June 19, 2009
This decade witnesses the advent of what some refers to as the third wave of outsourcing. Following manufacture and information technology, many countries—the richer yet short on fertile land sort of countries—are beginning to subcontract farmlands abroad.
The UK, United States, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are already renting farmlands in Africa, Latin America and Russia. Rich or populous Asian countries like China, India and South Korea have also relied on rented foreign farmlands to ensure their food supply.
The think-tank International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates an area of 15 million to 20 million hectares of farmland in poor countries that have been in transactions or associated with deal talks with foreign investors since 2006. In terms of value, that investment is estimated to a total of up to US $30 billion.
As one of the most fertile agricultural lands in the world, Indonesia is naturally on these investors’ radar. As a matter of fact, Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Binladin Group had almost signed a US $4 billion deal to grow rice on 500,000 hectares of land in Indonesia, although the project is now being put on hold.
The deferred investment may not be necessarily a bad thing for Indonesia. Large-scale agricultural investment, lucrative as it may seem at the moment, carries some serious risk. For one, it certainly entails some environmental consequences.
What we need to understand is that farmland is not only about land; it’s also very much about water. Truth be told, water shortage is the main reason why countries are renting farmlands abroad.
Saudi Arabia was able to be self-sufficient for some time by putting in massive amount of money to grow crops in the desert. The water needed for the plantation was pumped out of the aquifer below the Arabian sand. But that water source was non-replenishable; and by no surprise, the farmers sucked out the water from under their feet to a point of environmental disaster.
Even countries like China and South Korea, whom are not usually associated with water shortages, have pretty much drained their water sources with their aggressive agricultural expansion. Countries outsourcing farmlands may very well end up outsourcing their water problems as well.
The environmental consequences don’t stop at water use. Massive use of pesticide may disrupt the ecological balance and poison wildlife. Fertilize the land too much and you can ruin it. Farmlands have also been known to build up silts in the riverbed, leading further to numerous environmental problems. True that these risks apply to all farmlands, but the massive scale of foreign farmland investment and the lure of big cash would very conceivably exacerbate them.
Land concession is another problem. A factory complex covers only several hectares; farmlands—the kind that the investors are interested in—would cover hundreds of thousands. Land concessions, especially of that scale, are prone to be unfair. Host governments may claim that the lands up for lease are state-owned or vacant. However, such “vacant” lands may easily support families who have been using them for generations as farms or grazing areas. Such customary rights would not likely be recognized by law, especially when foreign investment is in the picture.
Having said all that, we should note that leasing farmlands to foreign investors also carries huge benefits. Most obviously, it can reverse the decline of public investment in agriculture in developing countries like Indonesia. Research and development in the sector can be boosted; new technologies can be introduced; and new jobs will be created. The country’s agricultural sector can be revitalized.
Furthermore, thus far, a typical deal usually involves some fringe benefits. Investors in Africa have pledged schools, clinics and roads—things that the investors themselves also need. Such facilities and infrastructure would most definitely be appreciated by the locals.
If Indonesia decides to go ahead with leasing farmlands, it should do so with caution, keeping an eye on both the risks and the opportunities. Indonesia needs to understand that it has a very strong bargaining position: other types of foreign investment are still available and agricultural reform can still be done without having foreigners plowing its lands. In other words, Indonesia is not in desperate need of this particular type of investment, while investors like China or the Gulf states are still very much keen on renting farmlands.
Measures to reduce environmental risks must be prepared. In many host countries, farmland deals involve mainly the land, while the right to withdraw the water comes automatically. Water, perhaps the most essential part of the deal, ironically comes as a freebie. Indonesia would do well to make sure that water use enters the investment’s equation.
Customary rights must be respected; and this would be consistent with Indonesia’s commitment to recognize traditional community laws. Contracts must include stipulation for investors to share benefits with and recruit locals as workers. Insurance must be embedded in the agreement; for instance, investors can only export back to their countries if the crop yield is above a certain threshold, thus ensuring domestic food production. Co-operation with national research agencies and individual researchers in agriculture R&D must be carried out, ensuring transfer of knowledge and technology.
The postponed Saudi’s investment is a good thing not because Indonesia should not enter international farmland investment deals, but because it gives the country time to better prepare itself. It now has ample time to learn from existing practices and develop carefully-drafted contracts and codes of conduct. Good practice in this form of foreign investment may well lead to large revenue, revitalization of the agricultural sector, and empowerment of local communities, at a manageable risk. Indonesia should not rush it; but it would do well to press forward.
An edited version of this article is featured in The Jakarta Globe
June 16, 2009
A mere few days before the presidential campaign officially started, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) made claims, based on their internal survey, that some voters are gravitating away from SBY-Boediono and towards JK-Wiranto simply because the wives of the latter wear the Muslim headscarf or jilbab.
Putting aside questions of validity and sampling method of PKS’ survey, it’s hard to deny that indeed some of our fellow citizens in Indonesia do base their voting decisions less on the merits of the candidates running for office and more on their personal, mostly observable, traits.
A personal survey I conducted, though it may be slightly less credible than that of PKS’, discovered that many of my acquaintances based their vote in the last parliamentary election on how cute the candidates were, whether they looked like a family member, whether they looked fatherly, or whether their names sounded “either too Muslim or too Christian”—whatever that means.
Apparently for some people, perennial ties trump modern needs; and as a fledgling democracy, the conflict between the two takes center stage in Indonesia’s general elections.
To a certain extent, we all cling to our perennial ties; we are instinctively drawn to people who share the same traits as we do, be it race, ethnicity, religion, political view, laptop brand, or American Idol favorites. The drive is ancient and instinctive, ingrained in us by millions of years of evolution. Communities—humans and animals alike—with strong perennial ties are more likely to co-operate to find food and fend off predators, and thus survive.
This instinct can easily kick in when we choose a leader: we lean towards those whose personal, observable traits most resemble what we perceive as the ideal member of the community.
In the context of today’s democratic election, however, the instinctive perennial ties become at odds with modern needs.
A modern society—and we’d all like to think that Indonesia is a modern society—has complex needs. Even the latest incarnation of finding hunting grounds and repelling tigers or rival tribes, in the form of food security and military might, has become increasingly complex. On top of that, we also need job security, affordable housing, access to quality education, a growing economy, protection of basic human rights, and a whole bunch of other things.
Quite obviously, as electorates we would do well to put stronger importance on the candidates’ track record, merit, and capability, as well as the soundness of their programs, than on their or their spouses’ ethnicity, religion, or religious practices. However, the ancient drive of perennial ties is difficult to abolish completely. So the real question is, should the presidential tickets and political parties exploit that drive or instead take an active role to educate the voters not to succumb to it?
At first sight, it seems that politicians have an interest to take advantage of their electorates’ perennial ties. After all, it is a lot easier to display one’s ethnicity and religious practices than to stand against scrutiny over track record and development program. Closer inspection may reveal that exploiting perennial ties in this era is extremely risky and unpredictable.
Ten thousand years ago the definition of an ideal member of the community is pretty clear cut: strong physique, good fighting and hunting skills, and perhaps a good coat of body hair. Highlight those traits, and you can easily become the President of the Neanderthal nation.
Today, however, different members of the society have different ideas of what makes an ideal member of the community. For some, observable religious piety is of high value; for others, that may imply tendency of exclusiveness, which is not entirely desirable.
It would be virtually impossible for anyone to map out these diverse individual perceptions; the fact that such perceptions are very fluid and can change in a matter of days makes it even more difficult to record. The bottom line is politicians who exploit perennial ties really have no way of predicting the outcome of their strategy.
During the last US presidential campaign, Obama’s association with Muslims—his childhood in Indonesia, his Muslim family members, even rumors that he was a Muslim—was used by several McCain supporters in the hope that it would alienate Obama from the American population. In Turkey, opponents of Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gul are making a huge fuss about their wives wearing headscarves—the other face of the same coin of Indonesia’s situation.
In both cases, the strategy either failed or backfired. Many Americans became determined to prove to the world that they are an inclusive, non-discriminatory society; and for some, that alone was enough to give their votes for Obama. Meanwhile, the negative campaign against Erdogan and Gul drove their supporters to become resolute in securing their positions.
If exploited, the outcome of jilbab politics in Indonesia’s presidential election is completely unpredictable. Yielding to perennial ties, conservative Muslims may be drawn to JK-Wiranto; but then again moderate, progressive Muslims may gravitate towards SBY-Boediono. Nobody can know for sure. All things considered, it is well within the interest of the presidential hopefuls and their supporting political parties to shy away from garnering votes based on perennial ties, and just focus on what really matters: what direction this great nation is going to take.
June 6, 2009
The plight of Prita Mulyasari, a mother of two who is convicted for defaming Omni Tangerang Hospital and is now facing criminal charges, has drawn sympathy and outrage from the public. Her crime? Making a complaint on the quality of service she received from a provider.
Prita’s personal email to her friends, highlighting the misdiagnosis Omni Tangerang Hospital doctors gave her and her disappointment for the hospital’s response when she confronted them with the matter, was forwarded profusely and spread wider than she ever intended or imagined.
In response, Omni Tangerang filed a civil lawsuit on grounds of defamation. The court sided with the hospital and ordered Prita to pay damages amounting to Rp 50 million and make a public apology. It doesn’t stop there. Prita is now being charged for a crime of libel by the state.
Outrageous? No. Outrageous is when you come to a wedding dressed as a clown. This preposterous injustice is on a completely different level.
The implication of these events runs deep; this is not just a standoff between a hospital and a patient. Prita’s plight reflects the precarious position of service users in this country and is an insult to the idea of accountability. Our concern as fellow citizens should not only be directed at the hospital in this particular case, but also at a bigger and more far-reaching institution: the judiciary. It may be the law that is ill equipped, or the judges that are lacking the competency to properly interpret the law, but the institution that is supposed to protect us is now our biggest threat.
Like Prita, we are all service users. Perhaps more importantly, we are all public service users. We rely on the police to keep us safe and the military to protect us from threats. We rely on the service of public transportation for mobility and the public works department for road maintenance. We rely on the parliament to produce good public policies and the court of justice to solve our disputes.
We work hard and pay our taxes to finance those services and we deserve to receive them at least at the minimum standard of quality. We deserve to demand accountability from the service providers. And by God, we deserve to make complaint if they fail to deliver.
A true democracy would ensure the right of individuals to demand the service that they are entitled to, from the private sector or the government alike. This includes the right to file complaint, either directly to the service provider or publicly by any means. This is one of the most important incarnations of freedom of speech, for it deters malpractice and corruption, encourages better and higher quality services, and ensures accountability from all service providers, not least the government.
Of course, even the most democratic society acknowledges that freedom of speech is not without boundaries. Libel laws exist in every country in the world. But for a libel case to be valid, the prosecutor must prove motive, malicious intent, and systematic actions to defame a person’s name. It would be very difficult to imagine that Prita has any motive or malicious intent to defame the hospital; she really gets nothing out of it. Nor would it make sense to call sending a personal email to friends recounting a bad service received from a provider a “systematic action to defame,” especially when one considers that she took no active role in spreading the email. No, she simply wishes to make a legitimate complaint.
The court’s verdict that Prita must pay severely for her legitimate complaint, citing defamation of the service provider, sets a terrifying precedent for Indonesia. To an arguably lesser consequence, the court has opened the door for restaurants to sue their patrons who make it public that they got food poisoning from dining at said establishments; for airlines to sue their passengers for publicly complaining that their baggage got lost every single time; and for credit card companies to sue their customers for publicly disclosing bogus charges.
To a more severe consequence, are we now liable to be sued under charges of defamation if we protest the low performance of the police department? Or if we cry out our disappointment with parliament members and highlight the rampant corruption within the institution? What now stops a local government from taking legal action using libel charges on citizens that lament about poor healthcare and low quality education in their region in a letter to the editor or their electronic blogs?
The judicial system needs to do some serious introspection. The law is supposed to protect the weakest and most vulnerable members of the society. In this particular case, the law should side with individuals—service users—who are at a significantly lower bargaining position than the big service providers and only have their voices as leverage. So far, the judicial system has done the exact opposite.
Prita was sued by the institution that was supposed to provide her with care and treatment and is now being sued by the state that is supposed to protect her, in a court that seems to have a perverse sense of justice. She’s now taken away from her children for speaking up for herself and demanding the level of service that she deserved. Anyone of us can be next. Outraged? We should be furious.
An edited version of this article is featured in The Jakarta Post.
June 5, 2009
This article is written by a guest writer, Sherria Ayuandini. She graduated cum laude from ITB’s Electrical Engineering but then decided to be an anthropologist, taking her master degree at Universitas Indonesia.
Exactly this month four years ago, a man named Jeff Jarvis lamented on his blog of his discontent towards Dell Computers. He colorfully outlined his frustration on both the quality of the product and the customer service he received from the company. To Jarvis’ surprise, and later Dell’s, that one comment spiraled into one of the biggest customer relations nightmare ever recorded. A swarm of other disgruntled customers came forward and a new jargon was born: Dell Hell.
Without question, Dell’s carefully-built reputation was severely compromised. In fact, the impact was extremely colossal; it took Dell more than two years to put out the Hell’s fire.
But on the bright side, there was a lot to be learned from the debacle. Plenty new insights were gained especially with regards to how customer relations have now evolved thanks to a relatively novel but very powerful and unstoppable ally: the internet. Angry customers tell 3,000? Try 300 thousands. This revelation sent new shock wave to companies and service providers around the world. Hence the endless seminars held and countless numbers of books published to illuminate this latest learning for the benefit of the business actors.
Today, ventures and service suppliers of Indonesia might have the chance to learn first-handedly of this new knowledge due to what Omni International Hospital Tangerang decided to resort to in dealing with its disgruntled customer, Prita Mulyasari. Prita is now being detained for almost a month at Tangerang’s women penitentiary after she was found guilty of defaming the hospital and is now facing criminal charges. Her defamation took a form of a personal email narrating her unpleasant experience when looking for medical assistance at Omni. This email ended up in mailing lists and blogs and later became a public affair—an abomination that Omni saw to be worth the effort of bringing the case and the new mother to court.
Let us first give credit where it’s due, even so to only later have the right to censure as necessary. Omni Tangerang obviously understood that negative sentiment spiraling in the worldwide web is in more ways than one bad for business. Thus it took action to try to put a stop on it. A right decision, so far. It decided to respond to Prita’s complaint through the mailing list and even used mass media to express its side of the story. So far so good. Then, feeling that all these measures were still not enough, it decided to sue Prita. Ouch, for the hospital.
Everyone knows the first rule to controlling bad press—which also not surprisingly applies to gossip, rumors and the like—is to avoid making it even a bigger story than it already is. Downplay the effect, paint non-credibility of the accuser and give it time to blow over are some the tactics to minimize the harm. The surest way to do the exact opposite? Bringing the case to court, which was exactly what Omni decided to do.
Suddenly, the case took a hype it did not possess before. More and more people started to forward Prita’s email and if they couldn’t get their hands on the original letter, they summarized or forwarded news article about it. What was once a mere electronic letter plenty would just consider a chain-mail with questionable reliability is now considered to be the hidden truth simply because Omni Tangerang tried to stifle it. People see this as a confirmation that there is credibility to Prita’s story.
Omni should have done its homework before taking the legal action. They could try typing ‘bad hospital Indonesia’ in Google for instance. Omni Tangerang’s name does not even come up in the first 3 pages of the search result, nor in pages and pages after that. But now, after the legal action, more than 14,000 people in Facebook have joined a cause to support Prita. By suing Prita, Omni had done what it desperately tried to avoid: giving her a bigger voice.
Now, not only that Omni has violated the first rule of controlling bad press, it has also violated the first rule of controlling online bashing: treat complainers as human. Plenty of books and speakers dwelling on the issue of the new media of customer relations—the internet—noted that one of the most important things to do is to remember that even though the outlook is electronic or an avatar, companies are still dealing with a person, so they should act like one too. Hence being humble and conversational is highly recommended in painting a response to the critics.
Yet, Omni once again did exactly the opposite. Resorting to legal action sent the message that Omni is the cold almighty private industry and Prita is the human victim. The hospital’s case is worsen further since, maybe this is just rotten luck, its adversary happened to be a new mother who is now unable to breastfeed and cuddle her newborn baby because she is behind bars. Imagine the sympathy Prita gained by the painting of this image alone. Who would now want to go to a hospital that does not care for human suffering? Omni should start counting the numbers of customer still willing to go through its front door as its blessing.
It is public relation suicide 101 what Omni Tangerang just committed. But damage control can still be done. Omni can opt to waive the verdict of the civil court and not press for Prita to pay the damages or make the public apology as ordered by the court. It is also in the interest of the hospital that Prita does not get sent to jail by, for instance, providing more supporting accounts if and when they are asked to take the witness’ stand. But if Omni is still bent on suing its defamers, it should start preparing a lawsuit against itself.
An edited version of this article is featured in The Jakarta Post.