View Point: When the middle class opts out, the poor get shut out

Source: Jakarta Post

It is amazing how tolerant this nation can be. While other countries have proclaimed their “manifest destiny”; in Indonesia, the pervasive political culture seems to be one of nerimo, or acceptance, coupled with a humble assent to fate.

However, sometimes there is a fine line between a phlegmatic concession to providence and simply giving up.

In any other democracy, there would be a revolt if millions of people were regularly immobilized in traffic while little was done to develop public transportation.

In another nation, there would be riots if most people had no access to clean water while more and more lavish shopping malls were built.

In any other country, leaders would face votes of no confidence if the school system decayed after a fifth of the national budget was allocated for education.

But not here. Not in Indonesia. We have become a nation so accustomed to surviving that we embrace the worst of woes.

Oh, and did I mention the floods that routinely paralyze the nation’s most developed city?!

Perseverance in a people is an admirable quality. Yet this ingrained habit of apathy has been corrosive, eating away at Indonesia’s body politic and creating fissures between social classes.

Politics and the desire for change are no longer fueled by a sense of righting wrongs and protecting the helpless, but rather by individualism, economic egoism and self preservation. 

Put more simply, those who cannot make a difference quietly suffer. Those who can make a difference have opted out.

The poor and powerless are fated to endure come what may, while the rich remain, as always, insulated from the fray. However, when the members of the middle class — the most persuasive voice for societal change — begin to opt out and find their own way, then hope for righting the wrongs of the nation will fade.

Instead of fighting to improve sanitation and access to potable water, the nation’s middle class spend billions on bottled water and to pay to treat sicknesses resulting from poor sanitation.

Instead of fighting for better infrastructure, we pay for plush car interiors decorated with homey comforts as we sit stuck in traffic, burning subsidized fuel and creating smog.

Looking at the situation more closely, our acquiescence to decay is staggering.

For example, less than 50 percent of Jakartans have access to piped water. More than 75 percent of the city’s residents rely on shallow groundwater wells, 90 percent of which are contaminated.

Hold your nose! Poor sewage means that every day, Jakartans release 714,000 kilograms of untreated feces and 7,000 cubic meters of untreated urine into the city’s rivers and waterways. Jakarta produces more than 6,000 tons of waste a day. The city can only manage half that.

A recent World Bank study estimated that Indonesia loses up to US$6.3 billion a year due to poor sanitation and hygiene.

What has our response been? Not to develop water treatment facilities, but to drink more bottled water. 

Indonesia is currently the world’s seventh-largest market for bottled water. Further, another study predicted that local bottled water consumption would rise from 29 to 86 liters per person from 2006 to 2016.

Even those who have access to water from treatment plants must boil it, thus creating even more costs.

In education, the expenditure of 20 percent of the state budget has done little to improve our children’s performance on international tests. The increases have largely gone to pay for salaries and allowances. 

The World Bank said that despite having one of the lowest student-teacher ratios in the world — and despite improving the livelihood of its teachers — Indonesia has continued to suffer, as increased expenditures on education have “yet to show the expected results in terms of student learning”.

This has led middle-class families to effectively give up on the public school system, opting to pay fees topping $2,000 to send their kids to private schools.

Meanwhile, with trust in the justice system at its lowest ebb and the streets remaining an anarchic cacophony, middle-class people are choosing to live in gated communities surrounded by private guards, while a second (or third!) car loan has become essential so that their children will not be exposed to the hazards of Jakarta’s mean streets.

It was a sure sign of impotence last year when, instead of pledging to do their duty, the Jakarta Police met with the Security Service Providers Association (BUJP) to encourage the group to make sure its guard forces were on site to ensure safety during May Day rallies.

Amid all this, the importance of Indonesia’s expanding middle class has continued to be touted by activists, analysts and economists alike.

A McKinsey report from 2012, for example, said that the number of the people in the nation’s consumer class, defined as those with a minimum annual per capita income of $3,600, would reach 135 million by 2030.

Our history has shown that the New Order regime, in fostering the emergence of a middle class, sowed the seeds of its own demise.

The role of the middle class in propelling democracy forward and inducing change in society cannot be understated. Or as political sociologist Barrington Moore remarked: “No bourgeoisie, no democracy.”

Political theorists such as Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi have said that prosperity is one of the principal determinants of the strength of a democracy: A per capita income of $1,000 to $2,000 indicates a democracy life expectancy of 18 years; between $2,001 and $3,000, the prospects rise to 26 years; and above $6,000, democracy becomes “eternal”. 

According to the World Bank, Indonesia’s current per capita income currently stands at $4,636, while the National Commission on Economics (KEN) has predicted that it would reach $6,000 within four years.

Indonesia’s middle class is the country’s most dynamic political and economic entity. But its members are increasingly indifferent to reform. 

If this trend to “opt out” of basic services continues, reforms will stumble and Indonesia will experience even more disproportionate modernization and increased economic segregation.

The problem is that as the income of the nation’s middle class rises, its members become self assured, preferring to resolve societal and development problems alone through their increased purchasing power. While they have empathy for the poor, members of the middle class have a weaker sense of what it means to be a citizen, feeling no obligation to the state, which they see as inept or a hindrance.

The danger is that people in the middle class no longer see political activism and social reform as an ethical obligation, but as an intellectual hobby for the few.

If those who can propel change refuse to — and if the bureaucracy proves unwilling to — then what hope is there for the underclass, other than wallowing in decay as others grow wealthy?

The author is chief editor of The Jakarta Post.


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