Ramblings


It has been over two weeks since the great West Sumatran earthquake.  Bricks, stones and mortars are piling up the ghosts of roads and streets; official death toll is closing in a thousand.   As aids are rushing into the region and rescue workers are still working around the clock, whispers, text messages and sermons are spreading that somehow we—and “we” can mean all Indonesians, West Sumatrans, Padangese, or even just the president, depending on which version you subscribe to—are to blame for the natural disaster.

An understandably grief-stricken and confused chicken-feed factory worker in Padang believed that the quake occurred because many Padangese youths had been engaging in sinful activities by the beach during Ramadan.  A less grief-stricken yet apparently equally confused senior member of a prominent political party blamed the president for being born on his ominous birth date, which “invited” natural disasters.  Chain text messages imply that the disaster was a demonstration of the wrath of a vengeful God.  Chairman of the North Sumatran Indonesian Council of Ulemmas (MUI) declared that the earthquake was a divine warning for the government to eradicate immorality.

It wouldn’t take long for a relatively reasonable person to point out that Indonesia has arguably become more religiously conservative than in the past, or that in the last few years some of the deadliest earthquakes occurred in religiously pious areas, like the 2003 earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam and the 2004 big one off the coast of Aceh, while “places of sin and immorality” like Las Vegas, the island of Ibiza, and even Jakarta, have been spared from any major natural catastrophe.  So either we’ve been misrepresenting God’s warnings, or—here’s a crazy idea—we’re not the reason the earth’s crust trembles.

However, we’re really looking at this the wrong way.  We may not be the reason the earth shook in West Sumatra, but we did cause the disaster.  Bear with me; it’s really not that confusing.

The very term “natural disaster” is truly anthropocentric—it is an entirely human-centered notion.  For hundreds of millions of years this planet has gone through literally countless earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, meteor impacts, lightning storms, and massive volcanic eruptions.  For hundreds of millions of years, nobody ever called them “natural disaster;” they were simply “natural events.”  It was always business as usual for Mother Nature.

Then enter modern humans.  Upon seeing how natural events might occasionally destroy our homes and take away our lives, we began to see said events as disastrous.  As time passed by, self-centered creatures as humans are, we started to believe that a powerful entity—either nature or an even more powerful being—was deliberately causing disasters because of us.  As such, throughout history we’ve been trying hard to decipher the divine warning and appease whoever causes the disaster appropriately: slaughter a pig, sacrifice a virgin, stop playing at the beach, or elect a president with a better birth date.

Yet the cold hard truth is that were there no humans, there would be no disaster.  The flipside of this truth is that while we may not be able to stop an earthquake, we can take measures to prevent a disaster.  In December 2003, both California and southern Iran were hit by 6.5 Richter-scale earthquakes, separated by only a week.  The death toll in California was 3; in Iran, it was 30,000.  Some might thus conclude that Californians were more pious and God-fearing than the Iranians.  A likelier explanation is the worlds of difference in building codes and constructions in the two areas.

What we do to our environment also matters significantly.  The roots of large trees can strengthen the ground’s structure, decreasing its likelihood to slide even during earthquake.  Take those trees away, and nothing holds back the earth from crumbling down the slope.

Earthquakes are not the only natural event we should be concerned about.  Climate change has led to higher concentrated rainfall in a shorter period of time in Indonesia.  Yet we’re still clogging our rivers with garbage and destroy large patches of our forest.  60 percent of the forest area in Mt. Muria, Central Java, is destroyed.  That’s a disaster waiting to happen; just don’t blame God or Mother Nature when it does.  While we’re at it, let’s keep an eye on those volcanic mountains in our backyard.

So at the end of the day, our actions do matter, but not the way some people like the North Sumatran MUI’s chairman would like to believe.  It has got more to do with our vigilance, preparedness and planning, rather than a certain set of moral virtues.  It’s more pressing for district administrations to impose better building codes than to close down pubs and lounges.  Lawmakers need to extend the role, build the capacity, and provide more funding for the national disaster response agency, instead of wasting public funds on legislating morality.  And it’s more important for parents to teach their children to protect the environment than to forbid them from having fun at the beach.

This is Indonesia.  The meeting point of the mighty tectonic plates.  A proud member of the ring of fire.  Depository of the monsoon rain.  Our earth, mountains and seas can be as deadly as they are life-giving.  We’ve known this for millennia; yet we, as had our ancestors, have chosen to live here and call this place home.  Unfortunately, we often forget that as we reap the bounty of this land, we must also be weary of its occasional fury.  Our land demands—and deserves—our respect.  We can’t control nature, but we can choose, through the actions we take and the decisions we make, how nature impacts us.  But to say that we cause the earth to move is not only delusional, it is utter and complete arrogance.

And edited version of this article is featured in Jakarta Globe, 20 October 2009

This post is written by a guest writer, Sherria Ayuandini.  It’s an unabridged account of her experience participating in the International Summer School on Pluralism and Development in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, followed directly by her involvement in a field research where she experienced living for a couple of days with a poor family in a small rural area near Jakarta.

What would be THE litmus test that you just experienced something quite remarkable? Easy. You simply can’t stop blabbering about the incident to the other people around you. Family and friends, colleagues and acquaintances, even strangers and bystanders don’t get to be spared of the story. You can be even more sure of it as you didn’t yet stop yourself even when you received that special look from your friends. A look that if put into verbal expression would fall somewhere along the line of “Puh-leez, enough already!” or “Kill me! Kill me now!”

I lost count of how many times my friends bestowed me of such look that early August, or they, in return, of how many times I went on and on and on about this awesome one month Yogyakartan experience. I grew to be very good at finding whatever obscure connections there was between everything my friends and I talked about with what I then succinctly referred to as “Summer School”. “I don’t feel like having pizza” could be easily followed by me saying “Speaking of pizza, at Summer School…” or “speaking of not feeling like having something, at Summer School…” or simply “yeah, okay, at Summer School…” Seriously, try me. I can connect ANYTHING to Summer School. Even the “don’t” part of the sentence. Well… scrap that; especially the “don’t” part of the sentence…

So to say that I was a bit hung up on the experience of Summer School would be an understatement. Hung over would be a better phrase, I suppose. And it didn’t help my case the fact that merely 3 days after setting foot back in Jakarta again, I had to go back to work immediately. It was this research project that I was on board on as one of the researchers. The project started with a 2 day worth of a workshop, spread over 3 days in total. The set-up of the workshop jogged a very recent, very fond memory of mine. Any takers on what memory? Yeap… if you happened to be part of my circle of friends, insert special look right aboooouuuut…. now.

I was sitting on the right hand side of a U-shape class set-up, half expecting that at any point then someone would walk into the room, sit next to me and asked whether or not I have read the readers intended for the day. But of course, there was no reader and there was no one to ask that question. Instead, there were unfamiliar faces, holding out hands to shake and cards to keep. Here we go again…

And instead of a screen and a projector, there were flipcharts and whiteboard. On the latter three very simple questions were posed: What are the differences between… (1) interview and conversation, (2) visiting and living with and (3) finding out and learning. I smiled as I noticed the questions. “This should be fun,” I thought.

Right then and there the lady that was the head of the research opened the workshop. She next continued on explaining what the intention of the research was all about. To boil it down to one simple sentence: we were to live with the poorest of the poor in a chosen village, learning how they live as some sort of a reality check process. The very first question popped into my mind: whose reality? which was followed closely by the next one: who is checking who? But I kept my mouth shut and paid attention to what the lady was saying next. “We’re using an Anthropological approach,” she said. My heart leaped. Home… finally… “So it is important that we all understand what an Anthropological approach is.” I nodded. Very important of course. So I guess that’s what the workshop is for. Let’s start the lecture! She then pointed to the three questions on the whiteboard. “Let’s divide everybody to three groups. And each can discuss the differences in practice of one of these pairs. We’ll reconvene again in 20 minutes.” I nodded again. Discuss practi… wait what? I did a double take. Did she just say practice?

My group mates were already assembling at that time. And the discussion followed suit. All along the process I couldn’t stop smiling. Such a stark difference! Just a short 3 days ago, in a class set-up uncannily similar, I would have entertained the approach of Anthropology, shall that issue ever come up, from a very different angle. There will be ideas to look at, concepts to delve into, theories to consider and thinkers to heed. But there that day, there were ‘only’ a bunch of practitioners, drawing from past experiences, and knowledge of course, to provide a practical outlook at the questions at hand. To have an opportunity to experience both explorations! I considered myself blessed. My group mates, on the other hand, considered me distracted. “You really like smiling, don’t you?” inquired one of them. I laughed. “Life has been good,” I retorted.

So that was how it went for the rest of the day: me going back and forth from practicality to a more fundamental concept in my head, sometimes, even out loud. At one time when we were discussing the differences between finding out and learning, I pointed out how we as researchers need to be careful. I mentioned that learning would entail us seeing ourselves as the point of reference hence putting the Other as a utility for our growth. As soon as that sentence was out of my mouth, silence enveloped the room. Blank faces greeted me. I thought, “Ah well… at least it’s better than the ‘puh-leez’ look.” So I inhaled and tried again, “we should remember that we are not there so that we can personally increase our knowledge or come in contact with something new, but we’re there simply to experience their life first hand. It is new to us, but for them, it’s just regular life. We should remember that.” Ahhs and ohhs filled the room. Then people started to talk about attitude and behavior in encountering something that is different than what we are used to. I reprimanded myself silently, “Language Sherria Ayuandini! Fit it with the context already!”

But isn’t that what pluralism is all about? It’s about language. It’s about engagement and reciprocity, hence the use of language to create such arbitration. And for me, that’s what Summer School has really taught me: to be aware of the language you use. You can understand pluralism from many angles, as a theoretical construct, as practical implication, as you sit in the classroom or a reality on the field. But unless we start to realize that the language that we use sometimes separate us from one another, pluralism would remain an ideal. Language is the bridge that we all have been looking for, the one that would connect two differences and create an engagement.

So, when I finally set my backpack down on the plywood floor of my host family’s house in the village by the end of that first week away from Summer School, I was ready to let go of my language and immerse myself in the ones the villagers are accustomed to. Language in all kind of sense, verbally as strings of words and sentences, as well as everything else: gesture, posture, expression or impression—the whole nine yards: the entire experience. A woman singing and dancing seductively while at the same time being handed out money bill by bill embodied respect and independence. Babysitting and cooking traditional cakes to be sold at the local market constituted holiday and spare time. And fitting in? Burnt fingers from packaging snacks and a sore arm from heaving a bucket full of water to use at the outside semi open latrine. Pluralism indeed…

Now, what to take from all of this? Well… it has always been the duality of theory and practice that was seen as the biggest challenge for Summer School. Then, why not allow the participants to experience both, to be conversant in both languages? Let the practitioners study a more conceptual idea of what pluralism is in the classroom and at the same time, let the academicians learn how the concept plays in reality by actually going to the field. Both would undoubtedly feel uncomfortable: the first restless from sitting too long, the second awkward from the close encounter. But the discomfort would allow them to experience the language of the other, with a lowercase ‘o’ this time. And as they start to speak each other’s language, that’s when the first stake of the bridge is planted. The rest… are just stones falling into places.

An edited version of this article will be featured in one of Hivos’ publications.  Hivos is the Dutch donor agency that sponsored Sherria’s participation in the summer school.

This is the third in a series of articles on the economics of Ramadan.  The other two are on Ramadan-induced inflation and how charity can hurt the poor.

When I was little, Ied Al-Fitri was always one of the most fun days of the year, mostly because my entire extended family would all gather in one place to celebrate it.  The minimum set would be eighteen cousins, brothers and sisters, eight adults, and the matriarch, my grandmother.  As with a typical West Sumatran family, mine was all over the place and it always took quite an effort to move ourselves to a designated place.

That was about twenty years ago, when the Indonesian population was around three-quarters of today’s and urbanization was relatively limited.  At the time, while the traffic might increase during the ritual homebound exodus of Ied, it never reached the extent of what we experience today, where cars line up bumper to bumper, with swarms of motorcycles zigzagging wildly, mortally threatening everything in their paths, and where the length of a trip can quadruple that of any other given day.

Yet these days, under such excursion nightmare, hundreds of thousands still mobilize themselves every single year.  They are willing to wait in line for hours to get tickets; get cramped in busses, trains and ships, many without air conditioning; get completely stuck on the road; and literally risk serious injuries—and even death—due to accidents.

Irrational?  Actually we are observing quite a rational behavior.

Individuals take action after considering the personal cost and benefit.  For many of us, the cost of the annual homebound trip—which includes not only the actual fare but also the long hours, exhaustion, and risks—is worth the benefit of celebrating Ied with family.   When said individuals bear all the cost and reap all the benefit themselves, then whatever they decide is their own business.  The thing is, as we shall see, this is not the case with the annual homebound exodus.

Every time an individual decides to take the long trip home, they contribute to the traffic jam, which in turn put tremendous strain on the roads, which are built and maintained by our tax money, and inject tons of toxins and carbon into the atmosphere, poisoning the air and increasing global temperature.  Said individual would also significantly increase the risk of accidents happening, since with each additional bus, car or motorcycle on the street, the probability of collisions increases proportionately.  In 2008, the exodus saw over 1,300 road accidents with more than 600 fatalities, all occurred within a week, which constitutes about 100 deaths per day—had this been due to terrorist attack, drastic measures would’ve been taken.  These costs are not incurred on the individual deciding to join the exodus bandwagon, but on innocent bystanders.  And this is where the problem starts.

The additional costs of the Ied exodus that are borne on other people are more commonly known as negative externalities.  Exodus travelers only cover for the cost of tickets, fares, gas, personal time and physical exhaustion; while the rest of us cover for the cost of traffic jams, road damages, poisonous air, increased global temperature, and risk of fatalities.  These externalities should have been accounted for by the respective individuals when they weigh the cost and benefits of taking the homebound exodus; unfortunately, they are not.

In order to address the problem, the real cost incurred on the individuals taking the exodus must be increased, taking into account all the externalities.  This can mean taxing tickets and fares, setting up temporary toll booths on major roads, and even temporarily increasing gas price for several days before, during and after Ied.  The additional revenue should then be channeled to road maintenance, clean air campaigns, and deployment of additional police personnel.

Now you might protest because some people would then not be able to afford taking the trip home.  Well actually that’s the entire point.  Many people should decide that the cost—the true cost—of going home outweighs the benefit and choose to stay put.  Thus we would have less poison in the air and fewer deaths.  What is truly scandalous is the fact that not only the government—with our support—decides not to increase the personal cost of Ied exodus, it actually decreases it, by minimizing hikes in tickets and fares.  Since the cost of exodus is set considerably lower than it should be, there are significantly more people than it should be out there on the road.

The idea that there should be less people taking the Ied exodus is actually quite popular, especially if you’re one of the unfortunate ones who have ever experienced accidents on what is supposed to be a joyous occasion.  In 2008, the Indonesian Council of Ulemmas (MUI) considered making the exodus makruh—an action that is divinely discouraged.  Unfortunately, most people respond better to worldly incentive than divine sanctions.

I will not downplay the benefit of celebrating Ied with our loved ones.  Being able to share the love, joy, and a sense of triumph after a month fasting with the people you call home is truly a blessing.  But then again, is it worth 600 lives?

My extended family now numbers more than fifty.  Today we’ve made a conscious decision not to make it necessary anymore to have a big gathering during Ied.  Again, this is a rational decision—the cost, and risk, of having such familial exodus during the traffic peak of the year outweighs its benefit for us.  So we celebrate Ied in different places, making use of the wonder of today’s information technology to share our love and happiness with each other.  We do, however, agree to have a family gathering four times a year, scheduled deliberately outside Ied.  And we always have as much fun as we did twenty years ago.

An edited version of this article is featured in Jakarta Globe

This is the second in a series of articles on the economics of Ramadan.  The other two focus on Ramadan-induced inflation and the externalities of Ied exodus.

Begging on the street is haram—forbidden by divine sanction—and beggars will be cracked down by the authority.  At least that is what’s going to happen if the Indonesian Council of Ulemmas (MUI) and the Indonesian government can have it their way.

It appears that only several days into the holy month of Ramadan, major cities all over Indonesia are already flooded with seasonal beggars.  Seemingly as a response to that, the government announced that they endorsed all efforts to take beggars off the streets, including MUI’s move to declare begging haram.

I’m quite certain there will be people who would highlight how the MUI and government are misguided with their plans.  So allow me to focus instead on what I believe to be one of the main reasons—although most certainly not the only one—why we have the whole problem with beggars, especially the seasonal ones, in the first place: ourselves and our perverse sense of charity.

Let’s start from the beginning and make one thing clear: begging is a job.  Beggars may be officially referred to as the unemployed, but by all economic definitions, they are service providers.  Begging requires capital, time, and hard labor.  If you don’t believe me, try waiting on the side of the street for eight to ten hours a day in the baking sun, inhaling toxic fumes, while soliciting potential “clients.”  It also provides service; beggars supply us with a venue to delude ourselves that we’re helping the poor, compensate our sense of guilt for not helping enough, and—this is my personal favorite—help us secure a nice spot in heaven.  Ramadan allegedly doubles that last benefit; this perception, as we’ll soon see, pushes behavior with some unintended consequences.

Individuals choose jobs based on their personal cost-benefit analysis.  Beggars choose begging because it’s the “best” job for them; the job provides them with the highest return per unit time, taking into account the condition of the job market, the resources available to them, and the skills that they have.  The higher the return gets, the higher the attractiveness of begging as a job.  And many of us have done plenty to make that return really high.

While academic research is lacking, various journalistic investigations indicate that begging can bring up to Rp. 100,000 in one day. That’s about Rp. 2,500 per 15 minutes for a ten-hour day of work, which is quite a reasonable figure.  That income generation can increase dramatically during Ramadan, in which somehow a lot of people believe their alms are more valuable than in the rest of the months in the lunar calendar.  As a comparison, a car mechanic earns about Rp. 50,000 in average per working day.  Even if a person has other employable skills, begging would still be a very lucrative job.  So you can stop wondering why we have hordes of beggars, seasonal or otherwise; you might very well contribute to the phenomenon.

If that’s all there is to it, there should be no problem.  If begging is a legitimate job, let beggars beg.  But there are at least two serious consequences of seasonal begging.  First, they crowd out the urban poorest, who unlike the seasonal beggars have absolutely no alternative but begging.  Second, there is an increased use of children, either as beggars or as props, thus denying them of time for education and exposing them to extremely hazardous condition.  Many people’s tendency to give more alms to children and baby-carrying beggars is certainly not helping either.  Your alms during Ramadan, even if they really do increase your chance of going to heaven, end up depriving the poorest of the poor and endangering children back here on earth.

At this point I wish to make a disclaimer that I’m not making a case against giving.  Rather, I’m making a case against giving incorrectly.  My real contention is that it’s almost always better to channel your alms through respectable charity organizations than to give the same amount of money directly to beggars—at least if your intention is to really help the poor.

Charity organizations that channel alms can do so more effectively than individual alms-givers.  The pooled alms that they manage are significantly large that they can use them to fund well-planned programs, both short and long-term, that are more sustainable.  Most of such organizations do more than simply help the poor survive day by day; they also have an eye on the horizon, providing financial assistance for education and even capital to start small businesses.

If you still prefer giving directly to beggars because they’d get all your money without having to pay the service of a middle man, think again.  Like any underground economic sector, seasonal beggars are organized.  And they have to pay a fee for the “organizers.”  Under such arrangement, a beggar would typically get a meager 30 percent of what they earn.  An accountable charity organization would spend most of your alms on their targeted beneficiaries; and they would show you their financial report to prove it if you asked for it.  Give directly to beggars and you’d most likely give less.

At the end of the day, perhaps the best litmus test is your own conscience.  So the next time you feel the impulse of giving small change to street beggars instead of giving the same amount of money to a respectable charity organization, ask yourself, “Am I doing this because I really want to help them and I’m certain that my petty coins would bring a significant impact to them, or am I doing this simply to make me feel good about myself and perhaps increase the probability of securing a nice place in the afterlife?”

Then again, if MUI and the government push forward with their respective plans, we might not have the opportunity to ask that question at all.

An edited version of this article is featured in Jakarta Globe

This is the first in a series of articles on the economics of Ramadan.  The other two discuss how charity can harm the poor and the externalities of Ied exodus.

I started fasting at a very young age. Not necessarily out of extreme piousness, but rather because I wasn’t much of an eater and was only too grateful to be allowed not to have lunch for an entire month. On top of that, by a five year-old’s logic, I believed I was doing my parents a big favor by cutting down expenses for food.

That five year-old’s logic is turned completely upside down by reality. As a matter of fact, households’ expenses in Indonesia, as well is in other predominantly Muslim economies, increase quite significantly during Ramadhan. Apparently, during the holy month, the overwhelming majority of Indonesian households increase their consumption, which pushes up demand, thus increases price. So not only do households buy more stuff, they buy them at higher prices.

If there are still people out there who are skeptical that Ramadhan induces higher inflation, governments of predominantly Muslim countries all over the world are certainly not. From Indonesia to Jordan, governments recognize the immense increase in demand and are already rushing to intervene the market by either upping supply or imposing ceiling price. However, even with such relatively massive intervention, the demand shift is usually too significant and higher inflation is inevitable. Indonesian Trade Minister Pangestu already found 11 to 33 percent increase in price of foodstuff in Bandung a day before Ramadhan started.

That price increases because of rising demand is basic economics; that demand increases during what is supposed to be the month of frugality is nothing short of an irony.

The major culprits behind this demand shift are likely to be the middle and upper classes, who have the means to consume more. What really causes the consumptive behavior is up for grabs. One explanation is that we are all too sensitive to our loss of utility—loosing meals during the day—and overcompensate it by consuming more in the evening and during Ied. A more common term used for this hypothesis is balas dendam—avenging for our loss.

Or perhaps it is impulse buying and herding movement—we see everybody else eating out, having feasts with friends and family, and we are compelled to join the wagon. It’s quite easy to justify these impulses by saying that it’s all in the spirit of strengthening silaturahmi or bonds among the ummat.

Regardless of what really caused demand-pushing behavior, what we really need to understand is that the significantly higher inflation during Ramadhan hurts the poor tremendously. Most of them do not work as traders and would not feel the benefit of the inflation. Yet they would certainly feel the impact of increased price, especially of basic goods. Cutting down both quantity and quality of food is often the only option.

Worse still, in the effort to reap benefit from the inflation, some traders would be compelled to sell damaged goods at lower price; and they would certainly find buyers. Nearing Ramadhan, officials from Jakarta had raided a number of stalls in traditional markets that sold spoiled chicken and meat. It is the poor who would most likely buy and consume these damaged goods, and later suffer the consequences.

To be fair, demand shift and inflation are not the only Ramadhan-induced economic phenomena. While an in-depth analysis of aggregate data is required to validate the following statement, anecdotal evidence indicates that the holy month also brings about increased redistribution of wealth. It is after all the month of charity.

However, increased alms-giving, be it compulsory like the zakat or voluntary like the sadaqoh, would only significantly benefit the poor in a low-inflation economy; and as we have seen, this is not the norm during Ramadhan. Coupled with inflation, alms would most likely only help the poor maintain their purchasing power, but not increase it.

Furthermore, while inflation affects the entire population, alms tend to be targeted to only small pockets of the same population. Hence, though there would indeed be poor households who received assistance in coping with the inflation, most of the lower class population would only feel the full-blown effect of increased price without receiving significant support from the redistributed wealth.

In the light of everything, the middle and upper classes would actually help the poor more by not spending than by giving.

So all this leads the Muslim middle and upper classes to two options. If we really wish to help the poor during the holy month, we should increase expenses for alms and decrease—or at least maintain—consumption by refraining ourselves from hosting or going to feasts at the daily break of fasting, as well as during Ied. We should also decrease consumption by avoiding eating out and refraining, or at least deferring, expenses to buy new clothes.

This would help lessen the demand shift, thus lowering inflation, and at the same time increase the poor’s purchasing ability. This would also—and perhaps this is the most important thing—be more consistent with the spirit of Ramadhan, in which frugality is supposed to trump extravagance and contentment wins over dissatisfaction.

The second option is to give in to our impulses and oversensitivity to loss of utility. We can continue increasing our spending for food during the holy month. We can go from one feast to the next and host one in between. We can, in effect, significantly increase demand and raise price, and justify that by saying that it’s all in the name of strengthening silaturahmi and bonds with family and friends.

During all that, we can make us feel good about ourselves by increasing alms and providing meals for a small group of poor families in the evening. Opt for this, and we would at best maintain the utility of a small group of poor people at the same level, while making life harder for most lower class households in the country.

Sadly enough, in this holiest month of the year, we would most likely observe the latter scenario.

An edited version of this article was featured in Jakarta Globe

In 1925, while studying as a postgraduate student at Cambridge, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the great physicist and one of the most brilliant minds in history, attempted to poison his tutor. 

The motive behind this exceptionally alarming action was in fact quite trivial.  Oppenheimer’s forte and passion was in theoretical physics; conversely, he was virtually inept in experimental physics.  His tutor, who happened to be the future Nobel laureate Patrick Blackett, was apparently oblivious to this and kept assigning him to laboratory works.  Out of frustration, Oppenheimer laced an apple with poison and left it on his tutor’s desk.  Fortunately, Blackett did not eat it.  The university authorities were aghast nonetheless.

A hearing was commenced.  Attempting to poison someone was surely more than a simple misdemeanor; it was a serious crime.  Sanction was to be given to young Oppenheimer, and no doubt expulsion was considered.  However, in the end, all he received was probation and a compulsory consultation with a psychiatrist.  Malcolm Gladwell attributed Oppenheimer’s escape from a murder rap to his “practical intelligence”—the savvy to know what to say to whom at what time.  Some historians claimed it was his father who pulled the string.  Regardless, Cambridge decided to give Oppenheimer a second chance.

Oppenheimer went on to become a leader in quantum mechanics and helped pave the way for the advancement of theoretical physics. In 1942 he was assigned as the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, which discovered the way to harness energy from the very building blocks of matter and subsequently built the world’s first atomic bomb.  That bomb triggered a series of events: the end of World War II, the downfall of the Nazi, the unconditional surrender of Japan, and subsequently, the independence of Indonesia.

Fast forward over six decades later and we see that very same Indonesia finding its leading university in science and technology in a precarious situation.  The Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) discovered that at least 14 of its students were involved in “jockeying”—getting paid to help prospective university students cheat during the national enrollment test or take the test in their stead.  The news brought tremendous shame to the university.

Like Cambridge, ITB now have to deal with their students’ serious offense.  Unlike Cambridge, however, ITB seems to be bent on ensuring that the students get no second chance.

At the time of this article’s writing, ITB’s Student’s Code of Ethics Commission has come up with a recommendation to expel 11 of the 14 students; it is almost a certainty that the recommendation will be carried out.  An ITB official claimed that “expulsion was the only option.”  Deputy Rector Widyo Nugroho went even further as to suggest that the students be blacklisted from all Indonesian universities, effectively denying them access to higher education in the country.

Is all that really necessary?  Nobody is denying that the students committed a serious mistake and that a sanction is in place.  But the sanction that ITB concocted is grossly disproportionate—it’s something that should be reserved for students who, say, attempted to poison someone.  And while the fact that most of the students were poor and hence found it hard to resist the lure of big cash cannot justify their actions, it should be taken into consideration in determining their sanction.  At the end of the day, these young people are not criminals and they do not deserve to be treated as such.  They do not deserve to have their entire future taken away.

And it’s not like Indonesians are alien to the concept of giving second chances; at times we even went overboard.  We looked pass the alleged involvement of former military officials in past human rights violations, focused on their leadership quality, and allowed them to join the presidential race.  We were willing to pardon a dictator’s regime of fear and silence, highlighted his good deeds, and considered making him a national hero.  We released a religious hatemonger from jail, downplayed his involvement in past terrorist attacks on the country, and made him an acceptable religious figure.  But when a bunch of young people helped others cheat a test, we rain down hell on them.

“Expulsion is the only option”?  How about temporary suspension and probationary period?  How about 1,000 hours of community service, say, tutoring high school students?  How about assigning the students to schools in the local area to work as teacher assistants until they graduate college?  Any of these sanctions—and more, if one is willing to be creative and employ common sense—would be proportionate to the students’ misconduct and be a sufficient deterrence for others.  And nobody’s future needs to be destroyed.  But no; somehow it had to be expulsion.

Whereas Cambridge gave Oppenheimer a second chance, ITB is giving its students none.

History notes that after the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer became a staunch detractor of the weapon he helped built and refused to support the development of the even more powerful hydrogen bomb.  He paid dearly for his decision.  A McCarthy-ist witch hunt was launched at Oppenheimer, humiliating and stripping him of his security clearance.  Thus, one of America’s most brilliant scientists, one who had dedicated his life to public service, was branded as a traitor by his own country based on evidence amounted to hearsay. 

That second chance for Oppenheimer given by Cambridge in 1925 was indeed a gift to the world, for we were given the opportunity to learn from him not only of quantum mechanics, but also of human compassion and bravery, as the great physicist chose to be publicly humiliated than to support the application of science in mass murder. The man who tried to poison his tutor in college put back mankind’s faith in science.

As for the eleven brilliant young minds facing expulsion from ITB, we can only wonder what contributions they could in the future give to their families, their communities, their country, and even perhaps the world if they were to be given a second change.  But that would be the tragedy, wouldn’t it?  If we could only wonder.

An edited version of this article was featured in The Jakarta Globe

My brother was at the J.W. Marriot at the exact time of the blast on Friday, July 17.  He was on the floor right above the lobby when the nightmare happened.  He was not injured; and I was more relieved than I had ever been in my life.  I could only imagine his shock; then I thought about those who died in the explosions and I couldn’t even dare to imagine how their loved ones must’ve felt.

Nearly a dozen of us died.  Tens of us were seriously injured.  Hundreds of us were in total shock and bewilderment.  And millions of us are scared, confused, and enraged.

Yet as Indonesia grieves, this great nation has also been made uncertain over what to make of President Yudhoyono’s statement in his first press conference after the J.W. Marriot and Ritz-Carlton bombing.

Granted, the president carried himself very well in most of his speech.  He condemned the bombing outright and sent a very clear message that there was absolutely no room to justify the abhorrent act.  He acknowledged the grief and suffering of the victims and their family; only very few people would say that he was not personally and genuinely pained by the tragedy.

The president pledged a full-blown investigation, promising that whoever is responsible for the terror would pay for their heinous crime and bear the full weight of the law.  He rightly recognized the work of the law enforcers who had many times in the past successfully prevented acts of terrorism, yet pointed out that the twin bombing served as a reminder of how there were still cracks in the security system that we desperately needed to fix.

But there was a large part of SBY’s statement I wish he had not made.  He dedicated a significant time to insinuate that the bombings might have some connections to the unofficial result of the presidential election.  He further implied that the act of terror might have a political motive directed at him personally, and that there might even be further actions in the future to prevent him from being inaugurated at any cost.

Did he really not expect Indonesians to be perplexed by his statement?  Right after the bombing, we were already speculating on what really happened.  Not knowing who exactly to blame, we blamed whomever convenient for us.  One would expect the president to diffuse speculations and conflict; he did exactly the opposite.  Already, the virtual world is buzzing with tension between the president’s loyal supporters, who find many ways to justify his statement, and his staunch detractors, who insisted that SBY has proven at the outset that Indonesians had made the wrong choice.

SBY’s decision to disclose intelligence data, including photographs showing people using his picture as a target practice—an effort to support his proposed ideas—is also difficult to understand.  Some wonders if he had actually compromised intelligence work by revealing intelligence data.  Some wonders why there were no actions taken prior to the bombing if the intelligence were indeed valid.  Personally, I would be surprised if there was a head of state in the world today whose picture is not used as a target practice by some people somewhere.

Several of the president’s aides had tried to argue that all the president was trying to do was to emphasize that the investigation should be carried out by taking into account all possibilities.  If that was the case, the president could have simply said, “It is imperative that we do not hastily decide who is responsible for this tragedy.  The truth of the matter is we don’t even know yet what the real motive behind the twin bombing, whether it was ideological, political, or criminal.  We don’t know yet for certain whether it’s linked to al-Qaeda and JI; or whether it’s linked to the presidential election; or whether it has connections with organized crime.  At this point it is very dangerous for us to make speculations and I strongly urge all parties to refrain from doing so.  We need to allow the investigation to take its course for only until it is carried out accordingly will we begin to understand what really happened.”

That way, in a careful fashion, SBY could diffuse speculation, caution the public that the bombings may turn out to have some connection with the election—a point he seemed to really wanted to make—and even send a warning that any attempt to provoke political unrest would most certainly be met with hostility by the already agitated public.

Yet these are testing times not only for the president, but also for the rest of the leadership, including those entrusted to be the de facto opposition to the government.  The public would also assess their response—both words and actions—to SBY’s statements; and an outright condemnation of the president’s statement may not necessarily strike the right cord of the public, who after all gave the presidential mandate to SBY with an overwhelming majority.

This is a pivotal moment for the political opposition as much as it is for the president and his administration.  The democratic Indonesia will remember how their leaders react to the crisis and will pass judgment during the next five years as well as at the time they cast their ballots again.  The grieving, frightened and enraged Indonesia will be drawn to those who offer solace, clear direction, and a sense of safety.

At difficult times like this, we turn to our leaders.  We expect them to acknowledge our grief and fear; to comfort and guide us; to assure us that they would do everything in their power to investigate who are responsible for hurting and murdering our loved ones; to ensure no further conflict arises from the tragedy; and to remind us that while we need to be vigilant, we should not speculate without base and blame each other.

We will soon see whether our leaders can meet our expectations.

An edited version of this article was featured in The Jakarta Globe

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