Democracy as a ‘sinking ship’?



The notion of democracy has been going through a turbulent path these days. From a contemporary aspect, we can refer to phenomena like the Brexit, the rise of nativists-populists epitomized by that corn-haired Donald Trump, and most recently, the military coup attempt in Turkey last Friday. We criticize such outcomes as malcontent, harbingers of something more dangerous to come, or short-sighted, but if we take into account deeper consideration, aren’t all these enabled – either directly or indirectly – from the very core processes we consider as ‘democratic’ instead?

This is not an academic paper that tries to discuss about democracy (although I would be very interested to author one), but – as a way to showcase my right of civil liberties – let us have a frank discussion about it. First thing first, we need to acknowledge that there are no perfect political ideologies, even in the concept of ‘democracy’. To understand about the existing dichotomy, let us the origin of this notion back into Ancient Greece, somewhere around 6th (or maybe 7th) century BC. Aristotle, or our genius philosophy bro’ who invented almost every field we study today, postulated that the main aim of democracy is to achieve freedom. On the other school of thought, we got the other partners-in-crime (Plato and Socrates, one of whom the other betrayed) who argued that democracy is no different from mob rule, or most commonly referred to as ‘tyranny of the majority’. One alternative proposition – or maybe compromise – offered by these philosophers was to use the term ‘polyarchy’. Defined as ‘rule by more than one person’, polyarchy still slightly differs from democracy in that the former postulates a set of institutions, constraints, and procedures that aim to balance the utilization of democracy, which the latter actually does not posit. If we adapt these debates to contemporary settings, the resulting outcome – voila! – is polarization within the society. People debate on how democracy should be done and represented. One school wants maximum participation from the people – and the people alone, while the other wants a more procedural, representative, and legally-constraining measures to not let democracy ‘erupt into complete anarchy’, which this school dreads of.

Efforts to promote democracy have been tied in orthodoxy as part of the Western world’s foreign-policy approaches in their contemporary ‘nation-building’ projects. United States – the current world superpower – is still actively promoting this idea (though no longer as active as in the past), and is followed suit by other European countries. Through epic makeups, democracy is parceled and decorated as though they were ‘gifts from Santa Claus’. Except from the cases of US-led democratization in Germany and Japan in the aftermath of World War II, most of their efforts have been largely mixed. Ironically, indeed, the idea of ‘democracy promotion’ was so subverted that the West ended up supporting any regimes they could label as ‘democratic’ – as long as they were anti-Communist. Military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan (as well as Libya, Syria, etc) did not produce any tangible democracies; what we have is instead the rise of ISIS (or a more derogatory one, Daesh), the continuation of tribal, sectarian, and ethnic warfare, and regional instability. What the heck is wrong with all these so-called ‘democracy promotion’ things?

Many scholars have offered various answers and interpretations in order to answer such prevailing puzzle, but many of their explanations are contextually dependent on the regions they are specializing in. Experts such as Scott Mainwaring, James Fearon, David Laitin, David Collier, and Steven Levitsky have expertise in the Latin American contexts – and Collier and Levitsky have published a paper that aims to categorize democracies based on their knowledge in this region. On the other hand, we have experts such as Dan Slater, Tom Pepinsky, Eddy Malesky, Donald Emmerson, etc, who specialized in the context of Asia-Pacific region. We also have scholars that try to explain democracy from a political-economic framework, such as Dani Rodrik, William Easterly, and Stephan Haggard. And then we have scholars that explain democracy through massive global datasets that they have toiled to develop, such as Barbara Geddes, Adam Przeworski, Monty G. Marshall, etc. These are just some people I mention which papers I have read, and I’m sure there are way many more of them whose works I have yet to review. As each of them may offer some variation of insight about the dichotomy of democracy when compared to other issues, I can hardly type in through their postulation in this blog post (it’s too long, and I need to spend quite a large amount of time re-reading their papers).

The best explanation, I would emphasize, is to read Why Nations Fail, co-authored by Daron Acemoglu (MIT economist) and James A. Robinson (Harvard economist). They focus on the role played by institutions, which actually matter more than democracies do, in delivering outcomes from the authority to the people. Thus, here is the premise: if a country can not build an inclusive institutional setup that accommodates everyone’s interests, then the polity is designed to doom. While this book provides a largely historical perspective, in case you want to explore even further, you can try to read their another book titled ‘Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship’. With tons of pages of intricate econometric formula and analyses (which most people, and me – and even some grad students I bet – struggle to comprehend), they provide evidence as to how institutional setup established in the past can affect the political prospects of those countries. I do not recommend you (and myself) to read the latter before taking more Economics and Econometrics courses; Why Nations Fail itself already offers a huge range of fascinating case studies that are more exciting than your high-school history textbook.

In case you want the simplest explanation, I would suggest reading an article written by Fareed Zakaria, titled ‘The Rise of Illiberal Democracies‘. Published in Foreign Affairs in 1997, Zakaria provided a thought-provoking argument about the need to differentiate the concept of ‘democracy’ and ‘constitutional liberalism’ (or, in simpler terms, rules and legal regulations that protect individual civil liberties). He attributed that the problem of many newly emerging democracies these days – back in the 1990s, when this article was published – was that these polities paved way for populists and strongmen to seek popular legitimacy to justify their autocratic rule. Going back to the ‘democracy promotion’ mode by US government and its allies, we all came to consolidate the correlation between democracy and ballot boxes alone, all the while overlooking other sets of factors and variables. Here, Zakaria had prophesied his pessimistic trajectory of how such populists – or other political agitators – made use of ballot boxes, securing the widespread support of the existing electoral base, all in the name of justifying their strongman-style rule, or implementing other policies many had thought could be a ‘shot in the arm’, but instead ended up as ‘gunshots in the arm’. Without a certain mechanism in protecting individual civil liberties, democracies can literally become what the ancient Greeks called as ‘tyranny of the majority’. Thus there came the phenomenon of illiberal democracies, where parties or regimes in power make use of elections solely as their defining feature of democracy to consolidate their power and empower their supporters, largely at the expense of protection of civil liberties. I recommend you to read this article, given its (ongoing) relevance to the present contexts in global politics.

Lastly, what about the question of polarization? In a seriously insightful paper, titled ‘Democratic Careening‘, Dan Slater actually refuted the argument by several scholars that ‘democracy is collapsing’. Instead, he stated that ‘democracy can not collapse, but rather careen’ (perhaps as you can see from the Paint-drawn illustration above). Democracy, to some aspect, can become like a ‘warzone’ with two opposing sides intensely fighting against each other – either on the streets or in the legislature – over the competing notions of democracy. He emphasized, in particular, about horizontal accountability (rule of law, checks-and-balances between state institutions) and vertical accountability (political participation among the public). The big ‘danger’ that could cause the war-zone to occur, in this regard, is when leaders in power cause both these features to compete against – rather than complement – each other. This can be achieved by leaders either disproportionately enlarging their executive powers to the degree that they become almost personalized, or that they agitate for mass mobilization among the supporters to take to the streets when there is any ‘threat against their legitimacy’. While Slater only focused on the comparative analysis of Thailand and Taiwan, this argument can be further expanded to look into other countries. Let’s say, the Chavismo phenomenon in Venezuela, how Erdogan rallied his supporters to take to the streets in response to the ‘coup attempt’ (or so the media said?), or the exploitation of ethnic, religious, or social-based cleavages to the ruling powers’ advantage.

This writing can be further explored into a further work, but I would rather stop here, risking the boredom of Internet readers (especially in the age where people simply share articles without really reading them or even clicking the links). In summary, I would say that democracy – in spite of its problems – can be ‘nurtured’, only if there are strong institutional setups from the beginning which can provide checks and balances on elected leaders, and all the while respect people’s civil liberties. Democracies matter, but so do institutions and the principle of constitutional liberalism. If implemented immaturely, we will continue to see any existing weird phenomena resulting from ‘democratic’ processes in the future, and even more half-baked democracies. Democracy is not sinking, but it can be bent in lieu of the desires of the leaders in power. Thus, I would rather advocate for the idea of liberal democracy, rather than ‘democracy’ in itself alone.

In the words of Ronald Dworkin, “democracy is a substantive, not a merely procedural, ideal.”


NB: In case you want to have some more independent study about democracy, here are some useful sources that you can refer to.

Readings (only two first):

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson – Why Nations Fail

Francis Fukuyama – Political Order and Political Decay

Datasets (about the quality of democracy):

Freedom House – not too frequently referred to in academic discourse, but very useful in media and public discussions as the tone is much easier to comprehend

Polity IV – more complicating, but more useful, and is mostly referred to in academic discourse (on a scale of -10 to 10, dictatorships are labelled with scores -6 to -10, democracies from 6 to 10, and hybrid regimes, or what you call as ‘illiberal democracies’, scored precisely in between)


Hope these references help.

Guest post: in the name of ‘law’, or ‘justice’, or whatsoever?



*** This is a guest post by my close friend, Edward Tanoto. He is currently studying business in, you know, the university he already mentioned in the following paragraph. Feel free to agree or disagree with his thought, but as I have emphasized in previous posts, let us respect each other’s opinions, and if you find yourself in absolute, complete disapproval, let us agree to disagree.


In The Name of “Justice”

It was February 29, 2016 – it was the first day of my first semester in University of Melbourne and for me! Walking the footpath to class, I was excited. The first lecture will be on law – on how JUSTICE can be enforced through the rules of conduct. Being a mystery-novel addict, I could hardly wait until I finally manage to dive into the core principle of the democratic judicial system. The clock was ticking, the minutes grew unbearable. Finally, the lecturer came and it was about to begin. “I bet she’ll say something inspiring!” was what I thought. When the professor finally started talking, she said “I’d like to first correct the one assumption you guys might carry. Decisions made in the court according to the rules of law DON’T HAVE TO BE JUST. A court is not a place to seek and serve justice.”…. so much for the inspiring quote.

Some of you, like me, might be asking yourselves “If the law is not intended to enforce justice, then what does it stand for?” The online Merriam Webster dictionary defines law as ‘a rule of conduct or action prescribed or formally recognised as binding or enforced by a controlling authority.’ Put simply, a law stands for a PHYSICAL or VIRTUAL BODY, delivering the ORDER of that body, enforced by MEMBERS who SUBSCRIBE to that order toward the PARTIES INTENDED of that order. All four elements are essential for any law to take effect. We shall not delve deeper into these different aspects as it is unrelated to the purpose of our discussion. However, notice that the notion of JUSTICE is not found among those 4 essential elements. Why is this so?

Before I begin, however, I would like to simplify the contention of the law discussed. This is to prevent bumping into major differences between the different laws enforced by different body. I shall be expounding on a law that stands for a FREE body, delivering the order of COMMON LAW, enforced by the PARLIAMENTARY LEGISLATION and intended toward ITS CITIZENS. Points 3 and 4 are specific to this order but point 3 is applicable to other rules of conduct.

  1. The core principle of law is enforcing order, not justice.

This simple notion is similar to the age-old argument of democracy vs communism. We are however, not interested in the different ideology each postulates. We are more interested in the different types of market offered by each of the two. The open market in democracy is adopted to effectively allocate resources and maximize total welfare of the society (efficiency). The centrally planned market in communism is meant to distribute resources equally to the society thus giving everybody a fair share of the economic pie (equity).

Much like the market scenario, the law is mainly concerned with maintaining the status quo as it is, assuming the status quo offers the highest good to the society. The law thus becomes relatively inert and unchangeable. The certainty that comes from this is important to law as it gives assurance and predictability that the same principle will hold true in the future. This assurance subsequently promotes order as people come to associate certain behaviour with certain punishments or rewards by the law.

Justice, however, is concerned with adjusting the law to suit the circumstance at the time of occurrence. As various factors may contribute in causing different breaches of the law, it is then important to adjust the law to suit those different elements. While this is a sound argument, it is not the main concern of the law. Even though adjustments can be made to adapt with the circumstance, it is generally difficult to persuade the law to excuse or change its established rule to suit the interest of the moment. This adjustment falls under ‘equity’ category and is only considered after determining the type of breach according to the existing law. Put it in another way, order reigns supreme over justice.

  1. Justice is relative, but the law is certain.

Do you think a thief should be spared? What if he steals to feed their family? Or to cure his sick daughter? What if he accidentally murders someone during the conduct?

Each of you may have different answers and suggest different degree of consideration toward the thief. That is perfectly normal and understandable. It is also, however, the biggest flaw of justice – everybody has a different notion of it. What holds true to you may not necessarily hold true to others. It is impossible to accommodate the law to suit the preference of the individuals. For this reason, it is equally impossible to enforce justice to everyone. The law, therefore, is not able to plant its root on justice simply because it lacks the one most integral aspect of the law – certainty.

Of course, it is not possible to get an accurate assessment of an occurrence of breach without looking at all the contributing factors that give rise to the offense. When traced to a reasonable extent, backtracking is able to pinpoint and help determine the degree of breach and the reason of breach – both important aspects of a criminal investigation. However, there is always a limit. This may vary among countries but it is generally traced only up to the point where the event has a “significant” role in contributing to the breach. Again, there exists the possibility that some limit may be premature and may subsequently obscure investigation to the root of the problem, serving only partial justice.

Yet this is not a problem for the law. It is only concerned with preserving certainty and order in the society. So long as it remains that way, no extra energy will be wasted to further their find – at least not until the next related breach.

  1. The law is made by consensus, not individual interest.

As previously explained, it is impossible to cater to each of our own notion of justice. Hence, in a democratic system, rules of conduct are made through parliamentary procedures and consensus.

Under the common law, a Bill is first suggested by members of the legislature and told to the Senate. Should the Senate vote to approve it, a draftsperson will then draft out the Bill. The draft is then read to the members of the House of Origin. A debate occurs and if the Bill is voted and approved, it will go to the House of Review. The members of the House read and debate over the Bill, pointing out necessary changes when seen fit. After all the changes, the House will then vote on the Bill. If the majority concurs, it becomes an Act and is passed for Royal Assent. The rest of the process, is based on our shared experience.

Notice that the law consists of (at minimum) three votes – those by the Senate, the House of Origin, and the House of Review (any amendments must again be voted on when finished). In each of these votes, decision by the majority will be the one passed into law. This poses a problem – what about the minority? A law that bans face covering will not bid well with pious Muslim women (a reference to the French parliamentary decision in 2010). Similarly, a law that requires every person to subscribe to a religion is unjust to free thinkers and atheists (a reference to Indonesia’s 1st principle of Pancasila and the subsequent Clause 28(e) of The Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia of 1945; in fact, atheism is actually quite a taboo topic in this country).

From a utilitarian point of view, there may be security benefits conferred to the public by either removing the cover or requiring your religions stated on IDs. It may make it harder to hide your real identity. However, it also erodes certain religious values of Islamic belief itself, or for the case of religions-on-ID discourse, the sense of hypocrisy that many of us feel religion is a personal matter, not something that state ought to intervene.

How much must the minority bend to the will of the majority? While the answer to this is open for discussion, it purports the fact that it can be hard for justice to find its place in the law.

Despite all its apparent bleakness, the law is not necessarily fixed for good. In common law, equity exists alongside the law and trial by the jury exists alongside trial by the judge. We have come to recognise that various circumstances can give rise to certain offences. The law may be stubbornly fixed, but given the right reason, it can make an exception.

Themis, or the Greek equivalent of Iustitia (Lady Justice) is depicted wearing a blindfold while carrying a sword and a balance. The trinity symbolises decisions and penalties based on the objectivity of evidence and reason, impartial to subjectivity and emotion. However, let us also not forget that she is also blind. Perhaps it is time for her to discard the blindfold and “see” the law as how it fits with time and changes.

Traveling and attitude

just sitting


I know it sounds horrible for most people, but I just wanna be honest here: I am not interested in traveling.

Yes, those last six words.

I have betrayed my ancestors – and my very distant ancestors – whose survival has depended on walking, and sailing, thousands of miles across continents, only to find out this poor boy of theirs, sitting surrounded by cubicles (laptop, with research papers beside me, table, and a wooden wall), is going to a layer of existence where it’s untouchable, but it’s everywhere, and is air-like: Internet.


Not that my life is completely miserable though. Throughout my lifetime (I’m now 21), I have been to 7 countries – or I should say 6 countries and 1 special political entity, which I listed here:

  1. Malaysia (last time: May 2013, been to Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Malacca)
  2. Singapore (last time: October 2010, been to downtown mostly)
  3. Cambodia (last time: June 2015, to Phnom Penh)
  4. China (last time: April 2014, been to Shenzhen and Nanjing)
  5. United States (last time: April 2016 (this year!), only to Houston)
  6. United Arab Emirates (just for transit to US)
  7. Hong Kong (studying in HKUST as of August 2013)

I don’t call it travel, however. I would rather say most of them – except for the trips to Cambodia and US – are annual family trips, lasting for a week (sometimes almost two), and the only aim is relaxation (although we ended up mostly tired). I went to Cambodia for a global health project, and to US for a related global health competition held in Rice University.

In fact, one rather heavy-hearted truth I must confess is that the reason I can continue my studies in this university is the last 4 years spent by my family not going overseas. The last overseas family trip we had was one to Hong Kong, in August 2012, a year precisely before I ended up pursuing my university education here, most of which is supported by my parents’ financing and partially through university scholarships.

Is that why I lose my interest in traveling? While you and I see the correlation – and indeed there’s a correlation, it’s not so much a causality, either.

It’s inevitable that money is one big factor diluting this curiosity of exploring the world – especially given the depreciation of most currencies across the world in the last 2 years. Indonesian rupiah, the richest currency in the world (simply because we have so many zeros), has seen its value depreciated more than 30% within the same period, and the climax was that it almost reached 50% as of mid-2015 before it appreciated. That, in one aspect, has been a major headache not just for me and my family – especially as we are saving a lot to support my younger brother’s future university education, but also for some other Indonesians studying here. Nonetheless, one can argue back, and ask: “What if the currency never weakens, do you want to travel?” Still, the interest is not there yet.

The actual causality, I would argue, is the challenge of adapting to life and getting accustomed to a huge diversity of values in Hong Kong.

I have spent 18 years of my life living in Medan, my hometown, and also Indonesia’s fourth largest city, before coming to Hong Kong. If I could reflect back in the last three years, the biggest challenge is adapt to social standards here, excluding the fact that with Hong Kong as a global city (or so they say), it’s got people from hundreds, and hundreds, of nationalities, each of whom carries norms, values, and mindsets that might not be always suitable to the values I have grown accustomed to while back in my hometown.

At its simplest, let me mention HKUST as a microcosm. I can’t deny that it’s an amazing university – we have people, either full-time or exchange-in students, coming all around the world. Indeed, I am even quite proud to say I have befriended quite a lot of people from various backgrounds in addition to Indonesians alone – Hong Kong locals, Mainland Chinese, Koreans, Malaysians, Indians, Americans, other Southeast Asians, fellows from European countries, some from Middle East, and the list goes on – and discussed various issues, in-depth, with them to understand better about global affairs. In spite of the three years well spent here, I have always been faced with such existentialist-themed questions.

  1. Many of my friends are exchange-in students, and they ‘only’ stay for either a semester or a year. Is true friendship that kinda fast to forge?
  2. Overcoming culture shock is another.

Talking about the second matter, overcoming culture shock is the biggest impediment. Even as I approach my final year pretty soon, there are still quite some aspects that I am still struggling to understand from either local folks or some fellow foreign students, and to a certain degree, even fellow Indonesians. How am I going to create a positive attitude out of traveling when I haven’t fully ‘recovered’ from culture shock after three years studying abroad?

Another reason is what I can say as ‘settle-down attitude’. Again, this is my personal opinion. Having no interest in travel does not mean I will stop visiting countries forever. I still aim for postgraduate studies in US (yeah, ‘American dream’), but based on my experiences of already living here for three years, I have learned a lot about the attitude of settling down in a place and getting used to the pace of daily life here (in spite of constant ebbs and flows of culture shock). Immersing oneself in a place is not as simple as traveling to 10, 20, 30, or even 50 countries alone, let alone an annual one-week overseas trip; it takes quite a considerable amount of effort – and time – to completely blend in a brand-new environment, in a wholly new culture. Being here for three years, I have felt very comfortable with what Hong Kong has to offer (despite constant shouts of housing and inequality issues), but I do realize that this place itself is not going to be an end goal of my life journey. Which country I will eventually permanently settle? Will it be US, or will it be going back to Indonesia? Your guess is as good as mine.

Also, when I go to other countries, the constant feeling that lies in my head is this: “Is there something useful I can always do?” This response may make you think I sound like an overworked jerk, but unless there is something really useful or what I am really passionate about (research projects, deployment of new technologies, competitions, but not voluntouring), I will not be really trying to get myself into those places. Why sightseeing alone? Except for differences in building styles, historical experiences, income levels, infrastructure quality, social and cultural norms, food, infrastructure, and availability of people and goods, people everywhere are just the same. They live as we do, they work as we do, they eat as we do, especially with the advent of globalization. Again, this doesn’t mean I encourage you and myself to stop going overseas. It’s just that we may have different expectations. I care about other countries’ history, but unless there is something important (and money is one thing), I will not be really there.

Furthermore, we’ll just acknowledge that everyone has his or her own peculiarity. People will assume that I am weird due to my disinterest in travel. It’s the same thing, either, for some people like me to judge those having traveled to 30, 40, 50, or maybe 100 countries. Some will argue that lack of travel causes less world peace due to low understanding of other cultures; I would refute back and ask, “Where is the supporting evidence?” It may be true that some correlation exists, but it doesn’t always mean causality. Some people, having lived extensively in many countries, will in the end stick to people they are most comfortable with (mostly the same country) and will always remain as narrow-minded about the world as their exclusivity implies. Either having been to dozens of different places or simply staying in your hometown or home state does not necessarily make you a better person. That’s where we can see the differences between ‘well-traveled tourists’ and ‘well-traveled travelers’. Others, probably never leaving 100 miles beyond their hometowns their whole lifetime, would just find solace through the conveniences they have been familiar with all their lives. Does one simply have to go through the countries only to experience the cultures themselves, discounting the fact that they have families to support, and lack of money is another thing? At least books can be either a supplementing or complementing alternative. (I choose this because it depends on how you interpret your choices) Everyone is unique on his or her own, so being less judgmental actually reduces these gaps.

Last but not least, I am a homeward-bound person. As I only take an annual vacation (during winter), the only thing that lies in my head is going back to my hometown. It is dilapidated, no doubt about that; crime is high, yes it’s true; transport is very uncomfortable and unruly, especially. But what becomes inevitable is how that city, that poor sweet city of mine, has become part of my identity, particularly after the experience of overseas study. The only thing that lies in my head is to reunite with my family, that’s all. For the rest of every university year, I have been studying and working hard enough, and again, the attitude of traveling after all the exasperation is just not there. I would still choose to come back to my hometown and stay for a month, despite the discomfort compared to everything one has in Hong Kong.

(Once again, I have to put a disclaimer to say that this doesn’t stop me from wanting to visit other countries.)

I would have to say that it is very fortunate the university I study in actually encourages people to explore the world through programs like exchange-out, gap year, or gap semesters. A lot of my friends have taken these chances, and traveled to dozens of countries (still, mostly in Europe, North America, and not so commonly fellow Asian states). It is undeniable exchange offers numerous benefits, but again, what I can advise here, from someone who has no interest in travel but sees the benefits in it, is the matter of ‘attitude’. I neither encourage nor discourage you from traveling, but at least get yourself to think these questions. Are you ready for the discomfort of constantly moving places? Are you willing to learn and immerse yourself in other cultures, and adopt their values? And are you ready to spend, especially with the fact that most of our university education is from our parents’ money? If you are prepared, then the benefits are there for you. If you don’t, travel ideals themselves are just not suitable for you. Some people are ‘destined’ to explore, some simply will find solace in the places they stay in. Let’s respect each other from that regard (or at least learn to agree to disagree).

The best thing about 21st century is that people are more free to define how they are going to live their lives (and I do cherish in this regard). If there’s just this ecstatic impatience to explore the world, just do it. Otherwise, just enjoy all that we have.

Un-distorting history: watching ‘The Act of Killing’ and ‘The Look of Silence’

the look of silence


Looking through the history of mankind, one of the most significant feats in humanity’s constant social engineering process is the constantly reshaping ‘nation-building’ project. In a path towards building a single identity (beginning from ‘the social contract’ introduced by Thomas Hobbes), the Leviathan – in this case, rulers or leaders of a political entity – ‘enforced’ its legitimacy to the masses regarding the importance of adhering to certain ideals, values, and/or propositions that are suitable with the existing collective consciousness. Thus we saw, especially after the Peace of Westphalia Treaty, the emergence of sovereign states, all the while with people of multifaceted cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds. Two centuries later, in the mid-19th century, we saw the emergence of ‘nation-state’ concept, embodied so strongly from originally the core territories (Europe), which would then spread into the rest of the world through colonialism or its indirect forces, shaping the international order (and all the ‘artificial’ borders crafted across countries) that we now see on our maps at this moment. Afterwards, there came the Cold War, where the new competing powers (United States and its Western bloc, vis-a-vis Soviet Union and its Communist allies), in the aftermath of two devastating wars that ended colonialism, sought to fill in the ‘global leadership vacuum’ left behind by the severely-diminished colonial forces. All over, the ‘nation-building’ projects were once again reconfigured throughout hundreds of newly-independent countries, with the single aim of projecting the major power’s influence and finesse in these areas.

While the nation-building in the past has resulted in the existing global order (and global equilibrium) we live in today, it has – throughout different parts of the world – also resulted in disproportionately huge numbers of lives, money, and legitimacy lost in the process. Some people perish en masse, oftentimes with numbers reaching millions, to pave way for the current system to operate. The truth is cruel, but all the more so with this world; history, as I would agree has been ‘prostituted by the state’, serves to ‘decorate’ the bloody aspect of the nation-building into the one we are living through every single day. At one point, we can hardly imagine what alternate reality we would be living in in the absence of the existing systems; on the other hand, specters of the past are demanding the answer of how we should not forget their own reality. Therefore, I could say that all, if not almost all, nations remain haunted by the tumultuous histories of the past.

Inevitably speaking, this includes Indonesia. It was a huge shock to me when I watched Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 film ‘The Act of Killing’ (which was actually set in my hometown, Medan) back in November 2013; all the while I have never (and I guess 260 million others) truly learned about the ’empty years’ in 1965 and 1966. What I only knew was that 7 army generals were murdered by Communist collaborators on September 30, 1965, and afterwards there was a ‘national movement’ to ‘expel’ the forces, led by Gen. Suharto, who would become the country’s second president (from 1966 up to 1998). The real truth was way more starkly brutal and even ‘gore’; a massacre, dubbed ‘anti-Communist’, saw between 500,000 and 3,000,000 people killed, and other millions tortured, imprisoned, and expelled overseas. The killers are still alive, and they are, as much as I am awed, part of our society; history was ‘directed’ to the entire nation that these ‘killings’ were a nation-salvaging mission, and the killers were celebrated as ‘heroes’. Thus was the inconvenient truth we have to live in, up to now.

And there came the sequel, ‘The Look of Silence’, in 2014, this time set in Java island. With the duration slightly above half of the former, this documentary provides an intense face-to-face conversation between the victim’s family and the so-called ‘heroes’ (or you can call the killers); not unlike the previous film, this movie has had the effect of polarizing the views of various people in the country. Political parties, religious organizations, and even factions within the military strongly condemn the movies as ‘contorting’ the history that they endorse; some people, however, begin to speak up openly. The two movies are screened in various universities and schools nationwide, in spite of occasional acts of violence by several organization members. While the polarization continues, as uneasy as it is, it begins to crack open the asymmetries that underlie the past towards us. Indeed, if I would be frank, Indonesia is not alone when it comes to having a national tragedy as a scar resulting from the nation-building projects; the whole world has the same ‘skeletons in the closet’, slowly by which, the truth will be cracked open.

It is of my apology that the two movies below, while using Bahasa Indonesia, will have no English subtitles. At least I hope the explanation in this post will help. If you understand the language, you can watch the movies below, which, credits to Joshua, are now available for free in Youtube.


The Act of Killing – titled ‘Jagal’ in Bahasa:


The Look of Silence – titled ‘Senyap’ in Bahasa:

Valentine’s day



I befriend someone I don’t know in Facebook who happened to have passed away 3 years ago.

The account itself, I could say, is restlessly active almost everyday. ‘She’ shares information from all pages as much as possible. Dog videos, articles about dangerous food products, recipe dishes, viral stories about poor individuals someone met on the streets, or simply postings of inspirational quotes or messages with religious content. Some happen to be hoaxes, some are simply 15-minutes-of-fame intermezzos, but quite a few contain solid facts. These postings frequently fill up my news feed, and most of the time, I simply scroll them through and look at other stuff.

This Valentine’s day, I saw a video made in tribute of her.

Initially, I thought it was just a joke. I thought it could be just a random website giving you funny assessment of some algorithm-based sorts (imagine ‘Be Like Bill’ in the form of a make-believe obituary). It says “in memorial of (name undisclosed)”, with pictures of her smiling, of her drinking cocktail, of her standing beside a swimming pool. It was not until I clicked through her profile – after viewing through condolence-themed posts by her friends and relatives – that I realized this person was killed in a car accident 3 years ago.

And her account remains ‘alive’ up to now, sharing all the stuff that still continue to pop out as of today.

Up to now, I can’t comment anything about it. I’m not scared of the possibility that our Facebook accounts will continue to exist even after our lives end; I’m just left wondering how the person, behind the scene, continues to preserve all the remaining memories of their deceased beloved ones, as though one part of her soul remained existing within the social media. And it still goes on, all after the three years. I can’t imagine how that person, notwithstanding his or her motive, wakes up everyday, only to become ‘her’ surrogate on Facebook, and fills up the news feed with all the stuff he or she finds interesting. I can’t imagine how strong his or her mentality is already shaped (I hope I’m using the correct description), while facing up to the reality that she is physically gone, all the while maintaining her existence in the virtual world.

Throughout my lifetime, I have heard, and witnessed, stories of losses and sadness. A close friend of mine lost her mother last year, and she keeps her ‘mother’ alive on her Whatsapp profile. Another acquaintance lost his father, while he is yet to complete his university studies. Two of my high school friends lost their younger siblings, one of whom I happened to know. And now, this person – whom I added three and a half years ago, the time when I simply confirmed anybody’s friend requests, literally – is now a virtual Schrodinger’s cat.

It brings me to another philosophical question. With virtual and real identities becoming increasingly disparate (especially with the increasing ability of artificial-intelligence), will this story become a common reality in the distant future? Is this what transhumanists will refer to as ‘immortality’, or probably a ‘brain-in-a-vat’ phenomenon?




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.




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.



“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)