DUNCAN GRAHAM. Blame – don’t shame

It’s warming to see Australians helping jobless Balinese felled by Covid-19 with tuckerbags as hotels shut and tourists flee. One donor called it her ‘moral obligation’, a commendable motive.

But when smartphone cameras start recording the decency all bule (foreigners) should dart out of shot. US showman Michael Jackson was a weirdo but offered one wisdom: ‘Real charity is giving without taking credit’, echoing the Biblical Matthew who said something similar about left and right hands.

Here’s how alms can harm: A photo from the 1998 economic crisis (krismon in Indonesian), mortified the people next door. It showed a seated President Soeharto signing loan papers while the International Monetary Fund’s Michel Camdessus stands above with folded arms. It was widely interpreted as humiliation of the Republic by a European power, the body language reminding of the colonial Dutch who strutted the archipelago for 350 years. More than two decades later the picture still angers a people justifiably proud of their past.

In August 1945 Indonesians were left ragged and starved after three-plus years of brutal Japanese occupation. Unlike Singapore and Malaya they seized independence, and then fought Amsterdam rule for four years forcing the world to recognise their resolve and courage. Around 100,000 Indonesian soldiers and civilians and 8,000 Dutch and their allies died during the revolution. Merdeka! (Freedom) shouted by fighters hurling bamboo spears in Surabaya’s kampong has the birth-of-nation force of Anzacs charging Gallipoli’s heights.

However genuine the gesture, pictures showing foreigners giving goodies are open to misinterpretation by nationalists, particularly the sensitive Javanese. They’ll see tall, rich, white folk offering crumbs of aid to small brown victims in a developing state. That’s not today’s Indonesia. The World Bank ranks it as ‘an emerging lower middle-income country’. The fourth most populous nation is a member of the G20 and the tenth-largest economy.

Yet the poor are many: Badan Pusat Statistik (Central Statistics Agency – BPS) reckons 25 million. That’s the population of Australia. A similar number ‘remains vulnerable … as their income hovers marginally above the national poverty line’. The figures were published before Covid-19 tipped more than 1.2 million out of work and into the pool of seven million jobless.

The BPS defines the ‘national poverty line’ as Rp 440,538 per person per month. That’s $1.53 a day. What could we buy for a buck and a half in Oz? Not even a bottle of ‘mineral’ water; fortunately we can drink safely from most taps. Indonesians can’t.

Balinese queue for Ozzie handouts because their rich nation has been grossly mismanaged and plundered by despots. The 1965 coup felled the pro-Communist first president Soekarno. Then came the capitalist General Soeharto who rapidly turned kleptocrat, reportedly pocketing US $35 billion.

Beggars are rare in Singapore which found its independence at the same time. It’s now a gleaming economic success; the average annual salary is $67,000. No Aussie food parcels needed.

The 2017 Oxfam analysis Towards a more equal Indonesia reports:

In the past two decades, the gap between the richest and the rest in Indonesia has grown faster than in any other country in Southeast Asia. It’s now the sixth country of the greatest wealth inequality in the world. Today, the four richest men in Indonesia have more wealth than the combined total of the poorest 100 million people.

Here’s Oxfam’s prescription for reform: ‘Enforcing a living wage for all workers, increasing spending on public services, and making big corporations and rich individuals pay their fair share of tax’.

It’s up to Indonesians to turn around the world’s third-largest democracy. They can demand and back candidates who are altruistic and clean. Surveys show politicians are currently considered among the most corrupt in the country.

Although our leaders past and present have mucked up much, they’ve overall done the right thing and we’re the beneficiaries. So let’s help out the hungry – we can afford to be generous. But no bule in photos, thanks. Don’t rub our neighbours’ noses in shame which is not of their making.

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Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.

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