despite the tremendous growth of a global middle class, it also raises the discrepancies between the haves and have-nots. Wealth stock, globally, is increasing rapidly, but it also takes place in proportion to the increasing concentration of capital ownership among only those in better-positioned socioeconomic levels. As both world population and economy growth are slowing down, there is less focus on investment, but rather on either increasing savings rate or consumption. And then there are all these disruptive technologies, such as AI, robotics, automation, Internet-of-Things, machine learning, etc. While people are engaged in more job competition than ever, these technologies can disrupt labor market in the not too distant future (most likely in the next 20-30 years). Just imagine that you don’t need to have your documents bureaucratized through these government employees, or that drones can deliver vegetables and other dishes without any deliverymen, or that ‘smart’ cleaners can do housecleaning more efficiently than using real housemaids. One may ask: what are these people going to do without those occupations? Explaining the entire question itself will require me to write another post (which I may not do so in the near future). In a current mindset, nonetheless, we can assume that a person will either struggle to find a job or be willing to work really long hours to ‘survive’, unless there is a wholly brand-new modeling that can be adapted to future situations and offset some disadvantages that people are currently facing.

To sum up, there are both negative and positive implications with these shifting trends. For most of the world (and indeed most of the developing world), people are still very likely to continue working with the current patterns. From the negative aspect, disruptive technologies can cause job losses (to which extent they are lost remains largely a question), and exacerbating inequality may force people, not adapted to this shifting pattern, to take up even more jobs – no matter how temporary or time-consuming – in order to survive, thus disrupting the work-life balance. From the positive aspect, nevertheless, the same technologies can alter our work-life balance by reducing our working time, all the while maximizing our productivity levels and outputs.

Certainly, I can’t say my postulation will be totally correct. I would rather be cautiously optimistic.

Crime-free society – A utopian dystopia

duckrabbit

 

(This guest post was written by my close friend, Edward Tanoto. Having spent some years in one of Singapore’s top high schools on a government scholarship, he has learned many lessons – easy and hard – about studying, life, friendships, and contemplating about the future. Admiringly, he’s also a serious thinker.)

*****

And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’”

Genesis 2: 16 – 17 

Thus was the first rule of law – the only law in the Garden of Eden. Alas, it did not take long for Adam and Eve to break it. The consequence of their disobedience has since been passed to us – their posterity. This is the “sin” we must bear, the “sin” that distances us from the LORD God… or so it was told.

After spending 4 years of my life in both Methodist and Anglican schools in Singapore, I have come to familiarize myself with the Bible. Being a Buddhist by birth, the teachings of Buddha had already been ingrained early in my mind. As an Indonesian, it did not take long for me to inquire and learn more about Islam – the common religion of my birthplace. Sharing a room with a Hindu Balinese, I also managed to shed some light on the many festivals and prayers they indulge in. In my exposure, I discover several recurring themes in every belief – benevolence, compassion and humility.

Virtue is not an alien or novel concept. History has recorded people perceived as virtuous since the days of yore. Jesus Christ, Muhammad The Prophet, Florence Nightingale, Mother Theresa, Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, and many other inspiring figures are all hailed as role models in religious, historical and even societal contexts. Virtue has become a highly lauded principle that projects the very notion of humanity. Indeed, most of us are encouraged to be the best of ourselves even from a very young age. After all, morals and goodwill make the world go around…right?

In an ideal world, this may hold true. However, do remember that we are living in the real – and imperfect – world. In the real world, crimes reside alongside virtues. Arson, kidnapping, murder and prostitution are just few examples of our everyday problem. Every country struggles with it, every citizens loathe it and every newspaper anticipates it. The question here is will it ever end? Thankfully, it will not. Let me repeat. Thankfully, it will not.

I am, first and foremost, not a proponent of criminal activities. I firmly believe in the need to constantly keep lawbreakers in check. School shootings, terrorism, embezzlement and the like have cost us billions – or take another example (highlighting dilemmas of our own technological marvels): cybercrime itself has cost the global economy $400 billion annually. However, I do not concur that eradicating crimes is the way out. Simply put, and from a utilitarian point of view (ironically), we need offences and felonies. Criminal offences have become an integral part of our society and is one of the driving forces of the economy.

Consider these points as follow:

  1. Many parts of our economy are dependent on crimes.

This is a seemingly ludicrous irony in our society. Considering our disdain toward crime, we expect ourselves to not be involved in (much less depend on) crime. It is almost a hypocrisy to let our economic gear run at the mercy of criminal offences. However, looking around, we see various industries that tap on the profitable prospect of crimes – court houses, police stations, incarcerations just to name a few. Many of us also depend on various crimes to make a living. Committing a crime doesn’t necessarily entail murders, robberies, or other acts of terrorism. Take the most ‘light’ examples, say, copyright infringement, or even downloading illegally from the Internet (we don’t have to be hypocrites, but that’s what many of us still do). The entire judicial system (police, lawyers and judges) are dependent on breach of law. The military (SAF, ABRI, Bundeswehr, etc.) is founded to deter enemies both foreign and domestic. Government monitoring bodies (NSA, CIA, KPK, etc.) are working around the clock to uncover more novel crimes and combat corrupt practices. When you think about it, they all revolve around crime. To take away crime is equivalent to taking away their very existence. This means that without crime, we may have to replace many of the law enforcers to other occupations. With 830,000 people employed as police in the United States itself, the figure is not looking good.

  1. Criminal activities are necessary to help make ends meet.

This is especially apparent in developing countries. Many third-world countries are safe haven for criminal organizations and lucrative unscrupulous businesses. The reasons may vary – corrupt bureaucratic practice, weak judicial system or political turbulence. However, the underlying purpose is always the same – to survive. These “ends” may include political agenda or livelihood crisis. Drug smuggling is rampant in developing countries simply because there are limited employment opportunities, and everyone has to survive. People then resort to the underworld business to subsist themselves. In countries or states with strong mob influence such as Mexico, bribes and compensations are needed to maintain “peace” for the people. In these cases, crime may help bring order in the society, albeit a fragile one.

  1. Crimes may open our eyes to an underlying issue.

Many of the crimes that arise may help point to a flaw in the law or societal lifestyle. School shooting incidents point to the danger of gun laws in the US, hacking incidents raise questions over the safety of our personal information in the cyber world and domestic terrorism may signal increasing extremism. Without crimes, these problems may never come to light. Crimes help us to critically think of the consequence of our law and lifestyle. As our lifestyle keep changing, so will crime. It is these crimes that will illuminate the aspects that can be improved on.

A world without crime is indeed tempting. It is the dream of modern civilisation and the pinnacle of justice. Yet, it remains an illusion even to this day. We do not wish for it to go unchecked – but at the same time, it is not wise to completely erase it from the face of the world. For better or worse, crimes have been part of us since mankind walked through the Earth. The one guaranteed future of crime is disappointing but important – crimes will continue to exist and evolve alongside us. Even what one considers a crime or a sin today may no longer be considered so in the future; its definitions remain fluid as societies constantly change. It all boils down to how we choose to treat it – as a vice or as a lesson. The bottom line, a crime-free society, remains by itself a distant utopian dystopia.

So, the next time you read about a crime, it may be intriguing to think about it on both sides of the coin. As for me, that is why I like being a free thinker!

*****

 

More articles from Edward to be published in the future.